Category Archives: Animals

Support the Federal Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Bill, Despite Its Flaws

Animals raised for food currently have no federal protection, but Congress will soon consider changing that. A bill called the “Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act” (HR 4733) has been introduced in the House of Representatives that would follow the lead of several states by taking a stand against gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages. These are three methods of confining animals that are widespread (to the point of ubiquity) in factory farms and that cause animals relentless suffering.

Gestation crates are small metal cages only two feet wide that prevent pregnant pigs from turning around and even lying down comfortably). Sows spend most of their adult lives in these crates as they are inseminated soon after they give birth and thus kept pregnant over four out of every five months. Gestation crates cripple pregnant pigs and cause obesity. The fumes and toxins produced from the concentration of so many animals in one space sicken them (and the humans who “take care of” them). Pigs are smart animals, and the constant confinement, lack of activity or stimulation, and pain lead to neurotic behaviors like biting the bars of their cages over and over, or chewing on nothing.

Veal crates are also about two feet wide. Baby calves taken away from their mothers right after birth are chained by their necks inside these tiny wooden crates to keep them from moving – muscles would make their meat tougher. (Veal producers also deprive them of iron and fiber so their meat will be white.) Calves in veal crates never get to run, stretch, turn around, or even lie down comfortably, and they never will. They are usually killed at four or five months of age for “special-fed” veal or after just three weeks of life for “bob” veal.

Battery cages provide about four inches per hen in compliance with federal guidelines. Poultry producers cram four chickens into each 16-inch wide cage in order to maximize the number of eggs they can collect per square inch. The birds cannot spread their wings or lie down. They stand on wire mesh that cuts into their feet; sometimes their toes grow around the wire. The walls of the cage rub off the birds’ feathers and cause blood blisters. With no outlet to express their natural urges to dust bathe and to peck at the ground, birds peck at and injure each other (most have the ends of their beaks burned off as chicks in a painful, mutilating procedure intended to prevent this pecking). The concentration of so many hens in one space creates so much ammonia that it sickens the birds, hurting their lungs and making their eyes burn.

The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act would not outlaw any of these cages, or any other form of cruelty against animals raised for food. It would only prevent the federal government from buying the meat of animals who were confined in gestation crates, veal crates, or battery cages. Several states have already gone further than this by banning these crates and cages, including Michigan, California, and Ohio, which banned or placed a moratorium on new gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages; Colorado, Arizona, and Maine, which banned gestation and veal crates; and Oregon and Florida, which banned gestation crates. (All but Florida have phase-out periods before the prohibitions kick in. The federal law includes a two-year phase-out.)

Nevertheless, the federal bill is necessary. The major existing federal anti-cruelty statute, the Animal Welfare Act, excludes “farm animals, such as, but not limited to livestock or poultry, used or intended for use as food or fiber.” The only statute that offers animals any protection from the cruelty inherent in agribusiness is the Humane Slaughter Act, which is primarily honored in the breach. Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz documents the frequent violations of the Humane Slaughter Act in horrific detail. And the Humane Slaughter Act does not protect poultry, thanks to a USDA regulation that hacks away at the statute. There is no federal law that prohibits cruelty to animals in factory farms for their entire lives before slaughter, and no federal law that gives poultry any protection at all.

It would be a victory just to have Congress adopt the Declaration of Policy in the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act: “It is the policy of the United States that the raising of livestock for food production shall be consistent with the basic principles of animal welfare.” More importantly, this bill would result in improvements to the lives of millions of farm animals because the federal government is one of the country’s biggest purchasers of meat. Paul Shapiro, Senior Director of the Factory Farming Campaign at the Humane Society of the United States, notes that the federal government buys approximately 1% of all the meat sold nationally. That translates to close to four million animals each year who would be spared three cruel forms of confinement, and in reality, the reforms would help many more animals than that as producers converted their entire facilities in order to qualify as government suppliers. Right there are four million reasons to contact your representative and ask her or him to support HR 4733.

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Is Injecting Stuff Into Dead Animals “Natural”?

It’s rare to find Perdue on the right side of an animal welfare issue, but don’t fret: it’s only because its two biggest competitors are on the wrong side, and that is hurting Perdue’s bottom line.

The issue is what it means to label chicken “natural.” Overlooking the fact that there is nothing natural about selling raw corpse-parts in plastic wrapping where people buy actual food, the question at hand is whether it is “natural” to inject said parts with salt, water, “and other ingredients.” Perdue is pissy because the two biggest poultry producers, Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson Foods, inject but still use the “natural” label, while Perdue, coming in at number three, does not inject.

The purpose of injecting salt and other non-chicken substances into chicken carcasses is not to raise consumers’ blood pressure (as far as I know), but to enhance the flavor and appearance of the meat. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals, the chicken at the supermarket is the remains of “a drug-stuffed, disease-ridden, shit-contaminated animal.” Injecting salt, water, and whatever else into the meat gives it “what we have come to think of as the chicken look, smell, and taste.” It also puts more pennies in the poultry producers’ pockets by charging consumers chicken prices for water weight.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering revising its labeling guidelines to make clear that injecting any non-chicken substance into chicken is not “natural.” If it makes that change, Perdue will gain market share when Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson Foods lose their “natural” labels and consumers who want to eat “natural” meat choose Perdue instead – at least until the two biggest players lose the syringes and earn the “natural” label again.

Changing the labeling guidelines could result in marginally better treatment of chickens while they are alive. Chickens who are properly nourished, not over-drugged, given an environment in which they can maintain their hygiene, and slaughtered humanely will have more flavor and look better without injections. (Or so I’m told by people in the know – as you may have guessed I don’t eat meat myself, and I have very mixed feelings about advancing an argument that the government should do anything because it will make meat taste good.) Changing the labeling guidelines could also make the factory farming of chickens marginally less profitable and therefore perhaps a marginally smaller industry because poultry producers won’t be able to overcharge consumers for water and salt by selling them as chicken.

But then comes the backlash: Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson Foods, and agribusiness everywhere will find another way to make up the lost profits, and it will probably come out of the chickens’ hides.

Is it Moral to Eat Plants?

The gauntlet has been thrown down for ethical vegans: is it moral to eat plants? This month BBC News published an article asserting that plants “can think and remember.” Natalie Angier published a piece titled “Sorry, Vegans: Brussels Sprouts Like to Live, Too.”

The articles cite evidence that plants send chemical signals from one leaf to another in response to light and activate defenses against marauding animals and insects. But this evidence does not entitle plants to the same moral concern as animals: it does not prove that plants are sentient.

Ethical vegans (as opposed to vegans motivated by health or environmentalism, both of which are also sound rationales for a vegan diet) eliminate animal products from their diet (and their wardrobes) so they will not cause animals to suffer. Agribusiness has made the lives of millions of animals raised for food and fiber hellacious and their deaths gruesome in ways that would be unimaginable in the bucolic, red barn mythology of the old-fashioned American family farm. Vegans abstain from animal products because we know that animals suffer – both that they are capable of suffering, and that factory farms makes them suffer.

The new studies of plants have not proven that they are capable of suffering. According to Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, “sentience is the key point. For the animals it’s obvious and well-documented. With plants it isn’t.” Without sentience, there can be no suffering. Angier has challenged ethical vegans prematurely: since we don’t have evidence that plants suffer, we don’t have a reason not to eat or wear plant products.

But this argument puts ethical vegans in an ironic position. Normally it is vegans defending the position that animals are sentient, that they feel pain and fear, and a significant piece of evidence for that argument is their reactions to threats and to sustenance. With regard to plants, vegans must argue that plants’ reactions to threats and sustenance do not prove that they are sentient.

So let’s grant Angier’s argument for a moment and assume that plants are sentient. Humans cannot survive without eating them, which is a very practical but amoral argument. There is also a moral argument consistent with the values of ethical vegans, as Baur points out: “by eating plants we’ll be killing fewer than if we eat animals, who have eaten lots and lots of plants.” Even if evidence emerges that plants are sentient, therefore, ethical vegans will still hold the moral high ground.

How Oil Kills Birds

The news from the Gulf of Mexico about oil killing countless birds is heartbreaking, but to me it has been a little obscure: I don’t understand how oil kills birds.  So I did some research, and here are the maudlin details.

Birds’ feathers keep them alive.  Each feather is precisely positioned to create a water-tight, air-tight bodysuit that maintains a bird’s body temperature in cold or hot water.  When birds preen, they are carefully repositioning each feather.  Another reason birds preen is to spread the natural body oil their glands secrete to condition and waterproof their feathers.  (Washing oiled birds removes this beneficial body oil, but the birds will produce more as long as their glands have not been damaged.)  Preening is so important that if forced to choose, a bird will preen rather than eat.

Oil coats and separates birds’ feathers so they cannot lay properly against each other, leaving the bird vulnerable to heat and cold.  Oiled birds preen in a doomed effort to remove the oil from their feathers, while in the process they ingest oil which poisons them.

Oil can cause hypothermia or hyperthermia, dehydration, and starvation in birds whose feathers cannot protect them, who spend more time preening than eating, and who ingest oil both when they eat and when they preen.  Oil can also make a bird too heavy to fly. 

There is some debate over whether bird rescuers who clean, rehabilitate, and release oiled birds are making any difference.  Some scientists say that nearly all of the rehabilitated birds, once released into new habitats, die quickly, and that it would be more merciful to euthanize them upon capture.  Others argue that rehabilitation is effective.  It seems that most agree that in the case of at least one species, the brown pelican, rehabilitation is worth trying because without it the species is almost certain to become extinct.  After close to 40 years on the endangered species list, the brown pelican was delisted only last year.

Understanding the mechanics behind the tragedy only makes it sadder as it becomes easier to imagine the birds’ suffering and clearer that perhaps there is little we can do to help.  Still, I can’t give up on the birds who need help today.  But for the long term the most effective action is to prevent future tragedies by continuing the effort, so familiar it is almost trite, to reduce our dependence on oil.  So turn off your computer, your speakers, and your monitor (or just your laptop) when you’re done – it may save a bird some day.

A Bittersweet Victory for Ohio’s Farm Animals

Today Ohioans for Humane Farms reached an agreement with state agribusiness to adopt several measures to protect farm animals.  This agreement is progress, but it is not nearly enough.

The Ohio farm animal advocates had been working to get an initiative (https://hsus.salsalabs.com/o/17002/images/OH%202010%20language.pdf) on the state ballot that would provide a maximum six-year phase out period for veal crates (http://www.peta.org/factsheet/files/FactsheetDisplay.asp?ID=102), gestation crates (http://www.farmsanctuary.org/issues/factoryfarming/pork/gestationcrates.html), and battery cages (http://www.farmsanctuary.org/issues/factoryfarming/eggs/), after which they all would become illegal.  Instead, today’s agreement includes the six-year phase out for veal crates, but a 15-year phase-out period for existing gestation crate facilities, and unending protection for existing battery cage facilities. 

The agreement does include other measures that will improve Ohio’s animal welfare laws:  http://action.farmsanctuary.org/site/MessageViewer?em_id=17801.0&printer_friendly=1

As small as these steps may seem, they are progress.  And that is very sad.

R.I.P. Senator Byrd

R.I.P. Senator Byrd, a great friend to animals.  One of his moving speeches on the floor of Congress: http://www.awionline.org/ht/d/ContentDetails/id/2184/pid/2520
The latter half of his speech, about the treatment of animals raised for food, just hints at the torture of animals by agribusiness.  For more in-depth information visit: http://www.farmsanctuary.org/issues/factoryfarming/