Education Abroad in Spain (1/15/17-1/23/17)

After returning from a wonderful week-long study-abroad in Spain, its time to reflect on the trip and the tremendous amount of things I learned while I was there. There were many times on the trip where the way that I view animals and how I believe they should be treated affected how I interpreted the conditions of the animals we saw in Spain. I also noticed, on multiple occasions, many differences in the ethical principles and societal views towards animals than the ones that people in the United States may hold. That being said, there were also many similarities between Spain and the US in the way that animals are treated in both countries. Lastly, there were a few cultural experiences in relation to animal use that we witnessed or learned about such as the suckling pig, the tradition of bull fighting, and the running of the bulls that differ from the traditions that we have in the United States that involve animals.

As someone who wants to be a vet and help better the health of animals for the rest of my life, animal welfare is always my first concern anywhere I go. I walk into a situation thinking first about how the animals are being treated and their well-being before I think about anything else. So, this mindset affected the way that I thought about many of the places that we visited such as the Madrid Animal Rescue and the Manchego Sheep Farm. My first instinct when we arrived at the animal rescue was that it was a little run down and mostly outside which made me worry about the dogs’ cleanliness and health a little bit because there was a decent amount of feces in their runs and it was a little chilly for them to have no option but to be outside. It was a little different than the shelters I am used to visiting, mainly because it was almost all outdoors, but after learning more about the facility and the people that work there, my first impression was proven wrong. It was clear that these animals were very well taken care of because they had animals come to them in need of medication, surgery, etc. and instead of euthanizing (which they do not do unless they have a terminal illness) they get the animal what they need. The shelter also has many volunteers that give all of their animals daily enrichment whether it be giving them a toy or taking them on a walk around the facility. It was extremely refreshing and encouraging to hear that Spain has very strict laws and heavy fines for people that abuse animals and that things like declawing are completely illegal. I believe that this should be much better enforced in the US and that we are definitely behind Spain in the aspect of laws that involve animal abuse. From an animal welfare aspect, I also felt fairly positively about the Manchego Sheep Farm. I was very pleasantly surprised to see how clean the facilities and the animals were and how calm the sheep seemed to be, even when they were being milked. I believe their relaxed behavior is very telling of how the people working in the barn treat the animals. For example, I noticed that when the sheep did need to be guided somewhere, the workers just gently touched their backside rather than hitting or yelling and the ewes were also rewarded with a special feed every time they were milked. One thing that did concern me about the welfare of the animals at the sheep farm was that they waited until two months of age to band their tails which would cause them more pain because their tail is longer, thicker around, and the lamb has more pain receptors at this point in its life. Overall, the welfare of the animals in most of the places that we visited were very good and in some cases even better than in the United States. As someone that has always been a lover of all animals, it made me very happy to see how well they were treated, even in the production business.

In some instances, I noticed differences between the US and Spain in how they treat their animals which may result from differences in ethical principles and societal views of each country. The places where these differences stood out the most were the Zoo and Aquarium of Madrid and the Jamones y embutidos Vazquez (the Iberian Pig Farm). The zoo was a very interesting experience because at first it seemed like any other zoo, but the longer we were there the more things we noticed that we were not used to seeing at zoos in the United States. The biggest difference that really surprised me was people feeding the animals in the enclosure. I watched people throw peanuts into the bear enclosure and it was clear that this happens a lot because the bears were conditioned to wave to the guests to get food. I’m not sure if this is something that the guests were allowed to do or just something that has become a norm at zoos in Spain, but it was very shocking to see because that is something that would never be allowed to happen at zoos in the US for the safety of the animals and the guests. Another place we experienced while we were there that was quite different from the way we do things in the Unites States was the Iberian Pig Farm. Although there are pig farms in Spain that are much like the large production farms in the US, the traditional Iberian pigs are raised very differently. The pigs are raised free range in a forest type environment with trees, water, and soil to lay on. The pigs have very little human interaction with only the occasional vet visit and they get to live out a very natural life until they go to market. I really enjoyed seeing that the pigs got to roam and perform natural behaviors in a very open setting because that is something I had never seen from a pig production farm before. It was very interesting to see how things that we do in the United States are done differently in Spain and to understand why these differences exist.

Lastly, there were some cultural events that we experienced while in Spain regarding the use of animals that, because of Spain’s cultures and beliefs, differed from any animal type traditions that we currently have in the Unites States. The two biggest cultural traditions that stood out to me were the traditional suckling pig meal and bull fighting or using bulls during celebrations such as the running of the bulls. The suckling pig was a very interesting experience because the whole baby pig is served on a plate still with its skin, bones, etc. and is then cut/smashed in front of the customers with a glass plate. It was definitely very different than what many of us were used to eating and took some getting used to, but it was clear what an important tradition it was to the people of Spain so it was very cool to experience nonetheless. The biggest cultural difference that involves animals, in my opinion, is the bull fighting in Spain which is a very controversial subject with people in the US and in Spain because of welfare concerns for the bull. Although there is controversy and I’m not sure that I agree with the sport, after touring Plaza de Toros it was clear how much history and culture is behind the sport. The people of Spain are very proud of it and think very highly of this tradition. Even though I personally believe that bull fighting is inhumane (and not to mention, very dangerous for the bull fighter), it made me happy to hear how highly our tour guide talked about the bulls, calling them brave and saying that the sport could not exist without their bravery. In the end, the sport really is about the relationship between the bull fighter and a beautiful, strong animal and it truly is rich with tradition.

Spending a week in Spain really taught me first-hand so much about human and animal interactions and how they differ from country to country. Each person’s attitudes about animals going into the trip affected the way that they interpreted the things they experienced in Spain. It was very eye opening to see the differences in the way that animals are treated, produced, and used in different countries based on their cultural and societal views.