In recent years, there has been an odd controversy in animal rights circles as some activists fight against welfare reforms for farmed animals. A few groups have gone so far as to argue against campaigns for better slaughter practices for chickens, better living conditions for hens, and have even picketed Whole Foods for trying to make living and dying conditions better for the animals they sell. We find this to be both curious and counterproductive to the goal of animal liberation that we all share.
Not only is it possible to work for liberation while supporting incremental change, such change is inevitable as we move toward this goal. The vast majority of people, if they care about animals, will support incremental improvements, even if the increments do not liberate the animals. People are likely to progress in a way that causes particularly abusive systems to be improved or eliminated before full animal liberation is achieved.
If society says that animals have no rights or interests at all, moving from that mentality to complete liberation will be impossible. However, once society understands apes, chickens, pigs and other animals have some interests that must be respected, that certain things are not okay, the view of animals in society will change, and bigger changes become possible. Now that some of the world’s largest corporations are saying, “Yes, animals can suffer; this is a real concern,” suddenly the discussion has moved to our playing field. The philosophical argument granting chickens freedom from battery cages also logically demands that we cease to exploit them for our own ends.
In the USA, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the Humane Slaughter Act (HSA) and the recent concessions made by the fast food industry leave much to be desired. But would animals be better off and liberation further along if the animals suffer more while we fight for the ultimate goal? Of course not.
If one were to believe what those who oppose welfare campaigns are saying, one might imagine that before these reforms, large numbers of people were refusing to eat meat, but now they have decided that, because animals are not treated so badly, they can eat meat again. That is not the case, of course. Rather than salve consciences, passage of the AWA and HSA, as well as the advance of the fast food campaigns, have placed the issue of cruelty to farmed animals before millions of people as an important societal issue. That can only help to advance the day we’re all striving toward.
As another example, look at countries where animals have no protection from slaughter by the most inhumane methods. Sadly, these countries also have few vegans and animal rights sympathizers. If the anti-welfare reform camp were right, one would expect them to have more vegetarians than countries like Britain, where animals are better protected.
Put yourself in a chicken’s place today: Would you prefer to live in the horror you’re in, bred to grow seven times more quickly than natural so that your bones splinter and your organs collapse, or would you prefer to be able to live without chronic pain? Would you prefer to live your life crammed into a small cage, unable to lift your wings, build a nest, or do almost anything else that you would like to do, or would you prefer to, at the very least, be able to walk? Would you prefer to be hung upside-down by your feet and then scalded to death or lose consciousness when the crate you are in passes through a controlled atmosphere stunner? If, as we all believe, each individual animal deserves to have her interests considered as an individual, then welfare improvements are good. We can’t ignore the vast suffering of these billions of animals for some hypothetical future goal.
Fast food campaigns and the campaign to ban battery cages, which have been heavily supported by the hard work of tens of thousands of grassroots activists, have improved the lives and deaths of tens of millions of animals. As the industries shift, the improvements will apply to billions every year. As just one example, the stocking density changes for hens in the USA, although meager, mean that conditions have gone from 20 percent annual death rates to two to three percent annual death rates; for all of the animals, this is a marked improvement. Transport and slaughter standards for chickens are also a U.S. first, and are improving lives and deaths for millions of animals annually—billions once the entire industry is forced to shift.
People who denigrate the improvements that the fast food corporations have implemented are not, we suspect, reading the industry journals, which are filled with anger that the animal rights movement has forced them to improve conditions. Nor are they putting themselves in the place of the animals involved, whose living and dying conditions have improved. It’s instructive, perhaps, to look at who agrees and who disagrees. Those who oppose the reforms implemented by Burger King and the others include the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers’ Council, and every other meat industry and anti-animal trade group.
We understand the appeal of battle cries such as “not bigger cages, but empty cages.” But a bit of comfort and stimulation for an animal who will be in that cage her whole life is something worth fighting for, even as we demand empty cages. Not only is it the best thing for the animals in the cages, it’s also the best thing for animal liberation. It’s another stepping stone on the march.
Peter Singer is the author of Animal Liberation and professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Bruce Friedrich is vice president for international grassroots campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), www.PETA.org.
This article originally appeared in Satya, a magazine of vegetarianism, environmentalism, animal advocacy and social justice. Re-printed with permission. Visit www.satyamag.com for more information.