In “Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions,” edited by University of Chicago Law School professors Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum, Sunstein writes that “through their daily behavior, peo- ple who love [their] pets, and greatly care about their welfare, help ensure short and painful lives for billions of animals who cannot easily be distin- guished from dogs and cats.”
Sunstein is talking about farm animals—who represent more than 98 percent of all animals used for human purposes in the United States in a given year.
You read that right: All the animals in research labs, all the animals shot by hunters, all the animals in circuses and zoos and aquariums, all the pets, and so on—make up about two percent of the animals we inter- act with each year. Farm animals represent the remaining 98 percent. Statistically , as Milbank attorney David Wolfson and Columbia Law adjunct Mariann Sullivan note in the book’s chapter on farm animals, all animals used in the U.S. are farm animals.
So even as our nation showers more than $50 billion worth of love onto our dogs and cats annually , Americans pay much more to the meat industry to run factory farms and slaughterhouses and to package, transport and distribute other ani- mals’ bodies to us for consumption.
Sadly, where animal protection laws are concerned, the system is broken. First, farm animals are exempted from the Animal Welfare Act, which means that 98 percent of animals are exempted from the primary federal law intended to protect animals.
Second, chickens and turkeys are not protected by the one federal law that offers any protection at all to farm animals—the Humane Slaughter Act. And this despite the fact that 98.5 percent of slaughtered land animals are chickens and turkeys (last year, Americans ate about 9 billion chickens, 300 million turkeys, 100 million pigs, and 40 mil- lion cattle). So using the reasoning of Wolfson and Sullivan, statistically all farm animals are birds—who have no effective federal protections.
What this all means is that facto- ry farm conditions are essentially unregulated when it comes to animal welfare, and that slaughter conditions for 98.5 percent of farm animals offer no legal welfare protections whatsoever. So here’s what’s perfect- ly legal: hundreds of millions of hens crammed into tiny cages where not one hen could spread one wing—for their entire lives. Their muscles and bones waste away , their feathers and skin become raw from rubbing on their wire cages, and they go insane from stress and boredom. That is life for a hen in this country .
As another example, the upper bodies of chickens raised for their meat now grow more than six times as quickly as they did fifty years ago, so that according to the USDA, chicken today has more than ten times as much fat as it used to (and three times as much fat as protein). According to the University of Arkansas, “If you grew as fast as a chicken, you’d weigh 349 pounds at age 2.” The stress on the animals’ bones, joints, and organs is debilitat- ing. Conditions are so bad in modern chicken sheds — which look like car- pets of live but unmoving chickens —that the death losses are one per- cent per week.
At slaughter, chickens are dumped from crates, snapped into metal shackles, electrocuted into immobilization, and then their throats are slit—all while they are still conscious. While slaughter is still painful for pigs and cattle, at least there’s a law for undercover investigators to point to when they find egregiously abusive treatment. With birds, anything goes.
It’s worth noting, as Prof. Sunstein did in his book’s introduc- tion, that farm animals “cannot easi- ly be distinguished from dogs and cats.” In fact, there is no rational jus- tification for the differences in legal protection. Chickens and pigs are more behaviorally and cognitively advanced than dogs or cats. As just one example, as reported by Discovery magazine, “Chickens do not just live in the present but can anticipate the future and demon- strate self-control…something previ- ously attributed only to humans and other primates…” Read more at SomeoneProject.org.
Despite all this, Americans want farm animals to be protected. When the American Farm Bureau Federation commissioned Oklahoma State University to study the matter, the results were clear: 95 percent of Americans—virtually everyone— think farm animals should be pro- tected from abuse. So the legal and regulatory system for farm animals is completely broken, in violation of the clear will of the American public.
The genesis of the broken system is the stuff of books (e.g., Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals), but the choice for individ- uals who care about animals is clear: bypass the broken system by not supporting it.
One way to start bypassing the broken system and more closely align what we all want for farm animals with what’s on our plate is by embracing Meatless Mondays—an effort originally formed during WWI by the U.S. government as a resource-saving measure, and later revived by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Try it as a starting point—go meat- less on Mondays, then try to add Wednesdays, then Fridays. And so on.
Another way to start down this path is by eliminating birds and fish from your diet. The average American will consume less than one cow or pig in a year of meat-eating, but dozens of birds and even more fish. If you stop eating birds and fish, that will be a significant positive step. As you do this, I’ll bet you’ll quickly realize that going totally meat-free is not as intimidating as it might seem right now.
Bruce Friedrich, a 2E,is senior director for strategic initiatives at Farm Sanctuary(www.FarmSanctuary.org).