Don't be a Chicken Burger

Most of us arenít dicks. We donít want animals to be harmed, and we donít like hearing about it when they are. And yet, many of us never stop to think about the impact of consuming animals, both on the environment and the animalsí standard of living, and we continue to eat factory-farmed products, thereby supporting an industry that actively harms farm animals. Out of thought, out of mind, as they say. Enough is enough, says Kari Schmidt: weíve got to start acting on what we believe.
A (very) brief overview of our animal-related beliefs
Way back when, the famous philosopher Descartes referred to animals as mindless automatons, and described the squeals of animals being experimented upon as the sounds of “malfuncioning clockwork”. Since then, attitudes to animals have, thankfully, developed somewhat. In 1635, the first Animal Cruelty Legislation was established in Ireland (forbidding, quite rightly, the tearing out of sheep’s wool and the ploughing of horses’ tails) and in 1822 ‘Martin’s Act’ - which prohibited cruelty to horses and cattle - was enacted. This legislation passed with the support of the abolitionists, probably because Gary Francione’s analogy between slavery and animals would have been strong in their minds. Like ‘man’s’ conception of women, children and blacks prior to abolition, animals were (and are) considered not only less than human (akin to blacks constituting 3/5 of a white man under the American Constitution), but also the property of humans, with no rights of their own.
Clearly Descartes’ conception of animals is entirely antiquated - nobody today would argue that animals are just machines. But, despite our supposedly enlightened view of animals, what we do in practice hasn’t caught up. In effect, we continue to treat animals as automatons, viewing their products as objects entirely distinct from living and breathing entities.
Thank goodness for the legal system…right?
In theory, New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Codes has been set up to counter animal cruelty on farms. The New Zealand Animal Welfare Act talks about alleviating the pain and distress of animals (s11), our obligations to animals (s10) and section four defines ‘physical, health and behavioural needs’ as including, for example, the “opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour.”
However, we still have sow crates and battery hen farms. How can the legislation and the reality be so diametrically opposed? Well, there’s a loophole of course. Section 13(2)(c) provides a defence to ss10 and 11, basically that if you can prove that the minimum standards established by the relevant code of welfare were equalled or exceeded, then you won’t be liable. (You might feel a bit like you’re chasing the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland here, but bear with me). Section 73(3) states that the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC), which determines the Codes, may, in exceptional circumstances, recommend minimum standards and recommendations that do not fully meet the obligations in the Act. NAWAC has to consider a variety of factors – feasibility and practicality, religious and cultural practices and, of course, economic effects.
In reality, this last factor dominates the thinking of the NAWAC. That is why sow crates and battery farming continue to exist – any review by the NAWAC is based on economic grounds, evading the moral, ethical and environmental issues at stake. Progress has been made – we are now phasing out the sow crates. However, many animals continue to live in appalling conditions, simply because the practical reality of our legislation does not adequately provide for them. One possible way around this is to give the environment, including animals, distinguishable rights, allowing human beings to advocate on their behalf, and giving animals a sort of legal standing.
The Environment
It’s not only about ethics- eating animals and animal products is also an environmental problem. Animal production is far more energy-intensive than vegetable production and has far greater an impact on our environment. As the United Nations’ Environment Programme’s international panel of sustainable resource management states, "Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products... Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels." And that’s not all- environmental damage also wreaks havoc on the lives of animals and on biodiversity.
An informed choice
Under our current Animal Welfare legislation, pigs and chickens still suffer. Fact. According to the Animal Justice Fund website, a battery hen lives for about 18 months, even though the natural life span of a hen is typically five to seven years. Sadly, about 83 percent (of New Zealand’s 3.2 million egg-laying chickens) are in cages. As well as being smaller than a room at a hall of residence, in their cages battery hens can sufer from brittle and broken bones, foot deformities, feather loss and injuries due to pecking from cage mates. About 45% of New Zealand’s 21,000 sows live in sow stalls in which they can’t walk or turn around. And they’re not happy chappies- as you’d expect, they suffer from psychological distress, frustration, lung and heart disease, leg problems and lameness, and display stereotypic behaviour such as bar biting.
Of course we don’t see any of this when we open a packet of bacon or break open an egg. But, kept in tiny cages about the size of a phone book or sow stalls, many chickens and pigs aren’t able to move around or exhibit their natural behavioural tendencies. This is despite the fact that pigs are able to play simple computer games and are more intelligent than dogs – an animal typically excused from human cruelty due to its designation as a ‘companion animal’.
Most people would be against animal cruelty if you asked them in such plain terms. And yet we still eat factory farmed products – chicken, eggs and pigs, all of which suffer under New Zealand’s current Animal Welfare laws. And the reason for this is simple – out of sight, out of mind. As Sue Kedgley stated, it’s difficult to really get access to factory farms in New Zealand and to expose dubious practices via the media. Simply put, the property rights of farmers trump any kind of civil action in this respect. But the reality is that animals are mistreated under our current system, and that the law doesn’t act as an adequate safeguard in this respect.
The Question of Belief 
A lot of the time activist groups can sound self-righteous and preachy, presenting their point of view as indisputable fact, rather than simply one way of looking at things. Ultimately, their cause is a matter of belief and although belief is often presented as an absolute, it is necessarily individualistic and thus disputable. That’s why you can’t impose your beliefs on others; it doesn’t translate like that because belief is based on morals and morals aren’t clear-cut.
Given this, I’m not arguing that everyone should believe in eating free-range or vegetarian/vegan, or that everyone should join SAFE or the Student Animal Legal Defence Fund. Everyone should be able to make up their own mind in regards to their beliefs, based on their personal set of morals and the information at hand. And here is where we reach the crux of the argument; the problem is that most of the time, people aren’t fully informed about the issues. Or even partially informed. Whether subconsciously or deliberately, we avoid finding out simply because it is easier not to have deal with the issues. And when something is out of sight and out of mind, it can’t affect us.
Belief shouldn’t be forced on others. But in forming your beliefs you should at least be well-informed and make educated decisions. I honestly think that were people to really access the facts and face the reality of animal cruelty in New Zealand, the only logical conclusion would be to act on this discovery. 
It’s not as though New Zealand is entirely morally diffuse when it comes to animal rights. Again, sow stalls are being phased out, many people are prosecuted for acts of animal cruelty and proposals by Federated Farmers advocating for the factory farming of dairy cows were recently rejected by this government. But our current legislation is not yet wholly adequate, and this is something that can be faced and readily countered through personal or collective action, particularly in regards to caged hens where there has been little to no impetus by the government to make substantive changes. You could eat vegetarian, vegan or free-range. Join SAFE or the Student Animal Legal Defence Fund, campaign for a cage-free campus or read SALDF’s ANIMALzine (if you’ll forgive the shameless plug). Actually go on to the farms and expose these practices. Write submissions when Parliament does review our Animal Welfare legislation (as members of SALDF did earlier this year). Such activism has led to sow stalls being phased out in the next five years at the behest of such activists as Sue Kedgley.  Simply get informed and talk or write about the issues. Be aware of the different political parties’ positions in regards to the environment (which again I consider to include animals) and factor that into your vote. Advocate for legislative or other institutional change through petitions. We are never powerless, just lazy or uninformed.
If you’re aware of the substantial pain and discomfort that chickens and pigs experience in New Zealand and can continue to live and eat as you do, without taking any kind of action, that’s one thing. What is infinitely worse, in my opinion, is basing your beliefs and practice on ignorance or not acting on your beliefs once they are established. And that is really how I conceptualise of any form of activism, however small. Not as preachy and self-righteous agenda setting, but simply the act of looking reality in the face and refusing to be ignorant. The actions that stem from that simply being a logical consequence for most human beings as most people, if they really did decide to face the truth, couldn’t in good conscience stand by and do absolutely nothing. As Leon Trotsky said, “If slaughter-houses had glass walls…”
By Kari Schmidt
This article was inspired and informed by a lecture given by Vernon Tava and Sue Kedgely earlier this year, organised by the Student Animal Legal Defence Fund.

Posted 2:26am Monday 12th September 2011 by Kari Schmidt.