A leap in the right direction for Europe’s farmed rabbits


The welfare problems created by ever-increasing intensification of animal farming are affecting a surprising array of species. The following invited article about those impacts on rabbits, and key recent developments in the campaign to protect them, was authored by James West, Senior Campaign Manager at our partner organisation Compassion in World Farming

At Compassion in World Farming one of our flagship campaigns is End the Cage Age: we are aiming to eliminate the farming of animals in cages throughout the EU. I am delighted to share that this campaign took a positive hop forward for rabbits at the end of January, following a vote by the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee.

Members voted in favour of a report, which is backed by many scientists, which could result in the protection and improvement of the welfare of Europe’s 320 million (1) farmed rabbits. This is potentially huge news and is the closest we have come to securing new legislation for Europe’s farmed animals in over a decade, so it is vital for us to keep the pressure up on Europe’s decision makers and ensure progress on this issue.

Currently, over 99% of rabbits farmed for meat in the EU spend their lives confined in tiny, barren cages. There are very serious welfare issues affecting rabbits in these systems. The floor space and height is often so restricted that caged rabbits are frequently unable to move around and adopt normal postures such as lying stretched out, sitting and standing with their ears erect, turning around comfortably or even taking a single hop.


Figure 1. Farmed rabbits in a barren cage

Unfortunately, the amendment that would have included the introduction of species-specific legislation did not pass. We will battle on in the drive for this legislation in the plenary session in March.

However, the Agriculture Committee voted in favour of many recommendations within the report, including EU member states needing to encourage rabbit farmers to phase out conventional battery cages and replace them with higher welfare but affordable alternatives, such as park systems.

Compassion has exposed farmed rabbits’ terrible plight over the years through undercover investigations and achieved mass media coverage for two investigations, one in 2012 and one in 2014, helping to raise awareness of this cruel trade.

Last May we presented a 600,000 signature-strong petition to Europe’s Agriculture Ministers, calling for an end to the farming of rabbits in cages, and recently we asked children throughout the EU to send in rabbit drawings of how they believe rabbits should be kept. Unsurprisingly, these are pictures of rabbits outdoors, featuring vast green, grassy fields with words such as ‘freedom’ and ‘no cages’ strewn across them. We delivered these drawings to MEPs ahead of last Wednesday’s vote urging them to vote in favour of the report.

We will continue to lobby MEPs in the coming weeks and push for legislation, and the other recommendations within the report. This has brought farmed rabbits to the forefront of the public and political agenda, and now that they are on the agenda, we intend to keep them there.

1. Estimated FAOSTAT figures for 2010-13

Seasons Greetings from the Centre for Animal Welfare

As the Christmas lights cast a twinkling glow upon the ancient cobblestoned streets of Winchester, and students and staff head for the ice rink beneath the cathedral, or for even more distant, sunnier shores, there is a brief period in which to pause and take stock, before semester starts again. In the blur of activity during the academic year, little time is given to appreciate what is achieved. When that time finally comes, however, the results surprise us. This second year of our operation has proven no exception.

In May we formally launched our new 
Centre for Animal Welfare (CAW) at a high-profile event, attended by senior University representatives and around 100 external guests. Animal advocate Heather Mills and TV actor and animal cruelty activist Peter Egan shared their inspiring stories about campaigning for animal welfare.

In June, along with Winchester’s 
Institute for Value Studies, we were proud to co-host North Americans Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka – authors of the ground-breaking Zoopolis: a Political Theory of Animal Rights. Guests and others speakers from across the UK attended. The seminar was a great success!

In September we commenced our new B
A (Hons) Animal Welfare & Society, and our MSc Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law, which have progressed extremely well. I’m convinced we now have some of the most exciting courses currently available in these fields.

In September I also chaired a key London Symposium 
Raising Standards at the Time of Slaughter: Analysing the Potential Impact of ‘Brexit’ upon Animal Welfare, organised by the Public Policy Exchange. It felt extremely topical given the huge potential implications of Brexit for animal welfare.

In October we signed a formal partnership with the 
International Fund for Animal Welfare, a world-leading animal advocacy NGO. This adds to the partnership agreement we signed last year with Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). We feel delighted to be working with them both.

In November we hosted our 
Animal welfare and Religion symposium. Six leading speakers variously represented the animal welfare movement, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and other Eastern religions, and Paganism. It felt extremely gratifying to see the common threads of concern for animals, compassion, and commitment to animal welfare, running through all of them. Access their videos from the Symposium here. It seems the religions have more in common than often appreciated.

This was a major and well-attended symposium, at which Winchester also became the first university to sign the 
CreatureKind Commitment. Developed by our Visiting Professor David Clough from the University of Chester, the agreement commits signatories to recognise the impacts of intensive farming on humans, animals and the environment, and to undertake a programme of reducing consumption of animal products, sourcing remaining products from higher welfare sources, setting goals for improved practice, and regularly reviewing them.

As stated by our Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Elizabeth Stuart, who signed the commitment on behalf of the University, ‘The University of Winchester is a Church foundation, values-driven institution, committed to high standards of environmental sustainability, Fairtrade practices and animal welfare. Signing the CreatureKind Commitment connects our values with our practice. With Compassion being at the heart of our institution, we seek to improve the lives of animals used in the production of meat, dairy and eggs, and reduce the demand for animal products from factory farms.’

CAW members also gave several high profile presentations during 2015. Highlights included presentations by:

• our Visiting Professor Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive of CIWF, on ‘The role of livestock in sustainable agriculture’, at the Committee on World Food Security Annual Plenary, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, in October
• our PhD students Madelaine Leitsberger and Christine Nellist at several international conferences, on their work focusing on animal ethics and animal theology
• myself, examining how systematic reviews of animal experiments demonstrate poor contributions to human healthcare, at the Science Instead of Animal Experiments Congress in Cologne in October, and the EU Scientific Conference: Non-Animal Approaches, in Brussels in November – jointly, to around 600 attendees
• my inaugural professional lecture ‘
Was Jack the Ripper a slaughterman? Unexpected journeys in animal welfare’, in December – again to a scarily large audience. Any who have had to deliver such a lecture themselves will understand the extent of my relief that this event went well!

Additionally, our work was presented at conferences as remote as Peru and the US, in one case successfully by Skype.

We also had a series of key publications in the field of animal welfare and ethics, representing some of the amazing diversity to be found within this field, including:

• on
the intelligence of orcas, and the adverse impacts they experience when confined within oceanaria and used for performances. We hope and expect this work will contribute to the international campaign to end the use of orcas for these purposes
• the 
most comprehensive study to date of the health and nutritional aspects of vegetarian vs. meat-based diets for companion animals
• the 
contributions (or lack, thereof) of invasive animal research in contributing to the treatment of the important childhood Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and several others. Our full list of recent publications is available here.

None of this would have been possible without all the partners in the animal welfare field we work with: our CAW members, partner organisations, and of course our many wonderful PhD, masters and undergraduate students! Thank you everybody! May you all have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Prof. Andrew Knight is Director of Winchester's
Centre for Animal Welfare

A new vision for orca-human relationships and research

Orcas are among the most intelligent animals on Earth, and display a range of complex behaviours indicative of social intelligence. We’ve observed what appeared to be pranks, tests of trust, limited use of tactical deception, emotional self-control, and empathetic behaviors, in orcas confined within Oceanaria. However, after being trained as performers some orcas begin to exhibit aggressive behaviors. We’ve documented these phenomena within our recent Animals article.

In this short article (
republished with permission), we explore the implications for research, and potentially, interspecies friendship, of fundamentally reconstructing our relationships with these amazing creatures.

Orcas are highly intelligent and social non-human animals. They, and many of their cetacean kin, such as bottlenose dolphins, are able to pass the ‘mirror test’, i.e. recognize their own image in a mirror. Images in mirrors are abstract representations of one’s physical self. The ability to recognize and identify with such an abstract representation indicates orcas also have an abstract mental representation of themselves. Former orca trainer John Hargrove notes [1] (p. 137), that Takara ”liked” viewing herself and other orcas on a large display screen, including in instant replay. The ability to recognize and identify with representations of oneself and others is a salient feature within a considerable body of evidence that orcas fulfill reasonable criteria for ‘personhood’, and – in the tradition famously championed by German philosopher Immanuel Kant – ought to be treated with the dignity of ‘persons’.

Many of the orcas described in our recent paper [2] are still alive and in captivity. It is our desire to see them – and all captive orcas and cetaceans – treated in as dignified and humane a manner as possible in the years to come, including retirement to seaside sanctuaries, or reunion with their natal pods. While Katina and Kasatka were both wild born, they are mothers and grandmothers of a majority of SeaWorld’s captive born orcas. Although any form of captivity is far from ideal, less harm would result if they remained with their offspring for the remainder of their lives. In addition to allowing them to remain with their kin, with regard to the optimal psychological health of Katina and Kasatka, we believe it could be beneficial to reestablish unstructured relationships with humans, possibly including their old petting pool friends in addition to full-time staff, if they spent time in seaside sanctuaries (as opposed to being released fully into the wild).

If unstructured relationships were reestablished in a sanctuary environment, one way to reunite the orcas with their old friends from the petting pool days might be to display images of the friends, as well as imagery of the old petting pool environment, possibly on a large video screen, preferably dating back to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when the old relationships were established. Then if there were a reaction to an image, if the orca-friend was actually physically present, the friend could attempt to initiate contact, perhaps reprising old body language used at the petting pool. It might be logistically challenging to reinvigorate these old relationships, but it could prove beneficial for the un-releaseable orcas to experience completely agenda-free interactions with humans that they once knew.

In their future freer state, once-captive orcas will require far greater levels of respect than they have experienced in prior decades, and among many aspects of affording them greater respect, food should not be used as a reward – only affection and attention. The orcas have had their lives and cooperation controlled and coerced too much by food. There is evidence that this may be a sensitive issue with them, and may have triggered negative interactions in their past “trained” lives.

In the not-so-distant future, especially if orcas are given the freedom and dignity that they deserve in seaside sanctuaries, it seems that there will be a tremendous opportunity to more deeply explore orca social cognition, in support of acquiring sufficient evidence to implement within policy and legislation the concept of orca personhood.

An important aspect of self-awareness is the ability to project the abstract concept of self both backwards and forwards in time. It is this ability to contemplate oneself in the future that likely generates additional suffering for highly intelligent beings in captivity. It would seem that the ability for Takara to take an interest in viewing herself in instant replay demonstrates projection of self into the past. But what research approaches might add to our knowledge of whether orcas can project their abstract selves into the future?

If an orca can recognize herself in video replay, what about in some virtual reality setting? How close to real would a cartoon or caricature orca (or a familiar human) have to be, to be recognizable? Learning the answers to these questions alone could occupy many years of research time.

Imagine orcas and people in a sanctuary environment with ‘virtual reality’ perhaps in the form of a large video screen, visible to all present. On the video screen would be controllable human and orca characters in a setting resembling the sanctuary. Initially real human X might cause virtual reality human Y to do something in the virtual sanctuary, quickly followed by real human Y replicating the virtual behavior in the real sanctuary. If an orca could control the virtual reality, would they grasp the concept and then virtually direct/request the future behavior of orcas or humans? This might provide evidence of an ability to project an abstract mental concept of both self and humans into the future.

What kind of ‘joystick’ could an orca utilize? The petting pool orcas demonstrated remarkable control of small sardine/anchovy-sized food fish. They could manipulate them with their tongues, and also manipulate them both inside and just outside their mouths by moving water around with jaw and tongue motions. Perhaps an orca joystick would take the form of a tethered, flexible object that could be likewise manipulated (at the risk of creating orca-couch-potatoes!)? Major video game manufacturers might jump at the chance to build such a system!

Consider another possibility. Suppose the virtual reality was a human’s visual concept of what an orca’s echolocation perception was like. If the orca had some ‘Photoshop’-like controls to change the nature of the visual concept, could the orca more accurately represent the perception?

These are rudimentary and perhaps fanciful ideas, and if such research is not deemed to be in the best interest of once-captive orcas, then it should not occur. But, provided the freedom and dignity of the orcas is always maintained as the first priority, there could be many new insights into non-human intelligence and cognition that could be learned whilst fulfilling the ethical imperative to transition captive orcas to better lives.

Robert Anderson, Robyn Waayers, Andrew Knight

Prof. Andrew Knight is Director of Winchester's Centre for Animal Welfare. Visit
kintocetaceans.org for more information and ideas from the other authors.

  1. Hargrove, J.; Chua-Eoan, H. Beneath the Surface; Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, UK, 2015.
  2. Anderson, R.; Waayers, R.; Knight, A. Orca Behavior and Subsequent Aggression Associated with Oceanarium Confinement, Animals 2016, 6(8), 49; doi:10.3390/ani6080049.