Prof. Ian Duncan

Talking to animals isn’t just a bunch of quackery.

“Communicating with animals has actually become a scientific discipline,” says Ian Duncan, an animal welfare expert and professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

Studies show that animals can communicate their feelings with the choices they make. Given the choice between sleeping on bare concrete or a bed of straw, most animals would choose the latter option.

“Some of us thought it would be possible to devise techniques whereby we can ask the animal what it feels about the conditions under which it’s being kept and the procedures to which it’s subjected,” says Duncan. “We thought that animals would ‘vote with their feet’ and tell us what they preferred.” The tests involved changing one or two variables in the animal’s environment and letting the animal choose between them.

Duncan was involved in a recent experiment that tested the controversial “rollkur” manoeuvre used in equestrian events in which the rider pulls on the reins, forcing the horse’s head down to its chest.

To test how horses felt about being ridden in the rollkur posture, they were guided into a Y-shaped maze. When the horse rode down one path, it was allowed to move freely. When it travelled down the other path, it was forced into the rollkur position. Given the option to choose which path to take, none of the horses took the rollkur path.

“That tells us they really don’t like this posture, no matter some riders’ belief that it looks nice in dressage competitions,” says Duncan. Taking this and other evidence into account, the riding method was banned by the International Equestrian Federation in 2010.

Another study involving hens tested their nesting instinct. When a hen is about to lay an egg, it searches for a site to build a nest. “The indications are that the urge to do that are quite strong,” says Duncan. To test that theory, a hen was placed at the end of a runway with a nest box at the other end. A weighted door was placed in the middle of the runway, making it more difficult for the hen to pass through, but that didn’t stop them from pushing open the door.

“When you measure it in this way, nesting behaviour seems to be very important to hens,” says Duncan. “Not only will they choose a nest box, but they will work extremely hard to get to one.”

Ninety-five per cent of hens are kept in battery cages, where they don’t have access to nesting sites, causing them to become frustrated before laying their eggs, he says.

“Hens really need to have a nesting site, so we need to design other environments,” he adds. Battery cages are really reducing hens’ welfare a great deal because they don’t have a nesting site.”

Even rainbow trout are smarter than we think.

In one study, a trout was placed in a long tank with a partition and doorway in the middle. When the fish was startled with splashing water, it swam through the doorway to the other side. When the trout received a warning signal prior to being frightened, it swam through the door on its own to avoid being startled.

Understanding how animals think and feel can lead to better living conditions and treatment.

Duncan says the industrialization of agriculture, especially the chicken and pork industries, poses the greatest threat to animal welfare. “All of these intensive systems go on behind closed doors,” he says. “I think the general public would be shocked at some of the conditions in which these animals are kept. If we want to solve animal welfare problems, then devising methods of asking animals what they feel is very important.”

Duncan will give a lecture on “Asking the Animals” during College Royal March 19 and 20 in Rozanski 103.

Other College Royal lectures will feature Profs. Evan Fraser, Geography, on “Empires of Food: Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations;” Paul Woods, Clinical Studies, and Brenda Coomber, Biomedical Sciences, on “Cancer in Pets: Comparative Cancer Treatment and Research;” and ESL program manager Julian Inglis, Open Learning, on “Academic English for the International Student.”