A “Triumph” of Animal Welfare?

I admit to being a harsh and relentless critic of animal welfare. For the past 15 years or so, I have argued that because animals are property, animal welfare standards will generally only protect the interests of animals to the extent that the protection facilitates economically efficient exploitation. Animal welfare campaigns, for the most part, involve animal advocates trying to persuade institutionalized exploiters that “better” animal treatment will translate into greater profits and this reinforces the status of animals as economic commodities with nothing more than extrinsic or conditional value. Moreover, animal welfare is counterproductive because it misleads the public into thinking that exploitation is being made more “humane,” and this encourages continued animal use in a variety of ways.

I am frequently criticized by animal welfare advocates as being too negative in my assessment of animal welfare reform. This essay is the first in an occasional series that will examine particular animal welfare campaigns to see if my analysis is fair.

In 2002, animal advocates, led by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Farm Sanctuary, and others, succeeded in getting nearly 700,000 signatures to put on the ballot in Florida a proposal to amend the state constitution to ban what are known as “gestation crates.” Voters approved the proposal, and the Florida Constitution makes it a misdemeanor as of 2008 to confine a pregnant pig in “an enclosure,” or to tether a pregnant pig, in “such a way that she is prevented from turning around freely.” Peter Singer claims that the amendment is a “triumph” (New York Review of Books, May 15, 2003, at 26) and as “near the top” of the list of the most important animal welfare victories of the past 30 years.

For at least six reasons, the characterization of the Florida amendment as a “triumph” demonstrates that the bar of progress is ridiculously low where animal welfare improvements are concerned.

First, the campaign against gestation crates, which began in Florida but is now being conducted in other states, and which recently prevailed in Arizona, is based explicitly on making animal exploitation more efficient. Animal advocates promoted the amendment as a way to keep larger, intensive hog operations out of Florida, and thereby protect property values and tourism. They maintain, as a general matter, that alternatives to the gestation crate, such as group housing, will reduce costs and increase productivity.

For example, HSUS and Farm Sanctuary seek to ban the gestation crate in favor of alternatives such as group housing systems employing an electronic sow feeder (“ESF”), which reduces aggression at feeding time. The HSUS Report on gestation crates claims that European studies indicate that “[s]ow productivity is higher in group housing than in individual crates, as a result of reduced rates of injury and disease, earlier first estrus, faster return to estrus after delivery, lower incidence of stillbirths, and shorter farrowing times. Group systems employing ESF are particularly cost-effective.” In addition, “[c]onversion from gestation crates to group housing with ESF marginally reduces production costs and increases productivity.” HSUS cites one study showing that “the total cost per piglet sold is 0.6-percent lower in group ESF systems, while the income to the piglet farmer is 8-percent higher, because of increased productivity” and another showing that “compared to gestation crates, group housing with ESF decreased labor time 3 percent and marginally increased income per sow per year.” HSUS claims that “[s]avings at the sow farm can be passed onto the fattening farm, where the cost per unit weight decreases 0.3 percent.” This will result in a decrease in the retail price of pork and a small increase in demand. HSUS concludes that “[i]t is likely that producers who adopt group housing with ESF could increase demand for their products or earn a market premium.” HSUS claims that despite the greater efficiency of alternative production systems, pork producers in the United States are only slowly adopting those economically more desirable systems because of “inertia and producers’ lack of familiarity with ESF.”

This approach, by explicitly linking “better” treatment with more profitable exploitation, reinforces the status of animals as economic commodities. Animal advocates are, in effect, acting as advisers to animal exploiters, helping to educate them about how they can make greater profit from exploiting nonhumans while making what are, at best, marginal changes that can be mischaracterized to the public—by both the animal advocates and the animal exploiters—as a victory for the animals.

Second, there were only two hog farmers in the state of Florida who were affected by the amendment, and there was almost no opposition to the amendment because there was no significant use of the crate in Florida. Both farmers sent their animals to slaughter and closed their operations, and were eligible for state grants of up to $275,000. On the other hand, animal advocates spent approximately $1.6 million on the campaign.

Third, the amendment defines “enclosure” as “any cage, crate or other enclosure in which a pig is kept for all or the majority of any day,” and this would presumably mean that the use of a gestation crate for less than the “majority” of a day would not be prohibited. This is significant because some producers are moving toward a modified system in which pregnant sows will be confined for part of the day.

Fourth, the amendment explicitly allows the use of the gestation crate for “prebirthing period,” which is defined as “the seven day period prior to a pig’s expected date of giving birth,” and allows for the use of crates for “veterinary purposes” for a period “not longer than reasonably necessary.” This vague standard for confinement, like the prohibition concerning “unnecessary” suffering in anticruelty statutes, is an invitation to ignore relevant animal interests if it is perceived to benefit humans.

Fifth, although advocates suggested that the amendment would likely result in any affected pigs being raised in group housing systems, the amendment provides only that the pig must be able to turn around “without having to touch any side of the pig’s enclosure” and not that the pig must be kept in group housing.

Sixth, the amendment served as the “poster child” for a successful campaign to restrict such initiatives in the future. On November 7, 2006, the people of Florida voted to require a supermajority for all future amendments to the state constitution.

So let’s review. This “triumph” of animal welfare:

  • involved the expenditure of in excess of $1.5 million donated to help animals;
  • affected two relatively small producers;
  • was based explicitly on the notion that alternatives to the gestation crate are economically better for producers;
  • requires only that the pigs be given sufficient space to be able to turn around without touching the sides of the enclosure, and this is required only for a “majority”of the day, and is not required at all for the period leading up to birth or when it is necessary for “veterinary purposes;” and
  • resulted in a backlash that had the effect of restricting future ballot initiatives.

If this is a “triumph,” it makes one tremble to think what a defeat would look like.

Gary L. Francione
© 2006 Gary L. Francione