'Awareness around animal studies has increased due to the pandemic'
'As an ethicist dealing with animal studies, my role is to fairly weigh up all the relevant interests – those of society, patients and the laboratory animals,” says Monique Janssens, member of the Netherlands National Committee for the Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes (NCad). “That means that the use of animals is sometimes acceptable because no alternative is available (for now). But at the same time, we need to stimulate animal-free innovations. Too little time and focus is invested in this, as animal studies are still considered to be the gold standard.'
Monique Janssens’ career has been driven by her passion for language, interest in philosophy and commitment to animal welfare. As a teenager in the 1970s, she was gripped by the ideas of the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation, a book that broke new ground when it came out. “Singer argues that you should not discriminate against species and that what ultimately matters is our future well-being.” These days, she is particularly inspired by Eva Meijer, who explores how we can live together with animals by listening to them more attentively and who also writes great novels about this. “Both of these authors opened my eyes at a crucial time.”
After completing her university degree in Dutch with a speciality in communication studies, Janssens worked at the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals. “I did very practical animal welfare work there, but I often reflected on more philosophical questions, such as why we pick up injured dogs with the animal ambulance, perhaps killing up to twenty insects, worms and snails in the process? Why are some animal species apparently considered more important than others? That is why I returned to university to study Applied Ethics. There, I discovered that there was a complete disconnect between corporate ethics and animal welfare ethics. Nobody spoke about the responsibility of companies for the welfare of animals.” This discovery and her subsequent research laid the groundwork for her PhD from the Rotterdam School of Management, part of Erasmus University.
An awareness of animal welfare was instilled in Janssens from an early age. “My family often took in ‘pitiful’ animals. Word about this gradually spread, and people from all over the local area started bringing in animals. When someone brought an orphaned duckling, my dad even dug a pond in the back garden for it. We were members of the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals, and I knew about the horrific conditions for animals in industrial animal farming. So I decided to become a vegetarian. In my work, I am deeply committed to improving and raising awareness about animal welfare. Corporate social responsibility focuses on people and the environment, and sometimes also on biodiversity and protecting animal species, but animal welfare is still a blind spot. I want to change that.”
“Start with a simple scan, entrust someone with responsibility for animal welfare and include animal welfare in your vision on corporate social responsibility.”
In her PhD research, Janssens closely examined the websites of the 200 largest multinationals in the Netherlands. She looked into ‘all nooks and crannies’ of the documents published on their websites, including in their annual reports, corporate social responsibility policy plans and codes of ethics, for any mention of the word ‘animal’ in a relevant context. “In my PhD thesis on animal welfare as a blind spot in companies, I explain there is still a lot of room for improvement in companies. They can achieve a lot of progress in the area of animal welfare by paying attention to this issue in all kinds of ways. Companies largely base their business models on the wishes of consumers. And consumers are increasingly demanding that companies respect welfare. In my PhD thesis, I make recommendations that every company should follow, even if its operations seemingly have but a small impact on animals. Start with a simple scan, entrust someone with responsibility for animal welfare and include animal welfare in your vision on corporate social responsibility. You can then review how to make step-by-step improvements, such as by hiring a corporate catering company with an extensive offering of vegan and vegetarian products. The key words in all these steps are leadership, partnership and ‘celebrating success’. The latter mainly concerns communications.”
“How could my recommendations benefit the transition to animal-free innovations programme (TPI)? My research only covered companies, but it appears that my recommendations may also be relevant to other organisations. TPI is already taking on a leadership role by setting up a strong network. Partnership simply means working together with other parties. Perhaps that could be intensified, but I cannot really assess that. By ‘celebrating success’, I mean that we need to celebrate the achievement of our plans, goals and milestones and communicate this, so that stakeholders are made aware of these accomplishments.”
“I hope that animal studies will no longer be standard practice in 10 years’ time. We can have a big impact on this by informing new generations of researchers about all the animal-free alternatives available.”
“We need to have a cultural shift; not only in the world of research and science, but in society as a whole. That has been eloquently stated by Jonathan Safran Foer in his book Eating Animals. Eating meat together evokes a sense of companionship and tradition. Letting go of that is a big step. But as young people are increasingly doing so, I’m optimistic about the future. And with animal studies, too, we are now only taking the first steps. There is so much more that still needs to be done. But I’m seeing good acceleration and an enormous commitment to change. I hope that animal studies will no longer be standard practice in 10 years’ time. I believe we can have a big impact on this by informing new generations of researchers about all the animal-free alternatives available. NCad encourages researchers to personally map the options and to make a plan to utilise those options. In 2020, two initiatives were launched for targets in this respect in cardiovascular research and in education. We help with this where necessary, for example by getting people in touch with each other. Now that we are struggling with the consequences of COVID-19 and with the measures taken to control it, I’m looking forward to the findings of the study that we as NCad are conducting on behalf of the ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality. That study is still far from finished, so I don’t want to speculate about what its findings will be. But as a result of the pandemic, there is now a greater awareness that a huge number of animal studies are still taking place, and raising awareness is the first step towards bringing about change.”
In addition to being a member of NCad, Monique Janssens works as a communication adviser for the Animal Welfare Body and TPI at Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht, and as a freelance ethicist. She gave this interview in a private capacity.