Life is improving for millions of animals in the US. Pigs are being freed from crates, and laying hens are being liberated from their cages. Progress is on the horizon for broiler chickens.
Michael Budkie, a lifelong animal-rights activist, is unimpressed.
Budkie, the co- founder and executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation NOW!, a nonprofit that opposes the use of animals in laboratories, believes that animals have a right to be free of all forms of human exploitation.
“Welfarism is a lie,” he says. “I don’t want the animal exploitation industry using cage-free eggs or humane slaughter to market their products. I want to end all animal consumption.”
Budkie spoke last weekend at the Animal Rights National Conference 2017 (AR17), which calls itself the largest and longest-running meeting of animal rights activists. More than 1,000 people gathered at a suburb Virginia Hilton, where they were provided with vegan food, vegan brochures, vegan buttons, vegan bumper stickers, even vegan riddles. (From Erica Meier of Compassion Over Killing: What is a vegan vampire’s favorite food? A nectarine.) Alex Hershaft, who has organized the event since the early 1980s, began the proceedings on a light note by promising people that “for the next few days, no one will be asking you where you get your protein.”
All kidding aside, the arguments put forth by speakers at AR17 deserve to be taken seriously. The animal rights movement is about “how we choose to relate to the most vulnerable, the most defenseless, the most exploited sentient beings on earth,” Hershaft said. Animals raised for food, or confined in zoos or aquariums, or forced to perform in circuses, or experimented upon in laboratories are, he said, “no less deserving of consideration than your family dog.”
There’s a moral clarity to the animal-rights movement that is absent when the issue is humane treatment of animals. Are hens happier outside of cages? Probably, but there are tradeoffs between freedom and security, as Tamar Haspel explains. Debates over whether to adopt slower growing breeds of chickens, at a higher cost to consumers, are irrelevant to the abolitionists. Just say no, they declare.
Then again, as Erica Meier told me: “The world isn’t going to go vegan overnight. We have to meet people where they are.” Surveys estimate that just two to four percent of Americans are vegetarian, fewer are vegan and the vast majority of those who follow vegetarian or vegan diets eventually abandon them, according to Faunalytics.
So what are those who care about animals to do? That was the question on my mind at #AR17. Drawing from my experience–my meat and fish consumption is close to zero but my days often begin with cage-free, Certified Humane eggs–I wondered whether reforms in animal welfare might backfire, by leading people who care about animal suffering to feel better about consuming animal products. Had I fallen victim to “humane washing?”
One thing to know about these activists: Whether they are believers in animal rights or advocates for humane treatment, most are vegan. Most also share the goal of eliminating, rather than reforming, so-called factory farms. There’s no way, they argue, to raise 9 billion animals for food humanely; that’s how many are raised and killed in the US..
Cage-free eggs, they note, aren’t all they are cracked up to be. (Sorry.) Many consumers who buy them are probably unaware that egg production on a massive scale means that male chicks are ground up or crushed to death since they don’t lay eggs and are useless to farmers. “Cage free doesn’t mean cruelty free,” notes Meier.
Meantime, reforms at big companies like Perdue Farms — which has promised to improve the ways it raises and kills broiler chickens, earning praise from the Humane Society of the US and Compassion in World Farming, as I wrote last week — will take years to effect.
“These are pledges. These are not legal commitments,” says Meier. “At the end of the day, our messaging will always be that the most important thing we can do for animals is to not eat them.”
Steven Wise, the founder and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, took a harder stance at #AR17, describing the animal welfare reforms as “pathetically ineffective.” He predicted that “the days of animal welfare and animal protection are passing, and they will soon be over.” The thing is, Wise’s valiant efforts to persuade US courts to recognize fundamental legal rights for nonhuman animals have, so far, been mostly rebuffed by judges.
Animal-welfare advocates, by contrast, tend to be pragmatic.
“We don’t have a dogmatic approach, other than if it reduces suffering of animals, we’re behind it,” says Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection for The Humane Society of the US.
David Coman-Hidy, president of The Humane League, agrees, saying: “At the end of the day, we want to change the lives of real chickens on real farms.”
Still others, like those behind the Meatless Monday campaigns or reducetarian Brian Kateman, argue that persuading people to eat fewer animal products will have more impact than an all-or-nothing approach.
My sympathies lie with the reformers, but the energy and creativity of the radicals should help drive the movement forward as well. Direct Action Everywhere, a right group, practices open rescue of confined animals. Anita Krajnc of Toronto Pig Save was arrested — and eventually acquitted — for giving water to pigs outside of a slaughterhouse; her trial drew enormous attention. Protests, confrontations and persistent lobbying led to laws banning the use of wild animals in circuses in much of Europe, Mexico, Peru and in US cities, including New York., Animal-rights lawyer Steven Wise says it’s no secret that his group plans to sue Sea World on behalf of its marine mammals.
What’s more, plant-based protein businesses continue to grow apace. Impossible Foods last week raised another $75 million for its plant-based burgers. Kroger, the US’s largest supermarket chain, is rolling out Beyond Meat’s burger to 600 stores.
It may turn out that an all-of-the-above approach will be required to alleviate animal suffering. The trouble is, resources are limited. Foundations, individual donors and activists will want to pursue evidence to try to figure out which strategies and tactics work best.