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Cruelty toward animals demands our action

Three Views • Medical studies with animals have shaped our health, future
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Animal welfare advocates say battery cages that severely restrict movement of hens are inhumane. But some chicken farmers say the alternatives leave hens more vulnerable and stressed.

A society's values to an extent are codified in its laws and regulations, which is why we have criminal animal cruelty laws - because we agree that cruelty to animals is wrong.

Although there may not be a consensus on what exactly constitutes cruelty, we tend to know it when we see it.

Starting from this hopefully uncontroversial common ground, let's take a look at what laws exist to protect the greatest number of animals used by humans: farmed animals. Leaving aside the moral and ethical questions about what and whom we should eat, the world in which we live is one where billions of animals are killed for food each year, and I think everyone can agree that these animals should be protected from cruelty and abuse and not made to suffer.

Yet, the sad fact is that although they make up the vast majority of animals used in our society, there are very few laws protecting farmed animals (New law school program unleashes animal rights, Nov. 24).

Most people are surprised to learn that farmed animals have virtually no legal protections. Leaving aside the lack of enforcement issue (a formidable problem in itself), let's just look at what laws are on the books. The two federal laws that cover farmed animals, the 28-Hour Law and the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, apply only to transport and slaughter.

The Animal Welfare Act regulates the use of farmed animals only in the realm of biomedical research; it does not apply to animals used for food. There are zero federal laws governing the conditions in which farmed animals are raised.

That's the federal level; what about state law? Individual states do have their own animal cruelty statutes. However, farmed animals are typically excluded from criminal animal cruelty laws, as most have provisions that exempt agricultural practices. Sadly, and counter-intuitively, the largest group of animals exploited for human gain receives the least amount of protection under animal cruelty laws.

On the positive side, a few states have passed legislation (most through citizen-initiated ballot measures) gradually phasing out some of the most egregious intensive confinement practices over several years. A more disturbing trend is the recent spate of 'ag-gag' bills that would make it a crime to photograph a farm and also criminalize any group distributing video footage or photos of a farm.

This brings us to the issue of knowing cruelty when we see it. Well, first we have to see it, and this legislation would neatly circumvent that issue (not to mention the First Amendment). As agricultural practices have become more industrialized and intensive (more animals in smaller spaces), farmed animals have been moved indoors, into darkness, and out of public view. And now the meat industry is trying to pass laws to prevent the public from ever seeing what happens to animals before they end up in the food supply.

This is wrong. The trend should be toward greater transparency, not less.

It is easy to feel helpless when you see how animals on modern farms are treated and realize there are no legal remedies. Despite opponents' insistence that advocates carefully edit videos taken from within factory farms and slaughterhouses, the steady stream of stomach-churning footage emerging from these facilities shows us a different and sadder picture, one where cruelty and abuse is 'business as usual.'

How I wish this footage were not real, that it was somehow doctored to look worse than it is. I would sleep better at night. I do not want this to be the way animals are treated. Many of us who choose a vegan diet do so as one small way to not directly support this cruelty.

Despite opponents' attempts to paint animal advocates with the same distorted brush, there exists a plethora of different views on philosophy, tactics, strategy and long-term goals within the broad animal protection movement. Anti-animal protection activists also claim the animal rights movement has an 'all or nothing' agenda, but this is a distortion as well, just as we don't have to make the false choice between being compassionate toward humans or animals.

We can do both. Activists who launched the British and American humane movements of the 19th century (which spawned the modern animal rights movement) were also key players in the child welfare movement. Like children, animals cannot organize or speak for themselves in the political arena; they are completely powerless, which places them at our mercy. Let's not close our hearts and minds to them.

Between an abolitionist (absolute hands-off) approach and a world in which we can do whatever we want to animals in the name of profit and convenience, there is plenty of work to be done.

Nicole R. Pallotta, Ph.D., of North Portland, is the student liaison for the Animal Law Program at the Animal Legal Defense Fund.