You may recognise my heading here as a quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where we also hear “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It was a connection I couldn’t help but make as I explored the background to this article.
After writing about non-human animal rights recently, I found myself on a track which led to a documentary named ‘Speciesism‘. You can watch a trailer and stream online here. But, as I warned you, they say:
YOU’LL NEVER LOOK AT ANIMALS THE SAME WAY AGAIN. ESPECIALLY HUMANS.
This is not scaremongering, but it is eye-opening. You can never un-see what you watch here, and once your brain has digested the information, your mindset may change forever. It is important to note that there is minimal graphic or upsetting content in the film, it is intended to be informative and entertaining.
Anyway, that is enough build-up, let me get into the content of what to expect in this documentary.
We are taken on a journey to discover the truth behind modern farming methods, especially the practice in US factory farms. The director, Mark Devries, is a young student who started to investigate the facts and soon found himself consumed in his project. He speaks to people in all areas of the food industry, to people on both sides of the fence and even faces up to the farm owners themselves.
He maintains an objective stance throughout – asking difficult questions and documenting the responses he receives. The purpose of the documentary is to raise questions…. and I for one have been deeply affected by his work.
Mark’s journey starts with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The initial mood is a little cynical. PETA is known for being provocative. They often use gimmicks and shock tactics to distract people enough to make them stop and look. They succeed at getting attention and this is the way that they raise awareness and pressure companies to take action while in the spotlight.
The public is not always in favour of the tactics used by the charity, although they have been the catalyst for some substantial changes in the industry.
The documentary discusses so called front groups, which are generally employed by the food industry to discredit the charities trying to make a change. The aim is to reduce the trust in the message from pressure groups, without looking like the criticism is coming directly from the industry in question.
The egg industry is probably the worst when in comes to factory farming – which is not something that I expected. Chickens naturally like to establish a pecking order, like dogs in a pack. The problem comes when so many birds are kept in such extreme close proximity.
Until recently, up to 11 birds were kept in each small cage – where they would never once be able to stretch their wings fully in their entire sad lifespan of 2 years. The bottom of the cage is a series of wires – so their feet are frequently damaged from not having an adequate place to rest.
Because of the need to establish a pecking order in a cramped uncomfortable cage, the chickens attack one another, pecking incessantly and causing pain and even death. The factory farmers do have a solution for this: De-beaking. That is a process by which the chickens’ beaks are seared off with a red hot blade.
The general consensus in the world of biology is that almost anything with a nervous system can feel pain. And animals almost certainly feel emotions. Consider a dog, we can see that it experiences joy. We also recognise that chimpanzees amongst other creatures grieve the death of a companion.
Even worse, they may even feel their emotions even more strongly than humans, because they can’t rationalise what they are going through. So it could be that we are grossly underestimating how much they are suffering.
Mark attempted to visit an egg farm to debunk these facts – that seem too terrible to be true, but every request to visit was completely rejected.
Chickens that are bred to be eaten also have a terrible time in factory farms. They spend their life living in large windowless sheds, with barely enough room to turn around. The stench of ammonia is overpowering in these sheds, with thousands of chickens all gathered in one small, closed space.
Often they are pumped with hormones to make them grow quickly, and unnaturally. Their bones do not develop fast enough to support them, so they frequently have trouble walking. Painful arthritis effects their joints, and it is not unusual to find many lame chickens on their way to be slaughtered.
Factory farmed pigs are not much better off than the chickens. They also never see the light of day, instead they spend their days shut up in tightly packed, windowless sheds.
When we consider the complex social lives that these animals have in a natural life. They are thought to be as intelligent as dogs, so living in these conditions must be very hard for them. This is demonstrated by unnatural tail biting behaviour that is often seen in pig sheds.
Once again, the clever factory farmers have an answer for this phenomenon. Soon after birth they castrate baby pigs without anaesthetic, their tails are removed and ears are cut. The screaming squeals heard on the documentary leave you in no doubt that the baby animals are feeling the agonising pain.
Pregnant sows are often kept in a ‘gestation crate’ for the entire duration of her term (around 4 months), until she gives birth, and is then retained to nurse her young. The crates are so small that the pig is unable to turn around, move forwards or backwards.
They tend to become very unresponsive and suffer from what can only be described as severe depression. They look hopeless.
Piglets reach full size in 5 short months thanks to their hormone enhanced feed.
The obvious result of keeping fields full of windowless sheds packed with pigs, is that there will be a lot of waste requiring removal. The excrement and urine of the factory farmed pigs is collected in massive chess pools outside of the sheds.
Then, inexplicably, it is sprayed out, high into the air, onto the surrounding fields, neighbouring land and even on peoples’ homes. The waste seeps into rivers and streams, polluting the ground water and wells with pig faeces.
The airborne contaminants from the spray are also linked to a massive increase in asthma in children living close to these farms. It can be as high as 25% more than asthma in children in other areas in the States. Cancer rates are also soaring in locals living close to pig farms.
Once again, cows are confined in close quarters and fed a mixture of hormones and antibiotics, which results in them growing too quickly. It is normal to find lameness in 24% of cattle once they reach the slaughter house, although some estimate it is far more than this. Many have to be dragged out of the vehicles into the abattoirs by their legs.
The life of a dairy cow in a factory farm is a sad one. They are impregnated annually in order to keep their milk flowing. They produce the milk in order to sustain their young, which are taken from them almost immediately.
This is very distressing for both the mother and calf. Sometimes it is reported that the calf is s put into a kennel nearby, so they can hear one another crying and calling out to one another. This also stimulates milk flow.
Young male calves are often used for veal, and kept in crates which prevents them from moving while they are fed constantly.
The cows’ sensitive udders are placed into a machine that pumps relentlessly, regardless of pain that the cow may experience. They frequently develop an infection, called mastitis, which results in pus and blood entering the milk.
The cruelty suffered by cattle in the dairy industry is considered worse than most animals. They are taken from their young and kept alive for years to provide milk for human consumption.
One thing that the documentary opened my eyes to, is the cruelty in fish farming. In the spirit of being a speciesist, the suffering felt by fish slipped beneath my radar. But the cruelty is rife here too, and arguably more so than other factory farmed animals.
So those were the factory farming facts – they make for difficult reading.
But, are we speciesist if we are allowing this to happen? Let’s look at some of the typical answers given in response to the question below, along with some answers given in the film.
Animals have no choice about the source of their food. Plus, they are not a moral example for us to follow.
It is nothing more than habit, and the ‘way things are done’. Slavery was once considered natural.
So, what about primates who are locked in isolation for medical experiments, or kept confined in a zoo?
Neither do human infants or those suffering from some mental illnesses. In fact, we class human foetuses above all animals in terms of their right not to suffer.
…And so do many humans. Consider John Merrick, the ‘elephant man’. A kind and loving soul, who looked very ‘different’ to the average human.
So what about members of the human community who don’t have that ‘thing’ that we prize as superior. Those with mental and learning disabilities. They are of course still considered fully human, so they have the benefit of full rights. They have the capacity for joy, grief, fear and other emotions. They have talents and needs. They are able to suffer and feel pain – and yet animals can be classed as the same in terms of these measurements.
It is true that only humans are currently represented in the legal system, but the legal system is not infallible. It was not so long ago that our courts only represented white men.
Again, what about infants or disabled people?
It seems to me that we cannot escape the fact that the majority of us are prejudiced. We consider that humans are superior to animals. And that we have a ‘right’ in some way to use them for our own gains. So this leads to the next question:
It feels normal to us. In fact it is downright uncomfortable to consider that we are a part of something so abominable.
We have been conditioned from young to accept that this is the way things are. We eat animals, we need plenty of animals to feed our ever growing hungry population. How else can we ensure we have enough?
It can be likened in many ways to the mindset that surrounded slavery. For now, feel it is the natural order and can justify it in many ways. Yet, we once justified slavery and now we have the complete opposite view.
Animals are literally under attack by humans – just so that we can have a selection of meat on our plate. We routinely brutalise them, physically torture them, maim and kill them – every day.
We recognise to some extent the suffering that they experience, but that is accepted as the unfortunate cost of feeding us meat. But that is not enough to make it morally justified.
A survivor of the holocaust interviewed in the documentary, likens factory farming to genocide. He describes it as an efficient, non emotional dispatch of life.
What choices does that leave us with?
While it is true that the animals living in ‘humane’ farms have a far better standard of living, the conditions, set by Whole Foods or Trader Joes for example are still very cramped and unpleasant
However, when compared to a regular factory farm, life is vastly improved. Typical regulations include no more than 1% fail rate on ‘stunnings’ and no more than 1% of broken wings in chickens.
The answer is of course, no.
There cant be while animals are considered our property. Property is clearly less valuable than the owner. The well being of animals cannot be considered properly if they are owned and kept to eat.
If you truly hold their rights as equal, then you cannot eat the corpse of another animal. It is a strange way to look at it – but meat is the corpse left behind after we have processed the animal.
The documentary asks us to consider that it is the same as human cannibalism if you look at it from this angle.
Therefore, if we remove our prejudices, we should we give equal treatment to all animals in consideration of their best interests. That means to ensure they don’t feel pain or suffering. And that obviously means, not eating them – or their products.
The only real answer to living life without being a speciesist is to go vegan. This lifestyle eliminates all animal products form the diet entirely.
Fortunately there has never been a better time to make the change. There are so many vegan and vegetarian alternatives readily available to us today, thanks to the ever growing number of people choosing not to eat animal products.
The internet is full of strong vegan body builders, daring us to ask them where they get their protein. Their diet ensures that they consume plenty of protein and complete nutrition. That includes vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and more – all from plants.
It is claimed that living a vegan lifestyle will leave us healthier, more disease free and living longer than ever.
The answer for me is – yes I am. Although I feel awkward about it after delving into this subject!
Please let me know what your initial thoughts are. Do you think speciesism exists? Or is it just crazy? Have you watched the documentary?
I would love to hear from you.
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