My Turn: A rising standard of treatment toward animals
As our collective consciousness about the treatment of women, African-Americans and gays and lesbians has expanded over the past few decades, our ethical standards have been raised and gradually reflected in our laws. The same can be said for nonhuman animals.
As we further question our relationship to animals, and as ethologists uncover more about the feelings, intelligence and complex communication of various species, our society’s standards of treatment have risen. Euthanizing cats and dogs in gas chambers was once considered the norm; today gas chambers have been banned in 19 states. And while there was a time when the majority of Americans agreed that industries such as puppy mills and factory farms were legitimate means for conducting business, the commodification of nonhuman animals is being questioned more and more.
Harvard University is shutting down its primate research center, and New Hampshire has joined 37 other states in banning dog racing. But the laws protecting farmed animals lag far behind the standards we set for other animals.
Given the scale in which they are slaughtered (10 billion land animals in the United States annually) and the fact that they’re consumed by the vast majority of Americans, we tend to view farmed animals through a more distant lens.
Some farmed animal practices that would be deemed cruel if done to cats or dogs are accepted as “standard practice” in animal agriculture and are judged to be legal. Recall the case of hundreds of baby chicks arriving dead at the Keene post office a couple years ago, apparently frozen to death. Since male baby chicks are useless in the egg industry and inferior in meat quality, they are often used as packing material to provide warmth for female chicks in shipping. Other standard practices are to either throw newborn male chicks in garbage bags where they suffocate, or feed them to a chipper where they are ground up alive. Similarly, male calves are useless in the dairy industry and are often dragged away from their mothers within 24-48 hours of birth, with umbilical cords attached and still wet and glistening from birth.
Many of us in New Hampshire live in rural areas with farmers for neighbors and have seen baby calves tied to small, plastic crates. Baby animals that would normally follow their mothers around a field or kick and frolic with their spirited new life are instead isolated on very short tethers for a few short months until slaughter. Pigs are routinely castrated without anesthetic, and runts of the litter are often killed by “thumping” or having their bodies slammed against walls and floors. And since there are no enforced federal regulations on farmed animal transportation, animals in transit can be severely crowded, exposed during heat waves and sub-zero temperatures, and travel great distances without food or water. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 120,000 cattle and 82,000 pigs die annually just in transport.
Had we known these animals as individuals, and were witness to their suffering, perhaps public outcry would result in prohibition of the most egregious practices. But animal industries and even small farms tend to hide truths that may disturb consumers. Do owners of backyard egg-laying hens ever wonder what happened to the male chicks? Do dairy consumers ever question why cows lactate, or for whom their milk was intended? Even legal practices are stomach-churning, and yet the only groups that seem genuinely concerned over the deliberate, cruel and illegal treatment of farmed animals are animal protection groups.
The New Hampshire Legislature will be voting on the “ag-gag” bill in a couple months, and you’ll be hearing confusing and contradicting information. The Center for Consumer Freedom supports the bill, as its corporate supporters and donors have paid it to do. But the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union and the Humane Society of the United States oppose the bill. Enough said. Don’t be fooled by the upcoming sleight of hand. Please ask your legislators to vote against the ag-gag bill.
(Louisa Dell’Amico lives in Northfield.)