Interview: Professor Françoise Wemelsfelder

   

Edinburgh in August always makes me feel like a really grimy Fitzgerald character. Fractious, spendthrift, convinced I’m on the edge of a creative breakthrough but really on the edge of a nervous breakdown. So what a joy, instead, to be in a freezing cold manuscripts room in Cambridge, and speaking to Françoise.

 For those of us in Animal Studies, Professor Wemelsfelder really needs no introduction (note: this will not be the last fangirl squee in this copy). She is a Senior Scientist at the Animal and Veterinary Sciences research group at Scotland’s Rural College. Her revolutionary methodology, known as Qualitative Behaviour Assessment [QBA,] studies animal expressivity and subjective experience, taking into account the whole creature. QBA has been used practically to assess welfare in all sorts of animals, from donkeys to shelter dogs to pigs and cows.

Francoise generously agreed to be interviewed for EFP: here, we discuss her work, Aristotle, the future of animal welfare…and wheat beer.

 

(Please note that our discussion has been edited for length and clarity, though evidently not for fangirling.)

 

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FW: It’s great you have this project and this blog; it’s important to do that, to get the ideas out. I think that is a nice way to get research out there.

ALG: Ah thank you! I’ve been really enjoying it.

(ALG laughs).

FW: My original goal was to help with changing the way we approach things… animal science is largely mechanistic, so for most scientists their stance is that you can’t directly see what animals feel. There’s a lot of great research going on in the field of animal welfare, emotion and cognition, which is fantastic, but when I started I was very uncomfortable with how this approach puts animals at such a distance from us. We were told we could not be ‘sure’ that animals had feelings; you had to have objective indicators. But I was like, surely you can see it, this is obvious!

ALG: Yeah!

FW:  We relate to animals as sentient beings: that’s not a question, that’s a fact of life. But scientifically that’s still controversial. For a lot of scientists, this is a hypothesis, and the default position is that animals are soulless systems— it’s a legacy from behaviourism.  So a lot of my energy, my career, has gone into finding something that makes a different approach work for scientists: to look at the whole animal, and recognise that animals are emotionally expressive beings; their movements are not just physical, they also convey a psychological body language. In the way in which animals (and humans also!) move around, you can see many subtle expressive clues telling you how they experience that situation – whether they are relaxed, anxious, confident or angry. To enable animal scientist to work with such observations of dynamic expressive qualities, I developed Qualitative Behaviour Assessment (QBA). This is not really new, in that ethologists such as Joan Stevenson-Hinde at Cambridge had already validated that animals move in different expressive styles. And of course pioneers such as Jane Goodall were very happy to talk about the personality and emotions of the chimpanzees she knew so well, describing them as tense, scared, happy or sad. But I wanted to formalise this as a method for animal welfare assessment that can bring us much closer to what animals feel, to their world of experience. But to find a way that helps quantify this in a scientifically valid way, while also preserving the integrity of the sentient animal, is a big challenge.

ALG: Absolutely, but perhaps that’s why you have such diverse collaborators.

FW: Using Qualitative Behaviour Assessment is more complicated than people may think. A lot of people are relieved, they already accepted sentience, and so they really like that now there’s a method they can use which makes this more concrete and can be used in scientific context. It doesn’t replace other methods, it just stands next to them; it’s a holistic way of looking at the whole animal, not just measuring the physical details such as ears and tails….

ALG: Yes, the whole creature.

FW: But something that is so intuitive can become scientifically complicated…(sighs). To do it properly is not easy, but it is important to do it properly. And skeptical people will immediately start pointing out flaws. But they’re not really flaws: they’re birthing pains.

ALG: Exactly, which is why you’ve been able to produce this enormous body of work based on this— there are so many things to think with, and so many species!  Could you give us some examples of where it works well and maybe not so well?

FW: Sure. We recently published a study with a French colleague on the development of mastitis in dairy cattle, which is a serious illness. The scientists were measuring the progression of the illness with a number of physiological measures, and we collaborated to apply QBA to the same cows before and after the onset of the illness, and at different stages of infection and recovery, using video footage of the cows.

The test was blind: the observers on the farm knew it was a study into mastitis but they had no idea which cows were ill. QBA showed that looking at the body language of the cows was very sharp in picking up which cows were sick and which were not throughout every stage— QBA could pick up on the cows getting their energy back, and showed good correlations to other physiological measure of sickness. It was supporting our idea of how QBA should work, you see so many things that are difficult to measure physically, but QBA does pick them up.

ALG: That’s so great— that’s really amazing.

FW: The French study used only a small number of cows, so we have since repeated it in a successful student project that we also hope to publish.

ALG: It must be so satisfying to see that it has the potential to make such a big difference to the cows…and the farmers.

FW: If we do everything right scientifically and it delivers good insight into an animal’s experience, that is really great! I never dare to predict that….’ (both laugh). So knowing how well it can work, I can find it frustrating sometimes when other scientists don’t acknowledge this and prefer to measure only the physical details of things like facial expressions, and ear and tail positions. As I said earlier, I think such physical approaches and QBA are complimentary and fortunately more and more people are happy to add qualitative types of assessment to their research methods. Developing QBA has really been a collaborative effort, thanks to so many enthusiastic colleagues!

ALG: Is there any place where you feel QBA is more challenging?

FW: I would say the most vulnerable point in QBA is that when you go on farm for a welfare inspection, you’re away from a controlled scientific environment, and there is so much context and variable visual input that it can be a struggle to get good agreement between different people’s assessments.

The difference between QBA and physical measures is that the latter are fixed and strongly categorised, whereas QBA relies on integrative judgment, on seeing the way an animal expresses itself as a holistic whole, and such types of judgment are not so easy to capture in fixed categories, and people vary in the way they quantify them. But when done well, such holistic integration can be very powerful, it gives people a chance to provide subtle but important information in different contexts, and make very sharp calibrations of an animal’s experience this way: it’s a bit like magic, it’s hard to believe it is possible, but people can do it.

But it is good to acknowledge that such scores can potentially be affected by biases that people have, about farming environments, but also in their way of scoring: some people like to give extreme scores, others are more cautious. It is very important to address this in training and align people’s individual use of the QBA rating scales. We have evidence that with good training it is possible to overcome such differences and achieve consistent scores, also in farm environments. But it is important to be aware of this issue and not naively assume that people will easily agree; it is a skill that, like all other skills, requires practice and experience.

ALG: My reading— well, my feeling is that the benefits are much greater than the negatives.

FW: I agree with you. QBA has strong sides and weak sides…but that’s true for absolutely everything! (Both laugh). The main story is that there’s so much interest: there’s been wonderful studies of colleagues who have invested in training their inspectors well. First video, then farm… if you invest in training you can overcome these problems.

 

THE FUTURE OF ANIMAL WELFARE

ALG: So one of the questions I sent you ahead of time was about the Swiss animal welfare system. It’s an interesting topic as they’re miles ahead in animal rights, but less so with human rights, seeing as the last canton gave women the vote in about 1992 (ed note: Appenzell Innerrhoden gave women full suffrage in 1991). BUT– equally, they really have their stuff together with animals. So what’s your feeling about the Swiss system, and do you think it’s unrealistic to expect this in the UK?

FW: [Considers the issue for a moment].  I don’t know enough about the Swiss situation to comment on it. But in terms of the wider world…I think there has been some sort of ‘sentience revolution’ which has led to an explosion of new exciting areas of study, which are often referred to as ‘Animal Studies’, which includes things such as animal ethnographies and inquiries into “more-than-human communities”…. This whole area didn’t really exist in my earlier science career, it is quite a recent development,..and is now a really rich conceptual field of thinking about our relationship with animals in all its many complex facets. . A really good thing is that it’s getting away from that vertical model of the evolutionary tree, where we humans are on top with all other animals ‘below’ us, which essentially is just a way of justifying that our primary language for talking about animals has been one of exploitation and objectification, not one of relationship and mutual understanding as a sentience-based approach would propose.

ALG: Of course.

FW: I think we’re moving towards a more ethical and sensible paradigm with a more horizontal relational structure—studies now demonstrate intelligence in animals beyond what we thought was possible; what bees are capable of doing, what fish can do. And that’s hard science, nothing wishy-washy about it.

I teach my students: look, if you hear anybody saying “This is something humans can do and animals can’t do it”— most of the time that just means they haven’t actually checked with the animals yet! (both laugh).

ALG: It’s so true! Haha!

FW: the whole field is dynamic, moving towards a more horizontal perspective: we’re all part of nature, we’re all inter-connected sentient beings. I think you can see how Animal Studies is influencing animal science, encouraging scientists to think not just about measuring animal states, but also to facilitate care and proper relationships between humans and animals, animals and their environment. Giving animals the opportunity to choose, to self-manage their lives, to decide what they want to do rather than merely passively adjust to the circumstances we impose on them.

And so with such greater acknowledgement of an animal’s autonomy, you can see the language we use to relate to animals changing. I think the Swiss system is a pioneer of that: proactively give animals space to build their own life, such as giving a sow space to build her own nest. Regardless of whether or not it’s been proven beyond doubt that sows suffer if they cannot build a nest (though I am sure that they do), a different attitude is adopted: let’s think from the animals’ point of view, let’s help it to express and take care of its own needs.

ALG: Absolutely. And ironically, one of the major criticisms of the Swiss system is that they prioritise or put too much focus on animals. But really it’s about a concentrated and efficient amount of care, so that you don’t have to regulate them: because they will self-manage.

FW: Exactly!

ALG: It’s taking away control.

FW: Yes. What makes such a paradigm shift problematic is that you need different hardware; if you give pigs straw in a slatted system it clogs all the drains. It will take some time to assist farmers who would like to switch to a different management system, but once you’ve done that: then yes, as you say, we need to relinquish control to the animals themselves. Then maybe you can’t make animals grow quite as fast, but I think we should move away from the sense that we control animals as resources. Because they’re not resources: they’re sentient beings!

 

PLAY AND PLEASURE: 29:35.

ALG: So [Equity for Pigs] is really about play and pleasure. We’ve been working with the idea that  Marian Dawkins wrote about how in order to get further, we have to show how animal rights is beneficial to humans. Which is a depressing thought, but it’s realistic.  Part of this is what’s driven the work with the distilleries, and also because they’re such a huge part of Edinburgh. But we agree that it can be part of serious research.

So can you think of any examples of where play or elements of play had a good impact on farm animals?

FW: Well, the toys that Andrea and Cath made, definitely…. Pigs are such rewarding subjects, they are so expressive! If you really pushed me to say which animal was one of the easiest for humans to recognise as expressing joy, it would be pigs. And dogs, of course, but then pigs and dogs are veryalike!

ALG: They are! A litter of piglets is just a litter of puppies.

FW: They squeal and they wriggle their bodies and they bark and they have their little noses that they press against things. They are so physically affectionate with each other, and if they know you they will come racing up to you.

ALG: That’s truly sweet.

FW: And that’s why pigs were so important in my early work on boredom. Boredom can express itself in different stages. You can see pigs looking for things to do, and the way they move and look around has an aimless lacklustre quality rather than a focused engaged quality…scientists may find that animals in barren environments are ‘more curious’, but that’s because they’ve just measured the animal’s physical movements. What that doesn’t pick up—but QBA does— is that there is a different quality to the way pigs in barren pens pay attention to their environment from pigs in enriched pens – in barren pens pigs are always looking for things to do, they’re biting and wriggling and nipping, but it’s not really satisfying them, they don’t get absorbed in what they do, but keep looking and wandering around. Being bored is a combination of restlessness and aimlessness. And eventually they can just give up: they become much more passive, which is potentially a more serious welfare problem, they become depressed.

ALG: (sighs).

FW: To go back to play, the whole underlying idea of QBA is expressivity (and measuring it), animals wanting to express themselves. That in itself is positive. In cows for example, there’s a vigor, a vitality…they are alert, looking at you, they’re positive: they’re present. I think sentience, as phenomenologists talk about it— the presence of the animal as a being— you can see it: they have an interest and sense of fun, they will investigate.

ALG: They do.  

FW: Another example of play is this pigeon who had a set of keys in its beak, and it flew to the top of a building and dropped it. Of course it made a horrendous noise and it would look with great interest, and fly up and do it again, and keep repeating this. We can see that as a form of play: a mix between being inquisitive and play, and I think that animals find exploring and engaging with their surroundings just for the sake of it, to see what happens, enjoyable, it’s fun.

ALG: (laughs)

FW:  They need a life. It’s of course very serious business to survive as well, but for me an important drive is to recognise the importance of an animal’s agency, to give them a life which they can actively shape, by making decisions, choices, and expressing preferences. When it’s working, you can tell. For example I was recently on a farm where the cows were really healthy and had lots of interesting terrain: wood, hills. They often form friendship groups. And they walk up to you, and you can sense that’s fun for them: ‘Oh, hey, what’s this, who are you?’

ALG: A new friend!

FW: Yes and they’re hesitant and a bit cautious, but there’s no overwhelming fear, they are in control. But in intensive systems… yes  perhaps cows can cope, yes they eat and produce milk, yes  they survive, but they’re not necessarily really…

ALG: Thriving?

FW: Exactly! They can be kind of morose. And my hope for QBA has been that it can help make such differences in quality of life visible.

ALG: Absolutely, it’s important work, and to be able to look at it carefully and use it as proof, really, that this isn’t just subjective or being a bleeding heart. And that’s a common accusation lobbied at farmers. Of course there are farmers who are hard-nosed, or care really because it’s about profit, but most of them really care about their animals over profit [and went into it] to be the best that they can be.

FW: Absolutely I agree, and I have never met a farmer who denies that animals are expressive or that we can tell from their body language whether they are doing well or not. Whether they have the time to pay attention to this is another matter.

Of course I understand that such an approach can be difficult to manage and expensive for farmers, but with an emphasis on sentience we need to accept that for animals ‘just managing to cope’ is not enough. We really need to start considering things from the animal’s perspective, which would bring a lot of changes

 

CONSUMER ISSUES

ALG: They’re the hard questions, but they’re the good questions.

FW: Yes! So, farmers need support in different ways, and consumers need to change their purchase behaviour.

ALG: Oh they do. So I was speaking to one of my very dear friends, who is actually one of Andrew’s (Gardiner, Senior Lecturer at RDSVS) students, and we speak quite a lot about the fact that she’s not a vegan, even though she specialises in farm animals. And she says, ‘Well, people accuse me of being a hypocrite, but actually the knowledge I have from the farm work I’ve done means I can just make incredibly well-informed decisions about what I do consume. I can be selective and nuanced.’

I agree with her that it’s not just the most pragmatically useful way to be, but actually overall probably best way to be, because you’re not having people feeling so deprived that they just quit and become rather vile, doing depraved midnight runs to McDonalds (laughs). You have to work within the limits of your society and your preferences, and think about that really carefully.  That’s much more productive and protective than just ‘adopting a diet’.

ALG: Like I think it links in with what you were saying about buying practices; I love eggs, but  I stopped buying eggs for a bit, and was totally miserable, until I found this community  in Cambridge where people keep chickens and so I know the hens are safe. But I know I’m lucky.

FW: Yes, in different forms of integrated family farming, animals can have a very good life, and there are lots of farms like that in Britain. And as a consumer, that’s what you need to do— go and find local producers where you can check and see for yourself that animals have a good life consumers have a lot of economic power!

ALG: You’re so right. Have you had a chance to go to the Food exhibition at the V&A? (Food: Bigger Than The Plate; sadly the run ended in October).

FW: No.

ALG: Oh my God, Francoise, it was incredible. I went to London nominally for research cause we’re doing a food exhibition here in November (ed: shameless plug for Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500-1800, Fitzwilliam Museum, 26 Nov-26 April 2020). It was amazing because not only did they cover eating and consuming, but also waste management and farming practices and packaging. And they had a whole interactive bit at the end where you go on an iPad, pick the adjectives you think best describe your ideal food system—nutritious or transparent or cheap or whatever—- and then they made you a tiny little snack. So I had picked local as one of mine, so it included microgreens grown underground in Clapham.

And it was delicious!

FW: That is so lovely! I walked by it last week when I was in London for a meeting — and yeah, I walked right by it. Had I known… what a shame.

There is a debate in Britain on whether dairy cows can have good welfare when staying inside all year round, and having no outdoor access to grazing fields, it’s called zero grazing. I think it is true that many aspects of welfare can be taken care of indoors, but again I come back to the need to give animals choice and control over how they lead their lives. Research has shown that cows like to be both indoors and outdoors, depending for example on the time of day, the weather, or the season. Sometimes they go out at night.

ALG: Of course.

FW: Sometimes people ask whether a cow would miss outdoor access if it has never experienced it. But here I think recognising the importance of agency is crucial…. For an animal not to exercise agency, not to express and assert itself, is not neutral…from a mechanistic point of view an animal may be seen as a system that we manage and that adapts to its circumstances, and of course that does happen, but it is not all there is. From a sentience point of view we see animals as fellow living beings we want to care for and enable to live a good life for themselves, to build their own life… and so from there it is clearly better for a cow to be able to go outside if it wants to, regardless of whether it misses this when it has never know it before. It affects animals if they are deprived of the chance to live their own lives… in the end they become just…dull.

ALG: Agreed, completely agreed. But really it doesn’t matter what your goal is, even if it’s just [raising animals] purely for profit, then surely as long as the ends are justifying the means, then you can see that it’s a worthwhile pursuit for your animals to self-manage.
FW: Yeah. Hopefully society’s going that way.

ALG: Yeah I think you’re right. Jesus, that’s a sad note to end on! (both laugh). I’ll ask you a happy question and we can end on a happy note! Now you’ll be showing full researcher bias here but here we go:

You’ve worked with all sorts of animals—- pigs and donkeys and cows and shelter dogs, but do you have a favourite animal you’ve worked with? I mean, we all say we don’t but we all do have a favourite child really!

FW: (laughing). The honest answer is that I don’t think I do, all animals are very lovely in their own way— but if I had to choose, it would probably be pigs.

ALG: Yesssss!

FW: I think the essential factor is how well you know the animals.

I am sure that if I worked with donkeys all day, they would be my favourite! Just because I don’t know them very well I don’t see their charms so well.

ALG: Maybe they seem aloof because they are so used to being overlooked.

FW: This is where the risk of anthropomorphism comes in, projecting your human values on to animals in a way that does not do justice to the unique character of the animals. Some animal species are just more difficult to relate to for humans than others. It’s possible that people make mistakes, that they misinterpret the animal’s expression because they are not familiar enough with it. So they look at a donkey and may think it’s stubborn, or unfriendly, when it’s really not. But such problems can be overcome through training, practice and experience.. Some people in my village are adopting a donkey, and it will take time to learn: they are reading all the books, but it’s going to take a couple of years before they really know their animals..

ALG: Exactly! Like being a new parent. Reading everything is no substitute for engaging with the little creature you’ve got in front of you.

FW: I think that’s a lovely parallel. Nobody would ever say: ‘oh well, I’m not really bothering to try and read its emotions, I think it’s ok, it’s growing,’ (Both laugh).

 

MEDIEVAL INTERLUDE; BEER.

ALG: So it’s interesting that earlier, you’ve used the term ‘use’ a lot. ‘Using Animals’ was the title of my thesis, tongue in cheek, as I wanted to write carefully about how they were used, but really consistently state that this is a misnomer, that animals showed agency. I very firmly hold the belief that using ‘medieval’ as an insult in that we aren’t much better—-they didn’t have factory farming, for instance. 

FW: So these sort of debates were going on in the Middle Ages?

ALG: Oh absolutely so, even before the Middle Ages— about two-thirds of Aristotle’s work is on animals. Later on in the Middle Ages, Auqinas was really obsessed with it, and all the big medieval theologians…but they never really resolved anything: I think the fact that there’ s such a huge body of work shows that it was a real concern and obsession of theirs; not easily dismissed.

FW: Yes, it is important to accept that science is not separate from historical and societal context and deeper underlying philosophical assumptions. Scientists may think that our recent emphasis on strict objectivity means we can rise above all that, but western notions of objectivity are deeply associated with mechanistic thought and mechanistic language, and so in essence that is not neutral either. It is a useful powerful perspective, but other perspectives must also be recognised and honoured. It is really unhelpful to regard anything outside mechanistic thought as speculation.

ALG: Absolutely, waffling. And that’s why I think that your use of philosophy and your use of social anthropology is just a brilliant way to go about things…I really do think that. You’re so right to say that it’s impossible to divest things from social assumptions, social frameworks, social categories, and actually it’s Bad Science to think that you’re above those things!

Well. You’re a giant to us— seriously everybody I was saying to about this interview– you know, Animal Studies people whether that’s literature or philosophy or science or law, they were like ‘You get to talk to Francoise?!’. Seriously! I promise I’m not saying it to flatter you, it’s the truth!

FW: Well thank you, it’s lovely to hear ….sometimes I just go home and think, oh no, it’s not working! (both laugh). So thank you.

ALG: Well, it’s a lovely bit of scholarly modesty on your part but I promise you it’s true.  And while we’re on the subject, would you mind us naming a beer label after you? I think a Wemelsfelder Wheat Beer would be great…

FW: I would love a beer named after me… How does this work?!

ALG: Well, the labels Andrea has made, what we want to do is make the toys for the pigs out of their beer mash, and hopefully to do a sort of collaboration with the beer company, so hopefully we get to name them, so Wemelsfelder would become one of our beers if you’d be ok with that.

FW: Well YES— what’s not to love! How sweet! You know I do love dark beer….

 

END.

 

Photo credit: Andrea Wilson