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Is the “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act” a Step in the Right Direction?

photograph taken of turkeys overcrowded in pens

On October 22nd, Congress unanimously passed the “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act.” The law makes certain acts of cruelty against animals federal crimes. Before the federal law was passed, legislation protecting animals was largely a matter reserved for state legislatures. The law was met with praise from both private citizens and animal welfare organizations like the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

The scope of the law is one of its most noteworthy positive features. Many animal welfare laws arbitrarily restrict protections to only certain species of animals—often companion animals or animals that human beings tend to find cute or pleasant. Bucking that trend, this bill includes, “non-human mammals, birds, reptiles or amphibians.” Specifically, the law prohibits the “crushing” of animals, where “crushing” is defined as “conduct in which one or more living non-human mammal, bird, reptile, or amphibian is purposely crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury.”

While the law is laudable when it comes to the range of animals it protects, it is arbitrary in other ways. The protection the law provides is subject to noteworthy exemptions. The following conduct is exempt from protection: conduct that is, “a customary and normal veterinary, agricultural husbandry, or other animal management practice,” “the slaughter of animals for food,” “hunting, trapping, fishing, a sporting activity not otherwise prohibited by Federal law, predator control, or pest control,” action taken for the purpose of “medical or scientific research,” conduct that is “necessary to protect the life or property of a person,” and conduct “performed as part of euthanizing an animal.”

On its face, the law seems like a step in the right direction. The exemptions, however, should motivate reflection on the question of what a commitment to the prevention of animal cruelty actually looks like. Exemptions to a law can be useful when there are compelling moral reasons for them. In this case, however, the exemptions highlight the inconsistency in societal attitudes about just how wrong it is to be cruel to animals. It looks as if all the law really prevents is the callous, perhaps even psychopathic, infliction of pain on animals by private individuals. This isn’t where the majority of animal abuse and cruelty takes place.

Consider the first exemption, allowing for animal cruelty in the case of “a customary and normal veterinary, agricultural husbandry, or other animal management practice.” This exemption covers a tremendous number of interactions that occur between humans and animals. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious moral justification for the exemption. If animal cruelty is bad, why would cruelty for the purposes of “animal management” be any less bad? This exemption also constitutes a fallacious appeal to common practice. The fact that a given practice is a “customary” part of animal management practices does not mean that the practice isn’t cruel.

The slaughter of animals for food is a particularly interesting case. One might think that this exemption is morally justified. After all, we must balance the interests of animals against the very real need that human beings have for sustenance. The legislators in this case felt that this balancing act ultimately favored the needs of human beings. There are a number of problems with this argument. First of all, it assumes that the harms we are justified in causing to other creatures can ultimately be justified by human need. That assumption may not be morally defensible. Second, human beings do not need to consume animal flesh in order to satisfy their nutritional needs. We continue to consume animals, in a way that is, ultimately, unsustainable, because human beings like the taste of animal flesh. Even if the question of how we ought to treat animals must be resolved using a balancing act, it doesn’t seem like a justification that is based purely on taste preferences could ever be sufficient to come out ahead in the balance. What’s more, even if such considerations could come out ahead, factory farms currently engage in cruel practices simply to maximize the volume of their “product,” and, as a result, the size of their profits. For example, chickens are kept under conditions in which they don’t have the space to fully spread their wings. To prevent them from cannibalizing one another under these stressful conditions, chickens are often “debeaked.” This cruelty could be avoided if these farms simply raised fewer chickens. The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act does nothing to address this cruelty—it actually provides exemptions for it.

Finally, the passage of this act may provide many people with the false impression that the government is protecting animals in a real, thoroughgoing way. Many people probably believe that cruelty to animals is strictly regulated and enforced by the government. After all, how could the vicious treatment of a living being not be against the law. Before this law passed, there were two pieces of federal legislation offering limited protections to animals. First is the Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966. The Act nominally provides for the humane treatment of animals, and its mere existence may make citizens feel at ease with the protections afforded. The Act does ensure that animals in certain contexts, are provided with “adequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, water and veterinary care.” They must also be protected against extreme temperature. However, this law contains significant exemptions as well, of the same variety as those provided in the Act passed this year. The second bit of legislation is The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, passed in 1958 and revised in 1978. This Act only protects certain animals from being killed in particular kinds of inhumane ways. It does not prohibit cruelty full stop. The bottom line is that animals are not protected from cruelty by federal legislation. Despite the pleasant-sounding name of the “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act,” the Act fails to provide protections where animals need them the most. It’s unfortunate that sometimes psychopaths and future serial killers kill animals for kicks, and that should certainly be against the law. At the end of the day, though, the real problems that we face have to do with our attitudes about animals and with the institutions that we’re willing to go to great lengths to protect.

“How Long Must We Wait?”: Lessons from the History of the Animal Welfare Movement

close-up photograph of two pigs in dark room

In a series of boxes in the D.H. Hill Library at North Carolina State sit scores of historical pamphlets and newspaper articles advocating an end to cruelty toward animals. The documents date back to the nineteenth century, and provide an undeniable record of the history of strong public sentiment against the mistreatment of animals. The collection preserves the stories of countless activists who opposed inhumane treatment in slaughterhouses, research labs, the entertainment industry, transport, and sport, among other endeavors. These activists dedicated inspiring amounts of time, energy, and resources to a cause that is seldom given the attention that it is due.

The boxes are part of a much larger collection—The Tom Regan Animal Rights Archive. Regan was a philosopher and activist who established the archive to create a home for works dedicated to promoting the interests of non-human animals. His book The Case for Animal Rights is one of the most influential works of philosophy on the subject, but, as the archive shows, he was one thinker among many on an impressive intellectual family tree of animal activists. 

Advocates for animals have always faced significant challenges from many directions. Nineteenth and early twentieth century documents are full of writers defending themselves against the charge of excessive sentimentalism. In fact, empathy for animals was viewed by some at that time as a mental disorder. Zoophil-psychosis was a term coined by American psychologist Charles Lomis Dana in 1909 to refer to what he viewed as a hysterical condition of excessive concern for non-human animals.

The form that this “excessive” concern took was activism against vivisection (roughly, the use of animals in scientific experiments), abuses of animals in slaughterhouses, and other instances of cruelty and exploitation. This concern was not, of course, baseless or the product of a psychotic break from reality. The basis was and continues to be the simple recognition that other sentient beings can also experience pain and suffering, among other significant emotions. Though this fact about other creatures should be fairly obvious, it is a fact about which very few people pause to reflect. We need to ask ourselves the fundamental question: what is the nature of our moral obligations to other living beings who suffer?

Many women who were involved in the fight for women’s suffrage were also involved in reform movements to further the humane treatment of other beings. Female activists played essential roles in the formation of organizations such as The American Humane Society and The American Anti-Vivisection Society. A treasure of the Animal Rights Archive is a collection of original correspondence between suffragette and animal welfare advocate Sarah J. Eddy and physician and social reformer Albert Leffingwell.1 This correspondence highlights one of the most significant challenges the movement faces—transparency. In their letters, Eddy and Leffingwell stress the importance of dissemination of information, which in their time often came in the form of the proliferation of pamphlets. They were optimistic that if the facts were accessible to the public, the force of reason would prevail. It didn’t. Until the very end of the nineteenth century, there were no animal welfare laws that restricted the practices of those operating in laboratories and slaughterhouses. Stunningly, that situation remains largely unchanged today.

Even if the transparency issues could be settled, other significant problems remain. Abuse of animals has always been big business. Many people stand to gain from it. When there is money to be made, people can’t be bothered to be concerned about whether their products have feelings. Sadly our historical record demonstrates that this motivation can sometimes win out even when humans are the “products.” That we are subject to errors of this magnitude should cause us to reflect on practices that are more commonplace, but that nevertheless involve suffering. In a letter to Eddy, Leffingwell laments the perils of powerful interests,

When we began the special agitation on the subject of vivisection a few years ago, it was—on my part—, with a very strong hope that the Medical Profession generally would meet us “half-way”—as the saying is, and concede some degree of supervision and controls. I was very sure that as a class, the physicians of this country did not approve of unlimited experimentation, and our investigations of five years ago, embodied in the REPORT proved that I was correct. But experience has demonstrated that I was altogether too hopeful. The older men, who disapproved of unrestricted vivisection have been passing away, and their places are not filled. The men who were engaged in vivisection as a means of gaining their daily bread realized their danger and united in a common defense. It is not merely that they control the medical newspaper press throughout the country, and that they have the confidence of a majority of those concerned with learning,–with this they were not satisfied and have stooped to unworthy methods in defense of vivisection. Five years ago, I could not have believed that members of the American Medical Association would have sunk so low as to employ falsehoods as a method of argumentation.

The letters between Eddy and Leffingwell tell the story of a sustained fight for animal welfare that lasted decades. Though they, along with others deeply committed to the cause, succeeded in putting together a society of diligent advocates, little changed when it came to the actual treatment of non-human animals or with regard to legislating any significant protections. Leffingwell complains, 

If I could feel that little by little, we are undermining the confidence so wrongly given, and that one day the falsifiers will be utterly discredited, and (as Wendell Phillips used to say,)—“the Truth get a hearing” and be accepted generally, I should feel greatly encouraged. It does seem certain that in the long run, falsehood cannot overcome truth. But how long must we wait?

Sadly, it turns out that the answer to this question remains unclear—we’re still waiting. Special interest groups like the meat industry and big pharma are more powerful than ever. The value of the use of animals for the purpose of scientific research in our culture has become like an article of faith. We’re propelled blindly forward, chasing progress, unreflective about whether it’s really worth chasing and what the cost of our pursuit actually is.

Some laws exist that seemingly protect animals against powerful interest groups. In the spirit of the advocates that have come before us, we should insist on transparency when it comes to the plain fact that the protections that currently exist are nowhere near enough. Their existence does little more than create an illusion of protection for the animals in question. Two federal laws are worthy of note here. First is the Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966. The Act nominally provides for the humane treatment of animals, and its mere existence may make citizens feel at ease with the protections afforded. The Act does ensure that animals in certain contexts, are provided with “adequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, water and veterinary care.” They must also be protected against extreme temperature. Crucially, however the Act, 

[…] does not cover every type of animal used in every type of activity. The following animals are not covered: farm animals used for food or fiber (fur, hide, etc.); coldblooded species (amphibians and reptiles); horses not used for research purposes; fish; invertebrates (crustaceans, insects, etc.); or birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus that are bred for use in research.

Society is quick to provide protections for cats and dogs, animals that are likely to be companions, but not for the animals most commonly used for research or those that are slaughtered and killed for food.

The second piece of federal legislation of note is The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, passed in 1958 and revised in 1978. Again, on its face, the Act seems to promise humane treatment of animals killed for food (at least to those to whom that does not sound like an oxymoron). There are troubling truths about this Act as well. First, the Act does not apply to birds of any type. This is striking because the vast majority of animals that are killed for food are chickens (9 billion in the United States alone). What’s more, the protections provided by The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act are limited to ensuring that that animals don’t experience pain at the moment they are slaughtered. Animals must be “rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut.” The Act contains exemptions for religious slaughter. Notably absent are any protections for how animals must be treated while being raised for food. The abuses that take place during that time are significant and are articulated in careful detail in Peter Singer’s classic Animal Liberation.

When faced with facts about the way that animals are treated, and the lack of protection for those animals, it is important to be reflective. But change in one’s personal philosophy is not sufficient. As Tom Regan, championing the strategy of so many uncelebrated thinkers who came before him, says in the epilogue of The Case for Animal Rights, “How we change the dominant misconception of animals—indeed, whether we change it—is to large degree a political question. Might does not make right, but might does make law.” It’s up to us, then to take up the struggle.

1 Sarah J. Eddy and Albert Leffingwell Correspondence June 1898-1905. MC 00666 Halfbox 1

Bad Advice from the USDA

U.S. Department of Agriculture research facility at North Dakota State University, in Fargo, N.D. on Monday, April 29, 2013. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

In a recently published article in the Ohio State Law Journal, Delcianna Winders criticizes the Department of Agriculture’s habit of issuing warnings instead of levying punishments to enforce the Animal Welfare Act (AWA); highlighting both the lack of empirical evidence that warnings actually lead to institutional change, as well as the fact that, overall, actions to enforce the AWA have dwindled in recent years. Winders takes the USDA to task for neglecting its responsibility to provide ethical leadership for food, agriculture, and other related industries in a manner that leaves animal lives in particular in severe jeopardy. Continue reading “Bad Advice from the USDA”