Sharing science-based knowledge about animal behaviour and animal welfare with the general public isn’t always easy—especially since social media often spreads misleading information. But U.S. researchers have recently found that popular family events like fairs could be a good place for people to learn more about horses and other animals, even when no animals are present.
Attractive and well-structured exhibits—whether at fairs, racetracks, or major competition venues—could provide the much-needed education platform for reaching the broader public, researchers say.
Major public events like state fairs are ripe opportunities to share sound scientific knowledge about animals with people who might or might not be familiar with them, according to a new study.
While those people may never interact with horses or other animals directly, they’re still consumers, voters, neighbours, influencers, and even potential animal owners, making them important animal welfare stakeholders who need access to reliable information.
In the new U.S. study, about 70% of people visiting an animal welfare exhibit at a fair said they’d learned something about animal welfare, had a better understanding about it, and would consider this new knowledge when making future decisions, said Marisa Erasmus, PhD, associate professor and extension specialist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and head of the university’s welfare-focused Erasmus Lab.
“People have influences on different types of standards and policies when it comes to animals, even if they don’t directly work with or own animals, so they can have an indirect impact on some of the changes that are happening,” Erasmus said. “But as (animal behaviour and welfare) scientists, if we all just work in our silos, then we’re not going to have as much of an impact as we could. So these exhibits offer a way to try to extend that scientific knowledge beyond that.”
Erasmus teamed up with the university’s exhibit design centre to develop an eye-catching animal welfare stand with hands-on activities that offered a fun way to learn more about animal welfare science.
They set up the exhibits at two major fairs—the Purdue University Spring Fest and the Indiana State Fair—and surveyed adults visiting the stands.
The exhibit focused on horses as well as other species, including cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, poultry, cats, and dogs and offered interactive quizzes on digital tablets as well as touch-and-feel “active learning” units, like with different kinds of bedding (straw, wood shavings, peat moss, etc.).
Although she’s not opposed to having live animals at such exhibits, Erasmus said she wanted to create an animal-free exhibit because it would reduce the workload required for meeting those animals’ needs, meaning the exhibit could run continuously throughout the fair without the constant presence of employees.
Their survey results from the two events revealed that between 60 and 75 percent of the people (depending on the fair) agreed or even strongly agreed that they had learned something new, and 70 to 76 percent said they would keep that knowledge in mind for future decision-making, Erasmus said.
Overall, around 70 percent said the exhibit had provided them with a better understanding of animal welfare.
The findings give hope that such exhibits could help shape the way society as a whole considers and manages animal welfare, according to Erasmus.
“Animal welfare is viewed very differently by different people, which is part of the reason it can be such a contentious issue,” she said. “But once we all understand what it is, and what it means for the animal, then we can really start looking at how we can improve animal welfare. Because if everybody’s coming at it from a different angle, it is challenging to reach that agreement as to how we continue moving animal welfare science and animal welfare forward.”
While their exhibit included welfare issues for a variety of animals, welfare scientists could also take advantage of species-specific events—like horse races—to host exhibits that focus on one kind of animal, she said.
“The benefit of setting up an exhibit at these large events is that you have people who are already interested in that animal—horses for example—going to this event, and they’re seeing something there that they’re already interested in and have a passion about,” Erasmus told Horses and People. “Then you can educate people that way. And hopefully, they can go on and disseminate the information further.”
Such knowledge is important because what the general public thinks about horse welfare can really affect horses themselves, according to Erasmus. “A lot of people have more of an emotional connection with horses, even though they don’t own any themselves,” she explained. “Some people will do trail riding and do different types of recreational activities with horses, or watch events like the Kentucky Derby.
“People have different opinions about what they see, when it comes to horses—and horse racing in particular,” Erasmus continued. “So it’s also important for the horse industry, as a whole, that people understand what welfare is. There are often stories that come up in the media, and if people don’t really have an understanding of what animal welfare is, or what some of the common practices are, or why they’re done, there may be more contentiousness surrounding that particular issue. And part of the reason is because people don’t have a good understanding of what the actual issue is or how it’s actually impacting that horse.”
Future studies should focus on whether the exhibits actually lead to changes in people’s behaviour with regard to animal welfare, and in what ways, Erasmus said.
The study titled: ‘Visitors’ Self-Reported Knowledge and Attitudes about an Animal-Free Exhibit on Animal Welfare’ by Marisa Erasmus & Jeffrey Rollins is published in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. The abstract is available here.