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Interview with Dr. Dan Weary


📷 EurekAlert!

Journalist: Solene Delumeau



Solene: Welcome to SciSection! Today's interview is with Dr. Dan weary from UBC. Thank you for joining us today. Could you introduce yourself and what you do?


Dr. Weary: Hi! Thanks very much for the opportunity to be here today. I'm a professor at the University of British Columbia. My background is in animal behavior and for the past 25 years or so, I've been applying studies of behavior to basically better understand what animals find important to themselves, and use that as a way of informing, creating and designing better living and housing environments for animals.


Solene: Animal welfare isn't commonly thought of as being a scientific domain. How does it fit under the science category and why is it important for science?


Dr. Weary: I would say animal welfare is a science like food safety, or heart health- these kinds of applied issues. So yeah, absolutely. We're studying animal welfare because we recognize this as a societal issue. People are concerned about the way animals are kept. Animals used in food and agriculture production, animals used as companions and those used in laboratories, for example. So that's the driving concern, just like food safety or most medical research. But there's a need to basically, on my side, better understand the animals themselves. So that we can create solutions that actually really work well for the animals. So I'd also say, much like those other disciplines, we need to understand the scientific issues, but we also need to understand the societal issues. So in this case, what are the constraints that farmers have in terms of how they house and care for their animals, for example- and then come up with solutions that actually work for them, much like a doctor needs to understand what kinds of medication might work for, let's say the heart problems their patient has, but also what are the kinds of medications that are actually accessible to the patient? What are the barriers to that patient in taking and keeping up with their treatment?


Solene: According to you, are animal welfare issues linked to the current pandemic?


Dr. Weary: Hmm. Yeah, I think there's all sorts of resonances there. For example, we saw this early on in the pandemic. People working in agricultural industries, in the slaughter industry were disproportionately affected. And that's because often, there's some parts of animal work, not necessarily all, but some parts that are marginalized and disproportionately attracting a lower paid working group, which is probably also somewhat politically disenfranchised. And so when there's a broad societal issue like a pandemic, that can probably result in special hardships for those communities. So yeah, that's definitely been part of the narrative.


Solene: Let's talk about rodents used in lab research. Can we really study lab rodents effectively with non-invasive methods?


Dr. Weary: Great question. And that's of course another issue, which I forgot to mention previously. Another big part in the rush towards drug development, is that lots of animals are, and have been used in research. That's one part of our research group's interest, how do we create better lives for laboratory animals? And I actually consider it very similar to, you know, this issue of creating better lives for farm animals. These are animals that we're using, but that we have responsibilities to care for well. There's this old idea in terms of our relationship with agricultural animals that some people call this “ancient contract” and this idea that yes, we can use the animal’s meat, or milk let’s say- but that comes with obligations to us. And part of that obligation is that we provide the animal with as good a life as we can while it's under our care, this reciprocity. And I think it's the same situation for animals that we use in laboratory research. I think there’s a widespread social consensus that sometimes we do need to use animals in research, but that doesn't mean the lives of those animals have to be poor. In fact, there's a lot of work suggesting that actually- not only is it arguably our ethical responsibility to take really good care of those animals- but also, the quality of the research is better when those animals have a reasonably good life.


Dr. Weary: Just because we're going to use an animal does not in any way absolve us from the responsibility to provide animals with a very good quality of life. In fact, I would argue quite the opposite- and I think that this is well accepted in the farming community.

Dr. Weary: And I think this applies equally in the laboratory and agricultural sectors- we have this great responsibility to provide as good a life as possible to the animals that are under our care.


Solene: Much of your research is focused on dairy cows. What are some improvements that have been made since you began working on this?


Dr. Weary: Yeah, that's a great question. One of the things which I found incredibly attractive about going into applied research was this idea that I could do research that actually would end up making a difference. In this case, for the people who care for the animals, but also to the animals themselves. And I've been amazed that actually there's been a bunch of things that we've done that really has resulted in changes in practices on farms. I'll point to just a couple of them. One is that there has been- and this applies in all areas of our culture- a number of routine practices which are painful for animals. The ones that come to mind are cattle being branded. Or even if you think about the companion animals, dogs would have their tails clipped or their ears clipped, these kinds of things. So these are painful routine procedures that we see. Looking at a dog park right now, you can just look outside and see a dog with a crop tail. These kinds of practices are also very common on farms. And so on dairy farms, most breeds of dairy cattle are born with horns. But it's inconvenient and dangerous- to both the farmers and to the other cows- to have these horned animals walking around. So the animals would typically have a surgical procedure done early in life where the horn buds are removed. And that's a painful procedure. It’s an unpleasant procedure for the farmer, and especially for the calf, because it causes pain. And one of the things which we did early on as research, was looking at developing much better ways of performing that procedure- basically pain mitigation protocols. For example, combinations of drug treatments that can really greatly reduce the amount of pain animals experience. And that's now almost a hundred percent changed. So Canada's dairy industry has really been progressive in terms of now requiring that. Basically all dairy farms use those pain control procedures in Canada. Another example is again on calves. When I started, there was this idea that calves often get sick on farms partly because they were drinking too much milk. So the cows were often fed and quite low amounts of milk. And because of that, the cows would often be housed in little individual stalls. And that's because if we have a really hungry calf, and we put groups of calves together, what does a baby calf do when it's hungry? It sucks on things. And so calves would actually suck on one and that's a problematic behavior could even cause injuries. And so we have problems with these underfed calves. And I'm really proud that actually, I think the largest result of some of the work that our amazing UBC students did here, is showing that actually the calves really benefited by feeding them more milk. They grow way faster, it's way better for the farmer, It's way better for the calves. And actually feeding these calves more milk in a more naturalistic way. So allowing them to suck milk through a bottle, for example, as opposed to from a bucket means that the cows are no longer motivated to suck on each other, which makes it easy to keep calves together and in small groups, which work really well for the calves. And so I think there's been a really amazing transformation in terms of the life of those young calves as a result of that.


Dr. Weary: I would not have dreamt in my wildest dreams that our research, in the course of just the short years that I've been working here, could have resulted in real improvements. And I think that says a lot about the power of research, but also that if we've been successful, it's because we work collaboratively with the dairy farmers themselves.

Dr. Weary: The dairy farmers have been interested in these changes and have been willing to adopt them on their farms. It says a lot about Canada's dairy farmers and their willingness to try out different things and listen to research.


Solene: That leads on to my next question: in Canada, and maybe globally, is the dairy industry moving towards a significantly better standard of animal welfare?


Dr. Weary: So actually, Canada's dairy industry has really taken a lot of leadership in this aspect. Canada has this process of developing codes of practicum, and that's led by the dairy industry. This is basically a set of regulations that are created and enforced by the dairy farmers themselves. So it's sort of a unique, made in Canada solution. So these laws are something that the farmers themselves made, but it's based also on the stakeholder participation. So there's lots of participation by researchers, but there's also participation for example, by the humane movement, in terms of how the dairy farmers are making those sorts of rules for themselves. So those are standards that, if you want to produce enough in Canada, you need to stick to them. And there's a process of constantly updating that.


Solene: That's really great to hear. Do you think that improving animal welfare on farms has been recently more driven by public pressure? For example, in the context of many people being more concerned about the animal products in their diets, and how these animals are treated?


Dr. Weary: Yeah, I think the fact that the public is interested and cares about where their food comes, it should, and it does drive practice. I mean, of course it's hard. Let’s say, from my perspective as a teacher, if somebody comes in and says, “Oh, well you taught that lecture okay. But I really want you to change this and this and this, because it's not that good” that hurts in the moment, to have somebody else telling you how to do your job. And I think there's an issue there because of course, the farmers don't like the idea of somebody else telling them what to do. But again, the way I think about it from my perspective as a teacher, is that I know in order to be a better teacher, I need to go out there and get feedback from other people.

And ultimately, I need to be teaching in a way that meets the needs of my students. And I think dairy farmers are absolutely aware of the public’s demands. There needs to be this ongoing conversation, collaboration, shall we say- in the best case scenario- so that farmers really understand the changing values and interests of the citizens and of their customers. But it's a two way street. So I think that actually people are open to this, but what needs to happen too is that people also understand the realities of the farmers. Farming is hard too, they're working within constraints, economic and otherwise. And so I think it’s a conversation and collaboration with the people who produce food in this country, that they understand the changes in public values, work with them. But we also need to understand the constraints that they're operating on so that we can do this together in a humane and realistic way for all parties, for the animals, but also for the farmers.


Solene: Can you tell us any fun facts about cows?


Dr. Weary: (laughs) Oh, I could bore you with cows stories forever. Where do I start? Hey, here's something which maybe you wouldn’t have expected. One of our graduate students is showing us some videos of her work on dairy cows and providing better ways of allowing those cows to have access to the outdoors. And one of the things that’s totally surprising- and a sort of embarrassing thing that I only found out when we started doing research in this area- is if you open the barn doors, the cows go in and out when they want. We have what we think is this beautiful indoor barn, right? State-of-the-art cows should love it. Cows still, of course, decide to go outside. The interesting thing is, I thought, -this is my homosapiens perspective- that the cows are going to go outside in June when it's 24 degrees in the sunshine. No, in June when it's 24 degrees and the sun is shining, the cows actually want to come inside because they weigh 800 kilograms and are producing 40 kilograms of milk. Imagine they're like a metabolic furnace and for them, a really comfortable day is when it’s 12 degrees and a slight drizzle. So what you find is that on summer days, the cows spend most of their time outside at night- almost all our cows will go outside. But then in the day when the sun came out, almost all our cows would come inside. So there's an unexpected, but fun fact.


Solene: The opposite of people in Vancouver, I guess.


Dr. Weary: Yeah, exactly. But mind you as good Vancouverites, we're pretty good about going out even when it's drizzly too, but we just put on our layers of Gore-Tex first.


Solene: Finally, is there any message you would like to give to our audience?


Dr. Weary: I guess the final thing to say is, one of the things I find exciting about this research area is the collaborative nature of the work, we need to come up with solutions that work for farmers, the citizens and the animals. And it's a complicated space that we're navigating. That's a weird position for scientists where normally, all we do is just look at one perspective. Being in this applied arena makes you look at understanding how science works within this broader societal context.


Dr. Weary: The other thing that's fun about this research area is, if you want to understand animal welfare, it's really about how you can understand: ‘what does it mean to provide a good life for an animal?’ And that's a super complicated, scientific and philosophical issue, even for people, right?

Dr. Weary: We struggle with these issues all the time. How do you do science, for example, to ask animals about what kind of environments they prefer? How do we know when animals are experiencing relatively positive emotions versus negative emotions? These are scientifically and ethically very important, but also very, very difficult and interesting issues.


Solene: That brings us to the end of the interview. Thank you so much for joining us today! It was a pleasure to speak with you!


Dr. Weary: Well, thank you very much for your interest! A real pleasure to meet you over zoom, and thank you for your great questions.


Solene: That's it for this week of SciSection! To all our listeners, make sure to check out our podcast for the latest interviews.


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