A case for animal rights

A case for animal rights

It is easy to assume that “clean, green New Zealand” is a better place to be a farmed animal than in other countries. But the hidden camera footage recently released by Farmwatch from three New Zealand pig farms is as bad as a nightmare or a horror movie. In one farm, a sow lies on her side, alive but immobile, while a farm worker circles her with a gun. He fires a shot into her head, but it clearly doesn’t kill her. She is still breathing. So instead of using another bullet, he picks up a hammer and bludgeons her in the head. He walks away for some time, returns, and hits her again. He leaves again and returns to hit her again several times over the course of an hour. It takes her over an hour to die. In more footage from the same farm, piglets are seen being herded and squashed up a loading ramp and into the back of a truck, while workers punch, kick, and stamp on them. One piglet is crushed under the others, and, maimed or dead, is picked up by a hind leg and swung out of sight. On another farm, pigs are crammed side-to-side in a holding pen while literally dozens of rats swarm over their backs. On a third farm, there is a shot of severed piglet tails dangling from a filthy supermarket trolley like macabre decorations. However bad we thought the factory farming of pigs was in New Zealand, surely we didn’t expect it to be this bad.

Animal rights organisation S.A.F.E. (Save Animals From Exploitation) says that around 800,000 pigs are killed every year in New Zealand. They have often been raised in dark, overcrowded, concrete pens, only seeing the sun when they are led off to slaughter. Under these conditions they are so stressed and bored they bite each other’s tails off. Rather than improving the living conditions of the pigs, farmers cut the piglet’s tails off without anaesthetic so they cannot be bitten. Sows, the mother pigs, are artificially impregnated, and when they are ready to give birth, are moved to cramped metal “farrowing crates.” These are used in 67 per cent of New Zealand farms, and are barely bigger than the sows’ bodies. There they are separated from their piglets by metal bars that the piglets can feed through. After four weeks of this torture they are moved back to the sow stalls and impregnated again. After five years the sow is considered useless and she is sent to slaughter.

I spoke to animal rights activist Carl Scott from Farmwatch about the conditions seen in the pig farms and whether they should be considered typical. He replied: “All these industries, whenever we expose them, they say, ‘look, it’s an isolated farm, they’re letting the rest of us down.’ It’s not like that. The footage was from three randomly chosen farms. The Pork Board has got no comeback to that now. That’s only three – we know there’s other stuff happening out there. We have footage of some of it. [On farm inspections] the farmer knows the inspector is coming, tidies stuff away, everything’s all shiny and it gets the tick.”

When it comes to animal rights, Carl is about as dedicated as you can get. He explains his motivation: “I read a thing called “anonymous memoir of a battery-caged chicken” and it was as though a hen was describing her life in a cage, and it just did my fucking head in. I just thought it can’t be that bad, can it? Then I thought if it’s half that bad, that is horrific and unacceptable. I’d look at a battery farm and think this thing is happening there. That’s fucked. I’ve got to do something about that.”

And he did do something. In 2011, to protest the conditions of battery chickens, Carl spent an entire month locked in a cage on the side of State Highway 1, north of Dunedin. The cage was small and open, and Carl could lie down in it but not much else. Apart from a couple of brief instances where he had absolutely no choice, he didn’t leave the cage; not even for toilet breaks. In 2012 he was part of an activist team that blockaded Mainland Poultry in Waikouaiti – New Zealand’s largest battery farm - with metal tripods with people suspended from the apexes.

And this year Carl helped with a campaign which successfully re-homed 3,000 ex-battery hens.

I asked Carl whether he thinks people are getting too used to hearing about conditions for animals in factory farms, and whether we have become desensitised to the word “abuse” to describe mistreatment of animals. He said: “The hidden camera stuff – I used the word ‘brutalised.’ Those animals were being brutalised. They were being kicked and punched and stomped on, crushed under the weight of other animals. That little piglet died, presumably. The piglet was carried off by the foot. That sow who took a whole hour to die. In the unedited footage you see them – smack, smack, smack – brutalised is an understatement. And that’s presumably happening not just on one farm but others.”

We should put an end to any illusion we have that farmers are typically compassionate and humane carers for farm animals. The market doesn’t allow for that. In a capitalist growth economy, with a free market, competitive ideology, it becomes this giant race to the bottom. If you don’t cut your standards and overheads, you don’t sell product. Farmers have to pay the lowest possible wages in an industry no one wants to work in. Carl believes this is half the problem, as: “They attract these young men who can’t get jobs anywhere else, perhaps they’ve done prison time or whatever, they’re angry, they hate the world, they hate themselves. They hate life and they take it out on the animals. Everyone’s a loser and no one gets prizes. It’s just a failure all round.”

Carl believes we should stick graphic images on the pork packets, like on cigarettes, of farrowing crates and fattening pens, to discourage people from buying it. He says, “The consumer can’t make informed choices if they’re not informed. And we’re not informed. It’s deliberately kept behind closed doors and we’re fed spin. It’s a scam. It’s a mess. It’s a horrible failed experiment, factory farming.”

Why do we love some animals and stick our forks into others? Many people call themselves “animals lovers” because they love their pets. But many of these same people, by their purchasing choices, support keeping animals in conditions which you would have to be a psychopath to wish on your cat or dog. Imagine if your cat was diagnosed with an illness with which she could only survive by having her tail cut off without anaesthetic, then being put permanently in a cage so small she couldn’t turn around, and kept in a dark shed where she will never see the sun. Imagine seeing her panic, cry, pull her fur out, harm herself on the bars, and become covered in her own filth because she has no way of cleaning herself or getting away from it. Imagine watching as the pain and psychological suffering drove her insane. How would that make you feel? Now imagine if someone was doing this to her not for her own health, but for their own pleasure. This is what we are doing to factory-farmed animals. To quote from a pamphlet given to me by VARS (Veganism and Animal Rights Society): “The overwhelming portion of our animal use – just about all of it – cannot be justified by anything other than pleasure, amusement, convenience, or habit.”

I spoke to Lisandru Grigorut of VARS about the strangely different attitudes we have to the suffering of different non-human animals. He said, “Pigs are highly intelligent – biologically more intelligent than dogs are (SAFE says as intelligent as a three-year-old human child) – but we treat dogs really, really well. We’re so shocked when people are cruel to dogs, but we have the right to be cruel to pigs. In fact it’s worse because a passive acceptance, it’s not even an active participation. Most people wouldn’t want to actively participate in killing a pig. And that’s fine because who would want to? The values we learn growing up are to be nice, to be nice to animals. There are so many people who love their pets and also love their meat and their eggs. They can’t make the connection because our society isn’t letting us make the connection. We have milk cartons with happy cows on them. That’s not the reality – they’re not happy, they’re not there for us to use.”

Some people have the idea that meat, eggs, and milk are a kind of “payment” that animals “give” us for feeding and housing them. But you can’t call something a reciprocal agreement if one party has no choice in whether to participate or not. Lisandru says, “You’d be so shocked by how many people ask me what’s wrong with dairy, and I say, you have to forcibly impregnate a cow and then take her baby, and they don’t know that. They think that there’s no baby involved, that the cow just magically produces milk and if you don’t milk the cow she will die. They don’t have to be milked. And if they do, it’s because their baby is gone.”

You may have seen Kendall Jones, the cheerleader/hunter from Texas getting a lot of hate on Facebook recently for posing for photos with animals she has killed. Lisandru says, “I don’t feel much when I see Kendall Jones. Everyone is hating her and hating her and hating her, but they are such hypocrites because they do exactly what she does, just in a more passive way and to different animals, which is arbitrary, really.”

I remember a friend who had two much-adored Alsatians as pets commenting on seeing a video of dogs being slaughtered in a country where they are farmed for meat. He said, “They had dead Alsatians strung up like sheep.” But what, really, is the difference between a dog and a sheep other than our particular arbitrary social attitude to them?

Minimising suffering is the basis of all moral decision making. Any belief in superior rights due to higher intelligence means nothing when it comes to suffering. Carl says, “Our so-called superiority, if it even exists, does not give us the ‘right’ to dominate those who are innocent and vulnerable. It merely gives us the ability. We have decided ourselves that we have the ‘right’ to exploit them. Isn’t that convenient?” Even if psychological torment is experienced differently by different species (or members of the same species), we are so biologically similar to other animals that to deny or minimise belief in their physical and mental suffering is nonsensical.

If you enjoy eating meat, is that a good reason to kill animals? If you like diamonds, is that reason enough to torture, murder, and steal so that you can have them?

A group called Animal Agenda Aotearoa is trying to make animal issues an election topic. They sent an agenda to all the major parties with ten points of what they would like to see happen for animals. One of them is to have a commissioner for animals, and one of them is to stop factory farming by the end of 2017. Four parties agreed, and said, “Yes we would support that:” NZ Greens (who have always supported a ban of factory farming); Mana; the Internet Party; and, surprisingly, Labour. This is a recent development, as Carl says: “We didn’t expect that. But now they’ve made it a public statement, those of us in the movement, we applaud that, and we will stand behind them if they stick to their guns and not backtrack. I think there is public support for it.”

SAFE says that 77 per cent of New Zealanders are against pig factory farming. Carl believes New Zealand is ready for the change. He says, “We feel now is the time to talk about the stop of factory farming. People are disgusted.” He adds that as well as pigs and chickens, other animals suffering right now in New Zealand factory farms include ducks, turkeys, fish (intensive fish-farming is hideous), and, increasingly, cows. We are actually seeing more factory farming, not less.

Tradition has a lot to answer for. Just because something is old it doesn’t mean it is good. Racism and sexism are old. Being an agricultural country, New Zealand is very attached to meat and other animal products. It is in our culture, and a large part of our economy depends on it. And, Carl says, “There’s also this myth that persists that we need meat for protein and iron, we need eggs and dairy for calcium. That myth is very prevalent. People can’t get past what it is to live without meat. And I can understand that. I was reluctant to go vegan to start with, thinking I’d miss the Sunday roasts and bacon. But then you do it and you realise it’s not that hard. There are alternatives, and a whole new range of new possibilities opens up in front of you. People focus on what they have to give up, rather than the new things they will discover. The alternatives are not as scary as you think.”

Carl and Lisandru both have a vision of total animal liberation in a vegan world. Carl says “I know that seems strange to most people, but what you’ve got to remember is when the abolitionists first proposed to abolish slavery, rather than just make slaves comfortable, everyone thought they were absurd. ‘You can’t do that, the economy depends on it, it’s God’s will, we’re superior to them.’ Blah, blah, blah.” The same can be said for early advocates of women’s rights or LGBT rights and marriage equality. But animals can’t speak for themselves – we need to speak and act on behalf of them.

One misconception is that animal rights activists want the same rights for non-human animals that humans have. Lisandru explains: “When talking about animal rights we’re not saying give pigs the right to drive or cows the right to vote. They simply need recognition that they’re breathing and feeling, and there’s no justification for what we’re doing to them.”

While factory farming is the most prolific vessel for extreme animal suffering, reform may not be enough. Lisandru says, “‘Better conditions’ are always marginal. The chicken has a little bit more room to flap her arms or whatever, but really that’s a marginal thing and not really indicative of any sort of actual liberation. It’s not indicative of us considering non-human animals to be moral creatures, or feeling creatures.” But, for now, we can try to eliminate the worst extremes of animal suffering.

Factory farming still happens because we allow it to. Before I left Carl he said, “People need to realise that these animals don’t feel minor discomfort under these conditions. Their lives are a living hell.” It is important to remember that, whatever your views on animal rights are, animals are living, breathing, feeling beings with bodies like ours. An animal is somebody. When you eat a leg of lamb, you are eating somebody’s leg. When you buy leather, you are buying somebody’s skin. When you drink milk, you are drinking somebody’s stolen breast milk, who has had her baby taken off her. Each battery egg you eat is the result of a whole day in hell for somebody.

We humans are remarkable in our ability to understand and distinguish between morality and immorality. As Lisandru says, “It’s amazing that we can recognise that sentient beings deserve protection. It’s amazing how we can look at someone who we don’t know and treat it as a given that they deserve life and their life should be protected. But it’s confusing how we might have those same feelings towards animals but still be supportive of industries that exploit and kill them.”
This article first appeared in Issue 18, 2014.
Posted 9:43pm Sunday 3rd August 2014 by Lucy Hunter.