Compassionate Exploitation

“Let us not forget, there is a reason why human rights groups do not develop or endorse ‘humane’ methods of torturing and executing political prisoners, and why children’s rights advocates do not collaborate with the international pornography industry to develop standards and special labeling for films that make compassionate use of runaway teens. To do such things is to introduce moral ambiguity into the situations where the boundaries between right and wrong must never be allowed to blur. To be the agent of such blurring is to become complicit oneself in the violence and abuse.” ~James LaVeck

“Promoting free-range, sunshine and fresh air before a ‘stunned’ slaughter for animals sugarcoats the bits and pieces of their bodies for the public, it isn’t getting our job done and it’s dishonest to the animals depending on our help … The real work isn’t negotiating with the animal industries, but with educating the public. The biggest threat to animal farming is veganism.” ~Patty Mark.

Last fall I received two issues of Satya magazine in the mail that dramatically altered the way that I thought about farm animal activism. Satya’s September 2006 issue, Killing Us Softly?, and October 2006 issue, Milking Us Gently?, were devoted to the elevating controversy over ‘humane’ animal products. Each issue was comprised of essays by and interviews with activists from oppositional ends of the debate. I decided that these noteworthy back issues were well worth revisiting. However, rereading the arguments of so many passionate activists in the wake of AR2007, I was struck by the magnitude of this standstill. Almost a year after these writings were published, the movement remains just as indecisive, inconsistent, and impeded by a widening internal divide.

At the conference, the controversy was politely simplified into a sterile welfarist versus abolitionist debate. Awkward plenaries featured speakers taking turns giving speeches about their personal philosophy.

I was grateful to return to the productive contrast of these Satya issues. The magazine was successful in keeping the discussion coherent. As editor Catherine Clyne explained: “This is about the consistency of our messages and actions and their consequences. It’s about the 10 billion animals killed for meat each year in this country – humanely raised or not – and what we’re doing to stop that.” It is not about, as Erik Marcus insisted during one plenary, a mere difference of “opinions.” These opinions carry the weight of the movement’s effectiveness and define our ability to actually save lives.

The questions tackled by Satya were all without clean-cut answers. Who is truly benefiting when animal products labeled ‘free-range,’ ‘cage-free,’ ‘free-farmed,’ ‘grass-fed,’ ‘certified humane,’ and ‘organic’ take such an upsurge in popularity? What is happening to the movement when animal advocacy organizations applaud and endorse the consumption of ‘humane’ meat, eggs, and dairy? Will incremental improvements in factory farms save more or less animals in the long run?

Many activists fighting for improved factory farm conditions have conceded to the institutional power of factory farms by accepting agribusiness’ indestructibility as a given. If it is not possible to shut down every slaughterhouse tomorrow, then it seems logical to focus our energy on lessening the brutality that occurs today. To make life a bit more bearable for the animal who we won’t be able to save. In one of the conference sessions, Karen Davis reminded us how, for the hen in a battery cage, a bigger cage does make a difference. How can we tell her, asked Davis, that factory farm reform is only a pointless fight for longer chains?

This perspective was eloquently described by Lee Hall’s article as “seductive but largely illusory.” As Bob Torres explained: “Welfarism is accepting defeat before we’ve even begun the battle. It accepts as a premise that genuine vegan and abolitionist outreach can’t be and aren’t effective enough, and so trades for measures which (though may decrease suffering in the short-term) actually reify the condition of animals as ours to exploit … It is justifying slavery by asking for longer chains; it is asking the abuser to abuse more gently.”

Yet the gentling of abuse is a change that many activists perceive as a success. Enslaved animals are marginally better off, and consumers are demonstrating that they care enough to pay a little more for animal products produced under these improved conditions. ‘Humane’ animal products and the companies that sell them are being lauded, even endorsed, by some animal advocacy organizations.

Then again, does the marketability of ‘humane’ animal products signify a public potential for veganism or a public grateful to hear that they can be animal-friendly without kicking the meat habit? While free-range eggs, organic milk, ‘humane certified’ meat, and the like may be a steppingstone for some, for others it is undeniably a leap backwards. As the founder of Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary pointed out in her interview, countless people are choosing ‘happy meat’ over vegetarianism: “No exaggeration: every person or group who visits the sanctuary, no matter what their background, age, sex, or socioeconomic position, beams with pride when they proclaim, ‘It’s okay, I only buy cage-free eggs and organic milk.'” James LaVeck reiterated this point, writing that “already sanctuary workers, educators and frontline vegan activists are reporting that members of the public, when confronted with the reality of farmed animal exploitation, increasingly indicate that they will express their concern for farmed animals, not by boycotting or reducing their consumption of animals products, but by purchasing products marked as ‘humane.'”

When I first read these essays nearly a year ago, I was in the process of learning firsthand just how true LaVeck’s words are. The welfarist organization that I worked for had instructed me to contact all of the small-scale farms in the area that sold ‘free-range’ eggs. My coworkers saw nothing problematic in the assignment. From their well-intentioned standpoint, a local alternative to factory farms was an easier sell than veganism. This was indeed the case – people were practically lining up to assuage their guilty consciences by purchasing ‘free-range’ eggs rather than cut eggs from their diet. That month I spoke to over two dozen farmers, mostly small-scale organic vegetable farmers selling eggs for supplemental income. All save a handful informed me that their eggs were in such high demand that they were turning away customers.

The factor that cemented my own beliefs regarding the futility of promoting ‘humane’ animal products was a phone conversation that I had with one of those farmers. He was quite gregarious on the phone, cheerfully telling me how his chickens roamed the organic orchards by day, scratching blissfully in the pesticide-free soil. I asked how long the chickens lived at his farm. They only lasted about three years, he explained, before their egg production declined. Knowing full well that a hen could naturally live to be fifteen, I inquired as to where the chickens went after three years of laying. The farmer laughed and said that he didn’t really know, but that they “probably were turned into dog food.”

As that farmer demonstrated, and as countless animal welfare measures continue to demonstrate, the “longer chains” solution overlooks the underlying problems with animal exploitation. It does not question the notion that animals are pieces of property for us to utilize and exploit. Will being a little nicer to our property increase said property’s chances of escaping property status in the long run? Maybe. But with happy meat sales skyrocketing, would-be vegetarians opting to be conscientious omnivores, and slaughterhouses massacring record numbers, the outlook is grim.

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