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August 27, 2008

Farm Animal Protection, Past and Present

Fifty years ago today President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) into law, remarking to a group of congressmen: “If I relied on my mail, I would think that the country is concerned only about humane slaughter.” The enactment of this landmark legislation in 1958 was the major early triumph of the fledgling HSUS, founded by Fred Myers and three colleagues just four years before. Myers directed his personal energy and a large portion of the organization’s meager resources toward its passage.

Hen in cage
© SXC/asmorod

Congress would not have passed the measure but for the insistent work of The HSUS, the Animal Welfare Institute, the leadership of Sen. Hubert Humphrey, and many other advocates. Now 50 years later, our concern about the treatment of animals at slaughter remains top-of-mind. We’ve lobbied for amendments to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act; we’ve pushed to get more funding for enforcement; we’ve pressed industry for innovations that improve the welfare of animals and for stricter voluntary compliance; we've exposed serious gaps in USDA's oversight through undercover investigations revealing routine abuse; and we’ve demanded that the HMSA be applied to the more than 9 billion farmed birds who are slaughtered each year—either through a broader interpretation of the law or an affirmative action by Congress to make that responsibility plain.

It’s easily forgotten now, but the HMSA was effectively the first legislation to protect domestic animals that passed at the federal level after a dry spell of 75 years. Until 1958, the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, passed in 1873 to mitigate the suffering of farm animals in transit, stood alone as the only law of its kind.

That’s stunning, even a little depressing, to consider, but it’s precisely the reason that Myers and his colleagues founded The HSUS—to push for national solutions, and federal action as part of the drive to help animals. They were seeking policy solutions that could have broad application. Our founders saw what others apparently did not—that certain problems are not amenable to solutions at the local level, and that the exercise of federal authority is warranted and necessary to protect animals.

This founding vision has driven our work to pass and strengthen the HMSA, the animal fighting provisions of the Animal Welfare Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and dozens of other federal statutes to shield animals from abuse.

Our political opponents criticize The HSUS for working on farm animal protection, but this is a profoundly if not willfully inaccurate reading of our organizational history. The fact is, the welfare of animals raised for food was a central priority 50 years ago, and our recent work in this arena simply builds on the best traditions of the founding generation's self-declared objectives.

In recent years the cruelties of factory farming, with its intensive animal confinement practices, have come increasingly to light, and we’ve answered the call. By passing laws in a number of states to halt the use of gestation crates and veal crates, by launching the current Proposition 2 campaign in California, by working to pass a comprehensive federal ban on the mistreatment and slaughter of downed animals, and by reaching out to corporations to urge them to stop selling products from factory-farmed animals, we’ve put forward the argument that the country also needs to focus its attention on the way in which animals are raised. All animals deserve humane treatment, including those raised for food.

We’re keeping faith with our founders, by extending their vision to the contemporary landscape of cruelty, and committing ourselves to an agenda of aggressive and unrelenting action, giving no quarter and no comfort to the industries and interests arrayed against us that cause needless harm to animals in the agribusiness sector.

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