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“We examined the welfare of the ornamental fish, reptiles and even puppies and kittens sold in the market”

19 April 2018, at 11:22am

A friend of mine made it his new year’s resolution to learn a new word every day. That seemed rather taxing to me, so I’ve gone for one a week. My first word was maieutics. The dictionary defines this as the Socratic method of teaching, whereby the student’s latent ideas are brought into clear consciousness. A bit strange you might think, but stranger still, the Greek word means midwifery! As Socrates said in 400 BCE, “my midwifery has all the standard features [of helping women give birth] but I practice it on men instead of women and supervise the labour of their minds not their bodies.” If he had asked the women I’m sure he would have found that they had equally active minds to those of his male students, but that’s ancient Greek prejudice for you. 

I’m writing this from the new veterinary college at City University in Hong Kong where, contrary to Socrates, I have 11 women and one man as students; I’m teaching them animal welfare and ethics in the first year of their course. It’s very much helping these young people give birth to their ideas; new understandings of what their aims should be as prospective vets with regard to the welfare of the animals they will be caring for and the ethics of how the animals should be used, or whether indeed they should be used at all in certain circumstances. 

CityU has been proactive in developing a welfare-orientated course. All of us vets will remember the first year of our courses starting with anatomy and physiology, but the decision has been made at CityU to initiate students into a very much One Health and One Welfare programme and leave the basic science material for later in the course. And there is a good amount of time for practical instruction. 

I’m only here for two weeks to give a European perspective on animal welfare, but already we’ve visited Ocean Park, a huge zoological collection associated with an amusement park very easily accessible on Hong Kong Island. The Ocean Park vets and animal carers have been tremendously helpful, showing us behind the scenes of their panda and dolphin exhibits and demonstrating how the interactions between keepers and their charges really improve the animals’ welfare. Having said that, of course, there are people who would argue that we shouldn’t keep animals in captivity like that, no matter how good the welfare is.

Introducing that ethical viewpoint to the students who were all amazed at how well the animals were kept, encourages the development of their views with exactly the midwifery approach Socrates talked about all those years ago. Here though, we are in the midst of a culture with philosophical routes going back even further than the ancient Greeks – the students are also taught animal ethics by a philosopher from the public policy unit in the university. Being able to sit in on his lectures has been really interesting, looking at how Daoist and Buddhist thought might influence our views. 

Having such a small number of students has enabled a great bond to develop between us, even in just two weeks. We walked around the Goldfish Market in MongKok, close to the university. Talking one-to-one with the students as we examined the welfare of the ornamental fish, reptiles and even puppies and kittens sold in the market here really allowed us to debate how to deal with the very different public perception of animal value from what we might think ourselves. I look forward to much further discussion with these pioneering young people!

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at St John’s College, Cambridge.

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