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A ‘bonkers waste of money’?

The University of Oxford and the British government have come under fire for spending £300,000 on a study showing that 'ducks like water' (see e.g. The Guardian). The Taxpayer's Alliance has issued a statement pillorying this 'bonkers waste of money', and on surface it sounds like they're right. However, when you look deeper it becomes apparent that the type of research which was performed may well be of great value.

To see why, we have to look at the big picture of modern faming practices. During the 20th Century, market forces caused a race to the bottom in terms of animal suffering. Some farms pushed the boundaries of how densely they could pack in the animals and how few resources were needed per animal, forcing other farms to either follow suit or go bankrupt. The result was the rise of 'Factory Farming'.
Many ducks are farmed in the UK, with the largest producer raising 8 million ducks each year. Critics have pointed out serious ethical concerns when raising vast numbers of ducks in intensely crowded enclosures. Many of these concerns are the same as for the raising of chickens, but there are unique issues connected to the fact that ducks are naturally water dwelling animals and need access to water in order to keep clean. Ponds would work in theory, but in practice they are very expensive and rapidly become filthy.
This brings us back to the recent research, which was commissioned by the government in order to see how important access to water really is for ducks and to consider the alternate ways of achieving this. The study involved ducks who had access to a water trough, a pond and a shower, and it found that surprisingly, they spent more time under the shower than in the pond. It thus seems that the ducks prefer the shower to swimming in the pond and that showers might therefore be a cheap and effective way of meeting their water-dwelling needs. This has the potential to form the basis for new legislation concerning the keeping of ducks and the improvement of hundreds of millions of duck lives. Far from being a 'bonkers waste of money', this research seems to be of great moral importance.

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