New program focuses on animal welfare

by Stephen Forgacs
Staff writer

Two internationally recognized researchers with a life-long interest in animals have been appointed to lead UBC's new Animal Welfare Program.

Prof. David Fraser and Prof. Dan Weary will investigate topics such as the way living conditions affect the well-being of animals, and ethical issues surrounding the use of animals in scientific research, sport, and food production.

"As educators, we hope to stimulate dialogue on animal welfare issues and bring facts and knowledge about animals to the debate," said Fraser. "As researchers, we will look for solutions to animal welfare problems that are good for animals, and good for society."

The $1.8-million Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Industrial Research Chairs in Animal Welfare, to which Fraser and Weary have been appointed, were created with the support of a range of groups with strong ties to animal welfare issues. The B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (B.C. SPCA) and the B.C. Veterinary Medical Association joined forces with numerous animal agriculture groups to provide funding for the program. NSERC matched their donations.

"The broad-based support behind the positions is unique in the Canadian animal welfare research community," Fraser said.

Both Fraser and Weary are new to UBC. Fraser's research has led to innovations ranging from better pig pens to ways of reducing highway accidents involving wildlife. Weary's research includes the use of vocalizations and other behaviours as indicators of animal well-being.

"One of the most productive methods at our disposal in studying welfare is to look at aspects of the animal's behaviour. This is why much of the work being done on animal welfare today is done by scientists, like David Fraser and myself, who have a background in animal behaviour," Weary said.

"Behavioural approaches also have the advantage of being non-invasive: you don't have to give injections, take blood, or look at the animal's brain, and hence risk causing some harm or distress to the animal whose welfare you are ultimately trying to improve."

Fraser and Weary will continue research in their respective areas of expertise while at UBC, and also deal with the range of ethical issues surrounding the use of animals.

"The present-day debate over the proper relationship between ourselves and other species is not a new issue, like global warming; it is not an issue that will eventually go away, like mad cow disease; rather, it is one of our oldest and most vexing ethical problems, and one which different generations and different societies must grapple with as our values, beliefs and perceptions change," Fraser said.

The chairholders, who hold cross appointments with UBC's Dept. of Animal Science and Centre for Applied Ethics, will work closely with the UBC Animal Care Centre, with animal scientists in dairy, beef, poultry, aquaculture and other animal industries, and with biological and medical researchers.

"NSERC's commitment of more than $800,000 indicates the seriousness with which we consider animal research issues. We want to ensure that animal research meets the highest ethical standards," said NSERC President Tom Brzustowski.

Weary studied animal behaviour at McGill and Oxford, where he earned a doctorate. He undertook post doctoral studies at McGill, Queen's and Concordia, focusing especially on the vocal behaviour of wild birds and mammals.

He joined Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in 1992 as a research scientist. There he started his basic research on how vocal and other behaviour of pigs can provide information about an animal's physical and emotional state.

Fraser studied at the universities of Toronto and Glasgow. From 1975 to 1981 he worked in wildlife research, specializing in the behaviour and management of moose. From 1981 to 1997 he was a research scientist at the Canadian government's Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa where he worked on behaviour, management and animal welfare problems of pigs and other farm animals, focusing especially on the needs of mothers and newborns.