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Can a conscious death be humane? September 18, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be unconscious when I kick the bucket. No last-minute grasping at the final shreds of life for me. Let me go in peace, preferably without even knowing it.

That’s what humane slaughter requires for many food animals, too. Cows and pigs must be “rendered insensible” before slaughter, so that they don’t know what’s going on and can’t feel any pain. Now, that’s not to say that such idyllic circumstances actually obtain at slaughterhouses, as a recent article in The Atlantic makes clear. In A Call for USDA Vigilance in Humane Treatment of Food Animals, former Humane Society undercover investigator Cody Carlson discusses the recent closure (and reopening) of Central Valley Meat, a dairy cow slaughterhouse, for violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Commenting on the article, I noted that while I agreed with Carlson that the USDA’s multiple mandates make it impossible for the agency to truly protect animal welfare, it was still possible to eat meat and dairy ethically by choosing products vetted by strong animal welfare certifications. Responding to my comment, a person identified as Janet Weeks flounced “You do realize that birds and rabbits are NOT protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act …there is not even an attempt to make them ‘insensible’ to pain. They are slaughtered while fully conscious.” End of discussion, I suppose, for Ms. Weeks.

Well, just to get one thing out of the way: strong animal welfare certification programs like Animal Welfare Approved do require that chickens, rabbits, and any animals covered by the program are stunned to the point of unconsciousness before slaughter. So if you eat meat certified by one of these programs, it doesn’t matter whether the USDA follows suit or not.

But Ms. Weeks’ comments gave me pause, because they made me realize that most of probably assume reflexively that unconsciousness is a prerequisite for a humane death. But is it? Let’s get personal again. I’d like to be unconscious when I die, but I know that lots of people aren’t and that it’s quite likely I won’t be. Does that make my probable death inhumane? I don’t think so. If it’s pretty quick and not terribly painful, that’s all I can reasonably hope for. Ideally I’d like unconsciousness, but I can live with the alternative (so to speak) if it’s not too bad.

I think the same is true for animals. It doesn’t really bother me that the USDA doesn’t require chickens to be insensible when they’re killed. As long as they are killed quickly and effectively, I’d say that’s good enough. And by the by, that’s the way a lot of small farmers do it. They don’t have the big mechanized stun baths used by conventional industrial players. So when you are being all virtuous buying your chicken at the farmers market, realize that it may have been conscious when it was killed. Having seen firsthand what that looks like (at chicken supplier Kadejan in Glenwood, Minnesota) I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty much a non-event. The chickens, when held securely upside-down, seem quite calm and not remotely aware of what’s coming, and a quick slit to the throat bleeds them right out.

What do you think? Can a conscious death be humane?

Hoofing it in the wrong direction September 10, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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If you’ve poked around this blog a bit, it comes as no surprise that I’m a fan of raising food animals in ways that allow them to express their natural behaviors – to be themselves, so to speak. That often means raising them in settings that mimic their natural environment as closely as possible. Thus I find pasture most appropriate for many species (although the best indoor options, like deep-bedded pens for pigs, can sometimes be perfectly fine).

The conventional livestock industry that has best approximated raising animals naturally has long been the beef industry. Most beef cattle are raised on the range for most of their lives. Calves still suckle their mothers for several months as they graze the land with the herd. It’s not until cattle reach twelve to eighteen months of age that they are moved to feedlots where they are confined in small, barren spaces and fed grain to fatten up for a few months before going to slaughter. It’s because humans leave beef cattle well enough alone for most of their lives that knowledgeable vegetarian spokespeople tell omnivores that if they insist on continuing to eat conventional meat, beef is the best option.

Unfortunately, that piece of advice may not hold true for much longer. This summer’s Midwestern drought is making what was once a relatively rare practice – raising beef cows in confinement from the day they’re born – look more attractive by the day. So called drylot cow/calf production allows famers to keep cows inside on concrete or on fenced-in plots of dirt (which turns into dust or mud, depending on the weather) their entire lives. That means they don’t have to pay for pasture, which is getting more expensive and, in any case, is of little value when there’s not enough rain to sustain its fertility. Now, farmers who confine cows for their whole lives have to pay the extra cost of their feed, which in normal circumstances is enough to put farmers off the idea. But as pasture becomes more spendy (or is simply unavailable) buying feed becomes a relative bargain.

If the bulk of ranchers move to raising beef cattle in confinement, they will have completed the transition to modern, CAFO-based livestock farming that started with the chicken nearly a century ago, trickled through to the pig and to the dairy cow, and now characterizes every species raised commercially for food except the beef cow. Will it happen? Here’s hoping not.

Tie stalls: the next target? August 13, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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First there were veal crates. People found out that veal calves were being kept in small crates that didn’t allow them to so much as turn around, and people stopped eating veal. If you waxed poetic about the joys of your grandma’s veal scaloppine, your more socially responsible friends turned to you, horrified, and proceeded to tell you everything you didn’t want to know about those poor calves. Eventually a cottage industry in “rose veal,” that is, veal from calves raised outdoors on pasture, grew to satisfy the desires of customers who wanted their ethics and their veal both.

Then there were gestation crates. People found out that in the conventional pork industry, sows were being kept for most of their lives in crates so small that, again, they couldn’t turn around.  The way to get around that one was, similarly, to eschew conventional pork for pastured pork. But pork isn’t a little asterisk in meat industry sales reports like veal. It’s big business and it’s the lifeblood of huge companies like Smithfield. So to avoid losing market share to farmers raising pigs outdoors, some big players have promised to phase out gestation crates themselves, so no bacon-lover has to compromise his principles to enjoy his breakfast.

What I’m wondering is, how come no one has found out about tie stalls yet? Tie stalls are a type of housing used by some dairy farms. They’re just what they sound like: individual stalls in which cows are confined by tying them to a post. Here’s a pic from the USDA’s website. Cows can get up and lie down easily in (well-designed) tie stalls, but they can’t turn around. That makes them not much different from the crates that have tarnished the reputations of veal and pork producers. Yet no one’s yet made a fuss about them.

I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that many tie-stall dairies are not the corporate behemoths everyone loves to hate, but are actually small family farms using old barns that have been in the family for generations. That is, they’re the kind of farms that people love to love. Also, I’ve heard that many tie-stall dairies do untether their cows to graze for a few hours a day in good weather, so to the extent that that’s true, it sets these farms apart from conventional veal and pig producers, whose animals are confined 24/7. But I haven’t seen any hard data on what percent of tie-stall operations allow grazing, and in any case, it’s not like you can find out whether your Cheez Whiz came from a tied-up cow by reading the label.

So will tie stalls become the next target of farm animal welfare activists? Despite the factors that distinguish them from veal and sow crates, I think it’s only a matter of time.

Putting an old saw to rest August 6, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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“It just makes sense to treat my animals well. If I don’t treat them well, they won’t produce. So for me to make a living, I have to do right by my animals.” I’ve heard this reassurance put a number of ways by a number of livestock farmers. It’s meant to make nonsense of the view that the way farmers raise animals on conventional modern mega-farms is cruel. If that were true, the logic goes, those farms would be out of business, because unhappy animals won’t deliver the meat and milk the farmer sells.

As I’ve said before, that logic may have worked before farmers started routinely administering antibiotics and hormones to their animals, but it doesn’t fly anymore. And a recent assessment of loading processes for pigs leaving their farms (in most cases, headed for the slaughterhouse) proves it – though that wasn’t really the point of the study. Scientists up in Saskatchewan, CA observed ten different farms loading pigs onto trucks to document the facilities, tools, and tactics that worked the best. Some solid practical tips for ramp design, lighting, etc. came out of it. Notable for farmers and people working in livestock transport, a big yawn for the rest of us.

But what is interesting for the rest of us is an implication of one of the research team’s findings. The researchers noted that prod use – that is, swatting the pigs with electric or non-electric rods to move them onto the trucks – was counterproductive. In fact, stated the scientists, the farm where prods were used the most had the longest load time. Why? It turns out that “…when the prod is used frequently, pigs become less capable of responding and attempt to turn back.”

Now, all of the farms visited by the researchers were renowned for their good practices, and prod use in general was very low. But what I’m wondering is, if hitting and poking pigs with sticks is counterproductive, why would anyone be doing it in the first place? According to Farmer Joe, economic self-interest is supposed to guarantee that farmers treat animals well, but every prodded pig is a piece of evidence that it doesn’t. Economically rational farmers should want to load their pigs as quickly as possible, so they should eschew the prod – but they don’t, not even in farms pre-selected for their good practices.

Part of the problem is ignorance, ignorance that studies like this one will hopefully dispel. We can hope that people who simply don’t know that prodding pigs is counterproductive will stop doing it once they see the light. But people have been herding animals for centuries, indeed millennia, so I can’t believe that ignorance is the whole story here. The other problem is that we’re not rational economic agents, we’re human beings. Sometimes we haven’t had our coffee or are sweating in hundred-degree heat or just don’t give a crap, and we slip up. If we’re working in a textile mill that might mean we rip up a sweater, but if we’re working on a livestock farm, that might mean we abuse a pig. How do we handle that?

Cows in the news July 30, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Some cows are getting more comfortable these days, some less. The “less” is easy to explain: the same heat wave that’s making all of us sweat is making cows, who don’t sweat anywhere but their noses and can’t dissipate heat very well, miserable. Cows start feeling the burn at about 80 degrees, so you can imagine what day after day in triple digits does to them.

Which gives us yet another argument for allowing cows to graze pasture rather than keeping them confined in feedlots, as most conventional dairies and beef finishers do. Pastures with shaded or breezy spots or watering holes allow cattle to cool themselves off. (Have to be careful about the water, though: thousands of pounds of cow mucking around in a riverbed can turn a pristine creek into a foul mess.) Bare dirt lots sectioned off as feedlots give cows no respite from the beating sun. Compounding the problem, sunlight reflecting off the dirt or concrete floors of feedlots warms things up even more. Barns with partial roof cover and misters to spray the cows with water can help.

While Midwestern cows are struggling through the dog days of summer, though, their cousins in the Pacific Northwest are living it up. Several Oregon farms have recently installed waterbeds to allow their cows to recline in comfort. Laugh all you want, but lameness is one of the biggest problems affecting modern dairy cows, who have to support their increasingly heavy bodies on unforgiving concrete. Straw bedding gets wet and dirty; sand bedding is expensive and leaves farmers with the problem of disposing of used sand. Enter the waterbed. If you drive by a dairy farm and glimpse a bunch of cows bouncing up and down inside the barn, you’ll know why.

Does standard practice count as abuse? July 23, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Mercy for Animals (MFA), a nonprofit dedicated to preventing cruelty to farm animals, has a proud history of recording and publicizing undercover videos at farms and slaughterhouses to expose their inhumane practices. Last November’s coverage of Sparboe Farms led Target to drop Sparboe as an egg supplier. Now MFA is putting the pressure on Walmart to stop buying pork from what it considers abusive sources. To that end, it just released a video called, intriguingly, “The Hidden Cost of Walmart’s Pork.” The video profiles Minnesota’s Christensen Farms, the third largest pig producer in the US and a Walmart supplier.

We can all agree that hurting animals just to get your rocks off is abuse. But no one on the Christensen Farms video is doing that. Almost everything shown is standard industry practice and is recognized as such by vets, animal welfare specialists, and everyone who works with livestock. Castrating piglets and docking their tails without anesthesia is a complete non-starter. In fact, castration is done without anesthesia even at the most humane small local farms. (Every single humane animal welfare certification program allows it.) Keeping breeding sows in gestation crates for most of their lives is also the norm, although many retailers have committed to pushing their suppliers to abolish the practice.

Killing unpromising piglets by slamming their heads against the floor is not only standard practice, it’s recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Why? Because when it’s done properly, death is quick and therefore relatively humane:

A blow to the head can be a humane method of euthanasia for neonatal animals with thin craniums, such as young pigs, if a single sharp blow delivered to the central skull bones with sufficient force can produce immediate depression of the central nervous system and destruction of brain tissue. When properly performed, loss of consciousness is rapid.*

(In the MFA video, the piglets who’ve been slammed on the floor are still kicking afterward, but that is no indication that they are still conscious. The proper procedure for determining consciousness is to look for eye movement.) The only thing I saw on the video which livestock vets would not condone was the presence of live piglets and mother pigs with serious injuries that appeared to have been left untreated.

So it’s important for consumers to know that for the most part, what’s on the video is not what anyone working in the industry would classify as abuse. This is in contrast to other videos MFA has released that show workers kicking, hitting, or throwing animals around. If you’re uncomfortable with what’s going on at Christensen Farms, you should stop eating conventional pork, period – because it doesn’t get any better than that. Go for pork that’s been certified by a strong animal welfare certification or from a farmer you know instead, or join the MFAers and go vegan.

* AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia, June 2007, p. 13

Separation anxiety July 2, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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As a new mom, I’ve quickly learned what “separation anxiety” means. It means that as soon as I leave the room, my daughter starts bawling and saying “mommy, mommy, mommy.” For young calves, though, separation anxiety is of a whole other order. At most beef cattle ranches, calves follow their moms around for six months, give or take. When ranchers eventually force them to split up, pulling the calves and moms into herds of their own, the bellowing and whining on both sides of the fence are deafening, and last for a few hours to a few days, depending on how much they miss each other.

Dairy farmers manage the separation of mom and calf quite differently from cattle ranchers. Dairy calves, unlike beef calves, can’t possibly be allowed to nurse for anything like a normal length of time. The whole point of a dairy farm is to sell the milk that cows produce, and every drop of milk that goes into a calf’s mouth is a drop not sold. All dairies, from the biggest conventional CAFOs to the smallest family farms, separate calves from their moms very young, and when I say very young, I mean usually within the first twenty-four hours after birth. However, all the research that I’ve seen on this topic, including that published by proponents of animal welfare like Bernard Rollin, states that early separation is actually much less stressful than letting them stay together longer, only to split them up after they’ve bonded. Pairs that are split within the first day of the calf’s life don’t usually show much sign of caring.

But isn’t there something shameful and underhanded about taking advantage of our knowledge that moms haven’t yet bonded to their calves in the first hours after birth to snatch their babies away “before they know any better”? Or is this just sentimentalism on my part?

Happy hens = sad pig farmers June 19, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Hens crammed into battery cages. If there’s one stock image that animal welfare agencies have battered into our brains to convince us that conventional animal farming is bad, that’s the one. A bunch of featherless birds sticking their necks through wire netting, clambering over one another in their rows upon rows of cages stacked higher than you can reach.

That image might not hold true for hens in the US forever, based on a rather surprising – shocking, even – turn of events. The egg industry and animal welfare activists, longtime foes, have come together to agree on a new way to raise hens. (Democrats and Republicans, take note.) The United Egg Producers, an industry association representing over eighty percent of US egg production, and the Humane Society of the US have agreed to replace battery cages with bigger cages designed not only to give the hens more room, but to “enrich” (that’s the technical term) their lives with amenities like perches and nest boxes.

Even more extraordinarily, these two groups are trying to get their agreement set in stone as federal law. In a bill before Congress which had been part of the 2012 Farm Bill until it got axed yesterday, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments mandate that all egg producers – not just the majority represented by the United Egg Producers – follow the new guidelines. Although the egg bill can no longer ride on the coat-tails of the Farm Bill, I’m guessing it’ll be reintroduced in some other form presently.

The twists and turns don’t stop there. The National Pork Producers Council, of all things (another industry association) has gotten into the fray by coming out publicly against the egg bill. Why would a bunch of pig farmers care about how hens are raised, you might ask? Turns out they don’t like the precedent it sets. Per the pork guys, this legislation marks the first time the federal government would get involved in setting production standards for farming. Given the current brouhaha over sow gestation crates, I guess they have reason to be worried.

I think the pork guys are being a little dramatic when they say the egg bill sets a historic precedent for meddling in farmers’ lives. Federal organic standards, after all, require that dairy farmers pasture their cows for a minimum number of days per year. When I first heard about the egg bill, my reaction was to say to myself “About time.”

Upon reflection, though, perhaps the pig farmers have a point. It does seem a bit odd for the US government to take a stand on how many inches of space a hen should have. The vast majority of congresspeople can’t possible have a clue how much space hens need; what they’re supposed to be experts on is how to run a country, not how to run a farm. Would a better solution be to legalize the principle that food animals must be raised humanely and let the courts work out the inevitable battles about how to make that a reality? What do you think?

Healthy or happy – but not both? May 28, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Baby calves give bunnies and puppies a run for their money on cuteness. But they present the dairy farmer with a not-so-cute dilemma. Unlike beef calves, dairy calves can’t be left with their moms to grow up – the milk their moms produce has to be sold for human consumption. So the farmer must figure out how to raise them (that is, how to raise the female calves that he’s keeping for his future dairy herd). There are two main options: putting each calf in an individual hutch, and housing groups of calves together in pens. Unfortunately, from the calf’s perspective, neither is ideal.

Calves in hutches spend their babyhood – from the day they are born to about eight weeks of age – profoundly alone. What passes for “companionship” for these calves is the sight of other calves in nearby hutches and the vet or farmer handling them for examinations and shots. However, hutches are popular with farmers, because they prevent disease from spreading from calf to calf.

On the other hand, the alternative, grouping a few calves together in pens, at least gives calves some real companionship. It’s as simple as the fact that they can nose and rub other calves. But this very contact introduces a pathway for disease. It may not be much fun living out your youth alone, but it’s also not much fun to suffer bouts of pneumonia or diarrhea, both of which occur more frequently with group-housed than with single-housed calves.

If we take a cool-headed look at the research that’s been done on this question, it would seem to suggest that individual hutches are better for calves. Not only do they do a better job of keeping calves healthy, but a review of recent work in this area notes that “The social skills of individually penned calves can equal that of group reared calves if they are able to have visual contact with their peers.”* Which leads one to believe that it can’t be so bad for them to be alone.

But I’ve got to admit that one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever had at a farm was visiting newborn calves in hutches. At Wolf Creek Dairy in Dundas, Minnesota, Barb Liebenstein runs a 480-head conventional dairy farm as part of the Land O’ Lakes co-op. When I visited, Barb had calves from two to four days old in her hutches. Barb and I walked over to one for a closer look, and as soon as we approached, the little one scrambled up on her unsteady legs, took a few steps forward, gave us each an inquisitive glance, and nuzzled her head against Barb’s hand. Even one nuzzle would have been touching, but what stayed with me long after I left the farm was how this calf just couldn’t get enough. Every time Barb took her hand away after a couple of rubs, she stretched out her neck and flipped Barb’s hand up with her nose for more. Seeing this calf beg for a shred of physical closeness from the only living being who happened to be within range… well, you’d have to have had a heart of stone to be unmoved. The irony of the fact that she was begging for the favors of the person who was ultimately responsible for her isolation wasn’t lost on me either.

I’ve also seen group-housed calves. That’s how Michelle and Roger Benrud raise their calves at a dairy about half the size of Barb’s that is part of a Minnesota co-op called Pastureland. Take a look at these pictures of the Liebenstein and Benrud farms and tell me: what do you think?

*Moore et al., “Calf Housing and Environments Series, III: Hutches or Group Pens for Pre-Weaned Calves?” Washington State University Veterinary Medicine Extension, Ag Animal Health Spotlight Newsletter, December 2010.

Eating antibiotics April 30, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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With all the hullabaloo recently over the FDA’s attempts to regulate the administration of antibiotics to livestock (which resulted in the agency encouraging producers to voluntarily reduce their antibiotic use) I thought I’d give my take on it.

First, an all-or-nothing approach to antibiotic use isn’t good for animals, so I don’t support it. One of the problems with organic regulations is that they ban antibiotic use entirely, which means that if a farmer wants to sell an animal’s meat as organic, he can’t give that animal antibiotics even if the animal is sick and needs them. That creates a perverse incentive for organic farmers to let their animals suffer.

But in general, yes, antibiotics are used when they’re not needed – specifically, to speed up growth so that animals reach market weight faster. (Scientists are still researching why this works, but it does.) And they’re used to ward off diseases that wouldn’t pose such a risk to animals if they weren’t crowded into the CAFOs that characterize modern conventional agriculture. For example, antibiotics are prescribed for pigs to prevent Swine Respiratory Disease (SRD). But pigs wouldn’t be so susceptible to SRD, various forms of which make them literally cough until they die (SRD is the leading cause of pig mortality in the US), if they weren’t packed like sardines into barns reeking of ammonia.

So I’m most emphatically for limiting the administration of antibiotics to livestock, if it would compel farmers to improve their living conditions. However, removing the crutch of antibiotics without changing the rest of the system would be a disaster – for farmers and animals alike.

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