Animal rights and the myth of “humane” treatment

To outsiders, animal rights advocates look to be a strange lot. We don’t eat meat, avoid cosmetics tested on animals and boycott the Ringling Brothers Circus. Drape ourselves in fur? Forget it. Animal rights advocates don’t even wear leather or wool.

Many people view advocates as certifiable, grade-A, top-of-the-class nutcases. Reduced to the essentials, however, what we believe is just common sense.

We believe the animals killed for food, trapped for fur, used in laboratories or trained to jump through hoops are unique somebodies – not generic somethings. What happens to them matters to them. What happens to them makes a difference to the quality and duration of their lives.

In these respects, animal rights advocates believe humans and these animals are the same – equal. And so it is that all advocates share a common moral outlook: We should not do to them what we would not have done to us. Not eat them. Not wear them. Not experiment on them. Not train them to jump through hoops. “Not larger cages,” we say, “empty cages.”

“Humane treatment”

Comparatively speaking, few people are animal rights advocates. Why? Part of the answer concerns our disparate beliefs about how often animals are treated badly. Animal rights advocates believe this is a tragedy of incalculable proportions. Nonadvocates believe mistreatment occurs hardly at all.

That nonadvocates think this way seems eminently reasonable. After all, we have laws governing how animals may be treated and a cadre of government inspectors who make sure these laws are obeyed.

In the language of our most important federal legislation – the Animal Welfare Act – animals must receive “humane care and treatment.” In other words, animals must be treated with sympathy, kindness, mercy and compassion – the very meaning of the word “humane.” It says so in any standard dictionary.

For fiscal year 2001, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service conducted 12,000 inspections. Of that total, only 140 sites were reported for possible violations because of improper handling of animals. That works out to a compliance rate of almost 99 percent.

Inspections and myth

Tragically, the public’s trust in the adequacy of government inspections is misplaced. What inspection service inspectors count as “humane” undermines the inspections before they are conducted.

Cats, dogs, nonhuman primates and other animals are drowned, suffocated and starved to death. They are burned, subjected to radiation and used as “guinea pigs” in military research. Their eyes are surgically removed and their hearing is destroyed. They have their limbs severed and organs crushed. Invasive means are used to give them heart attacks, ulcers and seizures. They are deprived of sleep, subjected to electric shock and exposed to extremes of heat and cold.

It only gets worse

Per annum, the number of animals used in research laboratories subject to Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service inspections is estimated to be 20 million. This figure, though large, is dwarfed by the 10 billion animals annually slaughtered to be eaten, just in the United States.

Remarkably, farm animals are explicitly excluded from the legal protection provided by the Animal Welfare Act. The act says: “The term ‘animal’ excludes horses not used for research purposes and other farm animals such as but not limited to livestock or poultry used or intended for food or fiber.”

But if not our government, then who decides what humane care and treatment means for farm animals? In the realpolitik of U.S. animal agriculture, it is the farm animal industries that get to write the rules.

“Veal” calves spend their entire lives individually confined in stalls too narrow for them to turn around in. Laying hens live a year or more in cages the size of a filing drawer, seven or more per cage, after which they routinely are starved for two weeks to encourage another laying cycle. Female hogs are housed for four or five years in individual barred enclosures (“gestation stalls”), barely wider than their bodies, where they are forced to birth litter after litter.

Until the recent mad cow scare, beef and dairy cattle too weak to stand (“downers”) were dragged or pushed to their slaughter. Geese and ducks are force-fed the human equivalent of 30 pounds of food per day to enlarge their livers, the better to meet the demand for Foie gras.

Don’t forget the fiber

In the newspeak of the Animal Welfare Act, more than “food” animals fail to qualify as animals. The same is true of any whatchamacallit “used or intended for fiber.” For leather, for example. Or wool. Or fur. This is fact, not fiction. Fur-bearing animals, trapped in the wild or raised on fur mills, are exempt from legal protection, scant though it is, provided by the act. As is true of animal agriculture, the fur industry gets to set its own rules and regulations of “humane care.”

On fur mills, mink, chinchilla, raccoon, lynx, foxes and other fur-bearing animals are confined to wire mesh cages for the duration of their lives. Waking hours are spent pacing, rolling their heads, jumping up the sides of their cages, mutilating themselves or cannibalizing their cage-mates.

Death is caused by breaking their necks, asphyxiation (using carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide) or by shoving electric rods up their anuses to “fry” them from the inside out. Animals trapped in the wild take, on average, 15 hours. Trapped fur-bearers frequently chew themselves apart in a futile attempt to save their lives.

Time to get mad

People who trust what industry representatives and government inspectors tell them about the “humane care and treatment” need to get mad as hell for two reasons.

First, they have been abused. They have not been told the truth. They have been misled and manipulated by industry and government representatives. “Not to worry, John and Jane Q. Public. Trust us: All is well at the lab, on the farm and in the wild. Animals are being treated humanely.” Trust us? Not any more.

Second, animals are being abused. When the organs of animals are crushed and their limbs are severed; when they are made sick by the food they are forced to eat and spend their entire life in isolation; when they are gassed to death or have their necks broken: No propaganda machine in the world can turn these facts into something they are not.

If the day comes when the public does get mad as hell, the ranks of animal rights advocates will begin to grow in unprecedented numbers. When this day comes, our shared hope for a world in which animals truly are treated humanely finally will have realistic legs to stand on.

Send comments to >[email protected]