WHERE DO respect and dignity for life begin and end? This question was raised during a family vacation at the Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y. For the last four years, we have been sponsoring a pig that narrowly escaped someone’s outdoor barbecue. She jumped the fence and ran the streets of New York until she was captured. She was frightened, injured, and starving and taken to the safe haven at the Farm Sanctuary. She was given the name ”Winnie.”
I am a physician, and have made a commitment to reducing suffering. How then can I stand by and watch the unnecessary suffering of many farm animals destined for human consumption? Where does one draw the line at what practices are acceptable? How does one define a sentient being? Our visit to the Farm Sanctuary and spending time with Winnie helped my family and me put these questions in perspective.
The human impact of factory farming should alarm us all. Human Rights Watch recently reported that meatpacking is the most dangerous factory job in America. Workers are injured at extraordinary high rates and often denied compensation. Immigrant workers are frequently exploited to work under such horrific conditions, and employers take advantage of their undocumented status and fear of deportation to keep them quiet. At a minimum, federal and state laws need to enforce protection of all workers in this industry, without regard to immigration status.
Factory farming hurts our environment. Natural resources are depleted when wetlands, forests, and wildlife habitats are decimated to grow the grain necessary for factory farms. Agricultural runoff and the vast amount of manure produced by large numbers of animals confined in small areas are not only detrimental to our water supply but toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Shouldn’t we be utilizing our natural resources more efficiently to produce food?
There is evidence that a plant-based diet is more healthful than an animal-based diet, which has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. The factory farming industry also uses drugs, hormones, and other chemicals to enhance animal ”production,” a practice that potentially causes detrimental health effects in humans. But I want to tell the stories of the animals.
I learned about ”downed animals” at the Farm Sanctuary. ”Downed animals” is the term given to those animals in stockyards that become too sick and weak to walk. Once they fall down, they are often denied food and water. Although they may still be alive, they are often treated as though they were dead. They are moved with forklifts or tractors that can break bones. Sometimes they are thrown away. Downed animals experience unimaginable suffering because there are no adequate laws protecting them.
I also learned about the painful procedures pigs are subjected to by the industry — for example, having their tails cut off without anesthesia, and being overcrowded in small pens with concrete floors. Pigs remain in these conditions until slaughter at about 6 months of age. The air is noxious and even workers suffer respiratory diseases. Diseases such as salmonellosis are rampant. Breeding sows are confined in small pens and live a constant cycle of impregnation and birth, and they are often denied straw bedding. They suffer their whole life, then are sent to slaughter when they are not productive breeders. Hogs are hung upside down, their throats are cut, and they bleed to death. They are supposed to be ”stunned” first; however this practice is imprecise. If stabbing is unsuccessful, the pig will be dropped in scalding water to be boiled alive.
Billions of chickens are crammed into cages so small they can’t move. We saw examples of these cages at the farm. Food birds (chickens and turkeys) have been genetically altered to grow beyond their biological limits. The heart and lungs are not well developed enough to support the remainder of the body, so some die of congestive heart failure, in addition to the many that suffer crippling leg disorders during life because their legs won’t support their genetically altered weight.
In the slaughterhouse, fully conscious birds are hung upside down by metal shackles on a moving rail. The birds’ heads are submerged in an electrified bath of water. This is supposed to render them unconscious. However, often the electricity is lower than required because of concerns that too much electricity will damage the carcass. Many birds are immobilized, but still capable of feeling pain. Their throats are then slashed on the assembly line. The next stop is the scalding tank. Commonly, birds are dunked alive. This results in the birds flopping, kicking, and screaming, their eyeballs popping out of their heads. They emerge with broken bones and are disfigured.
It is easier not to consider how the flesh has arrived at your plate, and, surely this is what the farming industry prefers.
What are the alternatives? Meat would be more expensive and less accessible if factory farming were abolished. Land used inefficiently to grow grain for the agriculture business could be used to grow human food. I can’t think of any good reason to eat meat, but those who do should insist on strict enforcement of humane conditions for the animals and workers in the industry.
I applaud the small gains made in the legislative arena regarding gestation crates, veal crates, downed animals, and foie gras, and hope this reflects an increasing concern for farm animal welfare.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer wrote, ”Until he extends the circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” Humankind has a long journey toward this goal.
Sondra S. Crosby is an internist with the Boston Center for Refugee Health and Human Rights at Boston Medical Center.
Sondra S. Crosby