Our modern society doesn’t give us much opportunity to interact with animals, let alone reflect on what those experiences mean. Our understanding of animals comes largely from occasional trips to zoos, childhood visits to the circus and time spent with family pets. For many of us, the closest we’ve come to a cow has been on road trips outside the metropolitan area. Aside from books and biology labs, we’re unlikely to even see an animal on campus unless it’s one of those infamous squirrels. When we lack actual experience with different beings, our understandings and opinions of them will be abstract and theoretical. But, as anyone who has experienced the death of a pet knows, the emotions one can feel toward an animal are real.
Our lack of experience with animals and the way our culture has promoted only abstract thinking about animals allows tremendous amounts of animal suffering to go unquestioned. The recent effort by Compassionate Action for Animals to get certified humane eggs carried on campus offers an opportunity to re-evaluate this culturally supported way of thinking. Full disclosure: I am a member of Compassionate Action for Animals.
Western culture has a long history of encouraging individuals to think only abstractly about their relationships to animals. Drawing a marked distinction between humans and animals, Greek Stoic philosophers argued animal languages lack syntax, and Aristotle suggested animals do not reason. They did not limit their claims to the domain of science; they used these postulated differences as arguments for human moral superiority. These abstract bases for differentiating humans and animals quickly became the dominant moral justification for doing whatever humans wanted to do to animals.
Not just anything goes in our treatment of animals today. For instance, laws exist protecting companion animals from inhumane treatment, and Institutional Review Boards require justification for using animal subjects in scientific experiments. But the abstract understanding of our moral relationships with animals is similar to that of the Stoics or Aristotle or of the later philosopher Rene Descartes, who famously claimed animals were mere unfeeling machines. Consider, for instance, the way youth who participate in raising animals for 4-H are chided for being emotional when the animal they’ve raised is auctioned for slaughter. Or consider the way vegetarians are dismissed as overemotional “animal lovers.” Our culture doesn’t allow us to sympathize with suffering animals or relate to animals on an emotional level without being accused of treating the animals like people.
Most of us will never set foot on a modern industrialized farm, and if we did, we might be charged with a felony because of strict homeland security laws governing the nation’s food supply. Thankfully, some people have risked prosecution to document what occurs on large scale, factory-style farms. Although the footage in these documentary film frequently is graphic and upsetting, seeing what’s happening on today’s farm is important in reclaiming a more authentic understanding of animals. The fact is that most of us do react strongly to seeing animals suffer, but the abstract moral and physical distancing cause that suffering to continue unchecked.
The student group Compassionate Action for Animals recently began campaigning for University Dining Services to use eggs that do not come from hens raised in battery cages. In my last column, I argued battery-caged egg-laying hens are the most abused of any farm animal. To support that claim, I mentioned the standard processes of cutting off hens’ beaks with hot blades, the unnaturalness of the cages which leads to sores and deformed feet and the broken bones hens suffer due to osteoporosis resulting from being bred to produce one egg each day without sufficient calcium in their feed to replace what is lost.
Rather than asking us to reason abstractly about how humans relate to chickens, Compassionate Action for Animals’ campaign to get UDS to carry eggs from certified humane companies asks us to look at the suffering of the hens and to reconsider whether chickens are as thinglike or machinelike as modern farms treat them.
Several resources are easily available to the public to help us evaluate how we think about egg-laying chickens even if we can’t all visit the farms themselves. This year, the group Compassionate Consumers produced a free, downloadable documentary available at www.wegman scruelty.com, about its investigation of the farm supplying the East Coast grocery chain, Wegmans Food Market, with battery-caged eggs. The Twin Cities chapter of Compassionate Action for Animals discovered similar treatment of hens in their investigation of local farms, pictures of which are viewable at www.banbat terycages.org. The Humane Society of the United States has information, pictures and videos of battery-cage farming online at www.hsus.org/farm_animals.
For each of us, this is a profound opportunity to learn about where our eggs come from and to see the lives of hens in battery-cage conditions. Moreover, by acknowledging the suffering of these hens, we can reclaim a way of relating to animals that our culture has delegitimized.
Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]