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What Is Wrong with Vegetarianism?

The word “vegetarian” was introduced in the middle of the 19th century. Since then, it has come to mean a person who excludes flesh from mammals, birds, and fish from their diet, but includes other products from mammals and birds; specifically, breast milk from cows and eggs from chickens. In this essay, when I use the word “vegetarian(ism)”, I mean a person (or practice) who includes dairy and eggs in their diet.

By contrast to vegetarians, vegans exclude all animal products from the diet. In addition, vegans do not use animals as resources or commodities (i.e. do not exploit animals) for any purpose (clothing, entertainment, experimentation, or profit or gain of any kind [no matter how “humane”]). Essentially, vegans leave animals alone, except for rescuing victims of animal agriculture, the “pet” industry, and other forms of exploitation imposed on them by humans.

The Moral Problems with Vegetarianism

Many people are vegetarians for ethical reasons. They object to either the treatment of animals in animal agriculture or the intentional killing of animals, or both. Paradoxically, despite their objections to the treatment or intentional killing of animals, they continue to consume dairy products and eggs, which, as we will see below, certainly contribute more to the suffering and arguably as much to the intentional killing of animals than the consumption of meat products. In fact, to the extent that a vegetarian replaces calories from flesh with calories from dairy and egg products, the vegetarian has increased his or her contribution to animal suffering.

“Free-range” Eggs

Consider the lives of “free-range” hens. “Free-range” egg producers generally purchase layer hens from the same hatcheries as traditional egg producers. Half of the chicks born in the hatcheries are males who are “disposed of” often in cruel ways, including being thrown live into machines that grind their bodies up or into trash bags and/or large dumpsters where they either starve or suffocate to death. Further, since “layer hens” typically are not sufficiently productive after two years, they are sent to slaughter at that time. The “free-range” egg industry relies heavily on the routine mass-slaughter of animals to be economically feasible.

The lives of “free-range” layer hens before slaughter are generally a living hell. The “free-range” egg label means only that the birds are permitted some access outdoors, even if it is only a miniscule fraction of the space of the large shed in which they live. Because of intensive overcrowding in these sheds, and because chickens are social animals who have a literal “pecking order”, their sensitive beaks are cut with a hot blade (to cauterize the blood flow) so they cannot hurt each other in trying to establish an impossible order in such crowded conditions. Also due to the crowding in a large, often poorly lit shed, the conditions of a typical “free-range” facility are filthy with excrement on the floor in which the hens live and extremely poor air quality due to the lack of ventilation. In addition to the harsh living conditions, the hens are genetically designed to be enormously productive in laying eggs, which causes them to be less healthy than traditional hens. The poor health of layers is largely due to the fact that chickens who are not exploited eat most of their eggs (in natural conditions, only a small percentage of eggs hatch), replenishing the nutrients they lose in the eggs they produce. When their eggs are taken from the hens, the hens lose the opportunity to replenish the nutrients lost in producing the egg. Genetically-designed, highly productive layers lose even more nutrients and end up even poorer in health because they lose more eggs to humans than natural hens.

The egg production of hens peaks when the hens are around seven months old and drops significantly at around 15 months old. To get an extra six months of production out of the hens, “free-range” producers will engage in a practiced called “forced molting” to imitate the conditions of the winter-spring transition. In forced molting, the hens are starved for several days up to 14 days and the lighting in the shed is dimmed. Hens can lose up to 30% of their body weight during this starvation process and some of the weaker hens – already malnourished from not being able to consume their own eggs – are killed as a result. Several weeks after the forced molt ends, production is back to normal.

After the “free-range” hens are “spent”, a condition in which they can no longer produce eggs at a commercially-viable rate and in which their health has deteriorated significantly from both the wretched living conditions and from losing nutrients from egg production/loss, the hens are transported to slaughter. Both transportation and slaughter can mean some of the most intensive cruelty the hens have yet experienced. They and their bones are very weak from giving so much nutrition for so long without replenishment from eating their own eggs. When they are handled roughly in transportation and slaughter, their bones are often broken. Also, layer hens are generally not used for human meat consumption; the meat is of very poor quality due to the poor health of the hens. “Free-range” hens end up at the same slaughterhouses as any other chicken where they are often intentionally tortured – hurled against the wall and stomped upon – by frustrated workers in poor working conditions with low pay. Even if the “ free-range” chickens are not intentionally tortured, some miss the electric “stunning” bath and neck blade (from struggling upside-down in their leg shackles) and instead are boiled alive in the de-feathering (scalding) tank.

Commercially-viable egg production, regardless of the label (“free-range”, “cage-free”, or “organic”), is extremely cruel to chickens. As mentioned above, hens who are not exploited eat most of their eggs as a natural way to replenish many of the nutrients they lose in producing eggs. Even in the best conditions imaginable, such as in a sanctuary or in the wild, it is unhealthy and exploitive to the hens to take their eggs from them. When we add the extremely cruel living conditions that “free-range” hens endure along with the mass-slaughtering that is required to keep egg production economically feasible, consuming eggs simply makes no sense at all for anyone concerned about the treatment or slaughter of animals. [1]

“Organic” Milk

Like humans and all mammals, cows need to be impregnated to produce milk. “Organic” cows are therefore repeatedly impregnated, often on a device called a “rape rack”, where they are inseminated either artificially or by a bull. Cows would normally live about 20 years, but due to the economics of the “organic” milk industry, they are usually slaughtered after about 5 years when they lose the ability to generate commercially-viable quantities of milk. During this short 5-year life, they are pregnant about 9 months out of every 18 to 24 months and give birth to a calf two or three times. Some of the female calves will end up as dairy cows to eventually replace their mothers and grandmothers. Most of the calves from “organic” dairy producers, however, are forcibly abducted from their mothers – who often grieve the loss intensely – and sold to the veal industry. Although some “organic” dairy cows are permitted to graze outside during part of the year, many “organic” cows never see the light of day until they are transported to slaughter.

Just as with “free-range layer hens”, “organic dairy cows” and their calves are transported and slaughtered in the same manner as any other cow or steer. Often, they are confined to a tractor trailer for days of transport, and sometimes through extremely hot or cold weather conditions. Because they are depleted from so much milk production and from genetics designed to maximize milk output, they are often much weaker than “beef cattle” when they arrive at slaughter. Indeed, most of the “downers” – cows too sick to walk – are dairy cows, including dairy cows from “organic” dairies. When they arrive at slaughter, downers are often cruelly prodded with electric prods and/or bulldozed into slaughter, as was displayed earlier in the year on national television in undercover films provided by HSUS. Actual slaughter can be an unimaginably horrific and terrifying experience. Although the cows and steer are supposed to be “stunned” with a captive-bolt gunshot to the skull, this can be difficult for workers to achieve, especially with the rapid pace at which the animals are moved on the line. This can result in the animals being fully awake when they are shackled, hoisted upside down, and cut at the throat. Because cows and steer who are not properly stunned are sometime flailing around at the cutting section of the fast-paced line, they occasionally miss the throat cut or the cut is not sufficient to kill them. Due to production pressure to keep the line moving, these cows and steer will often end up alive at the hide-ripping machine.

Commercially-viable “organic” milk production, regardless of the label it is sold under, is extremely cruel to cows and calves and requires mass-slaughter. “Organic” dairy cows are physically and psychologically broken by the time they reach the slaughterhouse, which can be an unimaginable horror story in itself. Consuming “organic” dairy products – milk, cheese, ice cream, cream cheese, sour cream – simply makes no sense for anyone concerned about the treatment or slaughter of animals.

The Immorality of the Institution of Animal Exploitation

Animal exploitation, because it exploits animals as property, is chattel slavery. Animal exploiters completely own and control animals as property, resources, and commodities and any “restrictions” on the behavior of the property owner are solely for the efficient exploitation of animals as commodities. We don’t approve of human slavery no matter how “humanely” or “kindly” a slave owner treats his or her slaves. We reject the institution of slavery in all of its forms because the institution itself is immoral. The institution itself is immoral because it systemically and necessarily reduces its subjects to mere objects existing solely to satisfy the means of others’ ends; affords no protection to the exploited beyond what is deemed appropriate for efficient exploitation as a commodity; and necessarily reduces sentient beings with emotional lives, desires, and aversions to mere things – as if they were insentient broccoli, corn, rocks, or trees.

The institution of animal exploitation (i.e. slavery) is a moral blind spot in our culture exactly as human slavery was a moral blind spot 160 years ago in America. We need to examine and question our cultural prejudices just as 19th century Americans needed to examine their cultural prejudices.

If we are morally opposed to the institution of animal exploitation and the cruelty and gross injustice it necessarily entails, as any decent person who is aware of the facts included in this essay ought to be (not to mention the facts of other exploitation not included here), our moral baseline must be veganism.

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Note:

[1] To see more about “spent” free-range hens, see Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary’s Faces of Free Range Farming.

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