"Because the heart beats under a covering of hair, of fur, feathers, or wings, it is, for that reason, to be of no account?" ~ Jean Paul Richter
Do animals matter in Canada? Do they have any inherent legal or moral value?
By many measures, Canadian society, like human society generally, stands on the shoulders of countless millions and billions of animals. We eat them, wear them, use them for entertainment, hunt them for fun, conduct research on them and test everyday products on them. Despite all this, animals, and their travails, are invisible to us.
We've conveniently arranged our affairs to avoid seeing the chickens behind our omelettes, the cows behind our quarter-pounders. Our wilful blindness is enabled by removing any trace of animal identity from the food and products they provide for us: instead of being cows, chickens and pigs, they are juicy steaks, crispy nuggets and sizzling bacon.
More absurdly, in classic Monty Python fashion, we deploy caricatured animal identities -- cartoony chickens, cows and pigs -- to sell us their deconstructed bodies. One can't help recalling the antebellum American South's marketing myth of the "happy slave," used to put a pleasing gloss on the cruel institution that kept millions of humans in bondage.
How did we get here?
Living Widget Economics
One of the biggest drivers of animal objectification is industrialized agriculture, where animals are simply living widgets in the production of cheap commodity foods. The push for efficiencies inevitably demands lower input costs, which adversely impacts the lives of the animals involved in the system.
The outcomes of this living widget model are clear in the recent conviction of Maple Lodge Farms for subjecting so-called "spent hens" (weakened hens who are no longer useful for egg production) and "broiler chickens" (chickens raised at a rapid rate for their meat) to undue suffering during transport to slaughter in sub-zero winter conditions (see R. v. Maple Lodge Farms). Thousands of chickens likely suffered unduly, and hundreds died as a result of the conditions they were subjected to during transport to the company's slaughterhouse in Brampton, Ontario. Moreover, these convictions represent only two of the 60 charges against Maple Lodge Farms; 58 are pending.
After a long trial finding Maple Lodge Farms guilty, the Court determined that:
"...Maple Lodge Farms...decided that commercial imperatives trumped animal welfare when setting out that day to transport spent hens to slaughter." [paragraph 468, R. v. Maple Lodge Farms, also see paragraphs 453 and 467]
The Court concluded that Maple Lodge Farms was reckless to the welfare of the chickens, adding that "[u]ndue exposure to weather upon these birds caused undue suffering and an 'astronomical' number of deaths."
These are the wages of the living widget model.
A Chicken's Life
The Maple Lodge Farms case is interesting reading because it provides a peek at how chickens used for eggs and meat are raised. While "undue suffering" during transport is deplorable, consider the quotidian life of the egg-laying hen:
"These 'spent hens' are kept in cages with others, and they lay eggs for about 72 weeks. Egg production both depletes their supply of calcium causing brittle bones, and reduces their feathering. At the end of their laying cycle, they are gathered by 'catchers' into crates and stacked on flatbed trailers, where they are 'salvaged' and transported to a slaughter facility to be made into various chicken by-products. A new flock of laying hens is introduced to the barn once it is cleared out and cleaned and the cycle repeats." [paragraph 75]
Male chickens, described as "broilers," live different, but similarly challenging lives:
"Male broilers are...fed specially designed feed to induce rapid growth. At the time they are to be killed, they are 'adolescent' or 'juvenile' birds approximately one month old. They are grown to specified weights as proscribed by the industry purchasers, and then caught by 'catchers' and placed into crates and transported on flat bed trailers to Maple Lodge Farms where they are hung upside down on shackles, placed on a conveyor belt, stunned by electrical equipment and slaughtered." [paragraph 76]
This is the life lived by tens of millions of chickens in Canada, and it is completely acceptable under our laws. Now and then we get a peek at their existence, but is anyone really looking? The interests of consumers in cheap foods and producers in lucrative profits from a multi-billion dollar industry converge to keep animals used for food invisible in Canada.
CTV's W5 recently shed light on Canada's billion-dollar egg production industry through undercover video shot by animal welfare group Mercy for Animals. The video shows tens of thousands of chickens crammed into bare battery cages where their sole purpose is to lay as many eggs as possible. The response to W5 from Canada's egg industry rings hollow:
"We take our animal care responsibilities very seriously and we remain committed to determining the extent of the situation and corrective action required. Since a comprehensive assessment and analysis, as well as remediation, is our priority, we respectfully decline the further interviews you propose."
More telling is a letter from the Egg Farmers of Canada to their members warning them of the W5 story and encouraging them to batten down the hatches "to protect your farm and your industry." There isn't a word in that letter about "animal care responsibilities" or the well-being of the chickens who produce the eggs, and the profits.
Legal Black Hole
Arguably, the egg industry's Janus-faced approach works because, as a society, we want to be reassured that cruelty in industrial farming is an exception. A similar approach was marshalled to protect the pork industry when W5 showed conditions at some Manitoba pig facilities.
The reality is that animals used in food production exist in a legal black hole. Provincial laws dealing with animal protection are significantly flawed because they exempt agricultural operations and "generally accepted" industry practices. Even federal laws, like the one Maple Lodge Farms was convicted under, focus mostly on consumer protection and food safety, with some animal welfare protection provisions addressing the transportation of animals. As a result, the overwhelming majority of animals in Canada, in the tens of millions, are effectively outside the protection of the law.
This legal landscape, coupled with self-policing through industry-dominated voluntary standards puts the fox in charge of the henhouse. Moreover, our legal system classifies animals used for food, like all animals, including our beloved pets, as mere property (presumably on the centuries old Cartesian justification that they are not sentient and therefore unable to suffer). This approach is out of touch with what we know from our day-to-day experience with animals like cats and dogs. In fact, there is significant and growing evidence confirming sentience, intelligence and feeling across a wide range of animals, including chickens.
Even the lowly pigeon, much derided as an urban pest and "tree rat," has proven to be a bit of a math whiz. Bees too, have been shown to exhibit the ability to think.
More and more the legal and moral barriers established to justify what we do to animals are crumbling. Presumably, when we didn't know much about animal lives and minds, we substituted our lack of knowledge with the conclusion that there was nothing there. Today we know a lot more, and our laws and mores must catch up.
But, the law and social norms are tight strictures against reform. Take for example, the case of the monkey found wandering around a Toronto IKEA store. While the outcome was laudable, the Court had to decide the monkey's fate on property principles, focusing on the owner's interests rather than the monkey's.
Ironically, the same week the that three Toronto Zoo elephants were finally allowed to move to a better life in California, a baby giraffe was born into captivity at the same zoo and Toronto boasted the opening of a watery zoo (an aquarium holding thousands of marine animals). Under the guise of education and natural preservation, zoos, aquariums and circuses reduce complex sentient creatures into one-dimensional curios for our entertainment. Perhaps, a century from now we will look back at these animal entertainments in the same way we do today when considering the humans held in zoos and gawked at as sideshow freaks just over a hundred years ago.
The Way Forward
It's time to rethink our relationship with animals.
We can begin by demanding effective laws from our governments guaranteeing the Five Freedoms for all animals in Canada:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst;
- Freedom from discomfort;
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease;
- Freedom to express normal behaviour; and
- Freedom from fear and distress.
One practical outcome of a Five Freedoms guarantee might be the end of current battery cages, which would immediately reduce some suffering for many animals in Canada. Such a move would not be revolutionary because places like California and our newest trading partner, Europe, have already begun to address the ills of battery cages.
Finally, moral progress requires each of us to seriously consider the lives of animals and the complex roles they play in our own lives, whether as food, entertainment or companions. By doing this, animals may begin to become visible to us; they may matter. That is when we can aspire to make choices about them based on respect rather than utility.