On July 7, 2011, the Humane Society of the United States and United Egg Producers announced that they would “work together to seek a federal law that would require larger cages and other improved conditions for the nation’s 280 million laying hens.”
The proposed legislation, if passed, will be phased in over the next 18 years and will require:
cages that give hens up to 144 square inches of space each, compared with the 67 square inches that most hens have today. They would also include so-called habitat enrichments, like perches, scratching areas and nesting areas, that allow the birds to express natural behavior.
What will HSUS give as its part of the compromise agreement? HSUS has
agreed to give up on a push to ban cages entirely in exchange for the opportunity to work toward a single, nationwide standard mandating better conditions. The group also said it would shelve efforts to get initiatives onto the ballot in Washington and Oregon, and would agree not to conduct undercover investigations at large egg farms unless it was aware of especially egregious practices.
HSUS calls this “historic”. There will, of course, be a big campaign to get the legislation passed and there will, of course, be all sorts of legal challenges. The “compassion show” will go on for years. The requests for donations “to help the animals” will be endless.
And the best case scenario is that the bill is introduced and passed quickly. What would the hens gain? They would get 124-144 square inches of space in an “enriched” cage, phased in over 18 years, and the “happy” eggs that they produce will have the stamp of approval of HSUS. This situation is analogous to those opposed to water boarding announcing that they had made an agreement to phase in padded water boards over an 18-year period.
There have been two very opposite reactions on the part of animal advocates to this HSUS-UEP agreement.
First, some advocates are criticizing HSUS, claiming that this agreement is a sell-out. They are correct that this is a disaster for animals but, in all fairness, what can one expect from the Humane Society?
HSUS explicitly denies that it endorses animal rights or the abolition of animal exploitation. On the contrary, HSUS supports the Humane Farm Animal Care’s Certified Humane Raised and Handled “happy meat” label and two high-level HSUS executives sit on the board of Humane Farm Animal Care.
Humane Society International (HSI), is an affiliate of HSUS and the CEO of HSI is an HSUS executive. One HSI branch in Australia, which describes itself as “the global arm of HSUS,” sponsors a “happy meat” label for which it charges a fee.
HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle acknowledges that “the Humane Society is broad-minded when it comes to food. About 95 percent of our members are not vegetarian.” He adds:
But I believe eating is a moral act, and we can make choices to minimize the suffering of (food) animals. We can buy cage-free eggs, buy pork that doesn’t come from factory farms, and avoid eating veal and foie gras.
Our program is about responsible hunting and curbing the worst excesses and the most inhumane and unsporting practices.
Sportfishing is not an issue, unless someone did something horrible, like dynamiting fish. Most of the work we’ve done in the marine realm has been protecting marine mammals and seabirds.
Pacelle also states:
Our board of directors is a national volunteer board of directors. Very few of them are vegetarian. I have been since I’ve been a teenager. Whatever I do in my personal life does not necessarily reflect the policies of HSUS and we support certified humane programs, we support other farmers, we work with farmers, we think farming is a noble profession.
I don’t think anyone can reasonably claim that our work is moving in the direction of eliminating animal agriculture as some of the folks in the industry keep repeating.
So joining forces with the egg industry to produce and promote “happy” eggs fits comfortably with what HSUS has been doing for decades. The HSUS-UEP agreement merely confirms-again-that HSUS is all about making deals with industry and making their non-vegetarian members feel that they are engaging in morally acceptable behavior when they buy the “happy” meat and dairy and eggs approved by HSUS.
What HSUS is doing is applying the meaningless concept of “humane” exploitation as it has been applied for the past 200 years. The only difference between HSUS 50 years ago and HSUS now is that HSUS today is promoting its philosophy of “feel good” exploitation to farm animals whereas 50 years ago, they were focused primarily on the animals that we fetishize as a cultural matter: dogs and cats.
The second reaction on the part of animal advocates who claim to be more progressive than HSUS to agree with HSUS that this agreement is some sort of “historic” event; a “landmark” for animals; a “step” toward animal rights.
That is just plain silly. “Enriched” cages involve torturing hens. Period. The torture may be slightly “better,” just as padded water boards may be slightly “better.” But let’s be clear: the hens will continue to be tortured. And they will continue to end up in a slaughterhouse. The only difference is that these tortured eggs will be declared to be “humane” by HSUS. This agreement will be counterproductive in that it will encourage the belief that we can exploit animals in a “kind” or “compassionate” way.
Many animal advocates claim that people are going to continue to eat eggs so we have to do something for animals suffering now. But this agreement, like most of the “happy” exploitation arrangements promoted by HSUS and other organizations, including those who claim to be “animal rights” groups, does not take effect for many years-in this case, 18 years. To the extent that this agreement provides any benefit for animals, it will not occur for many, many years. And even if “enriched cages” provide some welfare benefit, this sort of “reform” makes the public more comfortable about consuming eggs and that guarantees continued consumption.
The problem is that although we should expect nothing more from the “Humane” Society, other organizations that claim to promote animal rights, and ostensibly to endorse the abolition of animal exploitation, also support these sorts of agreements. Virtually all of the large animal groups in the United States and Europe have come out in support of one or more “happy” labels and virtually all are busy making deals with institutional animal users. And supposedly more progressive organizations have already come out in favor of the HSUS-UEP. Indeed, Farm Sanctuary is trying to claim credit, along with HSUS, for the agreement.
The only way that the paradigm of animal exploitation will ever shift is if we educate people to stop demanding animal products based on the recognition that animals are members of the moral community. That goal is not as idealistic as it might appear: most people agree that it is wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering or death on animals. They understand that this moral principle excludes suffering or death for reasons of pleasure or convenience or habit. That is why there was such a strongly negative reaction to Michael Vick’s use of dogs for fighting. Vick’s pleasure in watching dogs fight did not justify his infliction of suffering and death on the dogs. The same reasoning applies to our eating animals. There is no difference between sitting around the pit watching dogs fight and sitting around a summer barbecue roasting the corpses of tortured animals or enjoying the dairy or eggs from tortured animals.
We need to educate people that our continued exploitation of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, etc., is unjust; that it is not merely a matter of how we treat animals, but that we use them at all. The reaction to Vick teaches us clearly that people, or at least many people, can understand this idea and accept it. We need to get them to apply it to animals beyond dogs or cats. That can be done through creative, nonviolent education.
The only way that things will ever change is if we build a movement of people who see veganism as a clear moral baseline and where that movement can serve as a catalyst to shift the paradigm away from thinking of nonhumans as commodities for us to use exclusively as means to our ends.
And that will never happen as long as we think that “happy” exploitation is any sort of answer. The belief that “happy” exploitation will result in significant welfare benefits for animals and that this will lead to abolition in the future is simply wrong on both counts.
In conclusion: those who criticize HSUS for making such an agreement should recognize that this sort of thing is exactly what HSUS has been doing forever. It is the “Humane” Society. And “humane” is a meaningless concept in a context in which animals are chattel property. HSUS exists to make people who exploit animals feel better about exploitation. And those who claim that this is a “landmark” agreement for animals and will lead to significant welfare benefits in the near term and reduced use or abolition in the future, should recognize that promoting the notion of “compassionate” exploitation will never-can never-lead to the rejection of animal use. It will only reinforce and perpetuate that use.
Please understand that I in no way question the sincerity of those who support these partnerships with industry or the welfare reforms that are involved. I do, however, believe sincerely that they are wrong.
If you are not vegan, please consider going vegan. It’s easy to go vegan; it’s better for your health and for the planet; and, most important, it’s the morally right thing to do.
If you are vegan, educate everyone with whom you come in contact in a creative, nonviolent way about veganism. If we really do regard animals as members of the moral community; if we really believe that we cannot justify unnecessary animal suffering and death, then we cannot justify billions of animal death based on palate pleasure.
And please remember: veganism is not just a matter of reducing suffering; it’s a matter of fundamental moral justice. It is what we owe to those who, like us, value their lives and who want to continue to live.
Gary L. Francione
©2011 Gary L. Francione