If you could peer into a giant factory farm where animals are mass produced and then killed to become our food, you might wonder how we, as a decent and humane people have arrived at this place. What you would see is this:
1. Egg laying hens, crammed by the bunch, into a tiny wire cage stacked one upon the other for what seems like miles. They cannot spread their wings, and they are driven mad by the 1-2 years (the length of their miserable lives) of extreme confinement.
2. Mother pigs enclosed in a metal frame barely bigger than their bodies for months on end. The gestating pigs can hardly move, and they endure extreme discomfort and frustration. Did you know, by the way, that pigs are more cognizant than a three year old child and smarter than your pet dog?
3. Veal calves that have been ripped from their mothers at birth and shackled with a chain around their necks in what amounts to a dark box. They are kept in this state of intense captivity so that their muscles remain tender, hence they are often dragged to slaughter unable to walk on undeveloped legs.
Imagine, if you will, that it is you who is locked in a tiny dark space, unable to move, day after maddening day, month after torturous month. You suffer endlessly without a kind gesture or moment of relief. You have done nothing wrong, and you will ultimately die so someone can dine on your flesh.
I am not an idealist; I know that we are not a culture that is about to stop eating animals overnight. But I do think until that day arrives, we can raise these creatures with a modicum of decency. We can give them a little room to breathe, stretch, and even walk around before they are killed.
It's not only a humane choice to ease the tight containment; it also makes sense for our health. Raising animals in dark and filthy conditions breeds bacteria and viruses. For instance, there is up to 20 times the rate of salmonella in caged hens versus cage free hens. And the bird flu virus, although quiet in the news for the moment, has mutated at an alarming rate in pockets of animals who are kept in these dank conditions. And lastly, our environment suffers enormously from the runoff of these colossal farms: the nearby water tables are polluted by the massive amount of excrement laced with antibiotics and hormones, the air is thick with ammonia and other noxious fumes, and rotting by-products of animal flesh make the smell untenable.
So to vote YES on Prop 2 in California would be the beginning of making things better for animals, our health, and the environment. If the measure passes, factory farms in the largest animal production state in the country would have until 2015 to change their ways and get rid of the most extreme confinement. It won't put an end to factory farming, but it will certainly move the needle towards reclaiming our integrity.
As Gandhi famously said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."