Friday, December 3, 2010

What is Natural Behavior?

So in some recent conversations with some of my animal rights friends, the topic of animals needing to exhibit natural behavior, a dust bath, perching, etc. came up. It got me really wondering about that whole topic.
How many of us, as humans, exhibit what we would call “natural behavior”? Isn’t what we do molded by the restraints that society places on us? A humorist whose name escapes me at the moment, suggested once that left to his own devices, a man would drink beer, chase women, and scratch himself insistently. But society has placed on us limitations for what they feel is morally and socially acceptable for a thriving community. In the same way that we aren’t allowed more than one spouse, we aren’t allowed to murder, rape and pillage. Societal values shape our lives and actions.
So if we need to allow animals to exhibit their natural behaviors, what does that mean for agriculture? Even more, what does that mean for the livestock in our care? While I’m making a few assumptions here, most people, imho, (in my humble opinion), see what they want to see in regards to animal care and behavior. It’s easy to see when you look at the warm and fuzzy videos posted by many animal rescue groups. A 400+ pound sow is taped lying on a bed of straw being petted by her caretaker, and has never shown them any signs of being aggressive. Yet put her in a group setting and she can get mean. Real mean. Cows out on pasture are all calmly eating and they wouldn’t hurt a flea, but they have a fairly complex hierarchy, one that involves pushing the more timid cows away from the choicest feeds. A mother turkey spreading her wings over her flock. Not the picture of her losing her chicks in tall grass, or to predators. The list goes on. The animal rights crowd sees the warm and fuzzy, but overlooks the more brutal part of animal behavior.
So what does that mean for us in animal Ag? It means an uphill climb. How do we show people with no connection to the farm, this side of the farm? I really don’t know, but making videos that are all happy and sunshine, while important, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Some of that is going to require that we put ourselves out there, let people see what we do, all of it. And in a move I can’t believe I’m saying, ask some of these animals rights folks to work with us, read that beside us, to further their understanding of animal behavior and how we in animal ag are working with that.. And if you want to talk about unnatural behavior, well there you go.

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