Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is Confinement in Crates Animal Torture? California to Decide

When I think about how most farm animals spend their lives confined in crates, never seeing the sun, having the ground under their feet or breathing open air, I can't help but compare the situation to the debate over torture of human beings.

When writing about water boarding or sleep deprivation for weeks at a time, news reporters feel constrained to add that some people regard these practices as torture. This is convenient for those who ordered their use--read Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush--because they otherwise would be unequivocally regarded as criminals. And I do hope some day to see all of them indicted by international courts for these and other crimes.

The same can be said of defenders of factory farming, although they face no such possible accountability for the suffering they have caused. Can anyone who has ever looked into the eyes of a calf, heard the squeals of a pig, or watched chickens pecking at each other, sincerely believe that they don't suffer when confined in crates? 

On this, as on so many other issues these days, action to stop this suffering isn't coming from the federal government but from the states. Florida, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado have banned the use of gestation crates by pig producers, who confine pregnant sows to crates so small they can not move around normally. Arizona and Colorado also ban use of veal crates. These are tiny pens to which baby calves are tethered after they are taken from their mothers when only a few days old. Here they stay until they are slaughtered to be served up to Americans as high-priced veal.

Now, thanks to efforts of advocates for humane animal treatment, Californians will have the chance this November to vote on a measure that would require that farm animals be given sufficient room just to turn around and stretch their limbs!

No doubt the measure will be fought fiercely by agribusinesses who will raise alarms about the impact this would have on food prices and the poor. One pro-agribusiness group that masquerades as pro-consumer contends that such measures are designed to "cripple meat and dairy producers" and calls groups like the humane society radical. To the contrary, factory farming is a radical concept of the 20th century, designed to drive family farmers out of business and concentrate food profits in the hands of a small number of giant corporations. Concerns about humane raising of food animals has helped keep in business small, family farmers who actually care about their animals. Periodically I buy meat from one such farmer from upstate New York, who would otherwise be out of business, like so many other family farmers. 

Furthermore, not many poor folks can afford veal these days, no matter how it's raised. More important, I think if most people  actually saw or heard the distress of factory-farmed animals they would opt not to eat them--if they had a choice. And they do have a choice.

This, of course, is the crux of the problem: the disconnect between the food we eat and our awareness of the conditions under which it is raised or grown.

So what choices do we have? We can vote with our pocketbooks. Although I love veal, I think I've eaten it twice in the past 10 years. In states like my own, New York, which have not yet taken action against farm animal cruelty, we can find sources of humanely raised animals. Sure, there's a price to pay for an animal living a life without suffering. But the food budget can be kept under control by eating less meat, cutting out a meat meal or two every week and substituting grains, beans and vegetables. 

Animals suffer when confined in factory buildings and handled like live but unfeeling objects on an assembly line. There's no more doubt about that than whether water boarding is, indeed, torture. 


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