Selective Criticism

This past November, Massachusetts passed a new law regarding animal confinement practices in poultry, pig, and cattle farming. ( Farms in Massachusetts now have until 2022 to implement practices that will be in accordance with this law. The law makes it illegal to raise animals in unreasonably confining spaces, which (aside from being a frustratingly vague and indeterminate phrase) probably means that calves can no longer be raised in crates, sows can no longer be kept in gestation pens, and meat birds can no longer be kept in feeder cages. Massachusetts is now leading the way nationwide with the most comprehensive animal confinement law in the country and deserves credit for its initiative in this regard. However, there has been a general uproar around animal confinement that, although quite legitimate in cases in which animals have actually been abused, is often blown out of proportion and deserves a more thoughtful analysis.

In an earlier blog post that discussed Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) and the animal rights debates that surround them, I mentioned that many in society condemn CAFO’s and other such entities for abusing the animals they raise. As I said in that post, I agree that there are instances in which abuse has happened, and I agree completely with those who say that such instances are unwarranted, unjust, and shameful. I also pointed out that the environmental damage from CAFO’s can be (and, in some cases, has already been) very significant and can contribute to instances of unacceptable environmental injustice that must be addressed. However, I pointed out in that post that such instances are not necessarily the norm. It is simply not the case that every single animal in a CAFO or large farming operation is being abused, or that all of the meat coming from such places is completely unhealthy. Let’s be careful not to group all animal confinement into one box and say that it’s inherently evil. Keeping a hog in a CAFO in a cage so small they can’t turn around is an entirely different thing than what the vast majority of family farmers do when they keep their feeder calves in small barnyards or keep their birthing sows in gestation stalls to keep them safe from potential disease.

This tendency to selectively criticize is best exemplified in animal rights discussions about quality of life. For instance, issue is often taken with the fact that hogs and cattle are raised in stalls or pens. These criticisms are usually based on claims that such animals’ quality of life is compromised if they aren’t able to live in a pasture. (In fact, my lifetime of experience as a farmer and animal trainer points more readily to the conclusion that animals learn to feel at home in their pens and actually come to prefer the security of their “home territory”). It is erroneously assumed that animals weren’t raised in pens in the past, which is seen as the ideal agricultural age. Some even say that the quality of the meat or milk produced from such animals is compromised. And yet almost every one of us raises our cat, dog, fish, guinea pig, or parakeet in tiny crates or cages for the entirety of their lives and feeds them with more synthetic ingredients than any beef steer or broiler chicken would ever consume. Our (relatively very temporary) culture’s definition of what constitutes an appropriately “indoor” or “outdoor” animal does not make it the defining perspective. This strange dichotomy stems from our ability to choose and create our own battles. And the concerns about the healthfulness of the meat produced from animals who graze rather than animals who are fed “unnatural” foods are simply unfounded (see my earlier post on organic agriculture production). I’ve been around hogs that happily ate everything you can think of, “natural” and “unnatural” – table scraps, tree bark, gallons of milk, donuts, moldy bread, old rags, pine cones, dirty sawdust, yogurt, ketchup, muffins, even straight-up mud – and not only did they thoroughly enjoy all of it, but the meat produced from them was perfectly healthy and amazingly delicious. And no, they were not raised in a pasture.

This tendency also manifests itself in the fact that we only raise criticisms on the topics we want to think about. We want to think about animals living safe, abuse-free lives and about our families eating the healthiest meat available, and I whole-heartedly agree that these are both excellent and worthy ideals. However, the things we don’t want to think about – the necessary daily process of slaughtering animals for meat, for instance – exhibit our tendency to pick and choose the problems we want to highlight. We don’t want to consider the slaughtering process – which is obviously a less appealing topic to dwell on than animals living in green pastures – because we still want to have meat on our table. We want turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, ham on our Hawaiian-style pizza, bacon at our favorite breakfast place, burgers for summer cookouts, and we don’t want to have to do anything more to get it than mindlessly grab the cheapest package of meat from the grocery store down the road. Our separation from these activities gives us a sense of superiority to them, and we are content enough in our insulated pseudo-realities to hand out critiques on the parts of society that it is fashionable for our social class to dislike. So we ignore parts of the issue. We selectively criticize.

I am not denying that acts of animal abuse happen and are to be condemned. As someone who has raised, trained and developed close friendships with many animals throughout my life on a farm, I resonate completely with the sentiments of those who believe animal abuse is shameful and unacceptable. I have personally experienced the incredible capacity of an animal to love and be loved, and I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to see one of my animals suffer. I simply mean to point out our tendency to criticize only the things we prefer to think about. Perhaps we should examine our premises a bit more thoroughly.


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