An interview with Dr Greg Dixon, a veterinary surgeon and researcher in animal welfare science, ethics and law
When I was growing up, I didn’t have a pet for any length of time. I had a rabbit named Twm Twitch for a few months, I had a guinea pig named Rupert for a few weeks, and I had a newt for a few days, before he escaped and I found him shrivelled up on the kitchen floor. I wasn’t really an animal-person, unless they were on my plate, next to my potatoes and carrots. I soon took a job in Wimpy burger bar and persuaded my then-girlfriend to give up her vegetarianism and start eating proper food – quarter-pound Wimpy burgers with that lovely pink relish. Animals, to me, were expendable and exploitable – “things” given to us by God to be eaten, worn, and used for our own purposes, however selfish and self-centred those purposes may be.
In my early twenties, I underwent a road-to-Damascus experience in my attitude to animals. It all came from reading the conclusion of the story of Noah’s flood, when God makes a covenant with his people, a covenant which expresses his love and care (Genesis 9:8-17). As I read that passage, it suddenly dawned on me that the covenant between God and his people in the Old Testament, which then became Jesus’s ultimate covenant in the New Testament, is not simply about humankind. The most striking aspect of the covenant with Noah is that it is between God and ‘all living creatures of every kind on the earth’, including ‘the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals’. As if to hammer this home, that fact is mentioned five times in that short Genesis passage alone!
With this realization, I began to view Jesus’s teaching on love in a completely different way. It became evident to me that our call to compassion and care should not simply include those of the same species as us, but should embrace all living things. The medic and theologian Albert Schweitzer called this ‘reverence for life’. In so many matters, we Christians have our faith boxed up, over in one corner – we unpack it and it comes out on Sundays and it sometimes comes out for issues that relate directly to injustices towards people. But other matters, such as animal rights, are seen as issues that are quite distinct from our faith, and are boxed up in the opposite corner to our faith. In this way, there is often a fundamental disconnect between our faith and some critical ethical and societal issues. By now, I believe that animals are very much part and parcel of God’s kingdom and are due care and compassion from those of us entrusted to stewardship of his creation. So I’m delighted that a veterinary surgeon, Dr Greg Dixon, has agreed to speak to me about the issue of animal rights.
Before we go on to talk about your academic research in this area, Greg, can you tell us something about your job as a vet.
“Nowadays I work at a local practice in Cardiff, Wales, UK with a strong interest in canine and feline internal medicine, always happy with an ultrasound machine or an endoscope trying to figure out why the dog or cat is ill and what I am going to do about it. Many people view their pet almost as a family member, and I hope that by helping the pet I can help the people too. But before I came to Cardiff I was a ‘mixed’ vet working with farm companion animals. I have worked over the years closely with dairy cows, and on sheep and pig farms. I was never fully signed up to the farming practices to which I was exposed. I felt I was always a bit like Hawkeye in M*A*S*H – I didn’t agree with the war, but kept patching up the boys and sending them back to the front!”
And tell us something about your PhD research.
“By 2001 I had become very interested in Animal Welfare and Ethics, taking a further professional exam in the subject and helping to set up the Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law Veterinary Association. I was offered a PhD at Bristol Vet School, which is a centre for the study of Animal Welfare Science. I went to study the welfare of laying hens there for 3 years! My particular research was looking into the risk factors for the feather and vent pecking in laying chickens. This, in the worse cases, can lead to chickens consuming each other. Contrary to what many might think, this injurious behaviour happens mostly in free-range birds and not caged layer birds. There are few farming systems that are without their welfare problems, when practiced on a commercial scale. Sometimes a well-intentioned change leads us from the frying pan, into the fire.”
So, what led you to research animal rights in particular?
“In my veterinary work and in my research I was exposed to many farming practices, and particularly those of intensive pig farming, commercial abattoirs and broiler (chicken meat) farming led me to deeply question the way we treat our fellow creatures. This, together with much reading and discussion with my colleagues, farmers and philosophers led me to the conclusion that many of these practices, deeply engrained in our culture, are actually very hard to defend in a consistent manner.”
You seem to be saying that animals are not treated well, in general, in this country? Why do you think animals are treated so poorly?
“It depends which animals we are thinking of. I know some chihuahuas who live like kings! However, those animals that we consider only in an instrumental fashion perhaps do not fare so well. I am very concerned about the 850 million broiler chickens who are slaughtered annually in the UK, of whom, in their short 6 week lives, 28% (that’s 126 million sentient individual birds) are so severely lame that if they were horses they would be shot! Now, some might argue that are farm animals are kept better in the UK than in some other countries. That may or may not be the case, but that is not tantamount to treating animals well. In some pig abattoirs the line rate can be 60 pigs per minute, with commercial pressure on not dropping the rate. I think it can easily be seen that this kind of time pressure can easily result in those pigs, killed at the rate of one-per-second, not being treated well. I think that if we did to labradors what we do to those pigs on a daily basis, there would be a revolution! The huge demand for cheap animal products exerts an intense commercial pressure that often comes down, in various ways, directly upon the animals.”
What can we do, then, to ensure animals are treated better than they are?
“Well, of course, we can treat the animals we come into direct contact with well – I think that is the easy part, mostly. Being nice to dogs and horses is normally a pleasure. But what if we come across an injured gull, considered to be a nuisance by many people here in Cardiff? Do we have any duties to them? If so, do we discharge them well? But we also have social relations, mediated through the commodities of animal products, with many more animals than we come into direct contact with, and this is the difficult part. Can we alter our consumption patterns? Could we consume to improve the way we affect these animals’ lives? There is an analogy with people: we all mostly try and most of the time succeed in treating the people we come into direct contact with well. But we have social relations with many more people, mediated via the commodities we consume. Sometimes we try and treat those people we never meet, that make our coffee or our clothes, better by supporting fair trade or boycotting certain goods.”
As Christians, we see compassion and love of people as part of our mission… why do you think that some Christians miss the importance of compassion and love towards animals? From what you know about the Christian message, do the attitudes of Christians surprise you at all?
“I think that some Christians, like most people, might miss the importance of compassion towards animals. It may be reflected in that contentious translation in Genesis: ‘be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it; rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground’ (Genesis 1:28). ‘Rule over’ is sometimes translated as ‘have dominion over’. But this, at face value, could imply that humans, being on top of a hierarchy, are able to put nature and its creatures to whatever use they see fit. There are, of course, alternative readings and those that talk of ‘stewardship’ rather than ‘dominion’ may cast a different light on our responsibilities. I’d like to take a second to do a bit of social history. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association was founded by Quakers and enjoyed support from the great and the good of the day, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. They erected, by public subscription and generous donation, water fountains for the public and cattle drinking troughs throughout towns and cities. In those days, there was no public water supply and cholera was rife. There were animals throughout towns and cities, unlike today. The benefactors were concerned for the welfare of both people and animals – concern for one did not exclude concern for others. We are not always in a ‘lifeboat’ situation in which someone must be thrown overboard to save the others. The philosopher Mary Midgley once wrote that “compassion is like a magic liquid, the more you pour it, the more there is!” One of the motivations of the Association was, of course, for temperance – before the new drinking troughs, drovers could often only source water for their cattle at pubs that they were obliged to frequent! Nowadays the troughs are often used as ornamental flower boxes. I remember one well in Lewes, East Sussex, UK where I used to live. Alongside it had the imperative from Proverbs to ‘open thy mouth for the dumb’. And that is what I have tried to do in this interview!”
Thank you so much for speaking with us, Greg. I think we would agree that, with regards animal rights, intensive farming, laboratory experiments, live exports, and so on, the old adage “this is the way it’s always been” is no excuse. As Christians, we are challenged to question what we’ve been taught, to read the Bible and to view everything in the light of Jesus’s love and compassion. But our faith is not just about viewing the world in a certain way – it’s also about changing the world. We need to live out the gospel, not simply talk about it. And, with this particular issue, we can do some practical things to take steps towards change: we can pray for all living things, educate ourselves on the issues surrounding animal welfare, read the Bible with the importance of all creation in mind, get involved in campaign (sign petitions and so on), support charities, be selective in shopping (fast food stores, for example, have an appalling record in not taking seriously animal welfare of farmed animals), and spread the word by encouraging friends, family, and colleagues also to educate themselves. Getting our priorities right is certainly the first step, but the next step is for us to ask God to inspire us into action.
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