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We can treat animals humanely and still grow the economy

Kendra Coulter is associate professor in the Centre for Labour Studies at Brock University and author of Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity.

This weekend, hundreds of people are converging for a national discussion on how to make this a better country for animals.

The National Animal Welfare Conference, being held in Toronto, brings together care workers, cruelty investigators, shelter staff, politicians, researchers and some of the many Canadians who volunteer their time to help the furry, feathered and finned. Their perspectives are as diverse as the topics taking centre stage. From farming to abuse prevention to legislative change, the challenges and possibilities for animals and human allies are many.

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More humans are beginning to recognize that our actions have significant, lasting and often fatal effects on the planet's other species. The situation is particularly complex when it comes to economic decisions and the world of work. There are people who work tirelessly for other animals in humane societies, sanctuaries, veterinary clinics and natural spaces, with little fanfare and often little to no pay. Yet workplaces are also where the most widespread and large-scale violence against animals takes place.

In Canada, while about 14 million animals are loved as companion animals, 700 million farmed animals are killed each year according to the most recent figures from Statistics Canada. Most Canadians do not understand what happens inside today's "factory farms" and industrialized slaughterhouses. It's bad for workers and the environment, and worse for animals. Understanding the truth is a much-needed first step as we confront the real consequences of our choices.

Yet now is the time to not only eliminate damaging practices, but to grow the economy in humane ways. These notions are not incompatible. In fact, there is significant potential to create what I call humane jobs – work that benefits both people and animals. The large majority of us would like a decent income, as well as to feel proud of what we do. And, if given a choice, virtually everyone would choose to help other beings, not harm them.

The task is thus to support and invest in positive employment sectors, and to make humane jobs a part of our political and economic plans. Possibilities exist in health care, cruelty prevention and investigations, conservation, humane education, tourism and other sectors – including agriculture and food production. Last year, a poll commissioned by the Vancouver Humane Society found that 12 million Canadians have already stopped eating animals or want to reduce their consumption. The demand for ethical and healthy alternatives is growing, and with that comes the potential to expand and create cruelty-free farming and food businesses.

Another particularly intriguing route for humane job creation is "green care" – an umbrella term for the many programs that incorporate positive use of nature and animals into health care. In Western and Northern Europe, policy-makers, health practitioners and farmers already recognize the benefits of such programs, from therapeutic horticulture to animal-assisted therapy. For instance, care farms can serve as spaces for healing and health promotion, child care, job training and education, while providing jobs and diversified income sources. Green care can also help foster good lives for animals.

There are clear opportunities for people of various backgrounds and skills, and both public and private sectors, in the development, implementation and regulation of humane jobs. There are lessons from around the world, as well as uniquely Canadian possibilities. The public sector can help create fertile ground for such innovation by shifting subsidies away from, for example, fur farming, commercial seal hunting and industrial animal agriculture toward ethical and sustainable avenues that will create humane jobs.

Animal advocates often say that, to decide if something is humane, first determine if you would want it done to you. Such a commitment offers clear guidance about where we ought to go and grow.

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