Last week, Mercy For Animals released an undercover video of horrific animal abuse at Canada’s Maple Lodge Farms. Michael Burrows, CEO of Maple Lodge Farms, wasted no time in releasing a video of his own, expressing deep concern about MFA’s investigation.
Here is my open letter to Burrows:
Dear Mr. Burrows,
You did an excellent job in your video following the recent Mercy For Animals investigation. The trouble is, every industry exec says exactly the same thing after every undercover investigation is made public. Every exec says “It’s an anomaly, it won’t be tolerated, we don’t condone this, we have strict policies, we care about animal welfare.” But it simply isn’t true. These statements have absolutely no credibility anymore. No company is targeted for investigation; it’s completely random, and yet the same horrific abuses are uncovered each and every time. That is not an anomaly, Mr. Burrows, it is standard operating procedure. And it is not acceptable. If, as you say, your auditors ensure that appropriate animal-handling procedures are being followed, then the MFA would have had no story to tell. The truth is, animals are nothing more than commodities in the world of animal agriculture and their welfare is meaningless when it’s up against a company’s bottom line. Animals are handled the way they are because it IS allowed, because no one really cares, because it’s more important that each one of them is killed and “processed” (not necessarily in that order, I hasten to add) as quickly as possible than it is to ensure they suffer as little as possible.
You’re right: no one wants to see animals suffer. They just want to buy chicken for $4 a pound and they don’t want to know how it got in the cellophane package.
The cost of meat is astronomical – for the animals, the plant workers and the environment. But the days of snowing the public are over.
This was a bad weekend for my blood pressure. I was enjoying a cup of coffee, settled in with the weekend paper, when one of the inserts I normally discard caught my eye. It was a 12-page, glossy ‘digest edition’ of The Real Dirt on Farming. On the cover were photos of lusciously coloured vegetables, a couple of good-looking cows, a nervous-looking pig, and a group of smiling people – representing Canadian farmers, I suppose – in a cow pasture. Naturally, my curiosity was piqued.
It was all pretty benign and low-key until I got to Farm animals 101 on page five. All of sudden these farmers sounded like veterinarians working for love. I have no doubt that some of the smaller farmers raising animals for food probably do actually care about their animals. Not enough to do something different for a living, but I do believe some of them care. The few who have actually become sanctuary founders or activists, not to mention vegan, attest to that. I’ve read several stories of farmers who, emotionally, just couldn’t do it anymore. But they are an infinitesimal minority and I have simply seen too much to believe that most farmers give a toss about the animals in their care.
This newspaper insert crossed the line into propaganda when it stated things about animal care that are flat-out untrue. I realize that a word like “propaganda” has an almost Orwellian ring to it, but it’s not remotely out of place here: the way the majority of farmed animals are housed (or warehoused) is itself entirely Orwellian.
Consider the following quotations from The Real Dirt on Farming:
“Farmers and ranchers choose to work with animals because we enjoy it. Caring for animals properly is simply a matter of doing the right thing but it also makes good business sense. Content, healthy animals are more productive animals and lead to higher quality food products.”
You would think so, but no. The cost of animal death is actually built into the business model. We have fewer farms raising more animals. Individualized care of any kind is not only not a possibility, it’s not even a concern. That’s why they use prophylactic antibiotics: so the animals can actually survive the conditions they’re raised in and make it to slaughter. A miserable, unhealthy dairy cow does not produce less milk than her healthier sister. And none of them is happy being restrained in what the industry itself refers to as a “rape rack,” forcibly impregnated and then having her baby taken from her so that humans can use her milk.
“Barns protect livestock from extreme weather and temperatures (hot and cold), diseases like avian influenza, and predators like wolves and coyotes.”
Such a nice idea, but not entirely truthful. The animals do not have the choice of whether to be outside or in, so the truth is, the only time they may ever breathe fresh air or glimpse sunshine is on a crowded, barren feedlot (where cattle are fattened just before slaughter), or on their way to the slaughterhouse. Furthermore, barns do absolutely nothing to protect chickens or turkeys from avian flu. On the contrary, they act like an incubator for disease. As for the wolves or coyotes, do a Google search for images of factory farms – predators aren’t getting anywhere near them. (I’m sure barns are helpful in that regard for sheep farms, but let’s not kid ourselves: this is not about the animals and their comfort and safety. It’s about money.)
“Animal housing is about animal needs, which can be quite different from human needs, and every animal is different. For example, laying hens are descended from jungle fowl that live in small groups under tree roots. This means it’s natural for the hens to want to live closely together with other birds in smaller, enclosed spaces. And, given the choice of staying indoors or heading out to pasture, dairy cows often opt for the comfort of well-ventilated barns in warmer weather.”
Animal housing is not about animal needs. It is about maximizing profit. No pig needs to spend the majority of her life confined in a gestation crate in which she cannot turn around or exercise a single natural impulse. Nor does she need to be separated from her offspring in a farrowing crate. Farmers will tell you they do this to protect the piglets from their mother rolling over and crushing them. Has that ever happened? Sure it has. Is it a normal occurrence? Absolutely not. I have friends who work at farmed animal sanctuaries who have never seen it happen. Pigs, like almost all animals, are excellent mothers and not prone to killing their young, accidentally or otherwise.
It’s almost funny to me that the industry talks about what’s natural for laying hens as a justification for housing them in unimaginably cramped conditions, yet they don’t talk about the fact that it’s NOT natural for hens to produce so many eggs so quickly that many of them die from reproductive cancers or prolapsed uteri before ever becoming a chicken “fingers” or chicken loaf, sliced and sold as sandwich meat – the usual end for egg-laying hens. If you’re reading this on an iPad, then you’re looking at the amount of space your average chicken spends her entire life confined in, unable to stretch a single wing.
“Farmers must follow laws for humane treatment [of animals]…Neglect and abuse of animals of any kind is against the law.”
Except here’s the thing: what is exempt from animal abuse laws is anything that is considered to be common practice on farms. So here’s a list of all the things it’s perfectly legal and acceptable to do a farmed animal, all without anesthetic or pain relief:
- Disbudding (removal of horn buds)
- Tooth-clipping (exactly what it sounds like, done to young pigs so they don’t cause damage biting each other in intensive confinement)
- Debeaking (using a machine to sear off the very sensitive tip of the beaks of turkeys and chickens, again so they don’t damage each other in intensive confinement)
- Detoeing (cutting off the ends of the toes of farmed birds – as above)
Imagine for a moment someone doing any one of those things to a cat or a dog. It would most certainly be considered animal cruelty. It would be considered torture. What’s the difference? What’s the difference between a cat or a dog or a cow or a pig? A popular ad campaign says the only difference is our attitude. Because we keep certain kinds of animals as pets and raise others for food, what is unconscionable for one becomes institutionalized and accepted for another. But it doesn’t make any sense.
When an interest group – in this case, Farm & Food Care Foundation – is appealing to you and offering you information, I urge you to look at it with a critical eye and question who benefits from it and how. Question motives. Follow the money. It’s not in the pockets of animal advocates.
On the Facebook page of an international editors’ group I belong to, someone recently asked whether ‘livestock’ was a trigger word for revulsion in animal rights and welfare circles, and whether it should be avoided in favour of ‘farm animals’.
I was surprised — and pleased — that someone outside the sphere of animal advocacy would stop to think about that and ask the question. I replied yes, I would personally suggest avoiding that word, and went on to say that when I write about animals, depending on the context I’ll go a step further and say ‘farmed’ animals, adding the ‘-ed’ to emphasize the notion of exploitation.
Another editor in the Facebook conversation accused me of “making stuff up to be offended about,” “trying to turn ‘livestock’ into a dirty word,” and added that I was damaging my own credibility by expressing my (asked-for) perspective.
I don’t look for things to get offended by. I don’t have to – our use of and casual disregard for animals is so pervasive it’s impossible to avoid. Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur has said “Once you start seeing, you can’t stop,” and it’s true. I don’t look at a simple pair of shoes the same way I used to. I avert my eyes when I have to walk past the meat counter at the grocery store. Someone walking their dog while wearing a Canada Goose coat, complete with coyote fur trim, sends my blood pressure soaring. It frustrates me endlessly that the majority of other people don’t (or sometimes won’t) see what I see.
I am not a filmmaker or a talented photographer or an artist…all I can do is write, so that is the only way I have of trying to show other people the way I see the world and the way I see animals. So the words I use are important.
Language matters; it is how we express ourselves to one another, explain things, communicate ideas. And when one is discussing rights, oppression or exploitation, I think the specific language used takes on even greater importance, because it has the power to shape perception.
I don’t like the word ‘livestock’. I don’t view animals as any kind of stock. I see them as living, feeling beings, because that’s what they are. They’re not objects, and I think words like ‘livestock’ objectify them. I don’t talk about livestock, I talk about animals. When I tell someone I’m vegan and they ask what that means, I don’t tell them I don’t eat meat, eggs or dairy, I tell them I don’t eat (or use) animals or their products, because that’s what they are. I am not talking about something, I am talking about someone, and the language I use deliberately reflects that.
Choice of language is also about knowing who you’re speaking to. I don’t talk about animals being ‘murdered’ because I know what a completely foreign concept that is to most people. There is a school of thought that says if you want to get people to change their perceptions you have to make room in the lexicon for murder being an applicable word for all animals, not just human ones, and I respect that view. But my own approach favours meeting people where they are, using language they can relate to. I don’t want anyone to be so busy reacting to a statement like “meat is murder” that they can’t hear anything else I’m saying.
I wasn’t trying to turn ‘livestock’ into a dirty word (although I find that an interesting idea). I was asked whether people who advocate for animals would prefer another term and I said yes. The world is full of euphemisms for animal parts: beef, pork, veal, nuggets, paté. I could go on and on. These words separate us from the animals they describe, which is very convenient. It’s so easy to not see…most of us have been doing it all our lives. If someone took you to a petting zoo when you were a kid and then told you at dinner that night that you were about to eat one of those same animals, you probably would have had a lot of trouble with that, and rightly so. But you wouldn’t have eaten a pork chop and thought about the pig whose belly you rubbed, because what’s a pork chop? A steak doesn’t look like a cow and a nugget doesn’t look like a chicken. There’s just nothing to relate to there. So language matters. ‘Livestock’ doesn’t have any real meaning. But say ‘farmed animals’ and suddenly you’re talking about someone. As it’s been famously said, animals are not here for us, they’re here with us. They feel, both physically and emotionally. Anyone with a dog or a cat knows that, and farmed animals (or any other animals, come to that) are absolutely no different.
As I was writing this, Farm Sanctuary’s National Shelter Director Susie Coston posted a video on her Facebook page. This is the text that accompanied the video:
It is amazing how responsive the cattle are. They all know their names and come when we call them. They are always so happy to see the people that they love. We are so lucky to have such amazing beings in our life. I love our cattle people.
Cattle people. Someone, not something (thank you, Bruce Friedrich). Yes, language matters.
I’ve never reblogged myself before. On the one hand, it seems incredibly lame. On the other, this is an issue that persists, coming up again year after year around the holidays. I don’t have anything new to say about it; my message remains the same. So I’m reposting for those who may have missed it the first time. Please share with family and friends.
For the animals,
Originally posted on These Glass Walls:
While Christmastime is often denounced for having been overcome by commercialism, more and more people want to share their good fortune by giving to those in need. It’s the time of year when non-profits of all kinds go into high gear with their fundraising campaigns. Food banks have collection bins in every grocery store, Santas are ringing bells on busy street corners to raise money to help the homeless, and international organizations spend big money on advertising and direct mail in an effort to capitalize on the overall generous mood of the season.
There are almost countless ways to help people less fortunate than you. You can sponsor a child in another country, you can feed a family for a month (for surprisingly little in many parts of the world), you can pay for vaccinations or school uniforms for children, fund a well in…
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Today is World Day for Farmed Animals. Animal rights advocates the world over are fasting today in solidarity with farmed animals, who often endure long journeys without food or water en route to their slaughter, in every kind of weather from perishing cold to searing heat.
This is also, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), Animal Health Week. CFIA recognized it by issuing a press release yesterday concerning the responsible use of antibiotics for pets and farmed animals. Two of the points made in the press release are:
Animal and livestock owners should make sure that all medicated feed that is manufactured, imported or sold in Canada meet certain specifications and regulatory requirements.
Whether on the farm or in the home, healthy animals can better fight off potential illnesses. A healthy lifestyle includes regular veterinary check-ups, vaccinations, parasite prevention, exercise and good nutrition.
There is an inherent paradox here. Regardless of how meat-eaters feel about consuming meat from animals who have been fed prophylactic antibiotics (and the ramifications of that on human health), the fact remains that if farmed animals were not raised in intensive confinement, antibiotics in their food would not be necessary. In addition, the overwhelming majority of farmed animals do not receive individual veterinary care, exercise or good nutrition. Baby animals do often receive an astonishing, often excessive, number of vaccines in the first days and weeks of life, but this is where any sort of veterinary care begins and ends. (Egg-laying hens, to give one example, receive weekly — sometimes daily — vaccinations until they begin egg production, mostly for diseases caused by unsanitary, overcrowded conditions with poor air circulation. In other words, they are vaccinated this frequently, often repeatedly for the same virus, so that they can survive the atmosphere in which they are forced to live.)
In all but the smallest of farms, true veterinary care is non-existent. Animals who get sick are left to suffer; those who die are written off as part of the cost of doing business. Animals are “cared for” only to the precise extent necessary to get them to survive long enough to make it to the slaughterhouse — and no more.
So while it’s very nice that the CFIA has issued a press release in recognition of Animal Health Week, what the animals really need are changes to both the system of animal agriculture and slaughter itself, and to the existing laws — which make common farm practices such as castration, branding, debeaking, de-toeing, snood-cutting, tail-docking and more, all without anesthetic of any kind, exempt from cruelty laws.
Bear in mind that if anyone treated one animal the way your average farmed animal is treated they would be brought up on charges. If someone treated dogs and cats this way — branding or castrating, for example, with no anesthetic — people would be horrified and the person who did it would justifiably fear for their safety. Do it to hundreds of thousands, millions, billions of animals, and it is sanctioned by nearly everyone. This is what happens when we commodify other beings.
Today, on World Day for Farmed Animals, you can show your support and compassion by leaving them off your plate. The world is changing and you can be part of the change. You can get all kinds of helpful information at Choose Veg, your local vegetarian association, V-Lish, the Veg Curious page on this blog, or simply by Googling “vegetarian starter kit.” Resources are all around you.
As they say at Edgar’s Mission, if we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others…why wouldn’t we?
I just posted something really difficult on These Glass Walls’ Facebook page. It’s a video of sheep-shearing, which most people consider to be quite harmless.
I struggled with posting it, in part because Facebook has a new background feature whereby posted video runs automatically without the need to click on it. I chose to post it anyway because I believe it’s so important for people to know about the brutal animal abuse behind wool. Yes, commercially raised sheep do need to be shorn because they’ve been bred that way — but no one needs to be shorn like this. The sheer brutality of it is breathtaking. The sheep are punched, kicked, dragged, stomped on, poked in the eyes, beaten in the head with a hammer, and more. All because they struggle when they’re shorn, which they find uncomfortable to begin with. I would imagine they struggle more when they see their flockmates — their family — being so violently abused.
What made it doubly difficult for me to see this is the fact that I just returned from three days at Farm Sanctuary, where the sheep barn is my favourite place to hang out and where I have come to know so many of these lovely animals as individuals. Sheep are such sweet, gentle, loving and kind creatures…they are protective of those weaker than they are and are highly intelligent with incredible memories, including great facial recollection, even among other sheep (or humans) they haven’t seen for years. The sheep in the undercover PETA video could be sheep I know; it could be Jeanne or Hershel or Joey or Freckles.
The video I’ve linked to here and posted on Facebook is very hard to watch, but I implore you to try — and then to reconsider how you feel about wool. It’s about as far from harmless as you can possibly get.
**Please note: if you click on the link, you will see a petition you can sign at the bottom of the page that asks Ralph Lauren & J. Crew, two leading sellers of wool in the USA, to drop wool in favour of animal-free alternatives.