If you knew that other animals experience ‘human’ emotions, and that they act with what we call moral sense, would that knowledge change your view of how they ought to be treated, under our dominion? There’s an emerging body of science that indicates that our relationship to ‘lower species’ is more like a continuum than a clearly demarked separation. We shouldn’t ignore those findings, if our stewardship of the animal kingdom is to accurately reflect our rather exalted view of our civilized nature. But current legislative proposals do just that.
Two recent articles caught my eye, in ironic contrast. The first was Time magazine’s The Mystery of Animal Grief (April 15 issue). It discusses recent research into various rituals among horses, elephants, whales, dogs and even some birds, that look very much like mourning. Crows gather around a fallen comrade, for example; in silence (remarkable enough for a crow), they pile sticks and other offerings around or atop the corpse, (as if?) paying respects. Elephants have been recorded as they attend the body of a herdmate for a week or more after her passing.
Dogs, as every pet partisan knows, have been observed grieving in many contexts, over centuries. In Homer’s Odyssey, Argus the hound was the only one to recognize his master after his long absence. More recently, an akita was documented over an entire decade, visiting the local train station in hopes of greeting its departed master. And the famous Man’s Best Friend speech includes the lines “… there by the [master’s] graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.”
This science is young and its practitioners are careful in their conclusions, almost to the point of timidity. There is, apparently, nothing worse in their community than to be accused of sentimentality, or so-called anthropomorphism. But the findings are becoming irresistible, and directionally, they continue the work of those who have demonstrated clear evidence of what we would call “morality” among animal behaviors.
I had the opportunity to review Marc Bekoff’s excellent, eye-opening book ‘Wild Justice’ for The Bark magazine a few years ago. The moral behaviors there are explained in terms of evolutionary theory, as being important in improving each species’ success chances. I have been unable to shake the revelations of his work, or its implications: we humans and those beasts are a lot more alike than we’ve been led to believe, by religion and philosophy (the benighted Rene Des Cartes, in particular).
The other article, running in the polar opposite direction, concerns legislative proposals in a dozen states (CA’s bill was recently withdrawn after it received unwanted attention) to enact so-called Ag-Gag laws. These purport to ban undercover investigations into conditions at slaughterhouses and other food producing operations. They are in response to horrifically effective videos produced not only by everybody’s favorite whipping-radicals at PETA, but also the mainstream Humane Society of the United States.
Already enacted in seven states, Ag-Gag bills are intended to supplement laws that turned animal rights vandals into ‘terrorists,’ in the wake of several fur farm break-ins that foolishly liberated hundreds of the next season’s fashion outerwear. In their most draconian versions, the laws criminalize any such investigation and its products (like videos), and render the investigators liable for any economic damage to the enterprise – regardless of the truth of the assertions made! Those damages can run into the multiple millions – the HSUS video in 2008 led to the largest meat recall in US history, and the eventual shuttering of the offending meat packer. Imagine, if you will, any other industry – say, defense contractors, casinos or stock exchanges -- exempting itself from whistle-blowing.
Supporters claim that abattoir operations are necessary, and inherently gruesome – one lobbyist compared them to open-heart surgery, which is more than a bit of a stretch. As such, the claim goes, they are easily miss-represented on film, to the possible detriment of legitimate operators. In fact, however, the practices shown – baby chick grinding, chicken bashing, piglet tossing, veal and sow cages, impaling downed cattle on forklifts come to mind -- have been gratuitous and indefensibly cruel.
Moreover, despite Big Food’s preference that we believe our steaks grow in shrink wrap, it is hard to think of another industry where conditions are more bound-up with the public interest – even if you don’t care about the animals whose flesh sustains us. Food-borne illness (certainly not all of it from pre-market processing, as many a fridge will attest) sickens 48 million Americans each year, and kills 3,000 of us. That sobering reality argues for no-free-passes, especially in these days of smaller government at all levels, including food inspection.
It is nearly certain that the Ag-Gag laws recently enacted will not pass First Amendment muster, as the Supreme Court has generally taken at least an intermediately dim view of government interference with news gathering. But until the issue is litigated, we won’t know (especially with this mediocre crop of Supremes) and there will have been an interim “chilling effect” on this form of undercover investigative work. It’s an act of real courage to put both freedom and financial future on the line for a story, however well-meant, and however likely is your ultimate vindication.
Indeed, returning to the first article, shouldn’t we be demanding More transparency, on both safety and, now, moral decency grounds?
California famously passed Prop 2 in 2008, which provides for better conditions for food animals raised within our borders. Perhaps instead of banning video in packing houses, there should be mandatory cameras at critical stages of the operation, with real-time posting to the internet? That sort of transparency, together with certification of particularly humane operations – like that won by Foster Farms of-late, would serve to ensure safety, and fail-safe humane standards.
I have no conceptual problem with human consumption of food animals – as long as they are really allowed to be animals while they are living, and their deaths are swift, sure and otherwise humane (who among us could ask for much more for ourselves?). Our industrial ag system is very, very far from that concept at present. And we have more and more reasons – selfish and selfless – to change that. We need to respect our food, and know its story.
Synopsis: Ag-Gag laws fly in the face of new science that suggests we’re closer cousins of our food than we may have realized.