Category Archives: the Machine

Second Livestock: The Virtual “Good Life” For Farmed Chickens

Yes, it’s a joke — at this point.  The nonexistent virtual reality “Second Livestock“, designed by ISU assistant professor Austin Stewart, brings up the idea of providing a virtual natural environment for conventionally farmed animals.  Rather than devote money, time, and space to actually giving the animals what they deserve, we can give them a virtual image of what they deserve.  They’ll believe they are running around and interacting with conspecifics, while in reality we can make their enclosures even smaller, since they won’t know they’re using them….

Knowing that it’s not real(yet), it’s actually funny, especially the little chicken headsets.  But take a moment, and imagine what might happen if this became economically feasible, especially compared to actually providing a natural environment for farm animals.  (While that’s honestly unlikely, Stewart has said further development for actual implementation was an option he would consider.)  Picture dairy cows grazing on a virtual pasture, giving birth to virtual “calves” that could hang around for a bit before being “naturally weaned”, while in reality the calves are taken away at birth (and fitted with a headset and given a virtual “mother”).

Would it be ethical?  If the animal truly believed it had a wonderful — or at least a quasi-natural) life, is there a functional difference from it actually having a wonderful life?  Is this a viable replacement for real space, conspecifics, and interaction?  What if every animal had an amazing virtual life, filled with its species’ own version of wine, women, and song?  (Either way, I’m not sure that either option is adequate “payment” for being consumed as food in the end.)  The authors make a point (arguably, the whole point of the site) that some humans are already partially living in an environment like this one…is that a good thing?  A bad thing?  Just a thing?

No answers here, although my gut instinct tends to the “Are you kidding?” side of things.  I just thought this was funny-becoming-interesting and kind of chewy food for thought.

Ambient Temperature Shown to Affect Results of Cancer Research on Mice

Photo by gracey at www.morguefile.com

Photo by gracey at http://www.morguefile.com

Scientists have finally “asked” lab mice their preferred ambient temperature.  They discovered the mice prefer warmer temperatures than have been traditionally provided, and that, furthermore, their bodies behave differently at their preferred, warmer, temperatures.  (Here’s the original article, by Kathleen M. Kokolus et. al., published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.)

I think the scariest thing about this paper is that it mentions that it has already been shown that mice prefer warmer temperatures than currently mandated, and that the colder temperatures in which they are currently kept induce “cold stress” and accompanying biological changes (references 3-7 in original article, dated from 2009-2012).  Has anyone been fighting to raise the standard ambient temperature for laboratory mice since 2009?  It seems to be taking the threat of these issues affecting the results of research to make scientists care whether or not the mice are in temperatures they’d prefer.

Beyond that — for how many years have we been doing research on mice at these recommended temperatures?  How much research has already been done with populations of mice affected by chronic cold stress?  Would we have gotten the same results in labs kept at 86 degrees Fahrenheit?  What results which we currently take for granted might be wrong?

What other variables might be sub-par for our research animals, and what effect might those things have on their responses to, say, cancer-causing chemicals?

Tigers Being Bred for Trade in China

So tiger parts sell for more money than you’ve ever seen, but it’s hard to find them in the wild any more for some reason.  What’s an enterprising businessman to do?  Why, build a tiger farm, of course.  Grab a few tigers, start a “conservation” operation or a “zoo”, and once you get 500 animals you can get a permit to sell your surplus to make “tiger bone” wine:

[Alas, this excellent article on the Asian tiger trade will not embed here.  Please visit it in person (it's free to view).]

Wildlife traffickers don’t even have to actually breed tigers.  They can just set up a location where it looks like they are captive-breeding tigers, then poach tigers from the wild and sell the parts as though they were from captive bred animals.  This apparently works for any species, not just tigers.

Although it does certainly appear that people are breeding captive tigers to sell for parts (in what way does this significantly differ from modern cattle operations?), I have been unable to verify whether or not the farms are also, specifically, starving tigers to death to satisfy nebulous legal issues requiring that the animal have died of “natural causes” for its parts to be sold, as in the following image I found floating around today.  The image appears to be a scan of this news article, sourced from this blog entry from the TigerTime web site, which appears to reference a paper called the Straits-Times but was written by a TigerTime employee with no readily apparent source.

117

This image was what originally made me look into this subject.  It just seems too awful to be completely true, and it isn’t.  The report quoted above does not mention any requirement in Chinese law stating that animals which have died naturally are specifically legal (it just requires that the parts be “legally obtained”), and research suggests that the starving tigers are a different, though quasi-related, event: the tigers in question appear to have been starved (actually, fed “cheap cuts of chicken”, leading to malnourishment) when the facilities handling them “went into financial difficulties”.  Not that it’s much of a relief, especially to the tigers, but it does not look like they were starved specifically so their parts could be sold legally (although I suspect the facility owners did not object to the “happy” appearance of an “extra” carcass or two).  It just looks like that’s a “normal byproduct” of their “farming” operation.  (Why does that distinction matter to me?  Is “inconceivably terrible husbandry practices” better in some way than “deliberately starving animals to death”?  Is it even different?)

Just another place where minor curiosity (“Hmmm, that headline looks a mite sensationalistic”) leads to a major facepalm moment: even “wildlife” is being factory farmedEverything is being factory farmed, somewhere — and factory farming is never pretty.  (Check out that National Geographic photo gallery for a picture of what it looks like when humans “captive breed” snakes for the pet trade, if you’re interested.)

Sometimes I Know Too Much

Today, on my Facebook feed, amongst the photos of kittens with yarn and puppies adorably chewing their own feet, this photo of a pile of euthanized dogs wandered past:

source unknown

source unknown

It was accompanied by a bland but well-meaning glurge poem in which a dog wonders why it had to die despite solvable behavior problems.  Now, I completely agree that solvable behavior problems are no reason to drop your dog off at the shelter (I believe firmly in Not Shooting The Dog), but the poem, alas, misses the point: the horror of this photo does not lie solely in that there are dead dogs in it.  It lies at least partly in how they died: these poor things are in a gas chamber, and have just been gassed to death, likely with CO2.  This is the view the shelter technician saw upon opening the door afterwards.  (When this image is fed into Google image search, it turns up dozens of articles on gas chambers, and how horrible they are.)

That animals are euthanized at all, because people still view them as property, as a commodity, as something to be “dumped” when they become obnoxious or ill or old or inconvenient, is a terrible thing.  That animals are still “euthanized” by CO2 is an even more terrible thing.  The people spreading this photo are missing a huge opportunity to note that not only did these dogs die because people are occasionally irresponsible morons, they died in a terrible, awful, unbelievably frightening and ugly way.  (Click on that link, which contains video, at your peril.)  They were twice the victims of human carelessness: the first time by the actions of those who landed them in the shelter, and the second by the actions of those who thought “lowest cost” was the primary requirement when choosing a method of humane euthanasia.

This is one of those sad points where I have to give up and flail helplessly at the screen.  The words all mush together into one big AUGH.  I applaud the people trying to spread the word about what we are doing to our companion animals, and can’t fault them for their choice of photo.  I wish that the Machine wasn’t so huge that thinking about one part of it (“convenience dumping” of “excess” animals) didn’t lead to the discovery of another, equally awful part (“euthanasia” of dogs by CO2).  I think what is scaring me the most, right now, though, is that I know enough about the world to glance at this photo and immediately recognize it as a gas chamber rather than a freezer.  I’m glad I know about it — I’d rather know than not — but sometimes I miss the quiet-in-the-head of not knowing this is happening.  It was rather peaceful.

Charlie and the OMG Factory

I once heard it said that you would never eat a hot dog if you knew how it was made.

From Perry Bible Fellowship

From Perry Bible Fellowship

It’s interesting to me how little we talk about meat production.  You can’t find a lot of detail, honestly — and what detail you do find is not generally produced by “real” journalists, but by animal rights organizations, so there’s this tendency to dismiss it.  Mainstream journalism does not show you the killing floor.  We show World War II and the evening news but we just don’t mention to each other how sausage is made.

Isn’t this the kind of thing you’d want to know?  Don’t we want our kids to be informed consumers?  I ate hot dogs for *ahem* years before I found out — not what they’re made of, but how they kill the animals that go into them — I’m not sure at what age it would have been appropriate to explain the concept to me, but I strongly suspect I would have stopped eating hot dogs a lot earlier if someone had shown me what was going on.  All I saw growing up were watered-down, polite news stories, which had very little detail.  I got the vague feeling I wouldn’t like what I saw in there, but I never had the chance to see it, and I didn’t look into it in detail.  I grew up pre-internet — there wasn’t a lot of media available on the topic at the time.

It might also be argued that, when my grandparents bought sausage, the pig involved was personally slaughtered, as humanely as possible, in a low-volume slaughterhouse, and had likely spent a reasonably happy life in a grassy field, doing nothing much.  When my parents asked my grandparents how sausage was made, they got that story.  That’s the story that got passed on to me.  Meanwhile, out of everyone’s sight, technology was changing….

Maybe there ought to be school field trips, or contests — although I’d probably pass on having to yank a soggy “Bacon Ticket” from the inside of a sausage.  Clearly this needs to be a reality TV show.

There’s a lot more to this, of course, and I’m interested in whacking around the idea that constant exposure to this kind of thing renders it “normal”, and that’s why, say, cattle ranchers don’t understand why vegetarians are so squeamish about eating meat.  Moving past that idea…if exposure to it renders it “normal” — do we then want to tell people about it?  How do we tell people about it?  If we hear about it, in graphic detail, every day, will we still be as horrified, as motivated to act?

It’s All Already Been Said

The Huffington Post recently featured an editorial by William T. Talman, M.D., defending animal research.  It’s a…poisonous little read, interesting primarily in that it runs, as though on rails, through the scientific community’s long-standing, standard responses to the animal welfarists’ long-standing, standard objections to animal testing.  There is nothing new here, and everything he says has already been thoroughly debunked.  My inner angry person wants to scream and shout and take down every argument he presents, but it has already been done, in the excellent work Sacred Cows and Golden Geese, by C. Ray Greek and Jean Swingle Greek, which came out more than ten years ago.

If I start pointing out all the errors in this editorial, I will be up all night attempting to re-write Sacred Cows.  I would just like to point out that the man can in no way be considered an unbiased source: here’s a sampling of his rat-based research — any beneficial results of which will still need to undergo testing on humans (“Really!”) before being officially adopted.  (And dude?  People do volunteer to be research “guinea pigs”.  In fact, your own facility has a web site where people can sign up for that very thing.  Why are you dismissing the idea of skipping the “animal” part, and just doing the human research you will still need to do anyway?)

In fact, Talman’s job is trying to convince people that animal research is a great idea.  Here’s an issue of The Physiologist, published by the American Physiological Society — he’s the chair of the APS Public Affairs Committee (or at least he was in 2006 — check out page 44/266 of the PDF).  This is not a disinterested party listing verifiable facts — this is an invested participant feeding you propaganda.

For what it’s worth, my aversion to his arguments is not just automatic denial.  Despite all that I have seen I still think it’s possible to perform animal-based research humanely.  Do I think that we are doing so right now?  Particularly in research?  God no.  Do I think any of Talman’s arguments in this article are valid?  No.  I call absolute shenanigans on this man, and I really wish the Greeks hadn’t written Sacred Cows already, because the urge to explain why this man is wrong is making me want to write it again.  Perhaps I should just mail him a copy.

Can’t Get Away From Factory Farming

I still don’t think of myself as truly vegetarian — just mostly vegetarian, and  I’m sure many vegetarians would consider me not entirely committed, for my viewpoint that it is possible to keep an animal kindly, and at the end of a happy and food-filled life to slaughter it humanely and eat it.  I believe this can be done with respect.  The animal benefits from health care, provisioned food/water/shelter and companionship; the human gets a wealth of supplies (leather, wool, etc) and food.  Everyone benefits.

Unfortunately, somewhere between this red-barn-and-picket-fence idyll and the high-speed modern slaughterhouse, the “mutual respect” thing turned into something where animals are not even afforded the basic respect we give to useful furniture, and I can’t buy into that system.  Thus, mostly vegetarian — enjoying meat but not the hell that animals went through in order to get it to me, I decided I would only eat meat from small, local, family farms, where compassionate farmers could spend enough time with the animals they slaughtered to ensure the process was as quick, painless and humane as possible, and the animals had as wonderful a life as it was possible to provide.  This makes me essentially vegetarian — certainly no restaurant or normal grocery store serves such meat, which must be found at specialty stores or obtained directly from the farms themselves.

I am now rethinking even this limited meat option.  It had been sitting in the back of my mind that even meat raised at the kindest of farms likely goes through USDA-“overseen” slaughterhouses, with their 3-chickens-a-second conveyor belts, and an episode of “Dirty Jobs” — in which Mike Rowe shadows Earl’s Meats, a mobile butchering operation which travels to clients’ farms, slaughters their stock, and butchers the carcass, producing wrapped meats ready for the kitchen — implied that it is actually required that this happen.  The episode pointed out to me that the meat butchered in this way was unsuitable for sale to the public because it had not been slaughtered in a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.

This means that any meat to which I have easy, retail access, short of something I have slaughtered personally, has been processed through a USDA slaughter operation and has therefore been in the tender “care” of a high speed slaughter plant, or one of the new USDA-inspected mobile units, which can potentially process 30 head of cattle a day.  This means that it’s time to drop the “small farm” meat and become officially vegetarian, because there is currently no such thing as “humane” meat.

As a side note, here’s the Mobile Slaughter Unit Compliance Guide from the USDA.

DIY Mad Scientist Kit Only $99.99

There’s a viral video going around of someone playing “Insane In The Membrane” through the chromatophores of a squid, causing a pretty visual effect.  I’m sure the squid would have been thrilled to know it was sacrificed in the pursuit of such valuable knowledge.

There is a very real possibility that the squid was alive for this “experiment”.  There’s no indication in the video itself, and I can’t find research by the lab (run by Roger Hanlon at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA) which describes its preparation of squid fins for such video, but here is another video by the same lab, which purports to be of “live squid skin closeups” and shows extremely similar footage.  Is anyone else watching the “Insane” video and seeing a live squid being electrocuted so that someone can watch pretty colors dance to Cypress Hill?

Photo via mjas on morguefile.com

Hanlon’s lab is doing actual research on squid coloration and how the animals use color for visual communication; the company responsible for the frivolous “Insane In The Chromatophores” video is called Backyard Brains, and bills itself as “DIY neuroscience for everyone“.  This makes me nervous.  On the one hand: encouraging kids to think about science and to play with the world: this is good.  On the other hand: encouraging kids to rip the legs off live cockroaches to demonstrate neuron activity…”Don’t worry, they can grow back“?  Really?  Their newest “experiment” is the RoboRoach, which encourages kids to wire live roaches up to little electronic control units and steer them around.  I’m speechless.

I’m all for teaching kids science!  Learning is valuable and education is vital, and hands-on experiments are great for getting kids involved and interested.  But…surely there is some other way to demonstrate this phenomenon?  Even if the insects are, as the authors claim, anesthetized, and the hands-on research really does “increase understanding of neuroscience concepts“, what is this teaching kids about treating animals as things whose needs do not matter compared to ours?  How long until little Bobby wonders if the cat also twitches when you wire him up?

Favorite sentence: “It’s very important to avoid anthropomorphizing the cockroach with thoughts like ‘If I do not want my own leg cut off, then the cockroach does not want its leg cut off.'”

That makes it all terribly convenient, doesn’t it?  The cockroach doesn’t care about the loss of a leg in a way it can communicate to us (or in a way that we care to receive), therefore it just doesn’t care, and therefore we can just lop the leg off a cockroach whenever we like, to show kids things about nerve conductivity.  Even if it is valuable science — maybe we could just do this once and then share the video?  We could set it to Cypress Hill.

When Did This Become Normal?

PigletToday’s water-cooler article (here passed around by the Huffington Post) concerns an undercover video from the group Mercy For Animals (whose web site is usually mercyforanimals.org, but right now it’s redirecting to walmartcruelty.com, which features the original video).  The video, taken at Christensen Farms — or, rather, at one of Christensen Farms’ many subsidiary farms — shows horrific, awful things: sows confined in tiny, body-sized crates, like those used for veal calves; pigs and piglets with untreated, open sores and wounds; piglets being “euthanized” by what the farm — and the industry — euphemistically refers to as “blunt trauma” — i.e., by being swung by their hind legs and slammed into the floor head-first; and newborn piglets having their tails docked — and being castrated — with dull clippers, and without anesthesia.

What gets me is the quote from the Official Industry Representative:

“We have reviewed the video and have noted no exceptions to our company procedures or industry.” — Christensen Farms chief executive, Robert Christensen

And it’s entirely true.  There’s not a thing in that video that isn’t an official pork industry procedure.  Check it out — here’s the National Pork BoardSwine Care Handbook“:

  • “Stalls allow the sow to stand, lie, eat and drink, but may not allow them to turn around… Varying sizes of gestation stalls can be used without negatively affecting welfare… Sows may be penned in farrowing stalls from late gestation until weaning of the piglets.” (pg 8)
  • After birth, the following procedures may be performed on piglets: Clipping needle teeth; tail docking; ear notching; castration.  Note that only piglets older than 14 days of age “should” receive anesthetics for these procedures.  (pg 9-10)
  • Under Euthanasia, they recommend the National Pork Board booklet, “On Farm Euthanasia of Swine – Options for the Producer“, which describes “blunt trauma” as “effective”, but notes that some people find it “aesthetically objectionable”.  They also support “additional research on methods of neonatal euthanasia” — more ever-useful research into whether or not death is stressful.  (pg 31)
  • The general consensus seems to be that you have four options (pg 37) with a sick or injured pig: treat it (costs money); slaughter it for human consumption (you get paid normally for the carcass); cull it (“substandard slaughter”!) for pet food (you get less money for the carcass); or euthanize it (costs money, plus you have to dispose of the bits).  Which do you think most meat producers will choose?  Why pay to treat an injured animal when you can just kill it a little prematurely instead?

By not paying attention, we’ve created a space in which the things on that video are normal.  They are USDA-approved.  There are people who go to work every day, and cut the testicles out of squealing newborn piglets, and don’t think a thing of it, or, if they do, they don’t say anything for fear of being fired, because everyone else, especially the boss, is acting as though cutting the genitals off a conscious, unanesthetized piglet is appropriate behavior.

It’s possible to raise pigs in other ways.  You can keep farrowing sows on pasture.  You can use actual humane methods of euthanasia on culled piglets.  You can even use anesthetic for castration, or not castrate the piglets at all.  It’s just that it’s expensive to do it that way, and takes more time and effort, and that makes the meat cost more.  So, ironically, we, the consumers, are actually in control of this process: As long as we’re willing to buy cheap pork (and other meat; this stuff isn’t just happening to pigs), producers will keep making it this way.

400 Die In One-Vehicle Crash

Sheep.  Photo by penywise at morguefile.com.

Sheep. Photo by penywise at morguefile.com.

A while ago, I noted a flurry of articles which casually mentioned that, when two barns  at an egg farm burned down, 470,000 chickens died.  No-one seemed to find it a cause for concern that this meant each barn had held 235,000 hens.

Today I noticed many articles about a truckload of sheep which “crashed, rolled, and hung over an Australian overpass” on May 31, 2012.  (As a bonus, that particular article also begins with the highly professional and journalistic sentence “Counting sheep has never been so horrific.”)  Sheep rained over the side of the overpass and fell on motorists below.  This article has a little more detail, and some rather sad photos if you’re feeling brave.

And again, a major point is being missed….

FOUR HUNDRED SHEEP?  On one truck?  Four HUNDRED sheep?

There’s no information about the model of truck involved (there are photos though, including some here, here, and here), but, concerning the maximum size of haulage vehicles, the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales mandates:

A trailer built to carry cattle, sheep, pigs or horses on two or more partly or completely overlapping decks must not have more than 12.5 metres of its length available for the carriage of animals, measured from the inside of the front wall or door of the trailer to the inside of the rear wall or door of the trailer, with any intervening partitions disregarded.

12.5 meters is approximately 37.5 feet.  From the same document, we know the trucks are at most 2.5 m (7.5 ft) wide, so one level of the truck has (37.5 x 7.5) = 281.25 square feet.  281.25 square feet x (let’s be generous, and hope this truck, like this one, has four levels) 4 vertical levels = 1125 square feet in the entire vehicle.  That gives us…2.81 square feet per sheep?  What?  For an animal which can weigh 150-350 poundsThree square feet?  150-200 pounds is about an average human…can you fit in three square feet?  (That’s a little more than three sheets of typing paper, by the way.)

I’m not insane, apparently — this is a real thing, against which people have been protesting for a while.   Why aren’t we hearing more about it?  A Google search for “australian sheep truck” turns up pages and pages of nearly verbatim reposts of this story — why isn’t anyone curious as to how four hundred sheep got onto one truck, or why they are allowed to be crammed in that way?