Animals Need More Freedom, Not Bigger Cages

Captive and wild animals are severely constrained by humans in many ways.

Posted Mar 28, 2017

Animals need more freedom with a capital "F": Taller and larger cages and other welfare modifications don't do enough

"When all is said and done, the only adequate moral response to vivisection is empty cages, not larger cages." (Tom Regan)

I love this quotation from the late Tom Regan, one of the most influential people who's ever worked on behalf of non-human animals (animals). His words not only apply to captive animals, but also to wild animals who are held captive to human whims and the numerous ways in which human interests trump those of an huge number of nonhuman animals around the world. Below is an interview with Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, about Jessica Pierce and my new book called The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age in which there is a focus on the need for freedom.1,2

In their 2017 book, The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, ethologist Marc Bekoff and bioethicist Jessica Pierce offer a provocative critique of animal welfare values as they play out in the real world of animals’ treatment. Wayne Pacelle put a handful of questions to the two authors to learn more about their views.

In The Animals’ Agenda, you and Jessica cast animal welfare as a relatively complacent science and worldview. Your contention is that the animal welfare perspective, in science and thought, is increasingly stressed under the weight of an ideology of freedom. Can you provide a wider context for this criticism as it appears in the book?

Our book took root out of a shared sense of frustration with science—and with a particular kind of science. We had both assumed, earlier in our careers, that the scientific study of the emotional and cognitive lives of animals would lead to major changes in how humans treat other animals—how could it not? Once people see that animals are intelligent and feeling creatures, just like us, they won’t be able, in good conscience, to inflict suffering and deprivations.

It seemed, as we looked around, that the accumulating research into the inner lives of animals had done nothing to help their situation—more animals are being raised and slaughtered for food, more are being held captive in entertainment venues, invasive laboratory research is expanding, and so forth. We had many discussions where we puzzled over this seeming paradox: the more we know, the worse things are getting for animals.

The Animals’ Agenda was our attempt to figure out why science is failing animals. The answer, in brief, is that the study of animal emotion and cognition has been channeled into animal welfare science. And “welfare science” is not science in the service of animals, but rather science in the service of industry. Indeed, as we delved into our research for the book, it became pretty clear that the word “welfare” is a dirty little lie: Whenever you see the word “welfare” in the literature, you can be pretty sure something unpleasant is being done to animals. (The word “humane” is equally troublesome.)

Good animal welfare just isn’t good enough for the billions of non-human animals who are used in a wide variety of human-controlled venues, ranging from so-called factory farms, to laboratories, zoos and circuses, to pets, to wild animals and conservation efforts both in captivity and in more natural settings. Animal welfare is not much concerned with the plight of individual animals, and in numerous instances the welfarist approach patronizes animals. Business as usual for welfarists basically boils down to trumping the interests of animals in favor of humans, while trying to give animals a better life as they’re being ruthlessly exploited and abused and often killed in the venues mentioned above.

The science of animal well-being that we develop in The Animals’ Agenda focuses on individual animals and would not allow animals to be used and abused in the way that welfarism allows. Welfarism puts human needs first, and tries to accommodate animals within the “human needs first” framework. Well-being broadens the question of “what do animals want and need” beyond the welfare box, and tries to understand animal preferences from the animals’ point of view. For example, welfarism asks whether mink on a fur farm would prefer taller or shorter cages; well-being challenges the idea mink should be in battery cages on a fur farm in the first place, because they cannot have true well-being or “good lives” under such conditions—no matter how many welfare modifications we make.

Out of many long, spirited, and wide-ranging discussions, the organizing principle of Freedom emerged—as the antidote to “welfarism.” We revisited the original Five Freedoms that were developed in the 1960s, in the context of industrial animal farming, and which form the cornerstone of animal welfare science.

The idea of freedom for animals seems increasingly elusive in a world in which their fate is so tied to human impact, intrusion, and management. How do you understand that freedom? How far would it extend?

The first thing that struck us is that the Five Freedoms, as traditionally applied, are more about constraints and deprivations than they are about freedom. The Five Freedoms insist that animals should have the “freedom” to turn their bodies around in a cage and the “freedom” not to be deprived of food or water. Perhaps they should have the “freedom” to engage in species-specific behaviors like flapping their wings or scratching the earth once in a while. But what kind of freedom is this really? In trying to improve the “freedom” of animals, welfare science might ask: Would a chicken rather have 68 square inches of living space, or 72 square inches? In our view, this isn’t much of a choice and has nothing to do with Freedom (capital F).

As we considered how to more meaningfully apply the Five Freedoms to the different venues in which animals are used, we came to realize that instead of talking about the loss of freedom, we really need to write about the loss of freedoms to make the point that the lives of animals used for food, research, and entertainment, as well as companion animals (pets) and wild animals, are severely compromised in many different ways, including the loss of freedoms to make choices centering on what and when they eat and when they sleep and mate. All of these animals are captive, in that they have lost the ability to make choices and to control their lives in meaningful ways.

Among the classic examples we consider in our attempts to highlight the loss of freedoms is the work of Temple Grandin, on whom we focus on Chapter 3. Grandin is the iconic welfarist in that she tries to make the life of factory farmed animals “better” on their way to the killing floor of slaughterhouses. She feels comfortable calling the chute on which they stumble to their brutal death a “stairway to heaven,” when actually it is a stairway filled with horror until the cows are killed. She refuses to call for an end to this practice, while maintaining that she’s giving these animals a “better life” than they would have without having the stairway on which to trod as they hear, see, and smell other cows being killed. Welfarism of this sort allows us to maintain the status quo, as if we’ve done our due diligence, morally speaking. Of course, a “better life” for these cows is not a good life.

In addition to revisiting the Five Freedoms, we also spend some time exploring another cornerstone of the welfare literature: the 3 R’s. In the realm of animal research, the 3 R’s have served as a kind of ethics litmus test: you should make some attempt to Reduce the number of animals, Refine your experiments so that you use fewer animals to get your results, and Replace “higher” species such as chimpanzees and dogs with “lower” species such as rats and worms. Like the Five Freedoms, these R’s offer marginal improvements for animals, but they don’t challenge the moral presumptions of the research enterprise and, in fact, legitimize the status quo. We propose two more progressive “R’s”: refusal and rehabilitation.

So, the bottom line for welfarists is that they’re trying to make life marginally better for animals in the arenas in which animals are exploited, leaving unquestioned the human practices that cause tremendous animal suffering. Welfarism is a salve for our conscience, but has little to nothing to do with freedom, with a capital F.

What’s your reaction to the reception given to works like those of Jonathan Balcombe, Animal Pleasure and The Exultant Ark, which celebrate and identify animal pleasure as part of the indictment of our harmful treatment of them, and as an incentive to do better by them?

We think it is essential to recognize that nonhumans are sentient beings who care about what happens to them, to their families and friends, and to other individuals. A focus on of the various ways in which they lose their ability to experience pleasure and other positive emotions highlights the reprehensible way they are treated in human-centered endeavors, and how the maxim that human interests should trump animal interests needs to be totally revised. Welfare science has made progress over the past decade, in beginning to recognize that simply reducing suffering is only the first step. Animals under our care need a lot more from us: we have a responsibility to ensure that they also have access to the goods of life—the pleasures of individual experience and of social interactions.

What do you think about “The Frozen Zoo” as a means of staving off animal extinction?

While “frozen zoos” might be a fix for what we have done and continue to do in the Anthropocene, if the animals who are born from these frozen preserves then have to live their lives in cages, which they likely will, then we don’t favor them, for they don’t solve the problems that are rampant in the so-called “age of humanity,” which we prefer to call the “rage of inhumanity.” Frozen zoos, then, are a band aid and don’t get to the root of the problems at hand, namely, the domination of non-humans by humans in an increasingly human dominated world.

You’ve written a previous book titled Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals. Is there a line that leads from that work to this one?

Yes, there is. Simply put, Wild Justice calls attention to the fact that not only are non-human animals intelligent creative beings who enjoy rich and deep emotional lives, but they also are moral beings. Since we wrote Wild Justice the literature on the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of other animals has grown enormously, and the loss of freedoms becomes even more egregious, given what we know.

In The Animals’ Agenda, we write about the knowledge translation gap, referring to the practice of ignoring tons of science showing that other animals are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas. On the broad scale, it means that what we now know about animal cognition and emotion has not yet been translated into an evolution in human attitudes and practices. A great example of the knowledge translation gap is found in the wording of the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which explicitly excludes rats and mice from kingdom Animalia (even though a first grader knows that rats and mice are animals). In post-election parlance, we could also call the AWA’s slip up an “alternative fact.”

Another thread connecting Wild Justice to The Animal’s Agenda is the idea that each animal is a unique individual. We explored this theme in Wild Justice, looking at how groups of animals work together to negotiate social interactions. And what you find, of course, is that each animal is quite unique in his or her personality, temperament, and level of social intelligence. You have to be really careful making broad claims like “chimpanzees do this” or “dogs do that”—because some do and some don’t. We build on this theme in The Animals’ Agenda, particularly in suggesting that enrichments or interventions meant to improve welfare need to be tailored to the individual needs and preferences of each animal. To give a simple example, some dogs are enriched by visits to a dog park, but for other dogs, the experience is stressful and overstimulating. We also stress the importance of the individual in our discussion of compassionate conservation, which works on the principle that each individual life has value. Compassionate conservation also is guided strongly by the maxim, “first do no harm.”

You’re engaged scholars and advocates. What kinds of contributions do you think are most needed now on the part of grassroots activists in animal protection? What about on the part of academics?

Grassroots activism is critical to making changes in how other animals are treated. We like the phrase, “act locally, think globally.” There is enough to be done in most communities to keep an army of people busy for years on end. As we pointed out in the above answer, academics have not been especially active in calling for radical changes in how we treat other animals. We ask, “Where have all the scientists gone?”—why don’t they object strongly to the ludicrous misclassification of rats and mice, for example, and why don’t they act more on behalf of the animals who they and others use and abuse? This is where welfare science fails—the research agenda is strongly driven by industry and by the profitability of the animals as products in various venues. Science is never value-neutral—it is driven by human ideals, goals, and world views. We would like to see science become more objective, where the goal is to understand who animals are, not how we can profit from them.

With thirty books and more than 1000 articles in print, you’re prolific in an almost unparalleled way, Marc. Where do you draw this kind of energy from? And, Jessica, you’ve published a good number of books and essays, what drives you?

Marc: I love what I do, and don’t consider it “work.” I grew up in a warm home, my mother being incredibly empathic and compassionate woman and my father being the most optimistic person I’ve ever met. I miss them dearly. I also love learning and coming up with new ideas, and that is among the many reasons I love working with Jessica. Our conversations are incredibly stimulating (especially because we eat a lot of dark chocolate) and wide-ranging, and it’s easy to put stuff out, revise it, toss some ideas away as garbage, and come up with new ways to revisit old problems and to tackle new ones. Our discussions about The Animals’ Agenda began toward the end of 2013, but really, they began even before we wrote Wild Justice. I also know when it’s time to “leave my desk” and go out and play to avoid burn out. Many people know that when I want to walk away from my brain I always can find things to do. I’m addicted to watching tennis and bike racing on TV, and twirling good single malt scotch of the very peaty kind with a twizzler now and again. I’m serious about this because empathy and compassion fatigue and burnout plague many awesome people who work tirelessly on behalf of other animals and our magnificent planet. All in all, I feel blessed to have had the ability follow my dreams and passions.

Jessica: It sounds cliché to say that I want to make the world a better place, but this pretty much sums up why I write. I especially want to help in the efforts to make the world a better place for animals—which I think also, at the same time, will make it a better place for people. I keep energized for work by keeping family central and by making a lot of time for play, especially being out in nature trail running or hiking with my dogs. One of the reasons Marc and I have such a great collaboration is that we both love our work and we both value work and play in equal measure.

1 Reprinted with permission of Wayne Pacelle.

2 For another review of The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age please see Dayton Martingale's "Toward a Real-Life Zootopia." 

Bioethicist Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., is the author of the book The Last Walk: Reflections on Our Pets at the Ends of Their Lives (University of Chicago, 2012). Some of the questions she explores are: Do animals have death awareness? Why is euthanasia almost always considered the compassionate end point for our animals, but not for our human companions? Is there ever a good reason to euthanize a healthy dog? Why do people often grieve more deeply for their pets than they do for people? What is animal hospice? Her other books include Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (written with Marc), Morality Play, Contemporary Bioethics: A Reader with Cases and The Ethics of Environmentally Responsible Health Care. Visit Jessica’s website for more details:

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate ConservationWhy Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and ConservationRewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018. His homepage is

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