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May 27, 2009

Turning the Page for Farm Animals

The HSUS doesn’t have the luxury of focusing exclusively on any one issue. We put a stake in the ground on most of the major forms of widespread or institutionalized cruelty—in the U.S. and increasingly abroad.

Since its beginnings in the 1950s, The HSUS has always taken aim at farm animal abuses. The only difference now is our sense of urgency, since confinement, transport, and slaughter systems have become needlessly harsh and because the number of animals raised for food is so staggeringly large.

If the howls from leaders within the big agribusiness sector are solid indicators, we are making some meaningful progress. And never more so than in 2008, when we broke our Hallmark/Westland slaughter plant investigation and also led the charge to pass Proposition 2 in California.

Last week, Wendy’s agreed to start purchasing a modest but meaningful portion of eggs from cage-free producers. And this morning, one of our staff members spoke at a McDonald’s shareholder meeting urging the company to align itself with other fast-food giants and begin to phase in the use of cage-free eggs at its American outlets, or even to mirror its action in Europe, where McDonald’s has already agreed to switch to 100 percent cage-free whole eggs by next year.

Yesterday, we had major votes on farm animal welfare issues in California—and with great results, thanks in part to the political message sent by the landslide passage of Prop 2. The California Senate, by a vote of 27-12, approved a bill to ban the painful mutilation procedure of tail docking of dairy cattle—and that’s especially significant because California is the largest dairy state in the nation, with 1.8 million of the nation’s 9 million dairy cows. And the California Assembly passed A.B. 1437, a bill to ban the sale of eggs from battery cage operations, for both humane and health reasons.

Both bills have a ways to go, needing approval by the other legislative chamber and then the governor, but these are exciting advances.

The Face on Your Plate by Jeffrey Masson/The Inner World of Farm Animals by Amy Hatkoff

There’s also an uptick in publishing on food and farm animal issues, and I’ve just read two books on the subject. The first, "The Face on Your Plate," is by Jeffrey Masson, author of a number of books on the emotional lives of animals. Masson lays out the case against industrial animal agriculture methodically, focusing chapters on the global environmental costs of meat consumption; the emotional capacities of animals raised for food and the cruelty imposed upon them throughout their lives; the disturbing business of fish farming as a source of cruelty and environmental despoliation; the psychological mechanisms by which we shield ourselves from the reality of animal suffering; and his personal experience with what he calls a “veganish” diet.

I found Masson’s chapter on denial most provocative, drawing as it does on his training as a psychoanalyst. Having created a stir in the psychoanalytic community some years ago with his criticisms of Sigmund and Anna Freud, he is no stranger to provocation. When it comes to farm animals, he believes, the range of empathy on the part of the general public is still quite narrow, and he is blunt about the self-deluding practices that many consumers engage in when it comes to thinking about animal welfare and diet. Masson argues his case with passion and intelligence, and "The Face on Your Plate" is an important contribution to a growing body of work on farm animals.

The second work, Amy Hatkoff’s "The Inner World of Farm Animals," focuses on the social, emotional, and intellectual capacities of farm animals, and I provided an afterword for it. I read this fine work in draft form while in the midst of the Prop 2 campaign in California, and I was glad to have before me such a compelling case for improved treatment of farm animals during that crucial time.

Hatkoff’s book is aimed at young audiences, and, drawing on the latest scientific evidence available, it really fills a niche. In chapters devoted to chickens; geese, ducks and turkeys; cows; and pigs, sheep and goats, the author intersperses general accounts with charming vignettes of individual animals.

These books, and all of the other activity on farm animal issues, are markers of a national movement to re-examine where our food comes from, to assess the economic and non-economic costs of industrial animal agriculture, and imagine ways of doing better. As individuals, we must be conscious consumers, and we can do our part to educate ourselves, to influence corporate practices, and to influence policy. When millions of HSUS members take collective action like that, there can be no other outcome except forward movement for farm animals.

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