January 2008 Blog Home March 2008

23 posts from February 2008

February 15, 2008

Precedent Set, Message Sent

I just got out of a press conference in San Bernardino with District Attorney Michael Ramos. At the press conference—which was crowded with print, radio, and television reporters—he announced his filing of charges against two individuals, including felony animal cruelty charges against one, for the appalling abuses The HSUS documented at a dairy cow slaughter plant in Chino, Calif. It's the latest positive step in the unfolding of an extraordinary hidden camera investigation that has pricked the conscience of the nation about how animals raised for food are treated.

I am so pleased that District Attorney Ramos took this action, and on behalf of the entire HSUS family, I offered my praise and thanks to him. He gave a powerful and moving statement about not tolerating animal cruelty in society, whether the act is done to "a beloved family pet or a cow at a slaughterhouse." He added, "Unnecessary cruelty will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent allowed by law."

Justice is being served in this case. Two individuals who did awful things to animals are likely to lose their freedom for some time. District Attorney Ramos has stated that his investigation continues. Meanwhile, the USDA and its Office of Inspector General are also continuing their investigations. The slaughter plant has been temporarily shuttered, and given the behavior exhibited, it should not reopen with the current owners in charge.

Sea Change in Animal Testing

USA Today had an important and exciting story in yesterday's paper about the move away from the use of animals in certain toxicity tests. I am truly enthused about the possibility of innovation in this arena making animal testing obsolete.

White mouse in cup
© iStockphoto

Since the 1970s The HSUS has been promoting the Three Rs to animal testing. Our aim has been the reduction, replacement, and refinement of the use of animals in specific testing procedures. However, our long-term goal has been the complete replacement of animals in chemical testing. That goal has always seemed elusive although there have been important gains along the way, including the codification of the Three Rs into the Animal Welfare Act, the establishment of the federal government’s Interagency Coordinating Committee for the Validation of Alternative Methods, and the launching of the World Congresses on Alternatives. The HSUS had, and continues to have, a major role in these and other developments.

However, the era of incremental change is coming to an end. In June, the National Research Council issued a vision and strategy for the future of toxicity testing. It calls for a massive shift away from traditional animal testing, and its eventual complete replacement with non-animal methods. We were privileged to have had staff member Dr. Martin Stephens on the committee that drafted this report. The NRC approach is being widely embraced by U.S. government agencies and progressive corporations as a way to test chemicals more rapidly, inexpensively, and effectively, as well as to address public concerns about animal testing. 

And the action has already begun, as USA Today reports, with the National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Toxicology Program announcing they have formed a partnership to essentially implement the NRC vision. We will be bringing government and industry representatives together in the United States and Europe to launch an even more ambitious effort with the promise of eliminating animal testing within 10 years.

February 14, 2008

You Asked: Shopping with a Conscience

Today I would like to respond to a question from reader Claudia.

Q. Thank you so much for the work you do to help the lives of animals across the globe. As the animal lover that I am, I couldn't get the images out of my mind of the downer cows at the slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif. I've been reading up on this since then and have become aware of so many atrocities done. And while I was not surprised, I realized that I never really thought about this side of the coin... I just buy the steaks, hamburgers, etc., but never think about the conditions these animals live in. Aside from donations, what can the public do? What can I do at a local level? Your response is appreciated.

A. Agriculture has taken a harsh turn in the last few decades, and animals are often treated like meat-, milk-, and egg-producing machines—with little thought given to their well-being. It's important to note that the problems are not caused by just a few bad companies and rogue employees who are needlessly cruel to animals—even though the conduct we uncovered at the slaughter plant in Chino was extreme and appalling. There are industrial production, transport, and slaughter methods that by their very design cause deprivation and suffering—such as battery cages for laying hens or gestation crates for breeding pigs.

The greatest disinfectant to the inhumane treatment of animals raised for food is the bright light of exposure and an appeal to the conscience of the American people. Investigative work is one of The HSUS’s most powerful weapons against the mistreatment of animals and you can help equip and deploy our investigators with a contribution to our Investigations Fund.

You can also make a difference in the lives of farm animals by joining our campaign efforts and by being a caring consumer. The HSUS recommends a “Three Rs” policy: reducing total consumption of animal products, refining techniques to minimize pain and distress, and replacing animal products with non-animal products. For example, if each American simply reduced his or her animal consumption by only 10 percent, approximately 1 billion fewer animals would endure factory farms and slaughter plants. If you continue to eat animal products, refining your diet by switching to products from animals raised without intensive confinement, instead of the conventional factory farm products that fill most supermarket shelves, will also help to reduce farm animal suffering. And, replacing animal products with readily available vegetarian alternatives is a simple (and delicious) way to help farm animals. Check out our recipes and our online guide for the hows and whys of animal-friendly eating.

You can find even more ways to take action on behalf of farm animals at humanesociety.org/farm.

February 13, 2008

Prepared for Battle

When one rooster delivers a gaff or short knife thrust into his combatant's lung in an enclosed cockfighting pit, the victim suffers—no matter if the staged fight occurs in a jurisdiction that allows or outlaws the practice. If locals cheer the bloodletting, the laughter and excitement do nothing to mitigate the pain and anguish and fear the animal experiences.

Roosters at raided Virginia cockfighting pit
© The HSUS/Guzy
Roosters at a raided cockfighting pit.

Cockfighting is a sickening, appalling, dehumanizing, indefensible spectacle wherever it occurs. Tradition and culture do not excuse cruelty.

The New York Times published a lengthy story today about cockfighting in the Dominican Republic, and reporter Katie Thomas trekked to the Caribbean island after Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez and Hall of Fame legend Juan Marichal, both natives of the country, appeared in a YouTube video pitting birds at the Coliseo de Gallos in Santo Domingo.

"We don't see anything wrong with it," the president of the country's National Commission of Cockfighting told the Times. "It is completely integrated in our laws and completely integrated in our tradition." The Times reports that there are 1,500 cockfighting arenas, or galleras, registered with the Commission.

The HSUS won't be silent on the controversy. Baseball players—especially present and future Hall of Famers—are role models. They have a major cultural impact here in the United States—a nation, it is important to point out, that is plagued with an epidemic of illegal animal fighting and all of the other illicit activity linked to this gateway crime. We don't want their behavior to invite or foster more participation in this barbaric practice. What's more, popular support in the Dominican Republic or any other nation for an immoral practice does not make the practice any less cruel; in fact, its widespread presence is a call to arms for us at The HSUS, for we have an active international program that seeks to extend the principles of humaneness throughout the world.

If the people of any nation viewed stoning women as an acceptable form of recreation, we would not hesitate to denounce it and demand its end. Even if they employed some people to collect spectator fees, and to clean up the bloody mess, that would hardly absolve us of the moral responsibility to work to stop this inhumanity. We now accept that human rights are universal.

Well, animal protection principles are universal, too. When we are talking about a recreational pursuit that causes such harsh suffering, it is not a close moral call. The conduct is demonstrably cruel, and it hardly serves some life-saving or other essential purpose. These nations, and the people participating, can do without it, just as they can do without dogfighting, bullfighting, and other spectator sports involving cruelty. The United States is none the worse—in fact, it is better—for having criminalized these practices and for the current efforts to root out this conduct in the dark corners where it thrives.

The march of civilization will eventually trample these parochial, cruel customs everywhere in the world. I am just afraid it will take longer than any of us would ever want to stomach.

February 12, 2008

Shaking Up the Food Chain

Safeway, the nation's third largest supermarket, announced yesterday a series of meaningful animal welfare reforms relating to the treatment of chickens and pigs raised for eggs and meat sold at its 1,700 or so stores. The HSUS has been in discussions with Safeway for months, and based on the company's announced commitments on animal welfare, we have withdrawn a resolution we planned to submit to shareholders for consideration at their next meeting.

© iStockphoto

Safeway is just the latest food retailer to give a nod to animal welfare. Whole Foods, Wolfgang Puck, Burger King, Compass Group, and a laundry list of others have, to varying degrees, instituted animal welfare reforms in recent years—with many of them responding to HSUS entreaties for action. It's an ascendant trend, and we hope there's much more to report to you on this front in the months and years to come.

Retailers have enormous power over producers, transporters, and slaughtering operations. If they demand new welfare standards, the producers and processors will adjust. U.S. farmers are innovators, and they just need a signal or directive from the marketplace. We've seen that time and again.

After we released the results of our investigation at Hallmark Meat Co., two major fast-food chains terminated their relationships with the company. Our investigation documented downer cows being shocked, struck with wooden paddles in the face, rammed or run over with forklifts, and blasted in the nostrils and mouth with water from a high pressure hose to simulate drowning—all done to get these sick or injured animals to stand to get them to slaughter for human consumption.

The behavior caught on tape and subsequently broadcast to millions of Americans has rightly earned widespread condemnation, even from many leaders and trade press within the animal agribusiness industry. Unfortunately, some players in industry, and even the new USDA Agriculture Secretary himself, also saw fit to criticize The HSUS, claiming that we did not release the results immediately to federal authorities. In a blog last week, I wrote about the timeline for the investigation. The HSUS is the last entity that would ever want to sit on the results; we had no incentive to do so. We were methodical in how we handled the investigation, and how we publicized it, too. The national furor that erupted once we publicly released the information shows we handled the job thoroughly and effectively.

Downed cow pulled at Hallmark Meat Packing
© The HSUS
A worker pulls a downed cow at Hallmark Meat Packing.

In addition, some at the USDA continue to repeat the claim that it has not seen any evidence of downed cows going to slaughter for human consumption. But we have indeed provided incontrovertible evidence to the USDA to show that that's exactly what happened. And let's face it, the managers and employees at Hallmark would not have relied on so many means of tormenting the cows if they weren't intent on getting downers into the slaughter plant. They wanted to convert every cow into cash.

And frankly, this isn't the first time that slaughtering of downed animals for human consumption has recently come to light. The USDA's own Inspector General did a report in January 2006 revealing that USDA inspectors were allowing some downers to be slaughtered, in violation of the agency's own rules banning that practice.

It's not up to The HSUS to do the USDA's job, but it is our job to watch over the USDA if it is not handling its responsibilities properly. The USDA gets millions of dollars in taxpayer funds from Congress and the American people every year to inspect the plants and enforce the law. It's a tough job to be sure, but the USDA should focus on investigating this plant and, in a larger sense, correcting its own procedures and policies that allowed these atrocious practices to occur—on the USDA's watch, I might add.

February 11, 2008

The Cruelty Connection

Kindness and compassion are infectious. A child who embraces the ethic of compassion for animals is typically a child who is more respectful and empathetic toward other people. We've long known that inculcating a concern for animals builds character and fosters a sense of responsibility. My experience in 20 years of full-time animal protection work has shown me that kindness begets more of the same.

The converse is also true. The person who abuses an animal is more likely to do harm to people. There's abundant evidence of this propensity documented in the sociological literature, and that, too, has been validated by my experiences as president of The HSUS. Dogfighters typically don't just break laws related to animal cruelty. Very often, they are involved in violence toward people, narcotics trafficking, and other vices. Where there is domestic violence, the victims are interchangeable for the abuser; one day it's a spouse, the next a child or the family pet. There's a loss of empathy, and an attitude of license and the raw use of power.

There are normalized behaviors that are not associated with aberrant, socially destructive behavior. Someone who wears fur is not someone who is more likely to cause harm to others, even if there are moral issues raised by the killing of animals for fur. The same is true for people who eat meat. Wearing fur and eating meat are social customs, and these types of conduct are not precursors of violence toward others. We ask the consumers to think about their purchases and to consider the moral costs of their consumption habits, but we do not confuse their choices with any form of social pathology.

But there are production practices that are so harsh and severe that there is a larger moral spillover effect. I couldn't help but think about this in reading about a remarkable investigative report on the poultry industry now running in The Charlotte Observer. The series talks about the systematic exploitation of the slaughterhouse workers, at plants that are processing millions and millions of birds every week.

Plant overseers that systematically orchestrate the brutalizing of animals are generally not paragons of responsible behavior. Mistreating workers, polluting the environment, and producing unsafe food are the other by-products of their operations. And the psychological effect on people who do the killing and dismembering of animals cannot be healthy. It's a demeaning, dehumanizing process, and the people involved must be scarred by the experience.

You cannot compartmentalize kindness. Nor can you easily compartmentalize violence or abuse. It spills over time and again.

That's just one reason why the work of The Humane Society of the United States is so important.

February 08, 2008

Don't Shoot the Predator

Not all forms of predator control are equal, but there's an underlying core belief for the advocates of these killing programs that the predators are infringing upon our human prerogatives and our ordering of the world. We're the ones who want to exploit prey populations, and predators be damned if they interrupt our best-laid plans.

Aerial gunning of wolves in Alaska—done to boost populations of moose and caribou for hunters to shoot—is surely one of the most indefensible. Mass killing of coyotes by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services branch—about 90,000 coyotes a year—is done in part as a psychological salve for ranchers with a paranoia and hatred of these opportunistic and adaptable canids. The proposal to kill a limited number of sea lions in the Columbia River near Portland, as a means of saving threatened and endangered populations of salmon, has greater moral complexity than the above-mentioned examples, but is still a bad and unworthy idea.


My colleague John Balzar, The HSUS's senior vice president for communications and former Northwest bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, covered natural resource and environmental issues for years. He reported on many of the major social and ecological conflicts that stirred debate in all corners of the region. He's got just the right take and perspective on the proposed killing of sea lions, and I encourage you to read a column he wrote for the Seattle Times that appeared yesterday, which I've included below.

And after you are done with that, please write to the National Marine Fisheries Service by Feb. 19 and urge them to pursue exclusively non-lethal means of managing conflicts between sea lions and salmon and to look to the more serious culprits in the decline of salmon populations.

Killing sea lions will not save Columbia River salmon

By John Balzar
Special to The Times

When the government gets ready to kill predators in a desperate effort to save prey, you can be sure that something's way wrong in nature. And these days, what's wrong can usually be traced to human mistakes.

That's exactly the situation on the great Columbia River at Bonneville Dam.

Here, the federally protected sea lion swims in troubled waters with the chinook salmon, and bad news is brewing.

Continue reading "Don't Shoot the Predator" »

February 07, 2008

New Year, New Tradition

For the largest percentage of people on the planet, it's New Year's Day. More specifically, it's Chinese New Year, and it's the Year of the Rat.

Table tents in English and Chinese explain the decision to not
serve shark fin. Consumer cards and brochures are also available.

Many Chinese celebrate the New Year with a hot bowl of shark fin soup. It’s a tradition, but like other antiquated traditions centered on the exploitation of animals, it should be relegated to the history books. By now we know that sharks play an essential role in the oceans, and few oceanic creatures are in greater distress than dozens of species of sharks.

We have found that most consumers of shark fin soup—and the businesses that offer it—are simply not aware of the harm associated with the dish. Sharks are caught, the fin cut off, and then the debilitated shark dumped back into the water, unable to swim without a fin. The animal dies a lingering death. This happens to tens of millions of sharks every year in the world's oceans.

That’s why Humane Society International is reaching out to Chinese Americans—at Chinese New Year celebrations, Chinese community centers, online, and elsewhere—asking them to never consume or serve dishes containing shark fin. We’re receiving a positive response and have generated supportive articles in widely read Chinese language newspapers, convinced businesses to stop offering shark fin, and urged thousands of people to sign our No Shark Fin pledge.

If you patronize Chinese restaurants, ask the manager this New Year to find a new tradition. Let sharks keep their fins, and leave the animals be.

February 06, 2008

Talk Back: Investigation Ovations

Our comment box continues to flood as readers add their voice to the uproar surrounding our investigation into inhumane treatment of downed cows at a California slaughter plant. Among the comments we received:

To the person who had enough compassion for animals to put himself through what must have been a heartbreaking ordeal in the slaughterhouse, thank you, thank you. You are an angel. I can't say enough about my admiration for The HSUS. You make this world a better and kinder place with every moment you devote to your work. It's an honor to help you. —Lorraine

I have taken all recommended actions to get the San Bernardino county D.A. to prosecute those responsible for the torture at the Hallmark Meat Packing Co. I just wished to write because my thoughts go out to the person who witnessed and bravely documented the violent abuse occurring there. Watching the video makes us all feel ill but actually being there must have been so much worse. It was no doubt heart wrenching for him. I hope his recovery is made speedier by knowing that he is saving future lives and wellbeing of animals on a national level. Please tell him that my heart goes out to him and I will say a prayer to help ease his pain. It is shared in part by all of us. —Stacey Galvin

I'm always in complete awe of the people willing to put themselves into these situations to reveal such cruelty. I can only imagine what they go through to accomplish their goals. Truly, he has a special place in heaven waiting for him. Thank you, investigator... —Lisa J

I did not have the heart to watch the video; I did not think that I would be able to stomach it. But just looking at the cow on the screen, its immense suffering was so clear and evident. I was tossing and turning in bed all night, I was having nightmares! I still tear up just thinking about it. Why are people so inhumane and uncaring? How can they have no compassion? It is simply unconscionable and evil. EVIL!!! These acts MUST IMMEDIATELY be put to an end. Thank God for The HSUS, and hats off for a job done superbly on exposing these heinous acts, getting the USDA swiftly involved, and alerting the global public! I have been inspired to become vegetarian. —Helen Chung

Thank God! I am so glad this has finally received the recognition it deserves. I am from Minnesota and was not raised to treat animals this way! I just found out that some of this meat was sent to my area and I am outraged! Animals are not ours to torture! I want to personally thank the individual that had to witness these atrocities firsthand in order to open the eyes of so many! —Kristen Sackett

I found out about the Westland slaughter video from my daughter. We don't live that far from that slaughterhouse, so probably their beef was going to her school. The school pulled the beef out of it, and she was told about the situation by teachers, and watched the video before I knew. It made me sick and angry. I wonder why, in the paper today, it says that the two workers were fired. Why doesn't it say that they were JAILED? Isn't their sick, sadistic behavior illegal? In Houston, they'd be jailed. On Animal Planet, on one of the animal rescue shows, we'd be watching them hauled off by sheriffs. Can we see that happen here? We have friends who are cattlemen, and they do not allow these situations to occur on their ranches. For now, my daughter is off beef, and we'll try to avoid it even more than we already do. —Beth Glover

Thank you for relentlessly investigating the horrors of factory farming and for bringing this to the mainstream media and the public. Change happens slowly, but this powerful investigation will have tremendous effects, as we have already seen in one week. —Mary

Continue reading "Talk Back: Investigation Ovations " »

Shut Down

Last night, while I was doing email and watching Super Tuesday returns, an email from the USDA came in to my inbox. It was news I was anxiously awaiting.

"On Feb. 4, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) suspended inspection at Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company based on the establishment's clear violation of Federal regulations and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act," read the statement from Dr. Richard Raymond, Under Secretary for Food Safety for the USDA. "This Notice of Suspension is a regulatory course of action available when FSIS finds egregious violations of humane handling regulations."

Downed cow at Hallmark Meat Packing
© The HSUS
A downed cow at Hallmark Meat Packing.

Egregious violations indeed. Employees at Hallmark Meat Packing and Westland Meat Company were tormenting downed cows in an effort to get them to stand so they could walk into the kill box. It was one of the worst cases of cruelty to farm animals we've witnessed.

The USDA shutting down the slaughter plant is a major and relatively rare action by the agency. It speaks to the unambiguous and illegal behavior engaged in at the Chino-based plant that was the subject of a long-term undercover investigation by The HSUS. This is the latest action by the USDA after The HSUS turned over video from our investigation to the Agriculture Secretary. On the day that The HSUS broke the investigation, the USDA suspended its food procurement contracts with Westland Meat Company and announced a formal investigation to be handled by the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Office of Inspector General.

The USDA has acted responsibly and swiftly since this controversy came to light. Now we hope the USDA continues its investigation and revisits its policy on the handling of downer cattle. It is time for the agency to close the loophole that allows some downers to be slaughtered. The Congress should also take action in the wake of the revelations made by The HSUS. It should pass the Downed Animal and Food Safety Protection Act and the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act. You can write to lawmakers through the links I've included here and urge them to adopt these needed reforms in an expeditious manner.