In my last post I mentioned that I was working on a group project about factory farming for my communication class. Not surprisingly, I took the animal rights side of the issue. So I wanted to share my part of the project with all of you. I still have almost a week before I have to present it, so I welcome any input/suggestions.
The concept of animal rights has gained some publicity in recent years, but it is far from a new idea. It has been around for a very long time and has been supported by some of the greatest minds in history. Albert Einstein said “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.”
Most of us have dogs or cats at home, and we love them. We think of them as part of the family and we would never want to see anything bad happen to them. We don’t think of farmed animals this way though. Around ten billion of these animals are killed every year in the United States alone. Yet when we think about their suffering we say “oh well, it’s just a pig (or just a cow, or just a chicken).” Why? What makes them so different? What makes us think of some animals as family and others as food?
In a study conducted by Stanley Curtis at Penn State University, pigs were taught to play video games. Curtis found that the pigs not only excelled at the games, but seemed to enjoy playing them. He was quoted as saying “They beg to play video games”. When he tried the same study with other species, he found that the pigs outperformed dogs and even many chimpanzees and that they seemed to be the only ones with a genuine desire to play. Other studies have found that a pig’s intelligence is equivalent to that of a three year old human child.
Mother cows have an extremely strong bond with their babies and suffer greatly when they are separated, as they always are on dairy farms. One cow, named Karma, who was rescued from a farm cried continuously after being taken to a sanctuary. The rescuers could not find a way to calm her and finally called the farmer and discovered that Karma had given birth shortly before being rescued and that her baby was still at the farm. They went back to retrieve the calf as Karma continued to call out for him. When the trailer pulled up she heard his answer and began running wildly around her pen and slamming into the fence trying to get to him. Once he was safely inside the fence with her she immediately stopped crying.
Chickens forge very strong social connections and will often risk their lives for one another. Mother hens will do anything to protect their young and roosters will do the same for their hens. I witnessed this dedication myself when I was young. My family had a flock of chickens and one day one of the hens went missing. We looked for her for days and finally became convinced that some predator had taken her. A few days later the rooster went missing. We were all very upset to have lost two of our chickens but then we heard a sound coming form under the coop. When we looked underneath we first found the rooster and then, behind him, the hen with a small mound of fresh grass beside her. We realized that the hen had been trying to build a nest and had become stuck and the rooster had been bringing food for her until he became stuck as well.
Now that you know more about these animals I want to tell you a little bit about some of the conditions they endure in factory farms. Let’s start from the beginning. Many of these animals are killed shortly after birth. In the dairy and egg industries, males are of no use. Male dairy calves are sold to veal farms where they will be chained in crates so small they cannot move and kept intentionally anemic so that their flesh will be pale and soft. Male layer chicks are considered completely worthless, so they are thrown into grinders while still alive or tossed into trash bags and left to suffocate beneath the bodies of their brothers.
The females from these industries, along with all animals raised for meat, will go on to suffer terrible abuses. Pigs will be castrated and have their tails cut off. Cows will be dehorned and castrated. Chickens will be de-beaked and de-toed. All of this will be done with no anesthesia and the wounds are never treated afterward, resulting in intense pain that can last for a very long time.
In a factory farm each pig will have a space about one third the size of a twin bed. As highly intelligent creatures with a complex social structure, they are unable to handle this intense crowding and will often become insane and begin to cannibalize their neighbors. This is the reason why their tails are docked when they are young. The Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences has found that simply hanging a rope from the ceiling in each stall, to give the pigs something to do, could prevent this. Yet farmers refuse to do it because it is cheaper to simply cut off the pigs’ tails.
A dairy cow must be kept constantly pregnant in order to continue producing milk. The babies are taken from her a few hours after birth and then the process begins again. This intense stress on her body causes debilitating health problems and though these animals have a natural lifespan of twenty to twenty-five years, they become “spent” after around four years and are sent slaughter. Because their bodies have endured so much abuse the meat must be used for ground beef so that the consumers will not notice the terrible quality.
Chickens are kept in either battery cages or huge sheds. In either situation they usually have so little room they cannot spread their wings. Chickens have a natural desire to form a “pecking order” in which each chicken knows his or her place, but in this unnatural situation that becomes impossible. This forces the chickens into a constant battle for dominance and many can be killed. For this reason newborn chicks have the tips of their beaks (one of the most sensitive areas of their bodies) and the tips of their toes removed.
We would be outraged by these sorts of abuses if dogs and cats were involved but because these are farm animals we look the other way. I have a great deal of personal experience with farmed animals. I have interned at Farm Sanctuary’s New York and California shelters, and got to know many of the animals there very well. I also have my two pigs, Riley and Petunia, at home. I can tell you from my own interactions with these amazing creatures that the biggest difference between the animals we think of as family and the animals we think of as food is, simply, the way we think of them.
* Photo- Masque, from Farm Sanctuary's Acton California shelter.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)