Monthly Archives: July 2011

Warning: Visitors May Be Eaten

Sooner or later, the Lujan Zoo in Argentina is going to get around to providing an excellent demonstration of how evolution works. This is not necessarily because the zoo does a good job of explaining the science behind it, but rather because they let people ride the animals.

Photo: Barcroft MediaGood luck with that

The full article is available here.  (via Lowering the Bar)

There’s a lot to say about this, but I think all the blithering is nicely summed up by:

Just because nothing has happened yet does not mean nothing will ever happen.

This sort of thing happens all over the place — although slightly less often here in Litigation Land — and it always, always ends in idiocy.  It’s just a matter of time.  It wouldn’t be half the tragedy it is if looney behavior like this:

  • didn’t reward the zoo management with money from eager (and often foolish) consumers,
  • didn’t encourage other facilities (and the general public) to repeat this kind of behavior,
  • didn’t inevitably end in some poor soul (often someone’s child) getting his/her face ripped off,
  • and didn’t inevitably result in the animal(s) involved being euthanized when that happens (they must be vicious!).

I worked with the public and hand-raised wolves for ten years, very carefully supervising a lot of wolf-human interaction, and this kind of thing makes my hair stand on end.  (It can be done safely, but not like this!)


Slaughterhouse by Gail EisnitzWhen I first started working in the laboratory animal industry, and got my first taste of the Machine, my immediate reaction was that I was hallucinating.  I could not possibly be seeing what I was seeing, I reasoned, and I immediately went researching.  Surely there was an explanation for the things I saw happening.  Surely I was wrong!

It disturbed me beyond measure to discover that not only was I not wrong, but that I was only getting a miniscule taste of what was really happening.  The more research I did, the more horrified I became, until I eventually had to put things down and walk away.  Every time I tried to write something about a I would do research on a and then learn about x, y, and z as well.  Then I would have to research them, and….

These days I’m a little calmer, and I can pick up books and do research again.  My most recent acquisition, Slaughterhouse, by Gail Eisnitz, is the closest thing I have so far seen to what happened to my brain when I saw the laboratory animal industry for the first time.  Due to the “shock value” cover and title, I’d been avoiding it, but it turns out to be a well-written, rational, well-researched volume which makes its statement simply and reasonably (well, as reasonably as it’s possible to be in this case).  It follows Gail, a journalist for an animal welfare group, from the moment a USDA inspector writes her saying “Something’s wrong here” to her struggle to get someone, anyone, to break the story, and through it you see, through her eyes, her unbelievable, terrible discoveries.  Every piece of awful information leads to two more pieces of awful information, and the higher she climbs in the bureaucracy, looking for the source of it all, the more distressing it becomes as she realizes that the people in charge know, and they don’t care.

This is a book you will read with your mouth open, drop at the end, and say, “No.”  No, this isn’t true.  This does not happen.  She’s a journalist; she’s being sensational.  She’s biased.  She’s just selling a story.  Speaking as someone who’s seen another facet of the Machine at work — the laboratory side — Eisnitz is not lying.  The things she is describing are real.  They are happening right now.

It’s such a relief, and it’s so scary, to know that someone else sees it too.  Through my research, I’ve actually amassed quite a collection of books over the past few years, and most of the books actually corroborate to varying degrees what I personally saw, but Slaughterhouse is the first to describe the entire eye-opening journey of discovery.

I strongly recommend it, although I would suggest not reading it while eating a hamburger.

So Much To Write and So Few Pages

One thing learned from the initiation of video auditing on a large scale is that some people should not be handling livestock. — Temple Grandin

I recently picked up a book about slaughterhouses, and have had my hair standing on end reading it, realizing how much that process is like the processing of laboratory animals that I experienced.  I want to say more about that — I have a lot to say about that book — but in the meantime, I was doing some background research on the book itself and ended up on the web site of Temple Grandin, a PhD who has dedicated herself to improving the welfare of animals in slaughter plants, with some hopeful results.

Since the book I am reading was written in 1997, I skimmed Dr. Grandin’s web site, which had some up to date slaughterhouse audits (as recent as 2010), to see how things might be going nowadays.  Apparently they are now employing video monitoring in slaughter plants, which, depending on how exactly that is achieved, and who exactly is doing the monitoring, is a huge step forward for the conditions of both animals and humans there.  However, if the quote above is anything to go by, conditions haven’t really changed all that much since the book was written.

I Wish to Register a Complaint

I miss meat.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I believe in (compassionate) carnivory and I do not believe there is a moral failing in consuming an animal you have appropriately “paid” (with food, water, shelter, care and affection) for its contributions to your household.  I am happy to eat meat.  However, I prefer not to pay the companies who do not adequately compensate their animals — thus, I do not eat meat at restaurants, picnics, fast food joints, what have you, because they buy their meat from enormous, horrible factory farms.  This leaves me searching, often vainly, for meat which has been slaughtered humanely and raised kindly.  I don’t eat a lot of meat anymore.

It is possible, if one hunts diligently, to find small local farms where the animals see grass and daylight during their lives, have adequate vet care and space, and even (gasp) enjoy species-appropriate social groups.  (I am happy that, because of the prevailing change in attitudes, it is slowly becoming more possible to find these farms.)  I find that my best chance of locating non-factory-farmed meat is at the local, “community” grocery stores.  These stores appear to make at least a token effort to find these humane farms and carry their products.  In turn, I happily give these places my money.  I wish to encourage this behavior.

However, I still find that the meat selection in these stores can leave much to be desired, and the watchwords caveat emptor still apply.  Unless the meat says “free range” (and sometimes not even then), you’re likely looking at factory farmed meat.  Yes, even if there’s a picture of a smiling pig on the wrapper.  Yes, even if it says “organic” and “hormone-free” all over it.  Today, I was almost ambushed by some elk stew meat, ambiguously labeled “Broadleaf”.

In my experience, it is generally very difficult to factory-farm wild game.  I worked with bison for ten years; they are larger and smarter than domestic cattle, and do not tolerate herding, hitting, crowded conditions, or running through cattle chutes — all requirements for “economical”, assembly-line processing — well.  I was initially attracted to the elk meat for this reason.  Fortunately, I still made the wise choice to look up “Broadleaf”, which after much research turned out to likely be Broadleaf Game, based out of California.  Broadleaf sells bison, elk, alligator and boar, which are quite unlikely to be factory farmed due to husbandry issues similar to those mentioned above, but they also sell beef, chicken, various “poultry”, veal and “farm-raised” rabbit, which are very easy to factory farm.  They say things like “hormone-free” on their site, but only the lamb is (vaguely) intimated to be living on grass, and most species do not have any description of their living facilities.

Alas, this is another brand name I won’t be rewarding with my money.  To demonstrate that it is possible to raise and slaughter wild game (or any animal!) kindly, and to advertise it properly, here is the web page for Broken Arrow Ranch, in Texas, and a description of its “field harvesting” technique, which I believe is the most humane way I’ve ever seen to kill an animal, for meat or otherwise (provided the person behind the gun is an excellent shot).

Of course, checking out the web site is only a small part of thorough research on a brand.  Typing search terms like “Broken Arrow Ranch USDA” and “Broken Arrow Ranch humane” into Google would be a good followup, checking for news articles concerning their handling practices and articles on other sites describing the facility.  Sometimes you can find reviews from people who have actually visited the farm, or a Facebook page from the farm with photos.  Ideally, one would be able to visit each facility personally, but, well.  In this exciting old world we can only do our best.

Cruelty: Woman Ties Puppies To Fence

“HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) – An employee of the Southern Pines Animal Shelter arrived at work Monday morning and found 11 Shepard[sic] mix puppies tied to the gate.

Surveillance video at the shelter showed a woman taking two puppies at a time by the neck from her vehicle and using zip ties and baling wire to tie them to the fence. The zip ties had been tightened around their neck.”  (7/12/11)

The full article can be found here.

It’s possible that it simply did not occur to the woman that zip ties are, perhaps, a less than appropriate method for attaching puppies to a fence.  That sort of thing is what brings one to add the tags “puppies” and “ignorance” to the same article (and mourn the state of a world in which that happens).

However, ignorance of puppy-tying methods aside, this sort of behavior — breeding unwanted litters of puppies, abandoning the puppies at all, dropping them off at the shelter after hours to avoid hassles — is the kind of thing that happens when humans stop viewing animals as living things and begin viewing them as just things.

This is the kind of thing that we, as a culture, as a species, need to fight.  The ability to view another living creature (human or animal) as an object to which we owe no responsibility is behind, well, a lot of our problems.

99% of the Time, the System Sucks

I am not a vegetarian, but, 99% of the time, I will not eat meat.

I was raised a confirmed carnivore, and, having worked with animals for many years, I appreciate the food chain as well as anyone else, including the human position on (or near) its top.  I double majored in biology and animal behavior.  I understand that we are all protein in different packages, and that protein moves around the system most efficiently via predation.

The people who taught me that animals are intelligent, living things with their own needs and personalities also taught me that everyone in the household — including the animals — works for their living.  While I took out the trash and cleaned the house, the dog defended it and provided ambiance; the cat caught the mice in the kitchen; the horse carted me around on its back in return for food and care.  Cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens (should) likewise enjoy a peaceful life being cared for, fed, sheltered, and watered before turning in their service, feeding the rest of the household.

Thus I feel that there is no moral imperative not to eat meat.  We are all (and this includes humans) required to work for our place in the world.  If I feed, water, and shelter a cow, and provide her with medical care — if I treat her like any other member of my family — I should be able to ask her for her milk, and, at time of need, provide her with a humane death, and eat her.  She will feed my family (and others!) for a month, properly apportioned.  If I stopped working and paying the bills, I would soon not have a house to live in, or any food to eat.  In the wild, animals work to obtain their own food, water, and shelter.  Why should a cow not have to work for her living?

My issue arises when the life of a captive animal moves from “work” to “slavery” — when the animal is no longer paid for its efforts.  This happens somewhere along the continuum from “small family farm” to “enormous animal factory”.  A farmer handling 20 head of cattle can call each one by name, tell you her birthday and her social rank in the herd, her likes and dislikes, and her medical history.  A farmer with 200 head of cattle has little time to spend with each individual.  A corporation with 200,000 cattle uses a computer to tag and electronically track its bovine “assets”, which become managed by electronic gates and subsystems and by several tiers of employees.

Today, an unimaginable number of animals are “processed” each day.  Large corporations, each encompassing dozens of farms, each farm managing hundreds of thousands of animals, provide most of our meat.  The entropy of such a system is enormous, and even if it began with the animals fed, watered, sheltered, and vetted, soon the edges will wear and corners will be cut.  Animals cannot be paid for their work — they can barely be counted.  When one “unit” “breaks down”, it is simply discarded — there are millions of others to take its place.  There is no time, when herding 10,000 cows a day through the milker, to be patient with a nervous cow, to notice impending mastitis, to separate a single animal to treat a small wound.  The process cannot be stopped.  In such a system, a dead animal is simply one who has reached the end of the assembly line early.  It can still be used: if not for human food, then for pet food, fertilizer, cosmetics.

The animals receive the bare minimum of care necessary to maintain them in an “alive” state, because they are (marginally) more useful alive and certainly easier to transport.  No time can be devoted to anything more than the minimum.  In the rush, things get delayed, ignored, forgotten.  Employees get overwhelmed and frustrated, and take out their anger on the animals.  Procedures are performed en masse, and if individuals cannot cope, they are culled.  The budget is tight, and animals cannot form a union and strike for better pay.

The methods of an animal’s eventual death under such a system — the “humane slaughter” which is such an unbelievable oxymoron it makes my eyes water — is a topic for another post, or perhaps a hundred posts.  It suffices to say that it isn’t, in any sense, the quick death free of pain and fear that all living things should receive.  Nothing about the factory farming system works — especially not for the animals.

Most of our commercially available meat today comes from these titanic animal factories.  While I love eating meat, and do not have any personal problem with eating another animal, I have all sorts of personal issues with the treatment of animals in such factories, and I will not eat animals which came from such places.  This leaves me out of luck at restaurants, most public venues, and other people’s homes — basically anywhere that does not get its meat from a small, family farm which still has a low enough number of animals that they can afford to handle them humanely.  These still exist, fortunately, and are becoming more popular, so now, with careful planning and researching, I am able to locate occasional meat-based products that do not involve the Great Machine.  And thus I am not a vegetarian; but in 99% of cases, I will not eat meat.


When I shop for eggs, I wish to buy eggs which have not been factory farmed.  I know that standard living conditions for factory farmed laying hens in the United States involve up to five hens being crammed into a wire cage approximately one foot cubed, suspended above a trough full of droppings.  I appreciate the effort that the hens have put into creating those eggs for me to eat, and I do not show my appreciation for hard work by cramming birds into tiny spaces and watching them peck each other to death.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m weird that way.

I want to fund the farmers who “pay” their laying hens (and any other animals they may have) with the standard package anyone should get for hard work: food, water, shelter, and medical care.  The problem is finding these farmers, because all the other farmers (or, rather, the massive corporations who employ those farmers, who produce most of our commercially raised eggs) have figured out that most people don’t like picturing chickens crammed into little cages.  They don’t want to actually stop doing that — that would be inconvenient and expensive for them — but they want us to think they have, so we’ll keep buying their eggs.  So they use euphemisms.

They started by calling the eggs “organic”.  That sounds nice.  We associate “organic” with things made without pesticides, without additional hormones, without dosing the animals with unnecessary antibiotics.  Surely animals being raised in “organic” conditions are happily out at pasture, frolicking with the butterflies?  Nope.  “Organic” does not imply a single thing about an animal’s housing conditions.  “Organic” eggs may come from hens which are not chemically treated, or at least not chemically treated above and beyond some extremely loose standards set (sometimes) by the USDA, but the hens are still crammed in little cages.  Little “organic” cages, possibly.

I’ve also heard “pesticide-free” and “vegan diet”.  All right, those are nice — I’d prefer not to eat pesticide-laced chicken, and I know that some large factory farms feed their living animals the ground-up remains of their unusable, dead animals — but neither one really affects the day to day existence of the chickens.  They’re still in little cages, although they are now a little less chemically altered, and less likely to catch horrible diseases from eating their ground-up predecessors on the assembly line.

A euphemism that’s becoming more popular now is “cage free”.  That sounds good, doesn’t it?  In fact, I bought “cage free” eggs (at twice the factory-farmed price) for a couple years before doing the research I should have done earlier.  “Cage free” does mean that the chickens are not crammed into tiny cages, yes.  But instead they are crammed shoulder to shoulder into huge barns, where they fight and have panic attacks every time the overhead lights turn on or off.  (In fact, many barns are kept dark most of the time, to “calm” the birds.)  They can technically move around, but there are thousands of other chickens in the way.  This may be better than standard, but it is still hardly a bucolic idyll.

In a similar vein, I have seen eggs from hens with “outdoor access”.  This means they cut a small hole in the side of the barn, with a yard about big enough for ten hens.  The remaining 10,000 hens in the barn never see this hole, or the yard.  But, technically, they have “outdoor access”.

The phrase which turns out to accurately describe “hens which are allowed to live much like hens should” is “pasture-raised” (or, as on the eggs that I buy, the legend “Our hens are kept on grass 24/7!”).  This means the hens are actually, honestly, kept outdoors.  It can be done, you know.  Even with a couple of hundred hens.  You bring them in at night and they lay eggs for you, and then during the day they go out and are hens.  You rotate them to new pastures regularly, so the old ones have time to regrow and recover, and you get some fine eggs from those happy, happy hens.

You know the big corporations are not pasture-raising their hens.  If they were, it would be all over the carton, because I am happy to pay six dollars a dozen for eggs if I know (and I do research to the best of my ability) that the hens which produced the eggs in question have been appropriately, handsomely paid for their work on my behalf, and I am sure the big corporations would love to get six dollars a dozen for their eggs.  (Standard, factory farmed eggs in my area go for a dollar fifty to two dollars a dozen, normally.)  Likewise, I pay twice the normal price for “pasture kept” milk and butter (“guaranteed kept on grass” and not “grass finished” or “organic” or “hormone-free”, although generally pasture-kept animals are also “organic” and “hormone-free” as well).

(I keep saying “the normal price” when I mean “the price of factory-farmed eggs”.  This reflects somewhat on our culture, and it also annoys me.  “Factory farmed” may be considered “normal” right now, but it should not be.)

Anyway, this whole mess offends me.  It’s part of a bigger picture, where scientists replace “lab rat” with “animal model”, and use even more horribly twisted language to disguise, as much as possible, that they’re letting kids slice up live mice for fun.  I can’t get into that right now, but this little mess, with “cage free” and “pasture”, is a start.