Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Hello, Pet! Our love can hurt our animal friends

By Peter Clarke

Bioethicist Peter Sandøe discusses our complicated relationship with animals and the associated moral dilemmas, including how our love for companion animals can actually cause harm and the difference between society’s treatment of pets and production animals.

PETER CLARKE
Hello. I'm Peter Clarke. Welcome to Up Close. We human animals, homo sapiens, have a very mixed relationship with the other animals on this planet. We're fascinated by them. We admire them. We even love them. But, simultaneously, we oppress them, kill them, make them suffer and, perhaps, even deny ourselves the full realisation of their intelligences and their emotions.

With our more intimate companion animals, especially dogs and cats, we give and receive affection, but there are clearly some confronting ethical challenges. It is these challenges we're going to explore with our guest today on Up Close.

Professor Peter Sandoe is Professor of Bioethics at the University of Copenhagen. His original training was as a philosopher, but his more recent research has focussed on ethical issues around animals, biotechnology and food production. These research projects draw upon a range of disciplines.

Professor Sandoe is in Australia to deliver a lecture at the University of Melbourne's Animal Welfare Science Centre. It's titled Love Hurts, The Dark Side of Human Attachment to Companion Animals.

Peter Sandoe, welcome to Up Close.

PETER SANDOE
Thank you very much.

PETER CLARKE
Let's explore, firstly, what we mean by companion animals. We seem to have two primary companion animals, those dogs and cats you're focussing upon in your lecture. What has led to this arrangement in our kind of society, do you think?

PETER SANDOE
Well, originally, these animals were not companions. They were used - dogs and things - for guarding. Cats live close to humans, but were not taken in until very recently. So they were out there hunting mice and rats...

PETER CLARKE
In the agricultural revolution.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah, but they were not taken in as companion animals until very recently. So I think dogs have been, all along - even back in history, where, in western world, where people were not supposed to live with animals - or the nobility. The kings had dogs to impress, or they had lap dogs to entertain the women. Dogs have been with man for tens of thousands of years.

PETER CLARKE
Yes. We see images on Egyptian tombs and temples of dogs.

PETER SANDOE
Egyptians even had cats. Dogs were the first domesticated animal, as far as we know, and cats came a bit later, but it's one of the very early animals to live with humans.

PETER CLARKE
Do you agree with the analysis that says that dogs have co-evolved with humans - and we have a very particular relationship with our dogs - but cats have never really even been fully domesticated. They still tend to head out into the wild.

PETER SANDOE
Well, I think both have co-evolved, but in different ways. So dogs are, by nature, flock animals, and they will flock with us. Cats do not live by their own, but they're more individual, so cats live more in the periphery. They're not so close to us as the dogs.

PETER CLARKE
Interesting. I was able to observe some African hunting dogs out in their big packs, and they're quite altruistic. They really look after each other. They're a highly socialised group of animals.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah, but dogs are social animals, par excellence. They're flock animals, and you'll be cruel to a dog to isolate it from its fellows, whereas cats can function perfectly well alone.

PETER CLARKE
Are we up to our first ethical dilemma here, that, in fact, just by having a single dog - or, as we did recently in our household - a couple of dogs, and they seem much happier together - thinking about apartment living, putting larger dogs in small spaces. Are they all instantly some sort of ethical challenge for us?

PETER SANDOE
I think there's a challenge about not giving a dog a company. So I think when you have dogs you should consider having two, whereas with cats you can have the opposite problem. They may not get along, so it can be a problem to have more cats. Funnily enough, it turns out that most people who have cats are more likely to have more cats, whereas people who have dogs tend to have just one dog.

PETER CLARKE
That's the opposite of what's probably needed.

PETER SANDOE
Exactly.

PETER CLARKE
You mentioned usefulness earlier. Are all our animal relationships, when we boil it down, Peter, utilitarian?

PETER SANDOE
Well, then you have a very broad notion of utilitarianism because, in a way, then you could say all our relationships with fellow humans is utilitarian too. I mean is love is just about satisfying needs, then what's not utilitarian? These days people have dogs as companions, meaning they're not serving any obvious purpose apart from being a member of the family.

PETER CLARKE
So we talk about love, don't we.

PETER SANDOE
Yes.

PETER CLARKE
Is it the sort of love that we talk about between us as humans, or is it a different sort of love?

PETER SANDOE
Well, there have been psychologists who have been studying relations between dogs and humans and compare that to relations between humans and humans. It turns out that you can actually compare them on the same scale. Dogs will never mind being with you. They will always enjoy your company. Fellow humans may get enough of it, try to see some other company, so in some respects dogs are better. In some respects humans are better.

PETER CLARKE
I know from direct experience that the sensitivity of dogs is quite extraordinary. They're very apathetic at times and very sensitive to what you're feeling. They seem to know what you're going to do before you do it, quite often. But what about in terms of the way we feel about them?

PETER SANDOE
The funny thing is we know a lot about what a human feels about dogs. We know very little about what dogs feel about humans. We have the illusion - and it's part of the trick of dogs do - they give us the illusion that you are the one and only in my life. But, as a matter of fact, dogs are extremely pragmatic. So if you die, the dog will happily go to someone else and never think of you again. But the smart trick that the dog plays is it actually gives you the illusion that you are such an important person that the dog may not overcome your death.

PETER CLARKE
An illusion.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah. That we know for sure. Dogs are extremely pragmatic.

PETER CLARKE
And cats. The mythology around cats is quite extraordinary: the lone creature. They deign to give you some affection. Are cats more focussed on access to food than dogs, do you believe, within the relationship?

PETER SANDOE
I don’t think so. The way we keep cats, the food becomes more important because we don't have enough imagination how to activate cats. So a lot of cat owners don't know what to do with their cats apart from feeding them. When it comes to dogs we can take them for walks, we can go for training and things. But, in reality, I know cat people who actually train their cats and can do fantastic things, but we just, in our culture, haven’t found that out yet.

PETER CLARKE
Let's go more broadly for a moment so we place this in a broader context. Our general assumptions about animals - and we can go back in history and see a shift in that attitude, those assumptions about animals. Are most of our assumptions about animals false assumptions? We think about their intelligence, or lack thereof, their ability to feel and be sensitive to pain, to feel emotions, to have an emotional life. Are most of our assumptions a bit awry?

PETER SANDOE
It's really interesting when you study the history. It was only in 1965 when a British Government commission decided that animals can not only feel pain, they can also be frustrated. Until then the only way you could imagine that something was bad for an animal was by feeling pain. Then, officially, it was recognised that animals can be frustrated if their behavioural needs are not satisfied.

Until 1965 that was not recognised by any official body in the world. Our view of what matters from the point of view animals is developing. It's developing a lot. In recent decades we have had a huge growth in animal psychology, where we've learned much more about what these animals are able to do.

PETER CLARKE
I'm thinking particularly of some of the phrases that we have in English, like, oh, you're a bird brain. Even the thing about dog eat dog, which points to a cruelty amongst dogs which doesn't bear any analysis when you see them in the wild. It's not actually dog eat dog at all.

We have a lot of built in pieces of language and attitudinal myths that govern these general attitudes to our animals, both companion and our utilitarian animals like sled dogs or animals that run races for us like horses and camels.

PETER SANDOE
And a lot of it, as you say, is not true. Chicks are extremely advanced in recognising things. Some birds - I mean pigeons can remember endless codes of colours in a way we would never be able to do, so in some ways they are much more advanced than we are, and in other ways they are less. A lot of this has only very recently found out, so some of our myths about the ability of animals is completely false. So we're developing all the time. Also we are cheating ourselves. I don’t know if you ever heard about the meat paradox.

PETER CLARKE
No, I haven’t, Peter. Just take us through it.

PETER SANDOE
This is a problem about what happens to you if you have animals when you eat them. There was some psychologists in Australia actually who, some years ago, pulled off an experiment that took 200 college students. They divided them in two groups, and now we're going to be part of the consumer test.

One group got cashew nuts, the other got beef jerky, and then they said now we're going to test how you like these products. After that, there will be another question that has nothing to do with the first, but now, since you are here, that was cheating. In reality, the second one was really all about. Then this last question they talked about how do you evaluate cows? How do you see cows in terms of intelligence, in moral significance? Those who had eaten cashew nuts held cows in much higher regard than those who had beef jerky, and that been randomly selected.

So the option was that the way we eat, the way we treat animals indirectly, will also influence our view about animal sentients, about their moral standing.

PETER CLARKE
And, of course, warm furry mammals appeal to us more. We think about the octopus - and some of the more recent research on the octopus is extraordinary; how intelligent they are, how clever, how strategic, how they're able to learn complex things so very quickly. It's also appearance and terrestrial animals versus marine animals. There seems to be a big gap there too.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah, particularly about fish. I mean if you took some marine animals - whales and seals - they are really, really high on the agenda but, of course, the fish, they are cold and slimy so they cannot be sentient, but, of course, that's all wrong. Even amongst scientists, until recently it's been quite assumed that fish are not sentient because it's the convenient view to have. It was very difficult to sustain.

PETER CLARKE
So when we look into these large elaborate aquaria in hotel foyers or in people's homes, do you, as a bioethicist - do they bristle with ethical dilemmas?

PETER SANDOE
It depends how they treat them because I mean fish have other needs than we have. You could be a fish in a small aquarium and have a perfect life if your needs are looked after. So a fish will not need to go to opera or read books because they can't, but they will maybe have other needs. Some aquaria, if they're well designed, may be perfect, but you need to look into the needs of these specific animals. Sometimes people don't do that, and then they end up with diseased animals and end up with welfare problems.

PETER CLARKE
Let's go back to this idea of our companion animals. Do you believe there's a clear biological need in us, as humans, to have these companion animals?

PETER SANDOE
Well, as a scientist I have to tell you there a big debate about it. There are two schools there. One school says, well, it's a very important need for us to co-live with these animals. If you look at the historical evidence, you can say forever people have lived with animals. The only exception is Christianity.

Western culture and Christianity had this idea that animals should be kept at arm's length. Apart from that, if you look through history and look at so-called primitive people, they always lived with animals. In this country Aboriginals live with dingos forever. So it seems to be that humans actually do live with animals, but the psychologist was actually arguing that these dogs were actually a cuckoo in the nest.

They're actually utilising us. If it was just for our own fitness, then it would be better for us to care for our own offspring rather than caring for dogs. The dogs are just are very clever. It's found a little niche. It's getting into our life. It's cheating. They roll the big eyes and they appeal to us, a bit like their babies. So, in a way, they're playing a biological trick, this other guy would say, this debate. I tend to side more with those people who say that, probably, it is good for us, but it's also good for the dogs. So here there could be, basically, a win-win.

PETER CLARKE
You mentioned more primitive societies. We know, don't we, that the use of totems and respect for the animals - even the ones that you're killing to eat - you have a deeper feeling towards them, a deeper relationship with them, totemically, in many different sorts of societies.

PETER SANDOE
Not only that, but they also keep animals just as companions. I mean that's the one thing when you go back in ethnographic literature. It turns out these people tended to have animals; where the Christian missionaries thought that's silly. They just have the animals as if they were children or friends, where that was completely alien to the early Christian missionaries. So we know from this literature that, actually, the fact of keeping animals just as companions is not an artefact of a decadent 20th or 21st century. It seems to be something much more ancient.

PETER CLARKE
What's the mix then between the cultural forces at work here and the biological forces at work?

PETER SANDOE
They are both forces. We know that Christianity has been able to control a lot of biology, both in terms of reproduction and other things. We lived with a culture which has given us the illusion that we ought to stay away from animals but, probably, biologically speaking, it's much more natural for us to live close to animals.

PETER CLARKE
This is Up Close. Our guest is Peter Sandoe, a bioethicist from the University of Copenhagen. He's helping us tease out some of these ethical issues around our relationships with, and behaviour towards, our companion animals.

So, Peter, what are the starting points for forging an ethical framework for our relationships with our companion animals?

PETER SANDOE
I think if you want to think of it ethically, you should step one step back and say will we like these animals, and we need them for certain purposes, but also realise that these animals may have needs. Sometimes we may overlook their needs or mistake our own needs for their needs.

Let me give you a very obvious example: breeding. The dogs that we meet were not there originally. They're bred. When people breed dogs they tend to change them in the way they would like them to look. We know that something called neoteny - the fact that they look like babies, have flat faces, big round eyes...

PETER CLARKE
I'm thinking particularly the Pekingese, going back thousands of years.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah, or the English bulldog.

PETER CLARKE
The English bulldog.

PETER SANDOE
Sometimes they are bred to the point where they eyes will fall out of the Pekingese or bulldogs may have breathing difficulties, so they're actually going round badly handicapped. That's where we should stop. So even though I think these animals are fascinating – I am attracted to them.

We actually recently did a study where we asked the owners of different breeds about their attachment. It turns out that some of these breeds which have problems about breathing, people feel very attached. So people can feel attached, but that can be at the cost of the animal welfare.

PETER CLARKE
We're really seeing a direct connection, aren't we, between that gradual breeding of those attributes which are aesthetically appealing or, as you alluded to, the animal has attributes. I'm thinking of the border collie, which I've had over the years, which are working dogs. They're smart, they're quick, they've got stamina et cetera. So we've bred all those attributes in, but it's the demand - our demand, the human demand - has produced an unethical situation.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah. The unethical part was originally - funnily enough, it was in Victorian England they started doing pedigree dog breeding. Their ambition was that they wanted healthy animals. They didn't want polluted animals. They didn't want proletarian animals. They wanted purebreds.

But it turned out that by doing this kind of breeding they ended up producing two kinds of problems. One is that when you inbreed - when you start with very little stock and don't give a new blood - you end up having a number of diseases. In all the purebred animals, to different degrees, you have a build up of diseases.

PETER CLARKE
I'm thinking of the German shepherd. Most of them have a sway back and hip problems now.

PETER SANDOE
Exactly. Cavalier King Charles's get heart diseases, Bernese mountain dog gets various cancers. Some get eye diseases. So you have these diseases. The other part is what you call the extreme breeds, that you breed them to have extreme looks. These extreme looks may have side effects like the bulldogs and the pugs, who are bred with such flat faces that they end up having breathing problems. That ends up giving cardiovascular diseases.

PETER CLARKE
Is breeding itself unethical, breeding and continuing these purebreds, observing the diseases and the malformations? Is that unethical?

PETER SANDOE
No, because you can't help breeding. I once wrote a piece called Staying Good While Playing God. The point is that there's no way we can avoid breeding them because only in places like India you have street dogs that just find their own mate. So it will be our choice. But when we make these choices we should be aware of animal welfare, and not just our own selfish concerns for animals that appeal to us.

PETER CLARKE
Earlier you talked about animal needs. I faced this quite recently, as our dog was in decline and dying. My wife and I kept talking about her quality of life. Were we fooling ourselves? Can we authentically come to a view of an animal's - including a dog's - quality of life?

PETER SANDOE
I think you can but, of course, you need to maybe study a bit of psychology. One thing is that dogs are notorious for - if they have chronic pain they will not show it. So your dog could have been in pain without you knowing it, so it could have been good to consult someone who knows about it.

Of course, that's one of the big debates about when to euthanise, because that's one way where we typically, in my view, treat dogs better than humans, is that when it comes to the end you relieve them of all the suffering at the end of the life. You kill them. Where to draw that line - that's a very contentious issue. People these days who will take their dogs to a hospice, treat like a fellow human, and let it die a natural death. For others that's utter cruelty. The closer the dogs get to us, the more we will treat them in ways that - from some traditional veterinary point of view - would be seen as very cruel.

PETER CLARKE
Yes. You used that phrase a veterinary point of view, but I've got to say to you too that my direct experience is that mainstream vets tend to be pretty gung ho. Let us open her up. Let's have a look at what's wrong. If it's pretty bad we'll put her down on the table. They've got a lot of interventional equipment and protocols. So there are real problems there for many people in terms of handing your animal over to the vets and letting them go at it.

PETER SANDOE
I mean I teach at a vet school. That's an area where I actually think the vet profession is developing; those who go into companion animals, are aware they're not only treating animals, they're also dealing with clients, so veterinary ethics these days is not only about being nice to animals. It's also being about understanding all the human emotion involved, and then the veterinary responsibility as to balancing respect for your emotions against convictions about what's good for the animal.

PETER CLARKE
How do you describe the tension between our emotional and our other needs and the needs of the animal we're talking about? How do we do that?

PETER SANDOE
We can always fail when we ascribe needs to others, but the problem is that since dogs and cats cannot speak for themselves and cannot, in a way, take these major decisions, we - good or bad - have to take them.

One thing I am going to speak about is the problem about obesity. Some dogs - so if you have a Labrador retriever it can eat endlessly and it can get as thick as is long. That will certainly not be good for its health. We know it will get various diseases and die very early and it will have a very low quality of life at the end of its life.

We have the responsibility, since we have bred these animals in a way so they have this huge appetite, that we must regulate the way we feed them, but that turns out to be very, very difficult. We have a growing obesity epidemic among cats and dogs, particularly with cats, but also coming up with dogs, because people, in a way, treat the animals like they treat themselves; because we also have an obesity epidemic with humans.

As you know, Australia's nearly as bad as US. Just as like Australians cannot control their own eating, they cannot control the way they feed their dogs. In a way, it's because the dogs are so close - so not giving their dog food is a bit like denying yourself some food.

PETER CLARKE
Perhaps these dogs, these cats, are part of a lifestyle choice too. They fit in to the consumer society and, of course, we know there's a huge amount of marketing towards the foods to feed our companion animals. Is that an example of our needs being projected on to the way we behave towards the animal?

PETER SANDOE
I think so, in a way, in a unlucky combination with the smartness of the animals, because some of these animals are also very clever, particularly cats. I mean the cats can be really irritating if you don't feed them when they want to be fed. So, in a way, they can manipulate you. If you're not a good enough psychologist to deal with it, you end up being trained by your cats, do things that are not good for the cat. As a clever rational human being you need to know a bit more animal psychology so you can tackle these problems.

PETER CLARKE
You talked about them being clever and cheating earlier. We've talked about co-evolution with the dogs. They do weave themselves - or we weave them into the very fabric of our home lives, don't we?

PETER SANDOE
We do indeed, but we also, in a way, also have problems because the studies about attachment also show that we also tend to get into trouble with them. The other side of the coin is, of course, a lot of animals are being relinquished. A lot of animals don't get along with their owner, have behavioural problems. So it's not only something nice about being attached to them. It's also something about running into trouble, not being able to fulfil your expectations.

At the end of the day, the victim will always be the animal, so there's a really big job for us humans to be more rational about what we're doing, particularly in countries like Australia. I come from a country where one out of five households has a dog. I think, as far as I know, in Australia it's double, and with a higher rate of dog households, there will also be a higher rate of irresponsible dog owners.

PETER CLARKE
We love our pets in Australia. You see in developing countries, like China, where, not so long ago, they couldn't afford to have pets. Now you go down and there are poodle parlours, dog parlours everywhere. Pets have become the big thing. Again, the lifestyle choice.

PETER SANDOE
I heard recently that Shanghai has made a one dog policy, just like the one child policy. Now they have a one dog policy because they have too much dog poo in Shanghai.

PETER CLARKE
You've probably heard about, here in Australia and elsewhere, of course, the much reviled puppy farms; often just lots of mongrel dogs being bred up. This goes back to your point about the breeding, and it goes to a lot of all this, and that's supply and demand. We are the demanders, aren't we, both in terms of attributes and just having these animals. Is that a negative influence on all this idea of ethical approach to welfare of our companion animals?

PETER SANDOE
Sure. It's a bit like the problem of our farm animals. I mean farm animals are in trouble because there is a market force and those who can sell chicken meat cheapest will have the biggest share of the market. So the lowest common denominator will dominate in chicken production. And there's the same tendency is some of the companion animal area because people who are not well off will try to buy their puppies as cheap as they can.

But then they may end up doing something bad, both for the animals and for themselves, because then they may end up sustaining puppy farms. They may end up getting animals that are not well socialised. They may end up having severe behavioural problems that they could have avoided if they had bought a more expensive dog which have been brought up in a better way.

PETER CLARKE

We've been describing the problem. Let's start nibbling away at some of the solutions. How do you see the task of shifting the balance towards better ethical animal welfare?

PETER SANDOE
It's a messy world. It's not as if we're ever going to get perfect welfare, but I think we live in a culture where we are more interested in animals; and allowing that discussion to go on, allowing a good interchange between the general public and scientists like myself who try to study these things - a dialogue.

We're not the experts. We're not the god, but we can give input. That is actually where we sort of in the big scheme of things, are moving. But there are a lot of pitfalls, so therefore we need these debates. I think the big problem was, until recently, people thought that pets are just pampered, so don't worry about them.

PETER CLARKE

They're okay.

PETER SANDOE
I remember when I came in to the vet school the first time in Copenhagen. I went round visiting the various departments. I came to the professor of small animal clinics. She said what are you doing here? We have high ethical standards and we teach them to our students. Now I teach all the students there because they have become aware that companion animals have ethical welfare problems, just as broiler chicken, dairy cows and slaughter pigs.

So I think being aware that companion animals is an area where there are things to be thought of, things to be deliberated about, things to care about is the new message and, with that sort of humility that comes with it, we may do better than we are doing now.

PETER CLARKE
You're listening to Up Close. With us, bioethicist Professor Peter Sandoe from the University of Copenhagen. Our focus, our companion animals, how we actually treat them and the ethics involved.

Is it legitimate, Peter to see the animal kingdom out there as a hierarchy of intelligence and emotional sensitivity? There's an awful lot of cultural swirling around here, the way we actually perceive animals generally, and our companion animals. Primates - and particularly warm furry mammals at the top mainly - earthworms and liver flukes are somewhere near the bottom. As we touched on earlier, we tend to get that wrong, but is there a legitimate hierarchy here when we try and forge some sort of ethical framework in our response to specific animals?

PETER SANDOE
I have to say I'm very much against particularly one hierarchy. On top you have wild animals and companion animals and production animals in a certain order, because that doesn't reflect anything about the animals. It reflects what's convenient and useful for ourselves.

PETER CLARKE
It's an overlay.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah. A worm is less intelligent than a monkey, no doubt, but it's not true that a rat is less intelligent than a dog. But we treat rats much worse than we treat dogs. I, in my own work, always argue that, in a way, an animal is an animal. A dog is a rat is a giraffe is a cow. These animals, in principles, as animals, are similar. It just happens that we put them in different boxes.

Some cultures are worse than others in carving things up; particularly when I deal with the United States. It strikes me that they have virtually no rules for how they treat their farm animals. As soon as you come into companion animals and zoo animals, they're very, very sensitive. I much prefer to live in a culture where we speak about dogs and cats in the same way as we speak about cows and pigs.

PETER CLARKE
But not worms, obviously.

PETER SANDOE
Not worms, because worms are different. I mean worms are very simple animals with this very simple neurology. It's not likely that they will have feelings of the kinds we have. We cannot know for sure, but it's highly unlikely.

PETER CLARKE
But we don't know much about crustaceans or bivalves either, do we?

PETER SANDOE
No. So whenever I meet an animal psychologist I start quizzing about these. We should care about it, but somewhere there's a limit, and if we go to amoeba, for example, I mean I don’t think they have a mental life. I don’t think we have obligations to amoeba anymore than we have to plants. So somewhere there we have to draw the line. Some of the more developed animals which have behavioural repertoire, there's more reason to believe that they are sentient. That's where we should focus.

PETER CLARKE
I think birds often get a very bad rap. I'm reading this book called Animal Wise at the moment. A researcher used to have this African parrot she worked with for many, many, many years, something like that 30 years, I think. She referred to this parrot as her colleague.

Then the parrot died prematurely. She was absolutely devastated. She was teaching it - I think she'd taught it, roughly, 100 words. She used to have conversations. Her purpose was to find out more about the world view of the parrot. We don't really pay as much attention to birds, do we, and the extraordinary things they do?

PETER SANDOE
I think birds are badly underrated, I agree. Luckily, we've stopped keeping birds in small cages. We haven’t stopped completely, but when I wrote the book, I looked at British history. Back around 100 years ago the most common - next, after dog, was a bird in a cage. These days we tend not to do that. I think that's nice. We stopped having birds singly housed in very small cages. So in that respect things have progressed.

PETER CLARKE
What you seem to be saying is that those cultural decisions that we've made, both historically and within different cultural settings, they're key, aren't they? They're intrinsic to the way we actually try to formulate ethical approaches to our animals.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah, but I think an important thing is that we always should try to think out of the box when it comes to ethics. We should be able to reflect on what we're doing and take a critical look, piece by piece, of our different animal practices. Of course, all the production animals, we do horrible things to them, and there's a lot of room for improvement. There we have the meat paradox. Because it's so convenient for us, we tend to underrate them.

Then there's debate. Should that mean we give up eating them? Or should it mean that we treat them better. I'm on the reformist side. I think, in a way, it's a sad world where we didn't have sheep and cows and pigs, but it's a much better world where we have them and treat them well. I'm one of those guys who actually think it can be okay to kill animals as part of our management.

I got very unpopular by a discussion of a famous giraffe in Copenhagen Zoo. It was a male giraffe called Marius, where the Copenhagen Zoo decided - you may have heard about that story...

PETER CLARKE
I certainly have.

PETER SANDOE
...where they decided to cull it because it was not needed in breeding and they couldn't give him good conditions because there were too many males, and males will start fighting. They couldn't find [premises] so they decided not only to cull it - dissected it in front of the children and, after that, feed it to the lions.

A lot of people got very upset. I said, I think that's okay. You give him a good life. We kill him in a good way. We tell the children about what the giraffe looks like, do good pedagogics about what nature's like. The turnover rates of wild giraffes is also quite high. So I think we do a lot of good things, but people got just very, very upset.

PETER CLARKE
Well, you may have seen Brigitte Bardot's comment that she's called the proposed culling of two million feral cats here in Australia animal genocide. Australian possums, you may know - millions of them - are eating their way through the floor of New Zealand. They're a protected species here in Australia. What are the ethical balance points when decisions are made, Peter, and strategies formed about so-called pest animals?

PETER SANDOE
I think the first thing about pest animals is to say that they are pests because we don't like them; not that they're inherently evil. Secondly, sometimes it can be okay, but then it's a really difficult decision because we value two things. We value cats and we value the original Australian biodiversity.

PETER CLARKE
That the cats are knocking off.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah, exactly. So you can't have both. Then you sometimes in life have tough choices. I certainly side with the Australians that if you can humanely kill the cats, that may be the lesser evil, but we should, of course, recognise that it's an evil. We should recognise when you kill all these cats you take away something, their future. There may be some pain involved, but maybe the lesser of two evils.

And call it genocide, to me, is absurd because it's pretending that you don't have a good reason for what you're doing. Of course, you should respect - Brigitte Bardot probably doesn't care about biodiversity. She just cares about individual animals, and that's her right, but she should also respect that those she doesn't like may have a decent moral agenda for what they are doing.

PETER CLARKE
Speaking of pest animals, here in Australia there's been a long history around the dingo. The dingo proof fence, for example. They're still much hated in many parts of Australia. Pastoralism was so pervasive in Australia and so widespread that the dingo was considered always a negative animal. Again, we've got a real ethical dilemma there.

PETER SANDOE
I don’t know too much about the dingo, so I'd rather speak about the wolf, which is coming back where I come from in Europe. That used to be the evil animal. I mean if you read the fairytales, that was the evil animal par excellence. These days the wolves are coming back and people started being fascinated, but they also have discussions with sheep farmers about wolves. This is a messy debate, but it's a debate we need to have.

I like living in society but, suddenly, you start to see the wolf with new eyes. The birds of prey - when I was a kid there were no birds of prey hardly. Now there is all over the place. Even the hunters start to like them. So we see our sensitivities are open for arguments and cultural influences.

PETER CLARKE
Yes. So that really is part of the theme of our conversation, those shifting attitudes and the shifting cultural imperatives at work. I'm thinking also of leopards, which are coming in to townships in many parts of the world now because their habitat has contracted. Their food sources are disappearing so they're coming right into homes. They're coming right into commercial centres now, leopards. Of course, they're seen as a great threat by many people.

PETER SANDOE
Leopards or tigers, whatever it is, you need to find a balance. The pitfall would be either to vilify these animals or to ignore that there are some genuine human concerns at stake. So, again, you have a messy situation where it's about looking for the minor evil and not believing there's a simple right and wrong.

PETER CLARKE
Peter, as you scan the world you obviously, as part of your research, look at many different settings. Are you starting to see a clear trajectory towards better understanding, improved attitudes and better ethical practices? Are we moving in the right direction?

PETER SANDOE
I'm always afraid of this big we. Out of the many billions inhabiting the earth now, it may be only a few hundred million who share my view. So I would be very careful to speak about this big we. I can see in the culture I'm part of - I see things moving. I see a very lively debate, but I also see signs of danger, that people entrench themselves. They get fanatic about things and not allowing this pluralist messy discussion that, in a way, is preconditioned for progress.

PETER CLARKE
Capitalism is clearly the predominant economic architecture at the moment in our world, albeit with some exceptions. Are market forces really part of this equation for you?

PETER SANDOE
Market forces are extremely part of it. Production animals is the most obvious. Why can't we get decent standards? That's because politicians have decided two things are not compatible. They want high animal welfare and they want free markets. These do not go well together because the free market will tends that we always go for the lowest common denominator. Even with dogs and cats we see that these puppy mills, through clever marketing and other things, are also being part of the market. So living in a capitalist world creates a lot of problems, but also gives opportunities.

I come from a part of the world where we have not completely given up - believe that capitalism can be regulated also by good animal welfare legislation. But that, of course, is a very contentious thing. If you're in Australia, as you know, Australia doesn't have Australian animal welfare legislation. So even within your own country you have different laws and much debate about how much to regulate.

PETER CLARKE
Do you see the increase in distribution and marketing of free range eggs, for example, as an interesting example of how the market responded to a really quite marked shift in attitude?

PETER SANDOE
I just heard from an Australian colleague that the amount of free range eggs has gone up from something around five per cent to about 40 per cent, which is a striking thing, which means that, over time, people are willing to move. They may only move in this little area where they can do something at no great cost to themselves, but these are small signs that things are changing. On the other hand, you also see signs that things get more and more intensive because of this voracious international competition over animal production.

PETER CLARKE
We've had a very interesting conversation. I'd really appreciate if you just were speculative for a moment or dreamed for a moment. As you think in your more optimistic moments, what do you dream of as an ideal - well after you and I are here - of an improvement in ethical behaviour towards our companion animals and to animals more generally? What would be your ideal?

PETER SANDOE
The ideal is that we really start to look at every animal as an animal and forget whether it's a production animal or companion animals. So have this more universal respect for animals, like we have a universal respect for humans. I'm not a defender of animal rights, but I'm a defender of the idea that all sentient animals, in a way, should be considered.

I'm so much against this tendency to be really nice to some animals that are close to us and forget about the rest. So if some animals can be ambassadors for the whole animal kingdom, and we could move towards treating all animals as equals, that's where I would like to go.

PETER CLARKE
I wonder if part of that equation is that growing rift between us as humans, as animals, and Nature, with a capital N.

PETER SANDOE
Yeah. But, of course, as part of that, then we also have these very messy problems that we will have to manage the animals. Some animals are too many and some animals are too few. I hear about all these horrible discussions you have here about some of your native animals. Some are really threatened. Others are too many. There's discussion about whether or not to manage them. So we would like nature just to take her own course but, unfortunately, we will have to take responsibility and deal with all these messy issues.

PETER CLARKE
Yes. We have the koalas with chlamydia and we have the Tasmanian devils with mouth cancer et cetera. Not a very positive note to finish on, but thank you so much for being with us on Up Close today, Peter Sandoe.

PETER SANDOE
It was a great pleasure.

PETER CLARKE
Thank you very much.

Professor Peter Sandoe is a bioethicist based at the University of Copenhagen.