Discussion Forum 2022 - AWF Chair reflects on the day

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Julian Kupfer

Last month we held our first ever hybrid Discussion Forum, exploring a plethora of animal welfare issues including 'extreme breeds', pest control, gene editing and 'overtreatment' in the equine world. In this piece, AWF Chair Julian Kupfer reflects back on the day, the themes that came out of it, and why a platform like the Discussion Forum to champion animal welfare and challenge the issues continues to be important.

  Looking back at this year’s hybrid Discussion Forum, it was certainly a great success. The virtual element meant people from as far afield as Europe, Canada and New Zealand could join in the debates. And there is no doubt that those who attended in person benefitted from the face-to-face interaction as we welcomed delegates back to One Great George Street for the first time since 2019.

However, life as a mixed practice vet has done nothing to assuage my scepticism, thus I ponder just how relevant is the Discussion Forum to me? A talking shop for the elite? Only for the specialist or welfare champion? Is it discussing matters beyond my paygrade? Understandable thoughts whilst donning wet gear at the next farm or raising eyes heavenward as one sees who’s next on the surgery waiting list.

Well firstly it shows the profession’s willingness to stand up and debate difficult issues in public, something to be proud of, a real demonstration of openness and accountability. The topics this year ranged from gene editing and ‘Are some breeds too extreme?’ through to an equine overtreatment debate – overtreatment being a running theme in the Forums. Hardly irrelevant to those in practice as well as welfare professionals, and certainly not elitist.

Secondly it is just incredibly helpful to listen to people who really know their subject inside out, debating issues like this that are hard for those of us with less knowledge to formulate or express an opinion on.

Thirdly, having heard and taken part in the AWF debates, aren’t we then better equipped to articulate our own opinions on important welfare issues which we are going to meet as welfare professionals or vets on the frontline? Probably within my paygrade.

It is fascinating to see themes emerging during the day, some intentional, others not. On equine overtreatment and the elite athlete that the competing horse has become, some delegates were taken aback by the viewpoint of the speakers. Why? Was this unfamiliarity with the specialism and slightly prejudiced by the high pressure and high value industry? What is the difference ethically between this and perhaps high yielding dairy cows, poultry production or performing a caesarean on a brachy show dog, the latter exemplified in the ‘Are some breeds too extreme’ debate? Our attitudes to how useful various species are to us, how we rank them and indeed our attitude towards animals within the same species was another common theme. The pest control session highlighted control measures and our attitude regards ‘wild’ rats contrasted in more than one session with the pet rat.

The prominent theme throughout the day was, unsurprisingly - ‘Education, education, education’. ‘Public education would do a lot to help vets deliver better animal welfare’ one delegate posted, while another said: ‘The public often don't want to listen to messages about unhealthy breeds …Is celebrating "healthy" [breeds] a better stance to take?’

As the veterinary profession’s animal welfare charity, AWF continues to commission outstanding and focussed research to expand our knowledge and conduct important debates like this to further our practical understanding and ethical approach. As welfare professionals we are the frontline advocates of animal welfare, but successfully getting appropriate messages across continues to be an issue. It is encouraging therefore, to see the increasing work around human behavioural concepts and how this may encourage the positive change we all seek.

So does the Discussion Forum survive my sceptical scrutiny? Yes! The last words should go to some of our delegates comments:

‘What a great bunch of people animals have advocating for their welfare.’

‘Debates are important.’

‘Animal welfare is never a simple topic.’

Recordings of our past Discussion Forums are available to all on our YouTube channel, and this year’s recordings one will be added soon. If you wish to be notified when this happens, please email enquiries@animalwelfarefoundation.org.uk