a bit more on the use of animals, plus some recommended reading/viewing
I’ve been thinking about a few things lately that I wanted to add after writing this post about animal advocacy and “ethical” farms.
First off, here is a critique of small-scale, outdoor farming of birds (in this case, chickens) as it relates to sustainability and “humane”. As you can see from the blog entry and the comments, the definition of “sustainable” is foggy territory. This is a very interesting perspective, and this is the only time I’ve ever encountered it, but it’s important to note. Also, the author of the blog uses chickens as food and there is a lot of focus on efficiency yet again, even though this is a small operation.
Second (related): the blog entry above mentions Joel Salatin (here’s his farm website). Many people around me have glorified this person’s methods. He appears in the movie Food Inc to discuss his operation; his focus is on the area of sustainability and keeping animals outdoors. I want to point out some critiques of this system, specifically his overwintering of cattle, and the use of chicken tractors.
In Food Inc, we saw that Salatin keeps all the cattle on his farm inside a barn for the winter months, allowing their manure to accumulate to heat the barn (commonly done on farms) and so that in the spring, it’s all in one place for the pigs to come in and root through to make compost. If you’re familiar with hooved animals, you’ll know that standing in very wet conditions, or unsanitary ones such as months’ buildup of manure, causes hoof problems such as thrush or foot rot. You also probably know that foot/hoof problems are extremely dangerous in that the more minor ones can progress into serious ailments such as abscesses and bone infection. These are obviously painful and some are irreversible. I would call into question the welfare of animals kept in the same dirty barn for months on end for this and other reasons (air quality, obvious problems with confining animals for long periods of time), even though it seems like a convenient way to store manure and heat a barn cheaply (does this sound like cutting costs is the focus? I’d say so, and it sounds like those costs are externalized onto the animals, as usual.) The article I linked to about foot rot mentions surgery as an option, but I’ll bet the percentage of people who are farming cattle that would actually pay for such a treatment is zero – it doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint when a sick animal can simply be sent to slaughter and replaced. This is what happens when folks use animals to make money, and when folks use animals to feed themselves and can’t/won’t pay for proper care for them. It’s what happens when individuals are viewed as commodities.
As well, the chicken tractor. This is something Joel Salatin uses and many small farms in Ontario also use. Here’s a photo of one.
For those who don’t know, this is an enclosed pen with wheels that can be moved from place to place on a piece of land (the idea is to not to keep the birds in one place for too long, in order to preserve the grass/soil, and to allow the birds to forage). Many people I’ve met who use this method for keeping birds treat it as a “free range” option. The picture above is about the same or less, crowding-wise, as what I’ve seen at some farms in Ontario. Now, I’d like you to look at this picture of a barn full of “meat” birds (industrial-scale farming). Observe how much space they have, and then look back at the chicken tractor picture above and observe how much space those birds have.
Looks pretty similar, doesn’t it? The chicken tractor is a far smaller space and obviously it houses less birds, but the level of crowding is still quite high. As well, I haven’t seen roosts or dustbathing materials in any chicken tractors I’ve encountered (perching/roosting and dustbathing are behaviours that chickens do on a daily basis.) Although I’m sure the outdoor chicken tractor is cleaner because it can be moved around so that waste doesn’t accumulate, it seems like a nice-looking confinement system to me. It can also be more vulnerable to predators, depending on the design. And as stated, the crowding is an issue – putting this many birds in an environment with nowhere to retreat from one another and such little space does not allow for proper social structure to develop, and thus probably causes fights and injuries, and stress in general. These are many of the same problems that exist on large-scale confinement operations such as the barn pictured.
Anyway, this is a reminder to me to keep a critical eye on systems that get idealized as being more sustainable/humane/whatever. It is positive to see people making the effort to develop better alternatives to factory farms, but we need to keep evaluating them to ensure they’re actually improving things. We also need to remember that using animals means not truly putting their needs first, as the #1 goal is to achieve a certain level of “production” (growth of muscle, number of eggs laid, etc). ETA: Jo-Anne McArthur of We Animals has compiled an album of her own photographs from visits to small/organic/humane farms and slaughterhouses. You can view it on the We Animals facebook page.
For folks into in anti-oppressive work, you may be interested in Breeze Harper’s blog, the Sistah Vegan Project, in which she posts (often in video form) about how race, gender and animal issues intersect. This is the focus of her academic writing, and I find hers a very interesting perspective. I’ve learned some valuable things about critical race theory from reading her blog, which I’m grateful for because I’ve recently been struggling to find a way to do that. She often discusses topics like colonialism, vegan pregnancy, and body shaming. It can be a little consumerism-heavy for me (although she is critical of capitalism), but still relevant and important.
The next thing I want to share is a talk by Dr. Melanie Joy. I heard about her a year or two ago but was avoiding watching this talk because I was all food-politicked out at the time. While packing for my WWOOF trip, I decided it was a good time to put this on and watch. I enjoyed it much more than I’d anticipated! The topic she discusses specifically has to do with the psychology that allows us to justify using others (in this case, other animals) even though it may be contrary to our values or feelings towards them. She also touches on ways in which this issue is related to other struggles. Very interesting and thought-provoking, and I recommend watching it. Be aware that there is a short but graphic video of some of the abuses faced by farmed animals, but she gives the audience fair warning so you can choose whether to watch it or not (I skipped it, because I’m already very familiar with this stuff). The talk is about an hour long and besides that few minutes, is not heavy on violent or shocking images/videos at all.
For those of you who are eagerly awaiting more stories from my WWOOF adventure, never fear! I’m working on an update about what I’ve been doing, & will try to have it up within the next few days. For the time being, here’s a picture of one of Beth’s foxglove (digitalis) flowers!
ETA: I just got back from a stroll down the road, and came across a mama doe and her wee fawn! Mama took extra care deciding when to cross the road (waiting til the cars were gone) before leading her baby across. Beautiful!