A Happy and Interesting New Year for Animals

25/01/2016 11:24 GMT | Updated 23/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Okay, it's a bit belated, but it is still the first month of 2016 and with the changing of the year it is time to reflect on 2015 and to look ahead.

In the UK, we had a general election. Although an issue often reported as important to the electorate, animal welfare did not appear to be an issue of note for the major party campaigns. Beyond a general observation that liberal and left leaning parties appear to have a better record on animal welfare than right leaning parties, it is my perception that the animal welfare positions of the major UK parties are less than crystal clear. Politicians would do well to understand public concern for animal welfare and its influence on the democratic process. One of the first defeats of the newly elected UK Conservative government occurred when they were forced to abandon a free vote on amendment of the Hunting Act 2004 by the intervention of the Scottish National Party. The politics of this intervention have been debated elsewhere at length, but in a democracy it seems reasonable to believe that the perceived will of the people was a contributing factor.

We had the Cecil the Lion affair, which is likely to continue to have an impact on public attitudes to trophy hunting, and quite probably, hunting in general. It demonstrates the power of the naming of an animal, giving it individual identity, in public debate. More of that in my September 17th 2015 blog.

In April 2015 there were no fatalities in the Grand National Steeplechase, the third consecutive year of running with no fatalities. Perhaps we are seeing the impact of changes made in the aftermath of the disastrous 2011 and 2012 Nationals? Let us hope so, though only time will tell.

So moving on to 2016, what would my wish be?

For me, it would be great if 2016 was the year when everyone concerned for animals pulled together and concentrated on practical action to make animal lives better; to focus on promoting animal interests. There is a degree of tension within the animal protection movement. Should we focus on absolute, inalienable animal rights as a means of moving forward? Yet this brings risk of inflexibility, alienation and disengagement from the industries and people who have influence over animals' lives. We might feel good in pursuit of our carefully worked out moral position and this may be good for our ego, but will it benefit animals or are we bravely battling against the insurmountable tide of those who will never accept the concept of animal rights? Or do we focus on the utilitarian cost-benefit approach underpinning the animal welfare philosophy? This weighs costs to animals against human benefit when deciding which uses of animals are acceptable. This cost-benefit analysis frequently results in the steamrollering of animal interests under the immense weight of human interests; benefits to humans inevitably trump costs to animals.

I think we in the animal protection movement should take a step back to consider the best way to keep stepping forward. It might be that one way is to explicitly recognise the concept of animal interests, these being to experience a good life (or at least a life worth living) and to acknowledge the difficulty of reconciling animal interests against our own.

Applying this concept to the animal welfare issues I have picked out for 2015 is an interesting exercise. It is never in the animal's interest to be hunted and killed, so for the quarry, it is clear hunting is against its interests. Some might argue that the natural behaviour of pursuing quarry may contribute to a good life for hounds, so we now find ourselves weighing up conflicting interests of different individuals of different species. At least here we are focussing on animal, not human, interests, and this may be what distinguishes the animal interests approach from others. In terms of trophy hunting, one of the arguments proposed in defence is that derived income can be used for conservation purposes. Here, the animal interests approach reaches a very straightforward conclusion. Conservation is focussed on preserving species, not individuals. Species do not have interests, only individuals. It is never in an animal's interests to be killed (unless we are talking of true euthanasia, where the animal is killed in its interests to relieve unavoidable suffering), so clearly trophy hunting is always against animal interests. Finally, for a racehorse it might be argued that galloping along with a group of other horses reflects some aspects of natural equine behaviour and could contribute to a good life, as does the generally excellent veterinary care that racehorses receive. It is not, however, in the interest of horses to be exposed to considerable risk of injury or fatality whilst racing, hence the necessity of work to reduce these risks. Regarding the contentious issue of the whip, if it is used in the interests of horse safety then this is clearly in the interests of the horse. If it is used merely to facilitate winning, then it is not. The interests approach requires us to clearly distinguish the two, and again, this is what might make it a powerful tool in the analysis of animal protection issues.

An interesting year ahead? Let's see.