Monthly Archives: September 2011

Making a Killing with Animal Welfare Reform

I wrote this article with Angel Flinn, who is Director of Outreach for Gentle World — a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition.

This article was originally published August 8, 2011 on Care2.

“When it comes to animal care policies and processes, count on us to lead the way. In fact, we’re recognized by the world’s foremost experts in animal well-being as setting the standard for America’s pork industry – and we’re applying those same best practices to our global operations.”

~ Smithfield Foods: “Raising the Bar in Animal Care” (Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest pork producer and processor, and kills almost 30 million pigs every year)

During the past 200 years, animal exploitation – from backyard breeders to “factory farms” to circuses – has been steeped in the animal welfare paradigm. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to find any large corporation using animals or selling animal products that does not boast of either their own high standards of animal welfare, or the high expectations they have of their suppliers. In short, the animal industry actually promotes animal welfare, and that is largely because the animal welfare model overwhelmingly benefits industry – not only by providing guidelines which help producers to adopt a more effective business model, but also by assuring consumers that it is possible to breed, raise, exploit, and slaughter animals in an ethical way.

But what are considered “high standards” in animal welfare? High standards generally allow for any well-established industry practice that helps producers to exploit animals in an economically optimal manner, no matter how cruel, harmful, or painful. That is, any cruelty that promotes economically efficient use is acceptable (such as branding, castration, forced insemination, dehorning, detoeing, debeaking, mulesing, tail docking, teeth clipping, forced molting, and more); but cruelty above and beyond that which promotes economically efficient exploitation is considered to be a violation of industry’s “high” welfare standards. In other words, kicking and beating your animals because you enjoy doing so is not okay. Dehorning and castrating your animals without anesthetic because it makes them easier to manage is okay. This definition of “high standards” in animal welfare explains why industry can legitimately make such ludicrous claims in the face of cruelty so severe that most of us refuse to even look at it.

When prominent animal welfare organizations like PETA and HSUS propose animal welfare reforms, such as a move toward “controlled atmosphere killing” or the elimination of cages and gestation crates, their campaigns involve appealing to industry to recognize the long-term economic benefits of investing the capital necessary to make such changes. Such economic benefits include healthier animals who are less stressed, fewer worker injuries, less carcass damage, and greater consumer confidence that animals are treated “humanely.” And sure enough, such economic benefits obviously carry weight, as we can see by the fact that large factory farms like those owned by Smithfield Foods are “leading the way” in phasing out gestation crates over several years in all sow “farms” owned by the company. Think they’re doing this out of concern for the pigs? Think again.


“Smithfield is making the change because customers ‘have told us they feel group housing is a more animal-friendly form of sow housing,’ … Smithfield is still determining the cost of the changeover but does not expect it to dramatically affect prices for its pork products because the expense will be spread out over 10 years and will be offset by production efficiencies,’ Dennis Treacy – vice president for environmental and corporate affairs said… He stressed that the decision to change was based on what makes sense for the business.”

This statement confirms that phasing out crates will make it easier for Smithfield Foods to conduct and grow their operations. And what are their operations? Confining and slaughtering animals – by the millions. Not an activity in which you would expect animal activists to be collaborating, right? And yet, rather than using the same time and resources to promote vegan living, animal advocacy organizations spent over $1.6 million and countless volunteer hours on the campaign to convince Smithfield foods to adopt this more economically-efficient business model.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, animal advocacy organizations also work side by side with the animal industry in developing and promoting “humane” labels for animal foods. Not only does this sort of “product development” consulting provide invaluable public relations assistance for these companies, but it also effectively gives these products the “animal people” stamp of approval when they reach the consumer. Although these programs may appear on the surface to offer greater protection for animals, it is painfully clear that they are designed as an (albeit very clever) PR campaign to increase sales, by making consumers feel better about using animal products. These labels, which include Certified Humane Raised & Handled, Humane Choice, Freedom Food and the Whole Foods 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards, could quite reasonably be viewed as the ultimate betrayal from the perspective of the victims.

The partnership between animal welfare groups and industry to promote economically efficient animal exploitation is considered a “win-win-win” not only for both sides of the partnership, but for consumers as well. Consumers are assured that they can be excused for their indulgences in the products of animal misery, due to these so-called “higher standards” of welfare, and welfare groups win by receiving tens of millions of donation dollars annually for acting as the industry “regulators” and the developers of these ridiculous labels.

But the biggest winners, by far, are the animal exploiters themselves, who not only receive consulting advice by “welfare experts” and prominent animal activists, but are also given awards and special endorsement from advocacy groups. The payoff they receive in increased consumer confidence must have them laughing all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, the most basic rights of an increasing number of animals are still being sold out to fulfill the trivial desires of those who insist on consuming and using the products that come from their bodies.

Almost everyone agrees that animals ought not to suffer any more pain or harm than is “necessary”, and that no one should inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on another. But what is considered “necessary” has historically and legally meant whatever is necessary to optimize the economic efficiency of any socially-accepted use of animals. It is still the case – as it always will be as long as animals are property and economic commodities – that animal welfare standards permit any cruelty, no matter how severe, as long as it results in optimizing economic efficiency.

But times and circumstances are changing, and so are attitudes toward the meaning of the word “necessary”. Today, an increasing number of people are becoming aware that almost all of our uses of animals are for nothing more than our pleasure, amusement, or convenience – the habitual consumption of animal-based foods; the custom of wearing animal-based fabrics; the tradition of watching animals participate in trivial (and very harmful) activities such as racing or performing. None of these uses can be considered necessary according to any coherent definition of the word necessary.

As more people become aware of how beneficial the dietary aspects of veganism are for our health and the environment, and recognize that being vegan is simply a matter of basic justice, veganism will be recognized more and more widely as nothing less than an ethical imperative and a moral baseline. Certainly, there will always be those who refuse to acknowledge the fact that our uses of animals require the violation of the most basic of rights, regardless of the scale on which these practices are carried out. But the abolition of animal slavery is nothing less than the most important social justice issue of our time. When this fact becomes widely recognized… whose side will you be on?

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Present Realities and the Moral Status of Animals

Blind Tradition: The Historical Moral Status of So-Called “Brutes”

From pre-history until the 20th century, it was believed by almost everyone that humans needed to use and eat animals to thrive and even to survive. This was especially true prior to the 19th century; and philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Rene Descartes, John Locke, and Immanuel Kant had grossly distorted visions of the nature of nonhuman animals which fit well with the idea that God “put” animals in our world for our use, and that we had no moral obligations to animals whatsoever. Descartes viewed animals as insentient automata or “God’s machines”. For Descartes, one of the founders of modern vivisection, the intense squeals of dogs being beaten or tortured were merely the sounds of a broken machine, not cries of extreme pain. John Locke viewed animals as natural resources, like land and trees, which we may acquire as property and have “natural rights” to that property. For Immanuel Kant, animals were literally “things”: “…Beings whose existence depends…on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things.” (Kant, 1785) The old, traditional distorted view of animals is still in our language today as most of us refer to an animal as “it” even when we know the sex of an individual animal and therefore his or her proper gender.

Given the prevailing view and circumstances of the 17th and 18th centuries that animals needed to be raised, used, and killed for basic human needs, is not surprising that thoughtful philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant sought to avoid thinking and writing seriously about the similarities between humans and nonhumans and how those similarities might have serious moral implications. Instead, to protect the perceived need of animal use, they emphasized a morally irrelevant difference between nonhumans and most, but certainly not all humans: rationality. Another, more intellectually honest approach would have been for these thinkers to admit that there were morally relevant similarities, and that these imposed a direct duty to animals to reduce suffering as much as possible, but that ultimately, moral consideration would have to yield to the perceived survival needs of humans. But we have to remember that these were times when women did not count as full persons, and humans owned other humans as chattel property and were often as cruel to human slaves as to nonhuman slaves. We can see how even careful thinkers as Locke and Kant may have been lost in the fog of their culture’s deeply-held prejudices.

“Food” Animals and Human Brutes

The torture endured by farmed animals from birth to slaughter in our industrialized and mechanized processing systems is unimaginably horrible, and there is no significant difference between free-range, cage-free, and “certified humane” versus the traditional industrial methods, despite the misleading claims of large welfare organizations (incorrectly referred to by the media and themselves as “animal rights” organizations). If you are born a chicken in the most “humane” environment, the best thing that might happen to you is that you are gassed or tossed alive into a wood-chipper as a baby chick, so you don’t have to experience a life of hell as a cage-free or “certified humane” egg chicken (a “layer”) or flesh chicken (a “broiler”). Make no mistake; both the old methods and the new, so-called “humane” methods rely on intensive confinement with filthy conditions, diseases, no individual attention, and no veterinary care to speak of. One thing is obvious: It is literally impossible to raise and slaughter hundreds of thousands, millions, or billions of nonhumans without industrial methods. What is less obvious, but nevertheless true, is that “humane” labels are little more than a marketing ploy to ease the growing public sensitivity to the (unavoidable) reality of animal agriculture’s cruelty. Further, transportation and slaughter itself is extremely cruel, with slaughterhouse workers intentionally torturing animals, especially chickens, and animals often inadvertently being boiled or ripped apart alive (such cruelty is common knowledge among welfare advocates and has been documented in the Washington Post [‘They die piece by piece’] and in various films and documentaries of slaughterhouse conditions). When we do these things to a dog or cat, we are charged with a felony; when we do these while marketing unnecessary food preferences, we get paid a wage for it. Even if it were possible (and it’s not possible) to heavily police transportation and slaughter so that the cruelty was significantly reduced, it is still wrong to treat sentient beings with a crucial interest in their life and its quality as a means to an end. We need not wonder who the brutes are; a mirror will tell us.

Animal agriculture, on its modern scale of production, is an environmental disaster, with “cattle” and hog waste polluting groundwater, rivers, and streams and killing millions of fish throughout the country; and flatulence contributing significant quantities of carbon and other pollutants into the air. “Food” animals, particularly “cattle” and pigs, are reverse protein factories, consuming up to 10 times more protein in their short lives than they provide after they are slaughtered for food. A vast majority of the land used for growing plant food is to feed animals who will use up to 90% of that protein in their daily living, returning relatively very little after slaughter. The only way to achieve more pollution and greater inefficiency in food production is to breed and raise more nonhumans for food.

The Solution to Animal Agriculture

Now, early in the 21st century, more and more mainstream dieticians and health professionals are telling us that balanced vegan diets are optimal for our health. (For information about vegan nutrition, see the link on this blog.) There are now vegan alternatives to most animal-based ingredients and expanded vegan options, making gourmet vegan entrees and desserts as delightful to the palate as non-vegan versions ever were, and much healthier too (see the vegan menus links in this blog). Dieticians are also telling us that traditional animal-based diets, especially in the quantities we consume them, are literally killing us with heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, strokes, and cancer. For clothing, there are now synthetic materials, such as nylon, synthetic fleece, faux “leather”, faux “suede”, and faux “fur”, which easily replace, and are better than, the animal alternatives. The solution is to go vegan.

Animal Experimentation: Archaic, Brutal, and Dangerous

The things we do to sentient nonhumans in labs, 90% of the time for trivial reasons and never for crucial reasons, are beyond savage. Again, if we are unspeakably cruel to a dog or cat in the street, we get hit with felony cruelty charges (as we should); if we do the same thing in a lab under a thin veneer of respectability backed up by the law (laws heavily influenced politically by the vivisection industry), however, we get paid a wage.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of well-researched literature showing that modern alternatives to animal testing and training on animals, such as computer modeling and simulation, human tissue research, clinical observation and research, epidemiology, pathology, genetics, prevention, autopsies, and post-marketing drug surveillance are making animal testing archaic, obsolete, and even dangerous to humans. Indeed, it is blind tradition, powerful business interests, and wealthy lobbying which supports a vast majority of current animal research. Jean Swingle Greek, DMV, and C.Ray Greek, MD, have contributed volumes of valuable research, ranging from non-technical research appealing to the lay reader to highly technical research appealing to scientists and health professionals on the lack of need for animal use in modern medicine. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is also playing a valuable role in educating scientists and health professionals about responsible alternatives to animal testing.

Moral Reflection and Conclusions: The Personhood of Animals

We are clearly no longer in need of any animal use which would preserve the meaning of the word “need”, and in fact, if there is a need, it is a need to avoid animal use for our health and environmental sustainability. This has profound implications for our behavior toward nonhumans. Nonhumans have always had morally crucial and important interests in not being intentionally harmed or killed. The psychological and emotional interests of sentient nonhumans are too similar to and overlapping with our own to continue to ignore those interests, especially at a time when ignoring those interests is so unnecessary and destructive in so many ways. Rationality is a nice tool to use for good or evil, but it has no moral relevance when it comes to crucial basic interests such as the avoidance of serious physical or psychological harm or death. It is arbitrary to look to rationality as defining moral or legal personhood. Also, to do so is to necessarily exclude many humans from personhood, such as infants, the senile, and the mentally disabled or mentally ill. Sentience, the ability to have experiences (including pleasure and pain), is certainly sufficient for moral and legal personhood, and any being who has sentience to the high degree that cows, pigs, chickens, geese, deer, goats, sheep, elk, marine mammals, and many fish do, clearly has crucial interests and profound corresponding moral claims on our behavior. There may well be other criteria which would also suffice for personhood, such as the likely future acquisition of sentience. Such a criterion as a high probability for future sentience would be appropriate for considering the moral and legal personhood of comatose normal human adults and fetuses. Criteria other than sentience for moral and legal personhood, however, are beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that sentience itself is sufficient.

It has been clear empirically, even from the 18th century, that there is no non-arbitrary way to distinguish morally relevant characteristics of humans from nonhumans. In other words, there is no morally relevant characteristic which all humans and only humans have which would give humans special moral consideration. As such, attempts to distinguish between humans and nonhumans on species membership alone, without some morally relevant characteristic that all and only humans have, is plainly arbitrary, and therefore, is plainly speciesist. Such speciesism is every bit as morally unacceptable as racism and sexism. There may have been a weak excuse for such speciesism back in Locke and Kant’s day, considering the perceived need to use animals and the cultural racism and sexism of the time (all of which itself was wrong, even then), but with the knowledge and alternatives available today, there are no more excuses, not even half-baked excuses. A speciesist is a racist is a sexist: it is all the same moral wrong. If we do not consider ourselves racist or sexist, and if we are to avoid hypocrisy and maintain consistency, we must eliminate our speciesism by going vegan.

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Filed under animal rights, moral philosophy, present realities, Veganism