I’ve just returned from a tour of the heartland–Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska–where I talked to HSUS supporters, leaders, staff members from other animal welfare organizations, farm groups, and farmers. I visited animal shelters and spay/neuter clinics, and I also got a first-hand look at some pig, egg-laying hen, and dairy farms. In addition, I addressed the family farmers at the Organization for Competitive Markets, which had its annual convention in Kansas City.
I was pleased to visit the Humane Society of Indianapolis and see the final touches being added to its new spay-and-neuter clinic and animal welfare center, set to open next week in one of the city’s economically disadvantaged areas. Elsewhere in the city, I met the incredible volunteers with Casa Del Toro Pit Bull Education & Rescue, which The HSUS supports with a $50,000 grant, who work to reach low-income pet lovers and to provide their animals with free vaccinations and free spay-and-neuters. Both of these efforts are predicated on the principles of our Pets for Life program, which seeks to get outside of the shelter and into the community to reach people and pets who need animal care services the most.
My trip included a visit to the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, too, which is working on a program that targets the zip codes in Des Moines where the problems for companion animals are most acute.
On my recent trip to visit farms and animal shelters.
But I was also focused–along with HSUS rural affairs director Joe Maxwell and the chair of the Nebraska Agriculture Council of The HSUS, Kevin Fulton–on the pursuit of productive dialogue with farmers and the advancement of our efforts to push for improvements in animal agriculture in America. I’m a vegan, Joe comes from a fourth-generation pig farm in rural Missouri, and Kevin has an organic cattle ranch in central Nebraska, so one might think, at first blush, that we don’t share the same sensibilities or even a common agenda.
But the United States is a nation grounded on principles of pluralism, and to my mind, that, too, must a be a core value of our cause of animal protection. We must be united in our fundamental ideals, of compassion and mercy and responsibility, but there’s no single way it plays out in a world as diverse as ours. There’s not a single orthodoxy, but dozens of different applications of these humane ideals and different forms of advocacy and lifestyle. I want our movement to be a welcoming one, and I take pride in the fact that The HSUS is a big-tent organization. My number-one metric, whether for people or institutions, is not, “Are you perfect?” but “Are you moving in the right direction–are you seeking continuous improvement?”
Paul Willis, who runs a pig farm in north-central Iowa and also a network of more than 400 like-minded farmers as part of Niman Ranch, has been moving in the right direction for a long time. Paul’s pigs are never threatened with a confinement crate. They are free to move and to be pigs. I saw their progeny out in large pastures, outside and able to seek shelter whenever they want. Yes, they’ll have one bad day, when slaughter comes, but the rest of their life is a good one, by any reasonable measure.
On our way to Paul’s farm and on our way back, I could not help but notice that the landscape is peppered with hog confinement facilities. If you didn’t know any better, you’d hardly know there were any farm animals or farmers of any kind around at all. It’s almost like there was an evacuation order, and we didn’t get the message. All you see are soybean and corn rows, and then these huge warehouse-style buildings. In many of them, there are pigs crammed in by the thousands, jammed side-by-side and fed a diet laced with antibiotics. Their days never involve stepping on a blade of grass or feeling the sun on their backs. It’s a life of continuous privation, and Paul Willis says he’d never do this kind of thing to these curious, intelligent, feeling creatures.
In Indiana, I went to one of the largest dairy farms in America–Fair Oaks Farms, in the northwest part of the state. It’s a mega-dairy for sure, but the charismatic owner of this farm, Michael McCloskey, has been an innovator within the industry. For years, he’s been a dissenter when it comes to the once-standard practice of tail docking, and every one of the cows on his farm has a tail, as she was meant to have. The cows bed on sand, which is more comfortable for the animals than concrete, and I didn’t see the animals exhibiting any lameness as they walked back and forth between their living area and the milking facility.
The cows are milked by machine on an automated rotary, and the whole enterprise bears little resemblance to the images of a family dairy. But I celebrate his steps toward more humane treatment, as well as innovations in manure management and energy production (he’s developed digesters to transform the manure into energy and to fuel the entire complex and his fleet of 18-wheelers that haul the milk to pasteurizing plants and then to market). His cows all go to slaughter, for ground beef for fast-food companies, so no one should be under the illusion that there’s a retirement home for them. But McCloskey is driving important debate within the industry, and that’s something I like to see.
I also saw an industrial egg farm in Iowa for laying hens, who are confined in barren battery cages. I met with the owners of this facility, and while The HSUS and I don’t support this type of intensive confinement, I was pleased to sit down with these egg industry officials and to strategize with them on efforts to pass H.R. 3798 and S. 3239, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments, to phase out these cages and to provide birds with essentially double the space and with enrichments (and to provide for a labeling program to give consumers information about how hens are raised). They know the industry must change, and they are working for that change on a national level, to apply to all egg farmers. And that attitude stands in sharp contrast to many leaders in the pork, cattle, and dairy industries, who stand and fight the most obvious and common-sense reforms.
The HSUS is an organization that welcomes vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike. The common thread we demand is conscious awareness of animals and their basic needs,and an effort to find better ways to live and do business with the intent of creating a new, humane economy. When it comes to agricultural producers, we as a movement must engage them. They have billions of animals under their care, and the welfare of these creatures should be top-of-mind for them, since animals are the very essence of their enterprises. When they ignore their responsibilities to animals, that’s when they run into trouble, from The HSUS and from the rest of the American public.