“Hey, Diddle Diddle, The cat and the fiddle
And a cow jumped over the moon;
The little boy laughed to see such sport
and the dish ran away with the spoon”
By Jim Mason
At first, I didn’t think of other animals as things to be used like machines. To me, they seemed to be other beings just like me who needed food, warmth, and friendship. On the farm where I was raised in southern Missouri, we had lots of animals and they occasionally needed extra care. A cow would refuse to nurse her calf, or a runt piglet would be too weak to wrestle his or her way to the sow’s nipple, or a barn cat would kill a mother mouse leaving a nest of tiny, pink babies. These emergencies offered me some of my earliest experiences with other lives, and I felt for them simply and directly.
But my training toward alienation and domination began with a rude shock one cold fall day. I must have been about five years old, for I was not at school. I sensed something unusual in the air that day because neighboring farmers and their wives began coming over right after the morning chores were done. Strange, big pots hissed on the kitchen stove and the women hurried back and forth through the side porch. Some terrible excitement seemed to be going on out in the yard. It drew me from the kitchen, across the porch, out the door, and down the steps. Then I froze in horror. There on the ground lay a washtub full of pig’s heads with ears, snouts, and eyes smeared with blood. Out under a big oak tree swung nude, headless bodies of pigs, and men were pulling out their still-warm, steaming intestines.
My memory goes off there. I am told I cried so long and hard that one of the women had to take me to town to stay with an aunt for the rest of the day. Family members say I cried and had nightmares for days after. It is too bad people can’t continue to have that honest, unprejudiced reaction to the killing and dismemberment of other beings. It is too bad they are blocked by their beliefs in falsehoods and their embrace of prejudices about other forms of life. It is a shame that the human spirit is so squalid that people need a sense of supremacy and a steady diet of invented beliefs to feed it. It is a tragedy that we are awash in a planetary crisis because the costs of that self-styled supremacy are so great.
One of the keys to coming out of the mess of human dominionism is to understand that it is historical and cultural; it has not always been this way, and it is not everyone’s outlook. Dominionism had an unglorious beginning, so it might as well have an unglorious end. For starters, we need a more thorough understanding of animal husbandry, for animal husbandry is the parent of dominionism.
Obviously, such people would think of themselves as gods, or at the very least as lords over the creation of a greater god. I hope you get the picture. I have sketched it because I cannot stress enough how important it is to understand that animal husbandry is one of the main roots leading up to our species’ current crisis in living on earth. With this as a backdrop, we look now at modern, state-of-the-art animal husbandry practices. We call it factory farming; they call it intensive livestock production in controlled environments, or confinement systems. It is the product of a rather recent revolution in animal husbandry, the prime mover of which has been chemistry.
Animal husbandry has consisted of manipulations of animals from the start, but twentieth century chemistry made possible an entirely new order of manipulations. It began in Delaware in 1923 when Mrs. Wilmer Steele succeeded in raising the first few flocks of broiler chickens indoors through the winter with the help of then newly-discovered vitamins A and D. Chickens no longer needed to run around in the sunlight to have adequate bone and muscle growth.
Then, in the early 1940s, American Cyanimid’s Dr. Thomas Jukes discovered that chickens fed antibiotics grew faster. Within years, antibiotics became a standard feed additive for cattle, calves, and pigs, also. In the 1950s and ’60s, animal scientists learned how to use hormones and hormone substitutes to control animal growth and reproductive processes. Now biotechnology, the latest wave of the revolution, offers cloning, gene splicing, sex determination, and other supremely invasive techniques for manipulation of animals.
With this battery of powerful chemical tools, scientists have enabled farmers to take absolute control over animals and all of their vital processes. This means that animals can be made to generate meat, milk, or eggs profitably without so much regard for their environment and physical, mental, and social well-being. In other words, animal products can be mass-produced whether or not the animals are truly healthy and hearty.
This cruelty and waste is one of the side effects of years of genetic manipulations by poultry scientists. They have engineered a very specialized breed of chicken: it produces an abnormally large number of eggs, but little else. The bird has a scrawny body and stringy flesh, and thus the males, being neither egg nor meat producers, are worthless. “They are not fit to feed,” a hatchery worker told me as he threw handful after handful of live male chicks into plastic garbage bags.
“Broiler” and “frying” chickens used to be another mainstay of the family farm, but now virtually all are produced in factories by a different set of agribusiness corporations. Their lives last from 7 to 8 weeks before they are scooped up by “catchers” and put in crates for the ride to the slaughterhouse. Fortunately, the broiler industry has not been able to profitably raise birds in cages. They grow up on floors covered with pine shavings or other litter. With as many as 25,000 birds on a floor, each bird gets about 1/2 square foot of space. The conditions are not as severe as those for layer chickens, but the numbers are unbelievable: nearly ten billion broiler chickens are raised and slaughtered each year in the United States.
Turkeys are raised in mechanized buildings almost identical to the broiler sheds. These birds are allowed between 1 and 2 square feet each during the 20 weeks it takes to reach slaughter weight. About 200 million turkeys are factory-raised and slaughtered each year in the United States.
Once pregnant, the sows are warehoused for about 15 weeks in a “gestation” building. Here, each sow is chained or confined to a narrow metal stall for the duration. She may be fed every third day and kept in constant darkness. The aim is to prevent her from gaining too much weight and to keep her quiet and inactive while her babies are developing. When the piglets are due, she is moved to a “farrowing house” where she is confined to a similar narrow stall. This one has a creep area where the newly-born pigs can rest when they are not nursing. Sow and pigs stay in the farrowing stall for 2 or 3 weeks, then the pigs are weaned and the sow is moved back to the breeding area for another cycle. The feeders, called “finishing operations,” buy lots of weaned young pigs (“feeder” pigs) and raise them to sell for slaughter. In the early weeks, these pigs may be raised in cages like layer hens. Later on, they are moved to group pens where they are fed to slaughter weight.
We are constantly told that “milk is a natural,” the implication being that the dairy is a wholesome, natural place. That may have been the reality before the chemical revolution when milk productivity depended on healthy, contented cows. It is less true now that biotechnology has produced a breed of cows with a metabolism similar to that of the commercial layer hens: she produces volumes of products even when conditions are less than optimal. Now scientists have introduced a bovine growth hormone that can boost milk volume by as much as 40 percent.
These developments, together with advances in the mechanization of milk collection and waste handling, have fostered a trend toward larger, more intensive dairy farms. Some of these milk factories maintain thousands of cows; they are milked three times a day, around the clock. Between milkings, cows are contained in concrete-floored holding barns. On some dairies, the cows are chained in “tie- stalls” and the milking machines are moved from cow to cow.
Virtually all dairy cows are fertilized by artificial insemination. The soundest young female calves are kept on the farm and raised to increase the herd. The undesirable females and male calves are sold within a day or two after birth, the aim being to save all of the cow’s milk for sale. Because cows give milk only after the birth of a calf, dairy farmers try to rebreed a cow as soon as possible after each calf is born. Under the strict breeding and milking schedule, cows “wear out” after a few years and become unprofitable to keep. Spent dairy cows provide the bulk of hamburger for American fast food chains. Some 10 million cows produce the nation’s supply of milk and dairy products. At least half are maintained in factory systems.
The calves are taken to the veal farm when they are one or two days old. There they are seperated and each is placed in a narrow, wooden stall. On some farms, the calves are also chained at the neck. The purpose of the restriction is to keep the calf firmly in place to that he can eat or drink only one substance: a mixture of milk by-products (made cheap and available by chronic overproduction in the subsidized factory dairy industry), fat, antibiotics, and other additives in water. This “milk replacer” is manufactured deficient in iron so that the calves will develop a kind of controlled anemia. At slaughter, anemic calves yield the desirable pale flesh that fetches the highest price. The calves are denied roughage or any other feed as that might provide iron and darken the flesh. They are denied bedding, as they might eat it and undo the anemia. They are denied light and exercise because veal farmers believe these might affect the color of the flesh.
Under these conditions, the calves are stressed, fearful, disoriented, and unhealthy. Pneumonia, diarrhea, and other infectious diseases are common in the veal factory. About one million calves are raised and slaughtered for anemic veal each year in the United States.
American slaughterhouses kill about 35 million cattle each year to supply the national arteries with fat and cholesterol. About half of these animals are “finished” (fattened) in feedlots on diets rich in grain and feed concentrates. Antibiotics and hormone substitutes like “Synovex” and “Ralgro” speed up the weight gain. In some states, the feedlot is a vast spread of outdoor pens that contain tens of thousands of animals. In other regions, the cattle are confined in buildings equipped with automatic feeders, waterers and waste systems. In the feedlot, crowding and fighting are the only way of life. The high-calorie, low-roughage feedlot diet produces rapid weight gain, which means faster money for the beef barons. But it produces serious digestive problems in animals attuned to grazing plant stalks and leaves. The biochemistry of their four stomachs is disturbed and liver abscesses are common.
Why is the factory farm any worse for animals than the traditional farm? Factory animals are squeezed to their biological limits to produce meat, milk, and eggs — bigger, faster, and cheaper. They are pushed harder than animals on traditional farms. Conventional farm animals are merely dehorned, branded, clipped, cropped, and castrated, but factory farmed animals get all that and more. The most significant “extra” is crowding and the health and social disorder it fosters.
The best case in point is the mountain of studies done by the broiler industry over the years to determine the optimal amount of floor space to be allowed per bird. The studies have not looked at optimal space from the chicken’s point of view; profit for the broiler farmer has been the sole criterion. The studies show that as you crowd more birds onto the floor, the death rate goes up. That is, as crowding increases, there is an increase in the percentage of birds that die. So you would think that broiler farmers would not crowd their birds. But wait: not all of the birds die — even under the most crowded conditions, the majority live. What this means is that the farmer who crowds may lose more birds, but she or he also sends more to slaughter in the end. Indeed, Broiler Industry magazine concluded that “more pounds of chicken can be produced in a house where birds are crowded.”
At one square foot per bird, 2.1 percent died and the farmers got a “yield” of about 4 pounds of chicken meat per square foot of broiler house floor. At one-half square foot per bird, that is, where twice as many birds were crowded on the floor, the death rate more than doubled. However, there were almost twice as many survivors, so the farmers got a “yield” of 7.5 pounds of chicken meat per square foot — almost twice as much per square foot of floor.
The same sorts of studies were done by the battery cage egg industry. The question was: how many birds per cage produce the greatest profit? The studies showed that the greatest percentage of birds survived when they were housed one or two to a cage. With five hens per cage, the death rate tripled, but the farmer sold nearly five times as many eggs, which more than offset the cost of the dead hens.
Crowding causes competition for food, water, social position, and space for movement. Thus, crowding causes stress and frustration on many levels. And stressed, frustrated animals are more vulnerable to physical, mental, and social health problems. They do not think of alleviating the crowding and other stresses, for that would destroy the purpose of the factory, which is to mass produce. Rather, they use chemistry and manipulations to treat symptoms and to keep animals as productive as possible given the conditions.
Among the most offensive of these are the mutilations of pigs and chickens. These animals are not able to establish their natural social groupings and hierarchies in the crowded factory. Fighting and aggression grow to abnormal levels; the crazed animals go out of control and attack, kill, and eat each other. Animal scientists blandly chat about this as one of the “vices” that intensive farmers must correct with proper management. This one they appropriately call “cannibalism,” and it is managed by mutilating pigs so that they cannot peck or bite.
Stressed and weakened animals are more vulnerable to infectious diseases, and the infection is more likely to spread to others in crowded spaces. Factory pigs have chronic infectious respiratory diseases like atrophic rhinitis and pneumonia. Factory chickens suffer outbreaks of Marek’s disease, Newcastle disease, and coccidiosis. Veal calves suffer chronic diarrhea and pneumonia. Though many of these diseases are chronic in the factory, they are controllable by some of the more than 20,000 drugs available to animal producers.
Stressed, frustrated, and physically run down animals tend to be infertile and impotent. Females miss heat cycles, fail to conceive, or abort. Males have a low sex drive and low sperm counts. On many factory farms, both males and females have deformities or incomplete development of reproductive organs. But these problems, too, can now be “managed” by administration of the appropriate drug or hormone.
In addition to these insults to animal health and dignity, there is the subtle brutality of the mechanical environment. Wire mesh, concrete or steel floors are easy to clean, but they are hard on animals’ feet and legs. Pigs and cattle, especially, develop painful lesions and lameness on these surfaces.
In all factories, the air is polluted with irritating feed dust and toxic gases that rise from manure pits below the cages. Even with the ventilators running, the air is bad — so bad that farming magazines warn farmers about the growing number of cases of “farmer’s lung,” a new occupational disease linked to confinement operations. Bear in mind that the farmers are in the buildings only a few hours each day; the animals must breathe the same polluted air at all times.
And, finally, factory animals are extremely vulnerable in the factory. If the power fails, if the toxic gases build up, or if a fire breaks out, they are unable to escape or move to safety. Calves and sows in stalls, chickens and pigs in cages, live at the mercy of factory farmers and their mechanized feeding, watering, ventilating, and waste handling systems. And mercy appears to be extremely rare on the modern intensive livestock production facility — because the animals they maintain are nothing more than meat machines.