Do concrete floors in zoos cause elephants to suffer sleepless nights? Are cattle that are crowded into feedlots more likely to experience severe stress? Does confinement in small cages cause chickens to destructively peck at themselves?
Candace Croney ponders questions like these every day. A scientist in Oregon State University's Animal Sciences Department, she specializes in bioethics and animal behavior research.
Finding answers is important, she said, because of growing public concern about the ethical treatment of animals, whether those animals are exotic species in zoos, companions such as dogs and cats, or agricultural livestock grown for food production.
"Increasingly, people from all walks of life want to know that the animals we use — for food or companionship — are housed and managed in humane ways," said Croney. "This shift in public attitudes about animal treatment is challenging production agriculture to move beyond the mindset that animals are basically end products.
"Animal scientists are just starting to scratch the surface in terms of what we know about animals' perceptions of their environments," Croney said. Most of the good systematic research on this has been done just in the past five to seven years.
As a bioethicist, Croney teaches and conducts research focusing on the ethical treatment of animals. She came to OSU in 2001, a few years after completing her groundbreaking dissertation research on the cognitive capacity of pigs.
"This research was unique in that the subjects of the study were a common farm animal," said Croney. "Up to that time, the subjects of these kinds of studies were usually non-human primates or monkeys."
Croney's research examined the problem-solving abilities of pigs. She demonstrated that pigs could learn tasks that required them to use computers and joysticks to identify specific onscreen targets.
"As a result of the study I gained a new appreciation for the intelligence of pigs," she said. "They were able to learn tasks that dogs and even some very young children could not do."
The study launched Croney's career in behavior research using agricultural production animals.
"Up to the time of the study, almost no one in this country was studying farm animal cognition and mentality and the impact of these characteristics on animal well-being," Croney said. "What we learn about the intelligence of animals ought to help us understand what really matters to them, as opposed to what we think should matter, in regard to their quality of life."
Quality of life for an animal, whether it's a pig, chicken, cat, lion, pelican or gazelle, has a lot to do with the richness of its environment, Croney explained. If animals are confined in pens, pastures or zoos, how can that confined environment include features that enable the animal to better, or more fully, express its natural behaviors? That's the focus of Croney's research.
For example, what happens if the confined space in which pigs are raised is enlarged to include a shallow pool where the animals can express their natural wallowing behavior to cool off? Or, what if a perch were added to a chicken cage to allow the bird to express its natural roosting behavior?
"My general approach is to enrich or change the animal's environment and note how it reacts," Croney said, emphasizing her methods of observation-based animal behavior studies. "I prefer not to do anything invasive to research animals."
In an upcoming project, Croney and animal sciences graduate student Brittany Gardner will examine how laying hens react to changes in cage environments.
Typically, poultry in large production facilities are kept in small cages that are part of large systems housing thousands of birds. Negative behaviors associated with poultry kept in small cages include self-pecking, which can cause bird mortality, and cannibalism.
"We plan to increase space in the cage environment, and add perches and barriers between food and water," said Croney. "Then we'll observe the birds over time to see whether these changes affect their behavior."
Their research is funded in part by the Agricultural Research Foundation, an Oregon non-profit corporation affiliated with Oregon State University.
"The premise of this research is that giving poultry animals more options to express their natural behaviors within a confined environment will enable them to better maintain their physiological and psychological health," Croney said. "This could lead to completely new information about the welfare of animals placed in confined agricultural production systems. And we should be able to extend what we learn to other kinds of agricultural animals in confined production situations, so the impact of the research may reach far beyond Oregon."
The cutting edge newness of animal behavior research seems to have made a big impression on students in the animal sciences department.
"Our undergraduates are very interested in animal behavior," said Jim Males, OSU Animal Sciences Department head. "The majority of our students are female and many want to pursue careers as veterinarians or animal caretakers in zoos and wildlife preserves. We're serving this demand, in part, by offering an animal behavior option in the undergraduate program and research opportunities for graduate students."
Camie Meller is a good example. She graduated from OSU with a degree in microbiology in the late 1990s, but decided to try something new after working as a microbiologist for a few years.
"I came to the OSU Animal Sciences Department specifically to study animal behavior and to work with Dr. Croney," said Meller. Under Croney's supervision, Meller studied the behavioral response of elephants to different types of flooring at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. She enjoyed the research project so much that she plans to pursue a doctorate in animal behavior and conduct more research at the Oregon Zoo.
"We obviously don't do a lot of work with elephants in the department," laughed Croney, "but the cooperative study with the Oregon Zoo is a good example of the new directions some of our animal sciences students are taking as they pursue their career goals."
"The ethics of how we use animals in agriculture has become controversial largely because of major changes in our production systems over the past two decades," said Males. "For example, in order to keep food prices low, producers have turned to operating large-scale facilities where thousands of animals may be confined in small spaces. This type of confined animal agriculture makes production more efficient and economical, but it has also raised concerns about the treatment of animals.
"National groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States have taken the lead with these issues and have attracted a lot of media publicity," Males said. "But in addition, we're seeing a groundswell of public interest in animal welfare throughout the country."
The animal sciences department is responding by providing ways to expose students to the ethical issues debate on how we use animals, Males added.
"I believe everyone who works with animals in production agriculture needs to think about these issues, and we all need to have a philosophy that we can discuss with others about how we use animals," Males said. "Animal behavior research plays an important role in this because it provides scientifically based information about how animals are affected by various conditions in their environments."
Is this the beginning of a new kinder, gentler animal science? Males chuckled at the suggestion, but added that there clearly is greater emphasis in the department today on considering how society uses animals.
The animal sciences department began to recognize the issue of animal welfare back in the 1980s when Stephen Davis, an OSU animal physiologist and now a professor emeritus, created a new course called Contentious Issues in Animal Agriculture. This course is still offered in the department and covers a broad variety of animal use issues including genetic engineering, livestock grazing on public lands and use of growth-promoting feed additives.
In the 1990s, Davis developed a course called Ethical Issues in Animal Agriculture, which is now required for completion of an animal science degree at OSU.
"The ethical issues course focuses more directly on the role of animals in society and the role of animals in production agriculture," said Davis. "It's designed to help students begin forming their own philosophy of animal use. The course introduces them to all the different arguments about animal rights and welfare and encourages each student to discuss his or her point of view."
For much of Davis' career, the animal sciences concentrated on production efficiency—finding ways to produce higher quantity and quality animal products more economically.
"In the process of pursuing these production goals, we've gotten away from the concept of animal husbandry, which I define as breeding, raising and caring for farm animals," said Davis. "In the rush to improve production efficiency, we have been willing to treat animals in ways that violate their behavioral needs."
It's like forcing a round peg into a square hole, Davis added.
"For example, pigs like to wallow in mud, root around for insects and plants to eat and make nests for their offspring," Davis said. "However, when we confine pigs in small pens with concrete floors inside large production facilities, we deny them the opportunity to express these natural behaviors.
"Many people, including animal scientists, disagree about these kinds of animal use issues, but we've reached a point where it's obvious this controversy is not going away," said Davis. "We, as scientists, have to be prepared to look at the situation from all viewpoints."
Davis taught Ethical Issues in Animal Agriculture until he retired in 2000. Croney now teaches the course, which she sees as a sort of rite of passage for animal sciences graduates heading for many different kinds of careers.
"Wherever they choose to work, our students will be managing and using animals, and they will face criticism about those uses," she said. "Ultimately, in order to move forward on these issues, we've got to address the broader philosophical questions about animal use and welfare.
"We as animal scientists and our students who enter careers working with animals must be able to respond logically and thoughtfully to questions like:
What should we be doing with our animals?
What's the best way to house, manage and care for them?
How do we balance what producers need to support production with what the animals need from a physiological, behavioral, and psychological standpoint?
"We, as a society, will continue to wrestle with these kinds of ethical use questions," said Croney. "Animal behavior research is the best tool we have to help fill the scientific gaps in our knowledge of animals, as we search for answers."