The Past and Future of Animal Welfare Research

Andrew Rowan's career in animal welfare research.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

Alvan Nee at Unsplash
The Past and Future Animal Welfare Research
Source: Alvan Nee at Unsplash

Below, Andrew Rowan — one of the founders of the journal Animal Sentience, and Chair & Chief Program Officer at WellBeing International — offers his perspective on recent developments in animal welfare science and welfare protection.

Walter Veit: How did you personally become interested in Animal Sentience and Welfare?

Andrew Rowan: You might say that animal sentience issues were the result of an early career move.  Having completed an Oxford DPhil in biochemistry (control of intermediary metabolism), I decided not to return to South Africa, where I grew up, and instead looked for a position in science policy. I was not a good bench experimentalist but wanted to stay strongly connected to science. That led me to applying for and accepting a position with the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (London) in 1976. It was a fortuitous choice since the animal protection movement was just beginning to take off (Singer’s Animal Liberation and Don Griffin’s Question of Animal Awareness both were published in 1975). I started reading everything I could find on animal stress and came across a 1978 Brain Research paper by Nielsen et al on the distribution of benzodiazepine receptors across vertebrates and invertebrates (CNS receptors found in vertebrates but not invertebrates).  That led to a paper on anxiety, stress and animal welfare (Rowan, A. N. (1988). Animal anxiety and animal suffering. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 20(1-2)), and then several follow-up papers (one of which was a commentary in BBS). I had been tracking pain research in animals but had become concerned that we were ignoring a far wider problem – namely animal distress and animal suffering. 

Walter Veit: Tell us more about this path.

Andrew Rowan: I was making arguments about animal suffering at several meetings of the Hastings Center in the early 1990s and was on an NAS expert group that produced a report on animal pain and distress and its alleviation. During that process, I argued for the inclusion of “suffering” in the report but the other members of the working group rejected the idea. (There is a footnote in the report noting that it does not discuss animal suffering because the term cannot be operationalized.) However, when I suggested that insects did not “suffer” (see the lack of CNS benzodiazepine receptors), my colleagues told that it was a ridiculous claim; of course insects “suffer.” Ever since, I have been arguing for greater precision in the use of terms describing adverse states/stimuli (e.g. pain, thirst, hunger, discomfort, anxiety, fear) versus the terms distress (which, in my opinion, occurs when the duration and intensity of the adverse state/stimulus is too severe leading to distress) and suffering, which, in my mind, requires some sort of conscious experience. Most insect responses to negative stimuli involve reflex loops so there may be no conscious state involved. People have generally found these arguments silly or incomprehensible. I developed a 100-page manuscript at one point but it is now very dated and overtaken by new discoveries. (Anxiety is mediated by more than the benzodiazepine receptor and BZ receptors have been found in invertebrates.)

I did give a talk to the Association of Neourochemists and argued that people working on anxiogenics and anxiolytics should be just as concerned with the states they are creating in their animal subjects as the folks in the International Association for the Study of Pain. There was not one question following my talk (about 3-400 people were in the lecture hall) and nobody came up to me afterward to comment or question what I had said. I was surprised by the lack of response and still do not know if the audience were simply too bored or alternatively too disturbed to comment. 

Walter Veit: As you noted in part 1 of our interview, this has radically changed. Where do you see the field of animal sentience research in 10 years from now?

Andrew Rowan: For the future, I expect to see concerns regarding our use and abuse of birds and mammals continue to grow as a result of new insights and concern will be slowly extended into the reptile, fish and invertebrate realms.  There will also be more legislation addressing the status of animals as being something more than mere property.