During a recent meeting in Nebraska, a slide depicted two photos. One was of caged laying hens, and the other was a small cage containing two parrots. The message was obvious – why do so many of the public oppose the housing situation for the laying hens, but see no problem with the quality of life of the parrots?

Candace Croney, a Purdue University associate professor of animal behavior and well-being, recently addressed Nebraska producers about the role of ethics in current farm animal welfare debates.

“Looking at these two photos, many people see no problem with the level of inconsistency in their thought process,” she says. “People don't like to look at what they're doing in their own backyard. It's much easier to tell someone else how they should be doing things. When we think about animal welfare, everyone has a different idea of what that means.”

Livestock producers and consumers agree they want food that's safe, palatable, affordable and accessible. However, some consumers question the methods by which their food is produced. As a result, a gap is forming between rural and urban dwellers regarding animal welfare and its regulation.

BEEF Daily Blog: Is It Animal Rights or Animal Welfare? For Me, It's Animal Care

Animal welfare isn't top of mind to most consumers, Croney says. “However, when negative things happen, or you have a negative story in the media regarding animal welfare, people's attention is quickly drawn to the issue.

"Everyone agrees it's our moral obligation to do right for the animals under our care,” Croney continues. “But, what does it mean to 'do right' by our animals? This is a big debate that animal rights activists have tapped into with the public, trying to force them to form an opinion on these issues. They're also using their influence to impact policy regarding animal welfare.”

Animal welfare has different definitions to different people. For many, particularly producers, it's providing good animal husbandry, and taking care of the physical needs of animals for food, water and shelter. However, others feel the biological and behavioral needs of the animal should also be considered.

Closer Look: Animal Science Or Animal Emotionalism?

Animal activists are successfully influencing the consumer's view of animal welfare by appealing to the core values people believe in, such as compassion, justice, fairness and freedom, she adds. Activists also highlight issues easily grasped by consumers, like housing, handling and pain; they then develop modest appeals for change by adopting a high moral ground or even using religion.

As an example, Croney points to farrowing crates to contain sows. “The activists say, 'Can't we give this pig just a little more room to turn around?' That sounds completely reasonable, but the urban consumer doesn't understand how a sow behaves. They don't understand it's not that easy. Their opinion is 'What's the problem? Just do it.'”

With a vast majority of U.S. consumers far removed from agricultural production, their main contact with animals is via pets, zoos and mass media. “More people are thinking about animals in human terms. We don't see animal welfare conversations happening in developing countries where people are still struggling to put food on the table. In the U.S., the way many people think about their companion animals starts to color how they think food animals should be treated,” she says.