News - November 18, 2010

Oostvaardersplassen: should animals be saved from starvation?

This winter another hundred large grazers will starve in the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in the Netherlands. Dutch society is troubled by this. So should something be done? Professor of Animals and Society Elsbeth Stassen scrutinizes the motives of the supporters and opponents of intervention.

It happens every year as winter advances, from around the end of January. Depending on the severity of the weather, of course. 'Snow in March is disastrous', Stassen knows for sure. 'And so is a late frost.' Under these conditions, there is no grass left in the Oostvaardersplassen, one of the few remaining natural areas in the Netherlands. About 30 percent of the Polish Konik horses, Heck cattle and red deer that graze there do not survive. Should this be allowed to happen?
At the end of November, the Gabor commission will publish its advice on the management of the Oostvaardersplassen. Whatever they advise, public opinion on the matter will remain divided. According to Professor Stassen, this is because people argue from two opposite starting points. 'People see large grazers either as domestic animals or as wild animals. In the case of domestic animals, we have an obligation to take care of them. They are fenced in, they do not migrate and they are not exposed to predators. Animal ethics apply, which put the welfare of the individual animal first. But where wild animals are concerned, it is different. There is some obligation to look out for their welfare, but people do not have power of attorney over them, and the ethical principles that apply concern the functioning of the ecosystem as a whole.'
Irreconcilable starting points
These two starting points are fundamentally irreconcilable. But according to Stassen, the heart of the matter is not the question of whether the animals are domestic or wild. She bases this view on the law. 'The law says that any animal in need, domestic or not, should be helped. If an animal is suffering and in need, you should take action.'
This care obligation is enshrined in the health and welfare law on animals. Article 36, paragraph 3 of this law states that 'everyone has an obligation to provide the appropriate help to animals in need'. According to Stassen, this article applies to domestic and wild animals alike. Stassen: 'Those for and against intervention are at each other's throats because of the distinction between domestic and wild animals. But the crux of the matter is that no animals should be left to suffer unnecessarily and hopelessly. That is really crucial to this discussion. It also means, incidentally, that we have no right to kill animals.'
So it makes no difference whether an animal is wild or not?
'If we see that an animal is suffering, we feel we should do something about it. The fundamental value from which people reason about animals is that all animals are of value and that we should therefore look after them. The suffering of Konik horses and Heck cattle evokes strong reactions because people compare them with domestic animals. It also plays a role that they are so large and so visible. There is a railway line running past the Oostvaardersplassen. You run into similar dilemmas with truly wild animals too. Take seals for example. We take sick seals out of the sea to feed them up. And yet they are genuinely wild animals.'
Does hunger count as 'unnecessary and hopeless suffering'?
'Occasionally going hungry for a short period is not exclusively detrimental to animal welfare: it also has a positive effect, as it stimulates exploration and migration. The welfare and health of the animals in the Oostvaardersplassen is excellent for most of the year. This is clear from the growth of the population of large grazers over the course of almost thirty years, from a few dozen to around 4,000 animals. The people who see them as domestic animals focus too much on the suffering of animals that do not stand a chance. In an ecosystem it is useful for the weak to die off, because the population as a whole is strengthened by this. Natural selection makes the animals better able to cope with changeable environmental conditions. But that does not mean that hunger is not severe suffering. Dissection of starved cattle has shown that the animals had eaten all sorts of indigestible materials such as bark, reeds and branches, creating a rotting mass in the stomachs. They must have eaten these things out of starvation, as they would never normally eat them.'
Vets want to prevent the suffering of the large grazers by pro-active culling. They say thirty percent of the herds should be shot. What do you think about this?
'Pro-active culling prevents the population from getting too big. But I see moral objections. Dutch citizens believe that all animals have the right to life, as is clear from research done by Nina Cohen, who gets her PhD in Wageningen this week. That is an important moral principle, and you go against it if you carry out pro-active culling. What is more: which animals are you going to shoot? The weak ones? Or do you concentrate on certain groups? Even on ecological grounds, it is a very difficult to make that selection. I do not think there is broad social support for pro-active culling. People find the shooting of wild boar on the Veluwe acceptable, partly because the animals are a nuisance. They can accept the shooting of red deer as well. Those are wild animals. But I do not see large-scale shooting of horses being accepted in this country. Horses have become farm animals and pets. You also notice that horse flesh is no longer eaten much in the Netherlands.'
You chair the ethical committee of Dutch veterinary surgeons. So your advice is not taken?
'The standpoint up to now has been that culling should be reactive. So it is only done to stop hopeless suffering. But among the vets I see the same two camps: one that sees the large grazers as domestic animals and the other that sees them as wild animals. In an opinion poll, the board put three options to the members: no care obligation, reactive culling or pro-active culling. Three quarters of the respondents were in favour of pro-active culling.'
Do you see the same shift in thinking in society at large?
'The political spectrum is changing. I expect more of a move towards seeing the animals as domestic. Another increasingly popular argument for intervention revolves around questions about the ecosystem that is developing in the Oostvaardersplassen. Because the large grazers are so successful, biodiversity in the area is decreasing. Certain birds no longer come there and overgrazing is putting pressure on the fauna. I am very curious what the Gabor commission will say. If the biodiversity goes down, have we not missed our goal? It looks as though the large grazers are the victims of their own success.'