Wetenschap - 20 oktober 2010

Thesis on Animal suffering

Imagine getting to hand over a copy of your final thesis to a government ministry official, having the media pounce on it and questions asked about it in parliament. Madelaine Looije and Michelle Smit’s final thesis on barn fires is causing quite a stir.

'The suffering of the individual animals is so terrible. That did shock me', says Madelaine Looije. A vet told her how, after a fire, he had found pigs with horrific burns from synthetic insulation material. 'The animals needed to be put down quickly, but he couldn't reach them.
You expect this sort of thing, but if you stop to think about what really happens in a barn fire it is shocking. People concentrate on the numbers, but it is also the severity of the problem that matters.'
Together with Michelle Smit, Looije graduated in Animal Management at VHL Leeuwarden with a research into barn fires, for the animal rights organization Dierenbescherming and the agricultural organization LTO. On 14 October they handed over their report to Alida Oppers of the ministry of Agriculture during a conference on animal welfare.
737,000 animals
Over the past five years 737,000 cows, pigs and chickens have died in 736 barn fires, according to the students' calculations. On the basis of their report, the PvdA asked questions in parliament on 18 October. The party calls the statistics shocking and asks the cabinet to take measures to get the barns made more fireproof. The stir the research has caused was no surprise to Looije. 'It's quite clear that something has to be done about this problem.'
The incidence of fire is going up because of the increasingly intensive use of electrical equipment and machinery, Smit and Looije note. Fires are often caused by short circuits, overheating machines and maintenance work in the barn. And because farming is more and more large-scale, more animals die per fire. 'The consequences are often on a massive scale. It's a matter of both animal welfare and the financial and emotional costs for those involved', explains Smit.

Responsibility
The students consulted insurance companies, followed up on media coverage and talked to livestock farmers, vets and firemen. They also surveyed the current rules and regulations.
Especially when it comes to prevention, there's plenty of room for improvement, think the new VHL graduates. For example, in designing and choosing building materials for the barns, and in checking electrical appliances. Looije: 'We make recommendations to the national government, the municipal councils and the livestock farmers. Hopefully the parties will shoulder their own responsibilities and not pass the buck.'
Success for Applied Science students
'Up to now there was a lack of reliable figures on the nature, size and severity of barn fires ', says lecturer on Animal Welfare Hans Hopster, who supervised the research. Hopster says the research provided a fairly complete overview of the problems concerned.  'I am proud that you can provide a basis for a public debate on a problem that has been around for some time with work by HBO [applied sciences] students.'  Hopster thinks there is a good chance that the government will follow up this research.  'You can't really ask for more success than that as a student, can you?'
See the full report (in Dutch)

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