The Failure of Anticruelty Laws

We are still hard at work redesigning the Web site. We are very excited about it and we hope that you will like it and find it useful in your abolitionist advocacy.

I did, however, want to offer a brief comment this week about a recent legal case that is making the news. In December of 2005, an investigator with an animal protection organization claimed to have filmed various instances of animal abuse at Esbenshade Farms, a large intensive egg facility in Pennsylvania. The owner and manager of Esbenshade were each charged with 35 counts of violating the Pennsylvania anticruelty law. The videotape was claimed to show hens impaled on wires from their cages, unable to get food or water, and caged with the decomposing bodies of other hens.

On June 1, 2007, the state court judge found the two not guilty on all charges. The egg farmers claimed that the video did not actually depict his farm. But the judge apparently did not issue a written opinion, so the basis of the decision is unclear.

The animal-advocacy community is in shock.


This is exactly how anticruelty statutes work. They don’t.

In my book, Animals, Property, and the Law, I argued that anticruelty statutes do not work and fail to provide significant protection to animal interests. These statutes are criminal statutes, and they require the state prove that violators have a criminal intent. Given that we live in a society in which almost everyone regards animal exploitation as normal, it is difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone acted with a criminal intent when they inflicted pain and death on a nonhuman.

Moreover, many anticruelty laws either contain explicit exemptions for accepted institutional uses of animals or interpret prohibitions against the “unnecessary” or “unjustified” infliction of suffering on animals by reference to those uses. That is, what is regarded as “necessary” or “justified” suffering is that which is customary by those involved in these exploitative industries. For example, the Pennsylvania statute provides that an “activity undertaken in normal agricultural operation” does not violate the anticruelty law.

But many activities that are “normal” in animal agriculture are “cruel” as we use that term in non-legal contexts. The injury of hens in battery cages, their inability to get food and water, and the presence of dead birds in cages are all part of “normal” animal agriculture as it concerns egg production.

So we should not be surprised that the judge acquitted the defendants of the charges. Even if they did what they are accused of doing, it would be difficult to argue that what occurs at Esbenshade is different in any significant way from what goes on at any intensive egg farm. They are all horrible places that torture animals for economic gain. But they exist only because we consume eggs. To the extent that the egg farmers are guilty, so are the consumers guilty. If the demand did not exist, the producers would not be in business.

There is a sense in which these anticruelty prosecutions are both deceptive and harmful. They are deceptive because they suggest that there is a difference between Esbenshade Farms and other egg producers. There isn’t. They are all horrible places. These prosecutions are harmful because they suggest that the solution is to consume eggs that are produced under more “humane” circumstances, such as the “cage-free” eggs promoted by the Humane Society of the United States and other welfarist corporations.

The solution is not more “humane” eggs.

The solution is no eggs.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione