Date posted: 9 June 10, 11:00
By Christine Nicol
We asked Christine Nicol, Professor of Animal Welfare, Farm Animal Science and Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol, to comment on her current work and ideas that have influenced her…
Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
I’ve always been interested in using preference tests to ‘ask’ animals what they want, and to use their choices as a guide to their needs and interests. This approach has led to better ways of housing and treating farm animals. But recently I’ve been thinking about the mechanisms of animal decision-making. It is nice to know that chickens can plan ahead over short-periods of time, and make apparently logical and rational choices about which environments they would like to live in. However, the basis for these choices remains obscure. I am wondering whether studies on the physiology of decision-making in human gamblers can be adapted to animals!
What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
I definitely need to read more about spindle (Von Economo) neurons. They seem to have evolved independently in great apes, cetaceans and elephants. They sound interesting, but I am cautious. Is too much being claimed about their ‘special’ function in large-brained animals? What does the apparently selective loss of these neurons in some forms of human dementia tell us?
What is the most important book/article of ideas that everyone should read and why?
The Great Ape Project, edited by Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, because it challenges the idea that there is a logical or moral boundary between Humans and all other Non-Human Animals. The differences that do exist between us and other great apes appear to be morally trivial, and the books suggests that individual great apes should be accorded some of the same legal rights as individual humans. Perhaps boundaries of moral concern could be drawn between beings that have primary consciousness (and therefore a capacity for sentience) and those that do not. Deciding which species fall into each category will keep scientists and philosphers busy for years but it looks increasingly unlikely that the current boundary can be defended on any moral or scientific basis.
And finally, each year we ask everyone involved – audiences as well as speakers – one question. Charles Masterman, Liberal Party politician and journalist, asked in his book The Condition of England 100 Years Ago: “What will the future make of the present?” What is your answer to this?
The people of the future will be amazed at how cheap our food is. In 1957, UK households spent 33% of income on food. Today UK households spend less than 15% of income on food, while spending on leisure and travel continues to increase. Food is going to become much more expensive again due to the ‘Perfect Storm’ of conditions affecting supply and demand, predicted by government chief scientist John Beddington. I think we will struggle to adapt. My own amateur attempts to grow vegetables have so far made little or no inroad into the problem.
Christine Nicol is Professor of Animal Welfare, Farm Animal Science and Animal Husbandry at the University of Bristol. Her current research interests relate to methods of assessing animal welfare, particularly investigating whether ‘indicators’ of animal welfare correlate with the preferences that animals themselves make for different housing environments. Christine has an editorial position with the journal Animal Welfare.
Christine appeared at Watershed on 11th May 2010, in association with the Bristol Festival of Ideas and the University of Bristol, to give a talk entitled ‘Farm Animal Minds’ with Mike Mendl, Professor of Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Bristol Vetenary School. Click here for more details.
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