Interview with vet and author, Dr Sean Wensley
We were delighted to recently meet inspiring and award-winning vet, naturalist and author Dr Sean Wensley, writer of the landmark book - ‘Through a Vet’s Eyes’.
Sean’s book highlights the injustices that animals experience every day and raises the important question of how we can choose a better life for animals. ‘Through a Vet’s Eyes’ looks at the lives of companion animals, wild animals, animals we use for sport and, of course, farm animals. We are pleased to say that Sean is a supporter of RSPCA Assured and how we offer consumers an effective way to improve the lives of farm animals.
Named as one of the Financial Times’ Best Summer Books of 2022, ‘Through a Vet’s Eyes' is out in paperback on 27 April 2023.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became a vet.
The answer to how I became a vet always leads back to where I grew up. I come from Formby, north of Liverpool, right on the Sefton coast which is the largest sand dune system in England and edged by acres of pinewoods. This area supports a huge array of wildlife from red squirrels to natterjack toads and attracts extraordinary numbers of migratory birds. My love of animals and the natural world began here and I will always consider myself so fortunate to have grown up in such a rich habitat for wildlife.
Deciding to become a vet happened at an early age. I had a passion for animals and loved science and, having worked at a pet shop in school holidays and weekends, I also enjoyed having conversations with people about animals. I was lucky enough to get a place at Liverpool vet school and was able to begin my journey towards improving the lives of animals.
What led you towards the animal welfare side of being a vet?
My interest in animal welfare and ethics was sparked early on in my career while I was still at vet school. I was awarded grant funding for an undergraduate research project from the charity, UFAW (The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare) where I studied the welfare of caged zebra finches housed in typical pet shop conditions.
I was fascinated by my research and then, when I presented my findings alongside other recipients of the grant and heard all the other research stories, I became truly inspired! This was my first real exposure to animal welfare science - working to understand what animals need and want from their perspectives - and I realised this is an area I wanted to focus on. This led me to further my studies at the University of Edinburgh, where I did a Master's Degree in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare, which was one of only two master's courses available at the time to study this topic.
Has your career taken you to other countries?
Very much so. As well as working as a practising vet here in the UK, I also travelled internationally as a veterinary volunteer. This took me to China (working with RSPCA International), East Africa, India, the Caribbean and Ukraine, which of course is very poignant for me now with the current conflict. This experience opened my eyes to many diverse welfare and cultural issues relating to animal care. I was fortunate enough to meet people across the world who welcomed me in and shared their knowledge and understanding.
What do you think about the role of vets in animal welfare?
When I initially began my career as a vet there were definitely sensitivities surrounding the area of vets and animal welfare policy. Was it just our job to treat sick animals or to additionally provide leadership around issues that affect the welfare of animals? A good example of this is with flat-faced (brachycephalic) dogs - should vets just treat the associated health problems or be involved with advocacy and policy regarding the breeding decisions that led us there?
I am humbled to say that I was able to influence veterinary animal welfare strategy and policy when I was BVA (British Veterinary Association) President (2015-16) - I initiated and led the development of the BVA’s first animal welfare strategy, called ‘Vets Speaking Up for Animal Welfare’. We consulted with a wide range of industry and other stakeholders and concluded that vets have a dual responsibility: to protect and promote the welfare of animals presented to us, while also stimulating and helping inform public debate on animal welfare issues more broadly. Prior to that time, I had also been involved with BVA supporting a ban on the importation of wild-caught birds into the European Union to be kept as pets and an EU-wide ban was introduced in 2007. This was an issue that I had cared about since my University days.
Inspired by my experiences at BVA, I was able to further pursue my animal welfare interests at a European level as chair of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE) Animal Welfare Working Group. While there, we developed veterinary policies on Europe-wide issues such as moving away from cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for pigs. Issues very closely related to the work of the RSPCA and RSPCA Assured.
Why did you decide to write your book ‘Through a Vet’s Eyes’?
The book has been with me for a long time and I wrote it alongside my veterinary work. The initial idea for it came as a way to explain the science behind how we now understand the minds of animals.
Our lives are intrinsically linked to those of animals and in order to better understand how animals under human stewardship are faring we have to look at welfare issues. Whether it is the animals we farm for food, those living in the wild, those we use for sport or the ones we choose to keep as pets, we have a responsibility to consider our impact on them.
Much of my book is set against a backdrop of the natural world to allow readers to step away from some of the welfare problems I discuss and reflect on them in the space that nature provides. By reminding ourselves of the evolutionary legacy of domestic animals, including their high levels of internally motivated behaviour, I also hoped to help people understand the behavioural needs of animals that we keep and use, and how allowing animals to express their species-typical behaviour is so central to their experiencing a good life.
Changes we can make in our lives - even small ones - can significantly improve the quality of animals' lives and this is what I hoped to get across in my book.
Were you surprised at the success of the book?
As I previously mentioned, I wrote the book over many years, so for quite a while the only horizon I could dream of was that it might see the light of day and get published!
That it has been so well received is fantastic. I am pleased that it shows how many people really do care about animal welfare and are interested in having a better understanding. Personally, it’s very rewarding that I can keep having these important conversations, help to raise issues and contribute to changing animals' lives for the better.
What’s also been wonderful is the opportunity to take the conversation of animal welfare to a wider audience. For instance, because of the book I have been asked to give a keynote speech at a conference in Brussels about how we can further improve animal welfare on farms in Europe. The book has given me a great platform to be able to make contributions like that.
What is the one thing about animals that you would like people to understand?
Simply, I want to help people recognise and understand that humans and animals share a common sentience.
We have common experiences. Animals have the capacity to experience positive and negative feelings such as pain, fear, comfort and enjoyment. We have a strong moral duty to accept that we can no longer use animals as though this is not the case.
By accepting this, some people may decide that we need to stop using animals altogether and others take the animal welfare-based approach, which means that we can justifiably use animals for our benefit (such as for food or companionship) as long as in return they are able to live a good life and have a humane death.
We must keep raising awareness and tackling problems if we are to make progress and ensure a good life for the animals who provide us with so much.
What are your thoughts about RSPCA Assured and are you hopeful for the future of farm animal welfare?
I think RSPCA Assured is an excellent scheme as it offers people a tangible action that they can easily take to help improve animal welfare.
If consumers are concerned about farm animals they can confidently take action and choose RSPCA Assured knowing that the scheme prioritises animal welfare. Not only is the scheme evidence-based and rigorous - which is important for building consumer trust - it is also visible and available, making it easier for people to choose higher welfare.
Yes, I am hopeful about the future of farm animal welfare. There is an increasing awareness and acceptance that this is an important area and it is a rapidly evolving social concern.
On many levels, the topic is rising up the agenda, especially from when I first studied animal welfare at university. There are so many more academic institutions now offering courses and more students are studying it and taking their understanding to the real world.
Farm animal welfare is increasingly discussed internationally at policy and political levels as decision-makers take notice of the issue. A good example of this is the ‘End the Cage Age’ petition which gained 1.4 million signatures from across the EU which resulted in the European Commission committing to phase out cages in animal farming across the EU by 2027.
We always ask everyone this question - what is your first memory of a farm?
Well, this isn’t quite my first memory - but it’s a good and useful memory that I write about in my book as I think it helped me become a better vet. It was when I had a placement working with a small dairy herd near where I grew up. There were generations of the same family who had cared for their herd and they were still milking by hand.
An older member of the family taught me how to behave around cows. She explained how I should talk to them and showed me how to approach them without giving them any surprises and how to treat them gently. This advice has served me well with animals big and small and it’s a really nice memory. It showed me how a good stockperson cares for their animals.
Finally, do you have a favourite animal?
This may seem a bit of an unusual one, but it’s the pink-footed goose!
For me, it is such an evocative species that reminds me of growing up in the North West of England where these birds migrate to, making the journey all the way from Iceland.
Tens of thousands of them arrive in autumn and the sight and sound of them is one of the most incredible natural events. I always anticipated and adored the superb wild music of these migrating geese travelling through the night sky.