Animal Rights and Wrongs

Illinoisans debate how to treat food animals 

Illinois Times

January 28, 1982

Illinois is a big hog state, and like all hog states it has seen pig farming evolve (if that’s the right term) into industrialized pork production. Animal welfarists found themselves in the 1980s in a social position not unlike that occupied by abolitionists in the 1850s.

 

"Let's all just starve to death and feel sanctimonious," read an editorial in the Peoria Journal-Star last year. It is one measure of the level of the "animal rights" debate in Illinois that this was not the least intelligent thing said so far. The methods used to raise and transport animals for food—from hogs and beef cattle to poultry, laying hens, and dairy cows—may become to farming what Agent Orange became for the Army.

 

So far the squabble has gone on out of hearing of the typical consumer. Most Illinoisans live in cities. They don't know much about where their meat is grown, or how. (Indeed, if industry surveys are accurate, there are people running around loose who don't know that bacon comes from hogs.) Consumers' only thoughts about meat are how much it costs and how to cook it. The fact that it is always there in the butcher's case at the market they ascribe to the same mysterious provenance which supplies rain and electricity.

 

Meat (including eggs and dairy products) remains the second best bargain left in the U.S., after phone service. But low prices have been achieved by subjecting animals to the same kinds of stringent mass production techniques used to churn out pocket calculators and congressional candidates. Increasingly, animals are bred, born, and raised indoors in automated, factory-style confinement operations. Because they concentrate animal populations, these systems make certain economies possible (such as centralized waste handling) while maximizing land use efficiency. Temperature, feed, cycles of day and night, even reproductive cycles are controlled by the operator. Diets are as artificial as the environments; animals are dosed with antibiotics (congestion breeds disease), growth hormones (to speed weight gain), and other hormones.

 

It is the animals' exterior environment which is most dramatically altered. Hogs, for example, are typically kept in pens with slotted floors; these make manure collection easy but they have the same deforming effects on hogs' feet that spike heels have on secretaries.' Sows are kept in special farrowing stalls designed to prevent their turning around, thus keeping teats efficiently exposed to their litters.

 

Such methods are undeniably efficient. But are they also cruel? The livestock industry insists that its animals couldn't be better off, that life in a modern confinement barn has the same happy reforming effects on beasts that Sunday school is thought to have on human young. The result in each case is that intractable animal natures are rationalized, and each individual's potential for social utility is fully realized. Livestock farmers dismiss animal welfarists as sentimentalists or, worse, closet vegetarians.

 

Their case is less than compelling, however. In defense of their methods they often resort to arguments of a nature last heard in the Vietnam era—another episode in which we sought to bend what we saw as lesser forms of life to our will on the anvil of U.S. technology. Hog operators, for example, routinely cut off or "dock" hogs' tails. They defend the practice by explaining that hogs will bite each other's tails into stumps, at the cost of pain and the risk of infection to the unlucky victims. Yet such intramural violence is not natural in hogs, but is the result of distortions in social behavior caused by congestion. Much the same thing happens in prisons, I believe, although no one at [the State of Illinois Department of] Corrections has yet suggested a remedy so bold.

 

Industry apologists (most of whom have investments of either money or reputation in confinement technology) like to point out that many of their critics are vegetarians. It is true that many animal welfarists use confinement as a weapon against meat-eating, rather the way ERA opponents use unisex bathrooms against feminism. Meat-eating would seem to be a stronger limb on which to hang a case than confinement, but even here the industry can't get it quite right. A typical livestock scientist quoted prominently in Farm Week, the Illinois Farm Bureau's official organ, urged critics to think of the people who would starve if they were deprived of food from animals. But no one is starving because they can't get enough pork chops.

 

The caloric inefficiency of livestock rivals only that of nuclear power plants. While it is true that ruminant species make some food available to people by digesting grasses which humans can't, livestock tend to diminish the human food supply by consuming vast amounts of precious grain which would be more efficiently fed directly to people instead. In poor countries, animals are used to pull plows or to make eggs or milk; they are much too valuable to eat. What Auberon Waugh noted recently about Roman Catholic cardinals is also true of some animal scientists; "A good cause which requires untruthful propaganda to establish its bona fide is automatically suspect.''

 

Don't mistake me. The livestock industry is justified in its contention that a lot of city people are silly about animals—the ironic result, I suspect, of advertising featuring the likes of Elsie the Cow. City people tend also to think of livestock in terms of their family pets, about which they are very silly indeed. Welfarists do often accuse farmers of being cruel when in fact they are merely indifferent (admittedly a distinction which matters more to a congressman than a cow, but still, we are humans aren't we?) and it is quite true that city people don't object to the methods used to keep cheap bacon and eggs on their tables as much as they object to being reminded of them. Hypocrisy in this case is merely cruelty one step removed; to a pig, neither the consumer with a table knife nor a farmer with a docking knife is exactly a friend.

 

The livestock industry insists finally that animal welfarists argue from emotion rather than fact. That's true enough. But the fact is that no one really knows much about these animals. Last year an Iowan conceded in a speech that more research is needed "to find out when a hog's happy and when it isn't." The USDA last summer obligingly released $380,000 to eight universities to find out, by studying the relationship between modern farming methods and animal stress. That animals suffer stress (especially during trransport) is acknowledged; the flesh of tightly-muscled lean hogs turns watery under stress, and a Missouri researcher has charted markedly accelerated heart rates among hogs thrust into strange company and surroundings. These findings would seem to contradict the University of Illinois specialist who insists that livestock animals have no emotions, but unfortunately pigs don't publish memoirs.

 

Further research may yield only suspect results anyway. University ag colleges bear roughly the same relationship to the livestock industry that a company like General Dynamics bears to the Pentagon. I don't mean to imply that such research would be consciously rigged in favor of the industry. I wish only to remind everyone that even the most scrupulous scientific inquiries will yield worthless answers if the questions are inconveniently phrased.

 

I suppose what I find most irritating about the industry is its unregenerate species arrogance. The ultimate proof of the wisdom of their methods, they insist, is human welfare. Regarding man as a higher species than hogs merely because people eat hogs, however, is a little like regarding worms as a higher species than people, because worms ultimately eat people. Their view is that livestock are innately brutish and dull to the deprivations they routinely endure. If that argument sounds familiar it's because it once was used to justify using the whip on slaves.

 

It is also true that domestic animals have had the best of their natures bred out of them; we contrive to keep them stupid, much as we do schoolchildren. But virtually every study of animal behavior in recent years has shown it to be more subtle, more complex, more intelligent than previously suspected. When one hears a man dismiss a cow as brutish merely because it is a cow and not a human, one is entitled to point out that while the cow is only assumed to be a brute, the man has proven himself to be one.

 

I wonder sometimes if this refusal to extend the compliment of intelligence to his animals is necessary for a livestock farmer to preserve his ability to do his job? That intimacy has its risks is well known. E. B. White, in his elegiac 1948 essay, "Death of a Pig," went to the heart of the matter. For years White had fattened a pig each summer for slaughter in the fall, pausing to consider the ritual only in its more abstract terms; a messy business, he admitted, but then there was all that lovely ham and bacon. The onset of disease in his pig one summer, however, placed White in the unaccustomed role of his friend and physician. He quickly felt the awful weight of that new relationship. "Once having given a pig an enema," he wrote, "there is no turning back." The pig's sickness perturbed White who, in tending him, discovered, "The pig's imbalance becomes the man's, vicariously, and life seems insecure, displaced, transitory."

 

Clearly it doesn't pay to get too close to a pig. As a consumer, I am a party to the arrangement made for the provision of meat for my table, and I wish to pass on to my friends in the livestock industry a bit of advice from the 18th-century Englishman William Cobbett. He used to tell his readers that if a hog house weren't warm enough and clean enough for him to use, it wasn't warm and clean enough for his pig. If following that ethic pushes up the price of sausage, well, I've spent money supporting worse causes. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with important interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state

(Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated