Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Property status vs suffering

cow at Poplar Spring

There have been a lot of welfare vs abolition debates in AR circles lately. After reading “Rain Without Thunder” and talking to various people (Michele at Peaceful Prairie, Bob and Jenna Torres, Terry and Dave at Poplar Spring), I’m firmly on the abolitionist side.

Sometimes the people advocating reform seem to make good points about leading people down the path to thinking about the animals as beings capable of suffering, that it might be just one step towards them being eventual vegans. Sounds good, but this ignores the fact that when you focus on the suffering, you do so at the expense of addressing the issue of property status.

An animal who is considered property will always be exploited. This is true when they are humans, as well. Side note – I heard recently that there is an estimated 27 million humans living in slavery today. This is an issue that we still need to deal with across all species, and address it from a property status standpoint. It is only if we no longer see other sentient beings as property that things will change, finally.

Addressing suffering may allow animal advocacy groups and individuals to see some apparent gains – the gestation crate “bans” are an example of that. While they may mitigate some suffering, the degree is questionable. We can try to imagine, put ourselves in their pens, but those arguments are hard to take seriously since we are not pigs, and we are not even observing the pigs at these slightly less inhumane farms to see how they are faring. The laws are worded so that there is enough wiggle room for the farmers to continue to do as they please, added onto the fact that the laws would have to be enforced to have any effect at all, and I’m simply not convinced. Gary Francione did an analysis of the gestation crate “bans” on his blog, so I won’t bother to reiterate what he’s said so well.

There was an op-ed in the NY Times today called “Pig Out“. The author strongly and convincingly argues that the gestation crates were a step in the right direction, but that they didn’t go far enough, by a long shot.

Numerous studies have documented crated sows exhibiting behavior characteristic of humans with severe depression and mental illness. Getting rid of gestation crates (already on their way out in the European Union) is welcome and long overdue, but more action is needed to end inhumane conditions at America’s hog farms.

Of the 60 million pigs in the United States, over 95 percent are continuously confined in metal buildings, including the almost five million sows in crates. In such setups, feed is automatically delivered to animals who are forced to urinate and defecate where they eat and sleep. Their waste festers in large pits a few feet below their hooves. Intense ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes from these pits fill pigs’ lungs and sensitive nostrils. No straw is provided to the animals because that would gum up the works (as it would if you tossed straw into your toilet).

In my work as an environmental lawyer, I’ve toured a dozen hog confinement operations and seen hundreds from the outside. My task was to evaluate their polluting potential, which was considerable. But what haunted me was the miserable creatures inside.

They were crowded into pens and cages, never allowed outdoors, and never even provided a soft place to lie down. Their tails had been cut off without anesthetic. Regardless of how well the operations are managed, the pigs subsist in inherently hostile settings. (Disclosure: my husband founded a network of farms that raise pigs using traditional, non-confinement methods.)

The stress, crowding and contamination inside confinement buildings foster disease, especially respiratory illnesses. In addition to toxic fumes, bacteria, yeast and molds have been recorded in swine buildings at a level more than 1,000 times higher than in normal air. To prevent disease outbreaks (and to stimulate faster growth), the hog industry adds more than 10 million pounds of antibiotics to its feed, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates. This mountain of drugs — a staggering three times more than all antibiotics used to treat human illnesses — is a grim yardstick of the wretchedness of these facilities.

There are other reasons that merely phasing out gestation crates does not go nearly far enough. Keeping animals in such barren environments is a serious deprivation. Pigs in nature are active, curious creatures that typically spend 10 hours a day foraging, rooting and roaming.

Veterinarians consider pigs as smart as dogs. Imagine keeping a dog in a tight cage or crowded pen day after day with absolutely nothing to chew on, play with or otherwise occupy its mind. Americans would universally denounce that as inhumane. Extreme boredom is considered the main reason pigs in confinement are prone to biting one another’s tails and engaging in other aggressive behavior.

Finally, even if the gestation crate is abandoned, pork producers will still keep a sow in a narrow metal cage once she gives birth to her piglets. This slightly larger cage, called a farrowing crate, severely restricts a sow’s movements and makes normal interactions between mother and piglets impossible.

Everything she says is true, and I don’t think anyone who has the smallest bit of knowledge would argue with the details she has presented. It is a classic welfarist argument, really. She discusses the suffering vividly, and has many logical reasons from an animal welfare standpoint as well as a human consumption standpoint, why the gestation crate bans (or voluntarily stopping their use, as many farms have already done) should be just the first step of many.

She does not address the property status of animals. At least, she does not address the property status the way I would have.

As a cattle rancher, I am comfortable raising animals for human consumption, but they should not be made to suffer. Because we ask the ultimate sacrifice of these creatures, it is incumbent on us to ensure that they have decent lives. Let us view the elimination of gestation crates as just a small first step in the right direction.

Nicolette Hahn Niman, a lawyer and cattle rancher, is writing a book about the meat industry.

A classic example of how welfare arguments are used by animal exploiters as well as animal welfare advocates. This author, rancher, writer of a book that will promote her farm even as it will criticize the big industrialized farms, has used the welfare argument to strengthen the property status of animals. Gary Francione has said it, Bob and Jenna Torres talk about it quite a bit on their podcasts, but I suppose it bears repeating – when animal advocates are arguing for the same reforms as the industry they are supposedly against, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

For me, it is even more simple than that. You can strongly and convincingly argue for welfare reforms, but in the end you have not addressed the root of the problem, which is the property status of the animals, not the suffering they are enduring. Terry, of Poplar Spring, worked on a small family farm long before she went vegan. It should have been the classic example of the “happy meat” farm. She has said, with the strength of convictions based on a great deal of personal experience, that the only difference between the “factory” farm and the family farm is size. There is no less cruelty on a small farm, no less death. They’re all about the same thing, and that is profiting from the animals they see as objects, as things to exploit, as their property to do with as they please.

It doesn’t surprise me that the animal exploitation industries complain any time a law is brought up that would set down rules for how they can treat animals or even what they can or can’t do with them. They resent the hell out of anyone telling them what they can do with their “property”. I imagine I’d be just as resentful if a law was passed requiring that I get an oil change every 3,000 miles and keep my tires inflated to the proper level. It doesn’t matter that my truck would run better, be more fuel efficient, and last longer were I to take better care of it. It doesn’t matter that such laws would save me money in the long and short run. I would still resent a law telling me how I had to treat my property.

Animals, however, are sentient beings, and their status as property is an ethical contradiction. That is the issue we need to address.

Pig at Poplar Spring


3 responses to “Property status vs suffering

  1. cherie March 15, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Oh, Deb, you captured the greatest pictures ever! Oh, my gosh. I’m stunned. 😀 And so happy to see the animals in a situation where they are not abused and used. I’m an abolitionist, too, and complete agree with your views on the matter.

  2. Pingback: The Veg Blog» Blog Archive » links for 2007-03-17

  3. Deb March 16, 2007 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks Cherie! They make it easy to take good pictures, and you know I always have my camera. 🙂

    Thanks for the link Ryan!

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