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Dr Jessica Martin on farm and lab animal welfare

Improving the lives of farm animals, managing emotional challenges and working with a great team

Dr Jessica Martin with lamb

Dr Jessica Martin, Senior Lecturer in Physiology and Animal Welfare at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and the Roslin Institute, is doing research in the lab and on the farm regarding the welfare of animals. Methods developed by Dr Martin and her colleagues have been put into practice on farms across Europe. In this interview, she tells Science Communication Intern Yuki Otani about her work and passion for animal welfare research.

Could you briefly tell me about your work?

My research is mainly about animal welfare in farm and laboratory animals, including chickens, pigs and rodents. My current research is primarily trying to minimise or eliminate suffering relating to transportation, or to the end of life.

Why did you become interested in this particular field of research?

I understand that this is quite a sensitive area, but I regard it fundamentally very important, because huge numbers of animals are slaughtered globally for human consumption – 70 billion chickens last year, for example. The methods we use are incredibly important, so that we can minimise animal suffering, both physically and mentally on an astronomical scale. All of the research we are working on is really important to make sure that, from the viewpoint of animal welfare, animals suffer as little as possible.

There are not many researchers working in this area, although there is still so much we don’t know – even what animal consciousness is remains undefined. We need to understand this grey area between the animal being awake and fully unconscious, in order to understand the welfare impact on them.

Could you tell me about a real-world application of your work?

We are trying to change practices of how we work with laboratory and farm animals, in order to optimise their welfare. For example, we developed novel methods of stunning to make farm animals unconscious before slaughter, reducing their suffering and further refining our current practices for the best of the animals.

Previously, the only methods allowed in Europe were electronic stunning and controlled atmosphere stunning, but research had raised concerns about those methods. So we investigated a new method called Low Atmospheric Pressure stunning and spent several years assessing it in terms of welfare and practicality. Our method was approved and included in European Regulations in 2018 as suitable for stunning poultry. We succeeded in changing the legislation and providing a high welfare alternative method for stunning poultry.  

Could you tell me about a challenge you’ve experienced in your research life?

Like everyone, I have had lots of challenges – research is always challenging, that’s why I enjoy it so much. One of the biggest for me personally, is that, emotionally, this is a difficult area of work – the thought and action of killing animals affects us. How people perceive our research is also challenging for me. I understand some people don’t agree with the slaughter of animals for human consumption and therefore people struggle with research that looks into this, even if it is to improve animal welfare.

How do you overcome such difficult challenges?

I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t have a fantastic team of people around me. They not only help me doing awesome science but support me greatly in terms of emotional toil.

I’m always very open to people with different views who want to speak to me, because their motivation, like mine, is genuinely caring about animals. The best approach for working in this area is to listen and to be understanding of people who disagree and be open to discussion. I’m not trying to change what people believe, but hopefully provide them with the knowledge and understanding of why we do the research we do and that it can help animals.

The most important aspect is that I can fully justify, ethically, why I do the work that I do – I know it will make a difference not only to the lives of individual animals, but also to a huge number of animals on a large scale.

Given that consumption of poultry and other farm animals keeps increasing worldwide, humans will be slaughtering animals for quite some time, so how they do that is incredibly important.

What do you like the most about working at the Roslin Institute?

The people who work here are amazing! We have a huge collection of animal welfare scientists on this campus. They are working on welfare of all different species and in different contexts – laboratory animals, companion animals, farm animals, zoo animals and wild animals. Being surrounded by this collection of researchers provides the richest environment for new ideas, collaboration and amazing science. I want to be surrounded by those people. Any project work couldn’t be done without such a fantastic team.

What would you be doing if you hadn’t become a scientist?

I live and breathe problem-solving and that’s why I have always been attracted to science. This is such a tricky question, there is the realistic option and the dream view! Maybe I would be doing dog training and agility work professionally – I like when I can help animals and people. I have a Border collie and I enjoy agility training with him and I am fascinated by how you can train animals and attempt to understand how they feel and perceive the world. I think my underlying aim would be a job where I can make animal lives better and solve problems!

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