On free ranges

As the popularity of vegetarianism (in all forms) is increasing, consumers are also choosing animal products which they consider more ethical. The general idea is to remove the harm of animal agriculture by raising animals in a way generally considered “humane”.

I’m not sure how this really is supposed to work. Even if the treatment were more humane (it’s only that way on very rare occasion), the end result of a painful death for an animal exploited for human fashion or taste hasn’t changed. Also, I tend to view the problems of animal agriculture as systemic, rather than caused by a few malicious or careless people. Zoos, restaurants, and experimentation are all facets of the same treatment, the same anti-animal attitude and perspective. We are fortunate enough to live in a society in which influencing systemic change is possible.

Before assuming that “free-range” animals are treated significantly better while they are alive, we should look at the actual conditions. For an animal to be considered “free-range” it must have access to the outside during warm times of the year. There’s no minimal limit on how much time, space, or ease in ability to go outside is required. So most free-range chickens spend their lives in a barn with a very small door to a miniscule scrap of completely unsheltered dirt. Not surprisingly, most spend most of their entire lives in conditions identical to non-free-range animals. The machinery, overcrowding, genetic manipulation, and the cocktails of antibiotics and hormones aren’t any different. There’s no meaningful criteria for the label “organic”, either.

There’s also no meaningful measurement demonstrating that any free-range animals are treated better than their conventionally-raised siblings. No studies (of which I’m aware) show lower rates of stress-related illness. No studies show beneficial effects on human health, either, by the way. No studies demonstrate that free-range animals have a better quality of life in any significant respect. There are absolutely no promises that the siblings and offspring of free-range animals are treated in any way but the most brutal manner, that every part of the process before and after the barn is identical to any other factory farm. Free-range cows product veal calves, male chicks of free-range hens are still ground alive at the processing plant, the slaughterhouse itself doesn’t distinguish, and the pigs still suffer severe injuries during processing. The very idea of “free-range” is an experiment in stop-gap measures, usually marketed at a hefty markup by companies who also sell non-free-range animals. It was a worthy experiment, and like many worthy experiments it ruled out a way that people thought the world might work. Good scientific experiments break a paradigm and demonstrate facts that prior theories cannot account for, long before they support a new hypothesis. Once more, the idea with “free-range” is to exploit and derive a profit from the harm and subsequent sale of animals, just the same as any other manufactured product.

The ultimate problem with animal agriculture is that animals are reduced to a commodity, from whom it is acceptable to competitively derive a profit. Animals don’t have the right to any sort of fair, decent treatment while they are property. Mainly because something is property when someone’s dominion of it is basically complete, and is to the exclusion of outside authority. We usually refer to property as neuter (“it” referring to an animal), to remove consideration that an animal is a living individual with a personality and a gender, and we do so to protect ourselves. Generally you can’t sue your neighbor for destroying, mismanaging, or neglecting his own property until doing so has harmed you directly. That’s the very heart of arguments presented by the animal agriculture industry in supporting their practices, the claim that they have a right to exist. They have property rights, and it’s only American to respect those property rights unquestionably. It’s the ethical reason that slavery was made illegal – people shouldn’t be the property of other people, as they will inevitably be brutally exploited and derived of their own fundamental rights to being treated humanely. Why should we expect any less when dealing with other species, for whom the average citizen holds far less sympathy? Should it really matter that a single farmer acts “responsibly”, when the basic systemic problem is that doing so is not an obligation?

That is the core of the rationale behind vegan opposition to using animals outside of merely food. It’s the realization that treating animals as *ours* really screws things up the same way, every time. Even when we say we’re not going to screw up, that the animals are taken care of, that we’re using them to help humans. Even SeaWorld has ridiculously small tanks.

The basic idea of animal rights is that we have the obligation to treat animals in certain ways. That animals have fundamental rights, much like humans, which have nothing to do with political action or religion – we have rights to not be abused as children, to follow the religion we choose, to not be targeted (as civilians) by armies, to not be slaves. Animal rights argues simply that animals (should) have a similar set of rights – the specifics vary a little as to which, but no one argues that your dog should be allowed to vote. Rejecting the idea of animal rights is rejecting the very idea of an obligation to treat animals in any way whatsoever. That rejection means, almost solely, that animal mistreatment cannot exist simply because any sort of brutal treatment is explicitly allowable. In such a regime, it is naive to assume that someone marketing animals will use the words “ethical treatment” in a meaningful way. Those words mean nothing without the concept of an animal having at least some rights.

To some, this is at least part of the reason to choose to be vegan rather than another form of vegetarianism.

Wednesday ~ November 25, 2009 by b

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