Funder and dates: Defra, Jan 2013 – April 2017
Collaborators/partners: SRUC, University of St. Andrews, University of Edinburgh

Abstract/brief outline

Previous research examined how a duty of care (DOC) towards animals might be effectively promoted to children. Based on this research a conceptual theoretical framework has been developed to explain the links between psychological variables and a DOC among children. In this model conceptual knowledge (of animals’ needs and biology), attitudes towards animals, and empathy to animals in young people were viewed as factors that underpin a sense of DOC to animals and caring behaviour towards animals. The present project follows on from the work conducted on children extending it into adolescence. Adolescents undergo a number of transitions including puberty, school transitions, and changes in relationships at home and with peer groups. Adolescence is often considered as a time of risk behaviours, delinquency and health issues that can have long-term effects into adulthood. In order to investigate adolescent – animal interactions against this backdrop of adolescent development, the project was divided into two parts. In the first part the project aimed to develop an evidence base for underpinning an animal welfare intervention to enhance a DOC to animals in 13-17 year olds using a multi-method approach. In the second part of the project an intervention tool in form of an online course was developed and tested.

Project Outcomes

Literature review

An extensive literature review was conducted to investigate adolescents’ perceptions of animals and their positive and negative interactions with animals.  Results show a general lack of adolescent studies.  It was revealed that causes and reasons of negative behaviours towards animals need to be determined to address these behaviours effectively. Attitudes towards animals seem to develop or consolidate during adolescence suggesting that this time is a crucial time for implementing policy and education to enhance a sense of DOC towards animals.

Formation of an evidence base

Based on these findings an evidence base was created by examining knowledge, attitudes and empathy towards animals in a UK population of adolescents. Multiple methods were applied to allow investigation of knowledge, attitudes and empathy relating to animals from different perspectives.

A survey questionnaire investigating 979 adolescents revealed that adolescents show high levels of empathy towards animals, with girls scoring higher than boys. Attitudes towards animals were also very positive and negative interactions with animals were rare. Adolescents did report accidentally hurting their pets more often than deliberately hurting animals. This was especially pronounced in younger and pet owning adolescents. Adolescents were found to possess little knowledge about farm animals and British wildlife but have a reasonable knowledge about pets.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of adolescents’ perceptions of animals an interview study was conducted, with an embedded card sorting task. 105 adolescents were asked to group images of a variety of common British farm, pet and wild animals printed on cards. Results show that adolescents mainly use an animal’s perceived utility as a means to group them. Furthermore, affect also plays a role in grouping animals. In other words, adolescents group animals into farm, pet and wild animals with the exception of birds. Birds regardless of their role in society (pet, farm or wild animal) were mostly grouped together. A semi-structured interview was applied to investigate adolescents’ knowledge of the Five Freedoms, an animal welfare framework promoted by the UK government. 88 adolescents were free to choose the animals they wanted to talk about but most chose (their) pet animals and were found to be able to talk about their pets’ needs and what they have to provide for their pets welfare. However, a lack of knowledge about these needs was pronounced in adolescents who chose to talk about farm and wild animals. Adolescents did not posses any specific knowledge about the Five Freedoms.

In addition animal welfare education materials were collated and assessed with regard to the Five Freedoms and their applicability for an intervention. Currently available materials were found to heavily focus on pet animals and do not seem to adequately address the knowledge gaps found in the questionnaire and interview studies.

Teachers’ perspectives on animal welfare education were also investigated by means of a survey questionnaire. Teachers suggest that (a) interventions need to find a ‘natural home’ in the curriculum as in the case of the Scottish Higher Biology course; (b) proposed interventions need to ‘fit’ into the ‘teaching space’ available; and (c) interventions could start with an introduction to concepts of animal welfare (i.e. the Five Freedoms); before moving to other aspects such as more specific knowledge, citizenship and health and wellbeing.

In summary, the evidence base suggests a knowledge gap about animals in general but more specifically about animal welfare especially the Five Freedoms and is more pronounced in farm and wild animals than pet animals. Utility perceptions of animals are a key factor shaping adolescents image of animals and consequently attitudes and behaviours towards animals. Hence, the development of an educational intervention tool to promote a DOC to animals in adolescents and enable adolescents to make informed decisions focussed on these two key issues. 

Intervention study

An online course was created which lasted one teaching unit including pre- and post-test administration. The course provides resources to teach animal welfare not only from a biological perspective but also incorporates animal ethics and well-being and is therefore, relevant for different areas in the curriculum.

Three parts were created: (a) an introduction to the course accompanied by a video explaining animal welfare and discussing the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. (b) A series of videos related to the Five Freedoms containing explanations and providing knowledge. This part was finalised with a comprehensive video about the Five Freedoms explaining each freedom in detail, what it means for animals using examples of the previously shown videos. (c) The last part of the course focussed on positive welfare, specifically on animal sentience and the importance of animals experiencing a good life rather than just a life worth living. An animated recording was produced with examples of how animals can experience pleasure (e.g. cows using brushes, piglets playing in a pen). Furthermore, comparative human behaviours were also shown (e.g. human brushing hair, children playing in the garden). The intervention was evaluated with 414 secondary school children split into a test- and control group. Teachers of participating schools provided both a test- and control group, which they were asked to choose randomly.

Results of the intervention showed that the material provided was especially effective in teaching adolescents about the Five Freedoms and showing them how they can contribute to implementing these freedoms, and hence enhancing a DOC towards animals. A DOC can only be enhanced when adolescents possess the knowledge about the general needs of an animal. Furthermore this knowledge will improve their understanding of an animal’s needs across different species. It will not provide adolescents with the knowledge of each individual animal’s needs but gives them the basis to investigate further what would be required for different species. The intervention led to an increase in knowing about all Five Freedoms, and there was an increase in providing words relating to the freedoms if not known word by word.

Outcomes and implications

One approach to successful animal welfare education is to base knowledge gain around the Five Freedoms, addressing questions such as (1) What are the Five Freedoms? (2) What animals do they apply to? (3) What do they mean for animals under our care? (4) What can we do to ensure these freedoms are met? Furthermore, animal welfare education needs to encompass all animals under our care (pets, farm animals and captive wild life) to ensure that adolescents are equipped with a wide repertoire of tools to make informed consumer behaviour decisions. Finally, animal welfare education needs to include an element of positive welfare to raise awareness that we should perhaps be aiming for animals to have a good life.



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