WHAT DOES AN ANIMAL NEED to have a good life?
I don’t mean a good life physically. We know a lot about what kind of food, water, exercise, and veterinary care animals need to grow well and be healthy.
I mean a good mental life.
What does an animal need to be happy? The animal welfare movement has been thinking about animals’ mental welfare at least since the 1960s. That’s when the British government commissioned the Brambell Report on intensive animal production. Intensive animal production means very big farms raising large numbers of animals for slaughter or egg production in very small spaces compared to traditional farms. The Brambell committee listed the five freedoms animals should have. The first three freedoms are about physical welfare, and the last two are about mental welfare:
• freedom from hunger and thirst
• freedom from discomfort
• freedom from pain, injury, or disease
• freedom to express normal behavior
• freedom from fear and distress
1 What Do Animals Need?
Freedom is a confusing guide for people trying to give animals a good life. Even freedom from fear, which sounds straightforward, isn’t simple or obvious. For example, zookeepers and farmers usually assume that as long as a prey species animal doesn’t have any predators around, it can’t be afraid. But that’s not the way fear works inside the brain. If you felt fear only when you are face-to-face with the animal that’s going to kill you and eat you, that would be too late. Prey species animals feel afraid when they’re out in the open and exposed to potential predators. For example, a hen has to have a place to hide when she lays her eggs. It doesn’t matter that she’s laying her eggs on a commercial farm inside a barn that no fox will ever get into. The hen has evolved to hide when she lays her eggs. Hiding is what gives her freedom from fear, not living in a barn that keeps the foxes out. I’ll talk more about this in my chapter on chickens.
The freedom to express normal behavior is even more complicated and hard to apply in the real world. In many cases, it’s impossible to give a domestic or captive animal the freedom to express a normal behavior. For a dog, normal behavior is to roam many miles a day, which is illegal in most towns. Even if it’s not illegal, it’s dangerous. So you have to figure out substitute behaviors that keep your dog happy and stimulated.
In other cases, we don’t know how to create the right living conditions because we don’t know enough about what the normal behavior of a particular animal is. Cheetahs are a good example. Zookeepers tried to breed cheetahs for years with almost no success. That’s a common problem in zoos. Breeding is one of the most basic and normal behaviors there is. There wouldn’t be any animals or people without it. But a lot of animals living in captivity don’t mate successfully because there’s something wrong with their living conditions that stops them from acting naturally. The cheetah-breeding problem was finally solved in 1994, when a study of cheetahs on the Serengeti Plains came out and everyone realized male and female cheetahs didn’t live together in the wild the way they did in zoos. When zoos separated the female cheetahs from the males, they turned out to be easy to breed in captivity.
Animal distress is even more mysterious. What is distress in an animal? Is it anger? Is it loneliness? Is it boredom? Is boredom a feeling? And how can you tell if an animal is lonely or bored?
Although a lot of good work has been done on mental welfare for animals, it’s hard for pet owners, farmers, ranchers, and zookeepers to use it because they don’t have clear guidelines. Right now, when a zoo wants to improve welfare, what usually happens is that the staff tries everything they can think of that they have the money and the personnel to implement. Mostly they focus on the animal’s behavior and try to get it acting as naturally as possible.
I believe that the best way to create good living conditions for any animal, whether it’s a captive animal living in a zoo, a farm animal, or a pet, is to base animal welfare programs on the core emotion systems in the brain. My theory is that the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible, and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary. If we get the animal’s emotions right, we will have fewer problem behaviors.
That might sound like a radical statement, but some of the research in neuroscience has been showing that emotions drive behavior, and my own thirty-five years of experience working with animals have shown me that this is true. Emotions come first. You have to go back to the brain to understand animal welfare.
Of course, usually — though not always — the more freedom you give an animal to act naturally, the better, because normal behaviors evolved to satisfy the core emotions. When a hen hides to lay her eggs, the hiding behavior turns off fear. But if you can’t give an animal the freedom to act naturally, then you should think about how to satisfy the emotion that motivates the behavior by giving the animal other things to do. Focus on the emotion, not the behavior.
So far, research in animal behavior agrees with the neuroscience research on emotions. A really good study on whether animals have purely behavioral needs was done with gerbils. Gerbils love to dig and tunnel, and a lot of them develop a corner-digging stereotypy when they’re around thirty days old. A stereotypy is an abnormal repetitive behavior (ARB for short), such as a lion or tiger pacing back and forth in its cage for hours on end. Pets and farm animals can develop stereotypies, too. Stereotypies are defined as abnormal behaviors that are repetitive, invariant (lions always pace the exact same path in their cages), and seemingly pointless.
An adult gerbil spends up to 30 percent of its "active time" doing stereotypic digging in the corner of its cage. That would never happen in nature, and many researchers have hypothesized that the reason captive gerbils develop stereotypic digging is that they have a biological need to dig that they can’t express inside a cage.
On the other hand, in nature gerbils don’t dig just to be digging. They dig to create underground tunnels and nests. Once they’ve hollowed out their underground home, they stop digging. Maybe what the gerbil needs is the result of the digging, not the behavior itself. A Swiss psychologist named Christoph Wiedenmayer set up an experiment to find out. He put one set of baby gerbils in a cage with dry sand they could dig in, and another set in a cage with a predug burrow system but nothing soft to dig in. The gerbils in the sand-filled box developed digging stereotypies right away, whereas none of the gerbils in the cage with the burrows did.
That shows that the motivation for a gerbil’s digging stereotypy is a need to hide inside a sheltered space, not a need to dig. The gerbil needs the emotion of feeling safe, not the action of digging. Animals don’t have purely behavioral needs, and if an animal expresses a normal behavior in an abnormal environment, its welfare may be poor. A gerbil that spends 30 percent of its time digging without being able to make a tunnel does not have good welfare.
The Blue-Ribbon Emotions
All animals and people have the same core emotion systems in the brain. Most pet owners probably already believe this, but I find that a lot of executives, plant managers, and even some veterinarians and researchers still don’t believe that animals have emotions. The first thing I tell them is that the same psychiatric medications, such as Prozac, that work for humans also work for animals. Unless you are an expert, when you dissect a pig’s brain it’s difficult to tell the difference between the lower-down parts of the animal’s brain and the lower-down parts of a human brain. Human beings have a much bigger neocortex, but the core emotions aren’t located in the neocortex. They’re in the lower-down part of the brain.
When people are suffering mentally, they want to feel better — they want to stop having bad emotions and start having good emotions. That’s the right goal with animals, too. Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University who wrote the book Affective Neuroscience and is one of the most important researchers in the field, calls the core emotion systems the "blue-ribbon emotions," because they "generate well-organized behavior sequences that can be evoked by localized electrical stimulation of the brain." This means that when you stimulate the brain systems for one of the core emotions, you always get the same behaviors from the animal. If you stimulate the anger system, the animal snarls and bites. If you stimulate the fear system, the animal freezes or runs away.