Can an image of suffering speak for itself? The case of undercover investigations in agricultural facilities

Although it is the suffering of our fellow humans that attracts most of our attention, the suffering of animals by human activity has long been a subject of morally motivated curiosity. Since animals cannot represent their suffering by means of human discourse, our knowledge of it is inherently limited and distorted. The distortion is enhanced as their experiences seem alien to us, and since human attention to their suffering is habitually biased. Nevertheless, the public protest against the suffering of intensively farmed animals, and the resulting legislation in Europe and elsewhere, has given rise to systematic assessments of this suffering. Animal welfare science emerged in the 1970s as the authoritative discipline for assessing animal pain, fear, anxiety, frustration, and other harms, using a sophisticated combination of behavioral and physiological symptoms. This discipline, however, has specific limitations: it remains alienated and skeptic towards the animal experience; it is cooperative with the agricultural industries; and at the same time it tends to study animals in experimental facilities rather than commercial ones.

The emergence of undercover investigations in agricultural facilities – initiated by animal rights groups since the 1990s – marks an attempt to obtain the missing knowledge. Although undercover investigations retain an outsider, possibly biased point of view on the experiences of farmed animals, they do overcome the typical limitations of scientific research: undercover investigations are not held back by technicalities and skepticism; they are free from obligations to the industries; and they target commercial facilities. Furthermore, they capture stills and video images of suffering animals. Although recorded by humans, these images simulate animals representing their own suffering, since the images allow the animals' emotional expressions be seen and heard rather directly, through gestures, expressions and vocalizations.

Undercover investigations have their own endemic flaws. They are scarce, short, and arbitrary and they provide low quality images. Furthermore, the investigating organizations tend to edit the raw material for the media, for consumers, for legal use or for lobbyism, and much of the information may be lost in the process. The typical exposure of undercover investigations leaves only the "highlights" of suffering in, and specific images lose some of their original context and may become overloaded with interpretations.

Some of the present limitations of undercover investigations could be overcome by acknowledging them as a major source of knowledge on animal suffering rather than a mere trigger for immediate action. More broadly, a serious dialogue between undercover investigations and animal welfare science may be beneficial. Suffering animals will remain speechless and alien, but their pains and fears could be much better communicated through improved means of representation.

תקציר הרצאה לכנס Knowledge and Pain באוניברסיטה העברית, הוגש 9.9.2009.