The UBC study on animal welfare perceptions following a dairy centre tour is amongst the top 10% most cited PLOS ONE papers published in 2016.
Citizens’ concerns about farm animal welfare are often dismissed on the assumption that they are not well informed about farming practices. We conducted exploratory surveys of interested citizens (n = 50) before and after a self-guided tour of a 500-head dairy farm. ‘Before’ survey questions explored perceptions, concerns, and values about dairy cattle farming and welfare, in addition to a short knowledge-based quiz on dairy cattle husbandry. An ‘after’ survey explored the extent to which these constructs shifted after the tour. Before, most participants correctly answered quiz questions about general feeding and housing practices, but scores were low on questions about specific practices such as cow-calf separation. Participants considered several elements as necessary for a ‘good’ life for dairy cattle: fresh food and water, pasture access, gentle handling, space, shelter, hygiene, fresh air and sunshine, social companions, absence of stress, health, and safety from predators. These elements reflect a diverse conception of animal welfare that incorporates values for physical and mental well-being, natural living, and humane care. The visit had a mixed effect on perceptions of whether dairy cows had a ‘good’ life, improving perceptions for a quarter of participants, worsening perceptions in a third, with no shift in the remaining participants. The visit appeared to mitigate some concerns (e.g., provision of adequate food and water, gentle humane care) while reinforcing or eliciting others (e.g., lack of pasture access, early cow-calf separation). Moreover, animal welfare-relevant values held by participants (e.g., natural living, care) appeared to play an important role in influencing perceptions of farm practices. These results suggest that education and exposure to livestock farming may resolve certain concerns, but other concerns will likely persist, especially when practices conflict with deeply held values around animal care.