By Helen and Steve Rayshick, co-founders, Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition (MARC)
Some of you may be asking what an essay about animal rights is doing at a gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender website and who, we, Helen and Steve Rayshick and the Massachusetts Animal Rights Coalition, are. To answer the first question, we were invited by a vegan Queer Today member to write a guest essay for your group. MARC is the largest grassroots animal rights group in the state; we do everything from leafleting at colleges to picketing restaurants to lobbying legislators to handing out free samples of vegan food. Our goal is to advance both the welfare (humane treatment) and rights (legal/moral responsibilities of humans toward animals) of ALL animals. Much as Queer Today is a radical group for your cause, we are a radical group for our cause. Although our methods are always peaceful and legal, our goal is the liberation of all animals.
That still probably brings us back to the question of why should you care about animal rights. With national politics dominated by the hostile right wing and gay marriage being attacked in
If that statement sounds extreme, we ask you to suspend judgment and keep reading. Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Isaac Singer has called our treatment of animals an “Eternal Treblinka.” First, when we talk of suffering, we should talk of quantity of suffering—each year in the US about 10 billion farm animals are raised and killed for food. The number of sea animals is probably double that. Another 100 million are killed in the
Second, the quality of their suffering is extreme. Over 90% of US farm animals are raised in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), also known as factory farms. These are huge windowless metal warehouses with wire or concrete floors, poor lighting, terrible ventilation, and a sensory assault of hellish sights, sounds, and smells. Often, thousands of pigs or cows or tens of thousands of chickens or turkeys will be confined to a single building. Many of them may never get outside except for the day the truck comes to take them to the slaughterhouse. Disease, injury, fly infestations, and slow painful death are the norm.
The purpose of this nightmare is to save money and produce meat, dairy, and eggs as cheaply as possible. Americans want animal products and want them cheaply; every meateater consumes about 270 pounds of animal flesh a year, let alone dairy products, sea animals, and eggs. In order to keep the price low, there is often a total lack of veterinary care; it’s cheaper to let an animal die than to ease its suffering. Many injured animals starve to death because they are too weak to compete for food or even crawl to the food troughs. Industry estimates say that about half a million animals a year are so weak that they have to be literally dragged to slaughter. The real number is probably far higher.
Animals are crammed into tiny spaces to save money. The standard breed of egg laying hen has a wingspan of 37 inches; they are crowded in cages with 6-11 other birds and allowed at best 72 square inches of space. A 600 pound breeding sow (female pig) is confined in a 2 by 6 foot pen during pregnancy and nursing and artificially impregnated twice as often as she would be in nature. Veal calves (male dairy cows) are chained by the neck and kept in crates too narrow for them to even turn around or lay down or stand up, depending on the system used. Some animals are housed in tiered CAFOs with wire floors; the excrement of those animals above them falls on animals below. As factory farms age and decay, more and more piglets are falling through the rusted wire floors
to slowly drown in the pig waste below.
Regular practices include the following surgical and other invasive procedures all done without anesthesia: beakcutting, forced feeding and/or forced starvation for birds; branding, tail docking, and castration for cows; tale docking and ear cutting for pigs. All of these are done to minimize problems caused by overcrowding. Rather than stop overcrowding, the “farmers” inflict horrid painful procedures on animals instead.
Many specific practices are inherently cruel. Veal calves are denied any solid food and suffer from severe diarrhea. In order to make flesh “tender”, veal producers deliberately induce anemia in young calves; a result is that, often, calves’ bones break but are not treated. Ducks and geese used for foie gras have their livers enlarged 6-10 times normal size through horrific force-feeding methods. Because male chicks from egg laying breeds don’t grow large enough to be suitable for meat, they are killed at birth; the most common methods are to dump them in piles several feet deep into dumpsters where they smother and/or starve to death, or to throw them alive into chipper shredders to be processed for pet food.
Genetic manipulation is also a constant: “broiler hens”—meat chickens—live a grand total of 47 days on average. They are bred to grow so fast that their legs can’t support their weight and they suffer crippling injuries. Dairy cows now produce up to 10 times the milk they would in nature, causing painful sores and mastitis (udders swelled to the size of beach balls). Dairy cows and chickens are the most over bred animals, but many turkeys and pigs also suffer from breeding problems.
Physical and emotional problems abound—chickens are raised in wire cages and their claws may literally grow into the metal of the cage; injuries and tumors are untreated and ignored; leg and joint problems are found in all types of animals because of lack of exercise; by the time they face the terrors of slaughter, 40% of all dairy cows are lame; cannibalism can occur; and repetitive rocking, gnawing, and swaying (known as stereotypies) can occur. Quite frankly, animals often go insane. Pigs, which have been tested to have IQs equivalent to human 3-year olds, have been witnessed literally attacking their cages out of rage and frustration. In essence, every natural instinct is denied. Tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of animals die before even being taken to slaughter.
Transport is no better—farm animals can legally be transported for up to 48 hours with no food or water. They are overcrowded in trucks and shipped in all weathers—freezing cold or boiling heat. Pigs have been found literally frozen to the inside walls of trucks in cold weather. Often animals are jostled so badly on the road that they arrive for slaughter with broken bones.
Even if all the rest of this were altered, slaughter itself is a nightmare. 95% of farm animals killed for food are birds; they receive NO legal protection under the humane slaughter act. In essence, the US Government has spent nearly 50 years denying that birds are animals because to admit so would mean they have to be stunned first before slaughter begins. Stunning costs 1 cent a bird; the industry will not pay for it. Under the Bush administration, the USDA is now trying to re-categorize rabbits as poultry in order to eliminate stunning requirements for them also.
Stunning is no panacea, though. Where practiced for birds (
If you think that perhaps “humane”, “free range” or organic animal products are really any better, first these are a tiny percentage of the market. Second, the transport and slaughter are the same. Third, the first two terms have no legal meaning: free range chickens may have no more room than caged ones, and all the males are still killed at birth. The term organic refers primarily to the food the animals are fed. Although there are some welfare standards, they are riddled with loopholes, and enforcement is poor anyway. Well known “organic” producers have been caught using factory farm methods to raise animals. Philosopher Tom Regan has said of these types of farming that they are “not right, just less wrong.”
The treatment of sea animals is no better—they most commonly die in huge piles at the bottom of massive mile long nets. They are crushed or suffocate. And, for every sea animal killed for food, 3 others who were caught at the same time (known as bycatch) are killed or injured. Other animals like seals in
This essay addresses the plight of food animals primarily but the lives of lab animals and circus/rodeo animals are just as horrific. NO laws of any kind regulate what actually can be done to animals in lab experiments. The only relevant laws relate to cage size and feeding schedules, NOT what can be done in the actual experiment. And, if experimental procedures deem it necessary, food, water, and medicine can all be denied. Again, as with farm animals, enforcement of even these weak laws is notoriously lax.
At this point, two thoughts may be running through your head: (1) They are just animals and/or (2) What’s this got to do with me? Our responses to these thoughts are interrelated.
The history of oppression of non-power groups is remarkably similar. Each group that has been victimized and oppressed by an elite power group has faced similar problems: ridicule, marginalization, disinformation, and stonewalling. Authors such as Alice Walker, Marjorie Spiegel, Carol Adams, Jim Mason, and Charles Patterson have written eloquently showing how much of the same propaganda that currently justifies animal abuse has been used to justify sexism, slavery and racism, the Holocaust, and imperialistic wars. American homophobes engage in similar tactics.
One of the most common elements of oppression involves maximizing differences between oppressor and oppressed while minimizing similarities. Surely, this is something that you have experienced because of sexual orientation. To your oppressors, all that you have in common with them--goals, hopes, talents, needs, the ability to love and be loved and to be hurt and to be happy--are minimized while sexual orientation is maximized. This was done to blacks to justify slavery and Jim Crow laws, to women to justify denying them legal rights, to people with disabilities, to European Jews, and also to animals.
If the last linkage is shocking, consider this: every non-human animal from chimpanzees to fish, from pigeons to pumas, shares many physiological and psychological traits with humans. They have similar central nervous systems, they have brain chemicals that we know are linked to pain in humans, they have limbic system similarities relevant to emotion, and certain drugs like anti-anxiety medications work exactly the same way metabolically in animals as in humans. Recently, researchers at
Although scientists starting with Descartes and religious leaders beginning with
The point is that in terms of feeling pain and feeling emotions, the animals we harm the most are just like us. Oppressors’ efforts to maximize differences border on the absurd. Some professional ethicists have resorted to arguing that because animals “lack morals” they don’t deserve rights. This standard, applied to humans, backfires. We could reasonably say that infants and very young children, the mentally retarded and severely mentally ill, and senile people all “lack morals”, but we sure wouldn’t justify forced starvation, branding, castration without anesthesia, or any of the other horrible things humans do to animals for them. It’s also worth noting that animal morality is only beginning to be studied; in one famous (or infamous) experiment, chimps were given the choice between shocking another chimp and eating or not being fed. The chimps overwhelmingly chose to go hungry rather than harm another chimp.
Another morally bankrupt argument is that animals aren’t as smart as we are. Let’s ignore the questions of whether this is even measurable and whether there aren’t many skills that animals have that we lack and just address the logic of it. If we applied the same standards to humans, we might find a tyranny of the intelligent over the less intelligent. We meet people every day who probably aren’t as smart as we are, but that sure doesn’t give us the right to kill, hurt, or eat them. This is absurd logic.
Animal rights activists call the prejudice against animals speciesism, the belief that any species different from our own has fewer rights than we do. Like many prejudices, it may have its roots in low self esteem and the psychological need to place one’s self above others. With human prejudices, a person can be unintelligent, unsuccessful, unattractive, unloved and unlovable but find superiority in discriminating against whole groups of people such as homosexuals, or racial or religious minorities. Similarly, many humans may be able to bolster their shabby self-esteem by discriminating against animals.
A brief look at how animals are portrayed illustrates this. Many of our insults--calling another human a pig, rat, dog, bitch, sheep, chicken, cow, ape, or snake--inherently insult animals. A great deal of popular culture humor involves jokes about hurting animals from flushing them down toilets to throwing them out windows to hitting or kicking them. The famous novelists Larry McMurtry and Jerzy Kozinksi have both written jokingly about bestiality, which is really the rape of another species. We ridicule animals. Similarly, a mainstay of the early careers of comedians like Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy were anti-gay jokes. For centuries, ethnic minorities have also been the object of offensive jokes and humor. Oppressors often ridicule those they are oppressing.
Second, oppressors marginalize the concerns of oppressed groups. When women began to fight for equal rights in the 1800s, they were told that their needs weren’t important; slavery was more important. When the gay rights movement began in the 1960s, it was judged less important than the anti-war movement. As activists working for animals, we are regularly told by people who won’t even stop to wait for a response that we should be “working to end the war” or feed the hungry or stop a disease or prevent abortions or any other endless stream of other causes. Those people telling us this are never actually working on those campaigns at that time; they are simply marginalizing our efforts. When someone wants to ignore an issue, they can find an endless list of other “more important” issues. Equal rights for people regardless of sexual orientation is a major human rights issue; until all humans are given the same rights, we live in an unjust society. Similarly, the animals killed in the
Third, oppressors rely on misinformation. The most obvious issue for homosexual rights is the claim that homosexuals and bisexuals and transgender people want “special rights.” It boggles the mind to understand how someone asking to be treated the same way as everyone else can be construed as seeking “special rights.” Similarly, disinformation abounds about animal rights activists and the animals we represent. First, NO ONE thinks that animals should have the exact same rights as humans; no one thinks they should be allowed to drive or vote (another type of ridicule often used). However, they should have the right to be left alone or treated with basic decency, not maimed, tortured, or killed by humans. Second, animal rights activists are NOT people who “hate people”, an accusation we often encounter. At a recent protest where this accusation was made, our group included 3 teachers, a psychologist, 2 social workers, 2 lawyers who work with the mentally ill, and 3 environmental scientists, many of whom are parents and grandparents. In other words, an obvious cast of misanthropes! J
Fourth, oppressors engage in stonewalling (no pun intended.) Just as homophobic politicians support civil unions or other half measures to prevent equal rights or claim that “I support gay rights” then oppose gay marriage, efforts are made to block any progress for animals. At least 13 states have now declared farm animals exempt from ALL provisions of the Animal Welfare Act, and a similar number are debating “Food Disparagement Laws” making it legally actionable to say anything negative about the procedures for raising any “food product” in that state. Industry insiders relentlessly push for weakening already barely existent welfare standards and spend millions and billions of dollars blocking legal efforts to protect animals. The one penny per chicken that could be spent to stun birds before begin to cut them apart is a vivid example.
Our ultimate point is this: wherever and whenever we see oppression, we see it justified and implemented in remarkably similar manners. All groups fighting oppression are all fighting the same evil, the belief that those with power can do whatever they want to those without power. Lawyer and author Jim Mason has argued in An Unnatural Order that the roots of this oppression can be traced to our treatment of animals. He’s studied the birth of animal agriculture in the
We know that we don’t need to harm animals and certainly don’t need to eat them. Every major nutritional association has taken a position that a well balanced vegan diet would keep a person, even a child, in normal health. We don’t need to eat animals or their products. We may be used to the taste, but the ethicists arguing for animal rights have consistently argued that when measured against the day to day suffering of animals and the denial of all their basic needs and then the taking of their very lives, “it tastes good” is very trivial indeed. It has also been argued that becoming vegan and living an animal rights philosophy “isolates” one from the mainstream. This is, to a certain extent true, but being an abolitionist or early feminist or coming out of the closet also all isolate one from the mainstream. Doing anything that asks others to question their morals and values will always cause social discomforts, especially early in a movement or one’s own activism. The history of all rights movements is a history of recognizing this and taking those steps anyway because they are the right thing to do.
We recognize that yours is a difficult and painful battle and support it. We ask that you visit our website read vegan literature, and please, please consider the needs and suffering of animals.
ABOUT MARC: MARC is a 501c(3) nonprofit working everyday to help animals and promote animal rights in