The Five Freedoms are a set of conceptual guidelines created in Britain in the 1960’s. They are periodically in vogue as guiding principles by many animal welfare organizations. The American Humane Association refers to them as the “gold standard”.
The Five Freedoms are unique from most animal welfare standards laid out in the law because they are not specific directives, such as “a dog’s cage must be X feet long and Y feet wide.” Instead, they allow for an evaluation of the impact of the care, keeping, and housing on an animal’s state of physical and mental wellbeing.
The Five Freedoms are:
- Freedom from Hunger and Thirst: By ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
- Freedom from Discomfort: By providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
- Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease: By prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
- Freedom to Express Normal Behavior: By providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
- Freedom from Fear and Distress: By ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
In an animal sheltering environment, the first three should be givens. We are supposed to feed the animals, we keep them warm and dry and give them a blanket, and we vaccinate them and keep them healthy. Good animal shelters should be able to manage that or they shouldn’t be in the business.
What about the last two? What do they mean and can they even be truly addressed in a shelter environment? In food production, “expressing normal behavior” for a cow might mean running around in a field with other cows, being free from “fear and distress”. Right up until they run you through a cattle chute and pop a bolt in your brainpan. But I’m here to talk about dogs and cats, I’ll leave that oxymoron to a vegetarian to argue.
In shelter settings addressing the last two freedoms has increasingly meant fancier and more palatial shelters. Bigger cages- sorry, kennel suites- and couches to lie on instead of blankets, maybe a water feature! Dogs get to play in high-end play group yards. Cats get indoor/outdoor “catios” (Get it? It’s like a patio. But for cats! So crazy.). Space, “proper” facilities, company of their own kind. Check, check, check.
The combination of the first four presumably leads to the final: freedom from fear and distress. This is the one that always leaves me suspect. How much or how little mental suffering are we talking about? None? Do we, can we, ever make an animal in a shelter, no matter how spectacular the shelter, free from mental suffering? I’m not sure we can. We can make an animal suffer less. We can feed it well, make it completely comfy, have veterinarians on call 24/7, and play with it till it drops from exhaustion. But it’s still in an animal shelter and not in a home. Since these are domestic companion animals, can they ever “express normal behavior” if they are any place but in a home? Without a home can they ever be free of some level of mental suffering? I don’t know.
There are many in the animal sheltering world who truly feel most animals are better off in a shelter than in many of the homes in our communities. It’s almost hard to argue considering some of these gorgeous shelters we see around the country. What home has the amenities and care provided to the animals as some shelters? Most pet caretakers can’t provide five walks a day, regular Reiki massage sessions, and high end nutritional programming. If they can’t provide that, why not better off in a shelter?
And if these caretakers provide even less, they can’t afford recommended vaccinations every year, perhaps the food is lower quality, perhaps the exercise is being turned out into a yard and not a half mile walk with hugs, perhaps these animals really should be in a Five Freedoms shelter until they can be adopted into a new and superior home. After all, if we presume that Freedoms One through Four lead to Freedom Five, freedom from mental suffering, shouldn’t default to the place that can best provide for the animal?
I don’t think so. I think we have turned the Five Freedoms on their head with our assumption we can ever truly provide what a domestic companion animal needs. Because we can never actually be its home. What if, instead of thinking we can achieve freedom from mental suffering in a shelter, we decide we can’t. What if we apply our belief that the first four freedoms lead to the fifth, but only in a home? What if we put all our efforts for most animals into helping the caretaker of every pet provide freedoms one through four in their own home?
But some people are crappy caretakers you may say. Maybe. But we’ve all seen a dog that runs back to the owner that isn’t a good owner. Even the one who abuses it. Animals want to be in a home, even a crappy one. What if we could make the home better? Maybe not as great as an uber-rich, swanky animal shelter, but better. Food in the dish, basic vet care, a comfy pillow to sleep on. Freedom One, Two and Three? Check, check, check.
Then let’s assume that “providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind” means a being in a real home. Check. And let’s assume that an animal’s mental state will always be better in that home, assuming it is fed, comfy, healthy, and it’s not being abused. That the quality of life in always better at home than it is in a shelter, any shelter. That means an animal entering a shelter is a failure on our part, not just the owner who gives up their pets, because we know we aren’t doing what’s best for that animal.
Maybe you’re willing to play along with this mental exercise but the fact that not every person can or does provide all those basic requirements is nagging at you. Me, too. However, I firmly believe, and research backs it up, that the vast majority of people would provide properly for their pets if they could, if they had the resources, or the access, or the knowledge.
“But they don’t,” you might say. “What if they did, what if we gave it to them?” I would ask. “But we can’t,” you might say. “Why not?” I would ask. Why couldn’t we give every pet caretaker food if they ask for it, basic vaccinations, even sterilization, if they ask for it? Or any of a myriad of other supportive services. It would be hard and expensive. But there is a dollar amount that could be applied to these efforts. There is a man hour estimate that could be applied. It’s possible to estimate how many animals need medical care who don’t get it, how many animals are food insecure.
We could figure out exactly what it would cost, what it would take, and do it for every animal. I mean: Every. Single. Animal. We could flip how we pursue the animal welfare model and break from the 150 year old shelter based model and build a home based model. Welfare for animals. Sure, why not? We don’t penalize kids (OK, we aren’t supposed to) because they were born into a poor family. They still get CHIP and public school and free lunch. That’s because we would never pretend that the average poor kid is better off in an orphanage or foster home. But we often say that about animals.
We will always need shelters and they should always be palaces that strive to attain the Five Freedoms for all pets. They should also be the last option after we’ve done everything possible to ensure that an animal has everything it needs in its own home, that a caretaker knows how to obtain the basics to keep an animal in its home.
Humane Pennsylvania is looking at what it would take to do just that in Berks and Lancaster Counties. We are tired to stealing victory from the jaws of a defeated animal welfare model that doesn’t help animals until they’ve already been utterly failed. This might have been a fantasy exercise ten or twenty years ago and it might still be one in many parts of the country today. I don’t think it’s crazy in our community.
We are put a price tag on helping every animal in every home. If we choose not to do it as a community, maybe it’s time to stop pretending we really give a damn about animals at all.