International Animal Welfare Science Symposium asks the right questions in Barcelona

IFAW Vice-President of Programs, Dr. Ian Robinson speaking during the University Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) symposium entitled “Science in the service of Animal Welfare: Priorities around the world” in Barcelona. There is a new breed of scientist on the block.

We already have zoologists, vets, geneticists, biologists…but how do you refer to a scientist who works exclusively on animal welfare?

At the moment, there is no specific name for them, but I would not be surprised if one is created in the not too distant future.


Every day there are more and more researchers who recognise it is worthwhile to dedicate their careers to answering the questions:

“Does an animal suffer when used in this manner ?”

“Is an animal content when it is kept in this way?”

“Can we improve an animal’s life doing this?”

“How do we measure the welfare of an animal?” 

Many of these questions are easy to answer from a “common sense” point of view or using informed guesswork obtained through an empathic approach.

However none of these questions are easy to answer from a purely scientific point of view, which is what most laws and regulations dealing with human-animal interactions often require.

A specialised new type of scientist is needed to answer them.

As the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is a science based animal welfare organisation, we are greatly concerned with many of these questions.

If we do not know the exact answer, we use the “precautionary principle” to choose the right policy when facing an animal problem. But sometimes this is not enough to persuade those politicians who in the end have to pass the laws to protect animals, so we need to revert to science then.

Many of our projects have a scientific dimension, and we are often involved in scientific projects, either supporting research or drawing information from it. So, we need to keep updated about all new scientific developments, and this is why a contingent of IFAW staff travelled to Barcelona for a Symposium from 4-5 July.

The British-based University Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) organised an International Animal Welfare Science Symposium entitled “Science in the service of Animal Welfare: Priorities around the world” in the Catalonian capital, Barcelona.

This is the first time the symposium has been organised outside the UK, and this represents the beginning of a more international face of UFAW, which had so far been quite focused on the UK.

It was a very comprehensive symposium with speakers from all continents and approaches (scientists, animal protection NGOs, organisations involved in the use of animals, etc.).  It also covered a wide range of animals (from bees to dogs), industries (from farming to vivisection) and issues (from culling to rehabilitation).

Very comprehensive indeed.

Ian Robinson, IFAW’s Vice-president of Programmes and International Operations, Barbara Slee, IFAW’s EU office political officer, and I, formed part of IFAW’s contingent to the symposium. Our presence was noticeable as Ian presented a talk entitled “Can the release of animals back into the wild be compatible with good welfare and good conservation practice?” and Barbara presented a poster about IFAW’s work on the Canadian seal campaign.

I had it easier than the others, though. I only had to listen and learn.

And learn I did.

Not only about specific cutting-edge research that may lead to improvement of many animals’ lives, but especially also about this new “breed of scientist” I am glad is currently being created all around the world.

For me the most encouraging part of the symposium was to see that the right questions are currently being asked, such as “do fish feel pain?”, “do accepted anaesthetics for lab rats actually work?”, “what does it mean to be ‘sentient’? “is there a welfare issue with captive breeding?” “at what point is a chicken’s standard of welfare high enough?”, “do individual animals matter when we try to save a species?”, etc., etc. 

All key questions in need of the right answer if we want to live in a compassionate society.

I also found it very important that we were participating in this sort of meeting, because if animal protection organisations do not contribute to the science of animal welfare, there is the danger that those who only seek to exploit animals for profit end up hijacking this new discipline to improve their lobbying influence.

We need to use science and help scientists to answer the right questions, but we also need to be the voices of the animals to ensure that science is used for their benefit and interest, not just ours.

If the science of animal suffering is being discussed, we need to be there.


For more information about IFAW's Guiding Principles, click here.

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