Animal Rights and Wrongs
Illinoisans debate how to treat food animals
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. ●