PAWS Magazine


Issue 49, Summer 2001


Old McDonald's Nightmare

by Jennifer Hillman and Richard Huffman

Bucolic images of farm life are burned into the conscience of Americans. Happy cows, wandering in fields, lumbering into the barn for a morning milking. Squealing pigs, playfully wallowing in their pens, offering friendly snorts to passersby. Chickens resting peacefully in nest boxes, with their eggs carefully collected by a farmer who gently places them in a fabric-lined basket.

But this Old McDonald version of typical farm life has long since been replaced by an altogether darker, more cruel reality. Mass mechanization techniques that had been perfected in auto production and other industries have been increasingly applied to farms. In the course of doing business each year, close to 10 billion animals are raised and slaughtered in the U.S. for food. Americans have a natural abhorrence of cruelty to animals. When Sacramento resident Andrew Burnett threw a defenseless dog into the inescapable rush of oncoming traffic last year, Americans uniformly condemned his indefensible act of cruelty. Americans took comfort in the assumption that the law protects animals, such as that defenseless dog, from needless cruelty, and provides harsh penalties for those who choose to be cruel.

What most people don’t know, however, is that billions of equally gentle, defenseless animals, suffering in factory farms, have been deliberately excluded from protection against cruelty under the laws. In an effort to meet increasing demands for animal products, animal cruelty laws have been amended in order to protect the factory farm industry’s definition of what is “accepted,” “customary,” “common,” or “normal” treatment of the animals they are raising.

But all animals are capable of suffering. Isn’t it time that we stop dividing animals into those worthy of protection from cruelty and those whose plight we ignore? Isn’t it time to eliminate the exemptions for farm animals in our anti-cruelty laws?

Abuses of farm animals are spread quite evenly throughout the meat, dairy and egg industries. Cows, pigs, and chickens all suffer; the only difference is how the abuse is inflicted.

“Corporate demand for increased profits has really hurt dairy cows,” says Sheridan Thomas, PAWS volunteer Animal Advocate. In order to meet the corporate demand for profit, dairy cows are forced to give birth repeatedly and are injected with Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) to produce an abnormally high volume of milk, which leads to painful udder damage, lameness and mastitis. A direct product of the dairy industry is the veal calf. Calves are unable to be nursed by their mothers, as they are taken away almost immediately. Veal calves spend their entire lives chained by the neck in a crate that is built purposely small enough so that they cannot turn around. This is done for reasons of space or economy. It’s done so their muscles don’t develop and become “tough.” “If they are able to lie down,” says Thomas, “they are forced to lie in their own excrement.”

The female pig in the factory farm is raised only to produce babies for slaughter. Pigs are confined for their entire breeding lives (about four years) to a narrow, metal, cement-floored stall that is just barely the length of their bodies. In this gestation stall, pigs are unable to walk or turn around and they spend much of their time chained to the floor by the neck. Just before giving birth, pigs are moved to a second stall where they nurse the piglets until they are weaned. They are then impregnated again and returned to the gestation stall.

The “broiler” chicken is raised for meat. Kept crowded in large sheds, chickens are fed to become as heavy as possible, as quickly as possible. Because the broiler chicken is slaughtered between six and eight weeks of age, before its skeleton has fully developed, the forced growth leads to painful bone disorders, deformities, fractures, fissures and dislocated vertebrae.

Although the egg industry gives consumers the impression that its hens are living out their lives in a natural setting, the factory farm shows a very different picture. “Egg-laying hens suffer a particularly brutal existence,” says Thomas. Battery cages are small wire cages, not much larger than a file drawer, in which hens are confined with up to six other birds for their entire laying lives. The practice of “forced molting” periodically starves the hens of food for up to two weeks as a means of increasing egg production. In order to minimize the damage done to each other as a result of the stress of overcrowding, the hen’s beaks are sliced off with a hot blade.

In the same way that chickens are raised and slaughtered for food, turkeys and ducks are also part of the factory farm system. Turkeys are force-fed to become so large that they are often painfully unable to stand. Like chickens, they live in tightly confined spaces and are severely de-beaked. Although ducks depend on water to eat, swim and clean, they are completely deprived of this natural habitat in a factory farm system. Without access to water, they have difficulty keeping warm and have no way to clean themselves. Ducks and geese used to produce foie gras or pâté are tightly confined and continually force-fed until their livers painfully expand to 10 times the natural size, thus creating this “delicacy.”

There are few protections in place for farm animals. PAWS made national news in 1994 by spearheaded a successful effort in the Washington State Legislature to revise the state anti-cruelty statutes. But as powerful a tool as the new felony cruelty statute is, political pressure ensured that the legislature didn’t extend any protection to farm animals.

Washington state law defines first and second degree animal cruelty in great detail. But, like the laws in other states, Washington state law also makes sure that “Nothing in this chapter applies to accepted husbandry practices used in the commercial raising or slaughtering of livestock or poultry, or products thereof...” (RCW 16.52.185).

“If you read the statute and apply it to the regular practices used in the animal agriculture industry,” says PAWS Animal Advocate Cindy Raven, “you realize that the state is literally allowing the industry to commit millions of acts of cruelty every day.”

Even injured or sick animals are not protected by Washington state laws. Because the meat and dairy industries can still sell these animals for food, they force them to slaughter usually by dragging and pulling them with chains or moving them with a forklift. These “downers” are not provided with veterinary care and are usually left to die among the other animals in the production facility.

Although State Senator Julia Patterson and State Representative Sandra Romero proposed legislation this year that would have protected “downed” animals from needless cruelty, the legislation did not make it out of the agriculture committee.

Fortunately there are limited protections in place for some farm animals once they reach the slaughterhouse. The Federal Humane Slaughter Act requires that animals must be rendered unconscious prior to their slaughter. However as production pressure on slaughterhouse operations increases, violations of the Humane Slaughter Act are increasing as well.

Problems with enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act became tragically apparent to Seattle viewers of KING-TV last summer. Chief Investigator Duane Pohlman showed shocking and graphic footage of clearly conscious cows being slaughtered alive at the IBP slaughterhouse in Wallula, near Walla Walla. The footage prompted an investigation by the state attorney general, as well as Walla Walla County Prosecutor Jim Nagle. Such is the power of IBP—the largest animal slaughter corporation in the world—that Nagle declined to prosecute the case, even though he conceded that the law had been broken. “These corporate slaughterhouses are indifferent to the suffering of animals. In order to maximize profit, they will continue to keep production lines moving at speeds that make it impossible for workers to stun the animals before butchering them,” said PAWS Advocate Cindy Raven.

Even if the existing laws were enforced, the circumstances for birds, like chickens, would not improve. Birds were deliberately excluded from the Humane Slaughter Act. “There is no requirement that chickens and other birds be unconscious before they are slaughtered,” says volunteer PAWS Advocate Thomas.

Why do we tolerate such cruelty on such an immense scale? A recent PAWS survey showed that part of the answer may lie in a lack of awareness. People aren’t necessarily tolerating cruelty; they just don’t know that it’s taking place. But it’s equally clear that people have accepted the division between animals “worthy” of protection from cruelty and those who are mere commodities. “Our ability to unconsciously draw a line between farm animals and other animals has created a society in which we are completely devoid of compassion when it comes to our food,” says Raven. “One of the best ways to create an immediate long-term impact on the suffering of animals is, of course, to adopt a vegan lifestyle.”

PAWS surveyed Washington state voters in January about the egg industry and found that few voters were aware of the typical practices at Washington egg-laying hen operations. When people were made aware of the practices, they were overwhelmingly opposed to them. According to the survey, 69% of Washington voters believe that confining six or more hens in a space the size of a typical battery cage is unacceptable, 58% are opposed to the practice of debeaking, 82% are opposed to the starvation practice of forced molting, and 67% are opposed to the aggressive use of antibiotics. In response to their concern, 81% of Washington voters indicated that they would be willing to pay 2-4 cents more per egg for eggs that are not produced using current standard industry practices.

National surveys of farming practices used on other animals yield similar results; people are generally not aware of the cruelty that masquerades as “customary” and “common” farming practices, and they are opposed to it when they become aware.

But times are clearly changing. No less a person than former hog farmer U.S. Senator Robert Byrd of North Carolina recently spoke movingly on the Senate floor of the plight of farm animals. “Our inhumane treatment of livestock is becoming widespread and more and more barbaric,” said Byrd. “On profit-driven factory farms, veal calves are confined to dark wooden crates so small that they are prevented from lying down or scratching themselves. These creatures feel; they know pain. They suffer pain just as we humans suffer pain. Egg-laying hens are confined to battery cages. Unable to spread their wings, they are reduced to nothing more than an egg-laying machine.

“Let us strive to be good stewards and not defile God’s creatures or ourselves by tolerating unnecessary, abhorrent, and repulsive cruelty.”

“Our hope,” says Thomas, “is that other legislators in Washington, DC and Olympia will heed Senator Byrd’s brave call to action.”

PAWS relies entirely on donations to carry out our work to help animals. You can help PAWS help more animals by making a donation today.

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