As the father of 3 mostly grown kids and husband to a Disney fanatic, I am more familiar, than a grown man should be, with classic Disney movies, and by extension, the phenomenon known as “Disneyfication”, applying human emotions to animals, and in particular, happiness. We place a high value on happiness – it’s more than a feeling for humans- we’re so fixated on happiness that we define the pursuit happiness as a basic human right.
Now, it’s not just extreme anti-animal ag activists who think animal happiness is important. Recently, I’ve heard arguments for hunting as an alternative to farming livestock, because at least the wild animals lived happily prior to their death, while the poor cows or chickens suffered because they were never allowed to be free. Also, it’s hard to watch Free Willy and not feel, at least in that moment, that every animal we have ever put in a cage or a tank should be let go….
The idea behind all of this is the belief that animals in nature are happier than animals in captivity, even than domesticated ones. But the question is – are they? Really?
Happiness is tough to define in people, let alone in an animals. You certainly can’t ask them how they are feeling(even though my wife asks the cats everyday), so scientists qualify happiness in animals as a lack of chronic stress because stress, unlike happiness, is easy to measure. They look at decreases in health, look at neurotic behavior, and measure hormone levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other “stress” hormones to provide a quantified means of measuring stress.
The idea, in particular, that livestock could be happier than wild animals is a hard thing to grasp, because as people, we can’t imagine being kept simply to be used. The idea of having no control over how we are used by another, even if we’re given everything we want now, seems unbearably cruel, but – wait for it – we are not animals! Animals don’t feel stress about the future, because they don’t have an understanding of their future in the same way we do. A cow doesn’t live a more stressed or unhappy life because it is destined to be killed for its meat because, in a cows brain the concept of nonexistence has never occurred.
So the real question is whether a domestic animal is more or less happy in the moment as its wild counterpart. There are a few key conditions that are generally thought to lead to a “happy” animal by reducing undue stress. In fact, they are the basis for most animal cruelty regulations. Animals have the ‘rights’ to:
- Enough food and water
- Comfortable conditions (temperature, air quality, etc)
- Expression of normal behavior
I am not a fan of the term “factory” or “intensive” farming, but, even on large scale farms, animals are generally well cared for, and these animals live lives where they are well fed, free of curable diseases, in comfortable conditions. When it comes to wild animals, none of these things is guaranteed. They struggle to survive on a daily basis, from finding food and water, to escaping predators, to fighting to find a breeding mate. They don’t have the right to comfort, stability, or good health. Ironically, by most animal cruelty standards, the life of a wild animal is cruel.
But, even with that – are they happier? Keep in mind, domesticated animals are fundamentally different from their wild counterparts: they are not just wild animals that have been raised in captivity; they have undergone evolutionary changes through artificial selection that have altered their bodies, brains and behaviors. We have no evidence whatsoever that wild animals are, in any way, happier than domesticated ones when they are properly cared for. One of the consequences of domestication is a decrease in stress across the board. Studies have shown that domesticated animals are less stressed to begin with, and freak out less in response to stressful things like unfamiliar habitats or predators. In a study with guinea pigs, serum epinephrine and norepinephrine concentrations were as much as eight times lower for domestic animals than their wild counterparts. Similar results have been found in other animals, in fact, a decreased stress response compared to wild counterparts has been found in every single domesticated species that has been studied.
When humans domesticated animals thousands of years ago, we forever altered how they respond to their environment. We reduced their sensitivity to things that are otherwise very upsetting to their wild relatives – like interacting with us. The side effect of this is that domesticated animals are predisposed to being happier than their wild counterparts, in spite of captivity. To think of domestication as a form of enslavement or exploitation is to misconstrue the whole relationship between farmers and animals. We look after animals on farms, and, as a result, they have LESS stress! Stress is important for surviving in the wild. Stress tells you you’re in danger, and provides your body with the boost of adrenaline needed to get out of the situation.
Ultimately, the vast majority of domesticated animals wouldn’t survive in the wild. Period! Releasing a domesticated animal into the wild isn’t ‘freeing’ it – it’s placing a mostly defenseless creature into an unfamiliar and deadly environment it’s not equipped to deal with. Studies also suggest something that might seem radical – if we provide food, water, shelter and allow for behavioral expression, domesticated animals are, not only likely to be as happy as their wild relatives, they’re probably happier. This applies to livestock as much as it does to a guinea pig, even though we raise them solely as a food resource for people.
So, are wild animals happier? Science suggests they are not. It’s just opinion, but I think the idea that wild animals are happier stems from popular culture going all the way back to the original Disney classic, Bambi, when we began to idealize nature, with a wild world of lush forests full of brightly-colored, singing birds and monkeys swinging from branch to branch. We see vast prairies with herds of antelope and zebra grazing peacefully while a pack of lions naps lazily in the shade. Even when we do imagine the more gruesome aspects of the wild, we see them as OK or better than what we do because it’s “natural.” This fixation on what is “natural” skews our judgement on everything from vaccines to diapers we put on our kids (thankfully, not for many years, in my case) to farming practices. In reality, there is nothing inherently better about something being natural, and the idea that something that occurs in nature without us is somehow better than something we have created is a dangerous misconception. It’s ok to love nature and fight for the beauty and preservation of our planet, but remember that we humans are an important part of the circle of life. We are, after all, “natural” too.
- Franklin D. McMillan (2008). Chapter 16. Do Animals Experience True Happiness? Mental Health and Well-Being in Animals DOI:10.1002/9780470384947.ch16
- Möstl E, & Palme R (2002). Hormones as indicators of stress. Domestic animal endocrinology, 23 (1-2), 67-74 PMID: 12142227
- Pollan, Michael. “An Animal’s Place” The New York Times Magazine, Nov 10, 2002
- Künzl, C. (1999). The Behavioral Endocrinology of Domestication: A Comparison between the Domestic Guinea Pig (Cavia apereaf.porcellus) and Its Wild Ancestor, the Cavy (Cavia aperea) Hormones and Behavior, 35 (1), 28-37 DOI: 10.1006/hbeh.1998.1493
- BROWN, J. (2006). Comparative endocrinology of domestic and nondomestic felids Theriogenology, 66 (1), 25-36 DOI:10.1016/j.theriogenology.2006.03.011