Animal welfare for youth: Part 3 – Three Circles Model

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This is the third in a series of articles from Michigan State University Extension intended to assist club leaders discuss animal welfare concepts with youth. In Part 1, animal welfare was defined and Part 2 provided an outline of how to start a conversation about animal welfare using the Five Freedoms. Part 3 will introduce the Three Circles Model of understanding and evaluating animal welfare, define the concepts and relate them back to the Five Freedoms. The Three Circles Model can be used with any 4-H animal science project because the questions and concepts apply to all species, including livestock, dairy, poultry, rabbits and cavies, companion animals, goats, and horses and ponies.

Why use the Three Circles Model?

The Three Circles Model is the next building block to help youth understand animal welfare. It addresses both the object science and human values used in evaluating welfare. Introduced by David Fraser, Dan Weary, Ed Pajor and Barry Milligan (1997) in a paper titled, “A scientific conception of animal welfare that reflects ethical concerns” the Three Circles model addresses three concepts to evaluate animal welfare. Much like the Five Freedoms, youth will already know, understand and practice the Three Circles concepts more than they realize. The concepts presented in this model take the Five Freedoms to deeper level, showing how they can both overlap and diverge at the same time.

Defining the concepts of the Three Circles Model

  1. Basic health and functioning – This concept addresses the physical fitness of the animal, including good health, normal body function, and normal growth and development. This part of the circle relates back to the freedoms from hunger and thirst (Freedom 1); discomfort (Freedom 2); and pain, injury and disease (Freedom 3).
  2. Natural living This part of the circle emphasizes that animals should be able to lead reasonably natural lives. This includes being able to perform important, normal behaviors (e.g., dust bathing for chickens or grazing for horses) and to have some natural elements in their environment (e.g., sunlight, fresh air or social contact for herd species). This concept relates back to the freedom to express normal behavior (Freedom 4).
  3. Affective states – This circle considers the emotional state of the animal in that animals should feel mentally well and should not be subjected to excessive negative emotions. Negative emotions include unpleasant states such as pain, hunger and distress. Beyond just avoiding the negative, animals should be able to experience positive emotions in the forms of pleasure or contentment (e.g., play or social contact). Affective States relate back to the freedom from hunger and thirst; pain, injury and disease; and fear and distress (Freedom 5).

Victualing the Three Circles Model

Using the diagram will help youth see how each of three concepts can overlap, but that there can also be times when there is a disconnect between one or more of the circles.

Understanding opinions better

The Three Circles Model also allows individual to better understand their own bias in evaluating welfare and why there may be different opinions of what defines good welfare. For example, if one person thinks that basic health and functioning is the most important part of the model, they will likely not always agree with someone who places more emphasis on natural living. Is either person wrong? No, they just look at the situation through a different lens. This can be a great way to open up conversation among different groups and to see welfare in different ways!

Parts 4, 5 and 6 in this series will explore each circle in more depth and how to talk with youth about these concepts. Part 7 will include real-world examples to use as conversation starters with youth to further build their understanding of this model, help them express their ideas and use critical thinking skills to evaluate animal welfare.


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