Tag Archives: husbandry

Video of “Free Range” Hens

We have all seen video from inside the terrifying, “industry standard” chicken housing facilities, where hens are caged with 6-8 adult birds on floor space equivalent to a standard piece of typing paper.  This, however, is some of the first video I’ve seen from a “free range” facility, and I thought I would share.  This is still an astonishing number of chickens, but they all appear to have all their feathers, nobody is fighting and they can move, jump, extend their wings, and hunt bugs (if there’s a single bug left in those pastures after 50,000 chickens run through them).

(Recall that the USDA definition of “free range” only actually requires that chickens “have access to the outside”, so not all “free range” chickens live like this — for comparison, here is a video from a “free range” egg farm in Canada, which neither mentions nor shows the birds going outside.)

Didn’t Alfred Hitchcock make a movie about this?

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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.

“Iron Maiden” Hog Farm In The News

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Photo by Kamuelaboy on Morguefile.

An article about a hog farm in Owensboro, Kentucky crossed my radar today, and pinged it for all the wrong reasons.  The farm, which is attempting to curb the spread of a rather horrible-sounding disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, is in the news because its effort to protect its animals involves grinding up the intestines of dead piglets which have died from the disease and feeding the resulting “smoothie” to the adult sows.

The procedure, called “controlled exposure“, is actually standard practice.  It attempts to establish “herd immunity” in an infected farm by exposing all adult animals on the farm to the disease as quickly as possible.  (The virus has a mortality rate approaching 100% in suckling piglets, but most adult animals recover without incident.)  Since PED is an intestinal pathogen, adult animals are most easily infected by exposure to the “intestinal tract” of “infected neonatal piglets”, which should be “sacrificed” within the first six hours of clinical signs for “maximum viral content”.  Once they recover, the now-immune adult sows will pass on antibodies against the infection in their milk to future litters of piglets, keeping those piglets protected from the virus and giving the farm time to perform some serious hygienic measures and actually eradicate the virus.

Okay, so there might theoretically be a point to the farm’s actions.  (And note that the swine industry is not the only one that feeds dead animal parts to live ones, either as a medical treatment or as a standard feed additive.)  I do, however, note that this paper, from the site of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, recommends that adult pigs simply be exposed to the feces of that poor doomed first wave of sick piglets, as the feces of live piglets contains up to 10,000 times the viral load of the viscera of dead piglets and is therefore a much more effective infectious agent.  It is therefore not necessary to grind up the piglets or feed them to their own mothers.  And besides, in the words of the above paper, “Collecting viscera is time-consuming and provides unnecessary fodder for the scrutiny of public perceptions.”

photo via HSUS and Wikimedia Commons

Gestation crates.  Photo from HSUS, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Humane Society of the United States, which broke the original story, points out that keeping pigs in natural conditions is a more ideal way to prevent the spread of diseases such as PED than feeding dead animals to live ones.  (It also notes that feeding dead animals to live ones is against state law in any case, although I cannot find that reference online at the moment.)  The farm in question is a large factory farm and its sows are maintained in industry-standard gestation and/or farrowing crates, which are noted for providing just as much room as a pig needs to exist (not turn around, not move, just exist) and not an inch more, on the grounds of “protection” for the sows from each other, and for piglets from the vast and frightening bulk of their mother.  The sows spend their lives crammed shoulder to shoulder in steel frame boxes the exact length and width of their bodies, churning out litters of piglets.  This kind of atmosphere does not promote healthy, happy animals.

Which brings me to what pinged my radar: the name of the farm in question is Iron Maiden Hog FarmIron Maiden Hog Farm!  I am at a loss to think of a more classless name for a pig breeding operation.  I somehow cannot bring myself to believe the facility is named after the band, can you?

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?

Scientists’ View of Humane Science

Image by mensatic via morguefile.com

Image by mensatic via morguefile.com.

If you are interested in how scientists are currently viewing animal-based research, there is a free online course available, taught by employees of Johns Hopkins University (one of the big animal research “players”), Alan Goldberg and James Owiny.  The course is called Enhancing Humane Science – Improving Animal Research.  It is sponsored by the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing, which sounds great until you realize it’s also part of Johns Hopkins.  This course is absolutely not in any way unbiased.  Johns Hopkins has a lot of big stakes in animal-based research.

I’ll admit I haven’t listened to the whole course yet, but it reeks of the stuff I had to read while working in animal research.  It appears to be a pretty accurate picture of the scientists’ point of view concerning animal welfare.

I’m not defending or attacking anybody here.  This mess, and my opinion of it, is too huge and complicated for me to summarize it in one journal post.  But if you were looking for a good introduction to how scientists look at animal research, and where they are coming from when they say, “But we are doing everything we can for the animals in our care,” this is where a lot of them are standing right now.  The jargon and the general attitudes are appropriate and seem pretty representative.

They aren’t cackling and rubbing their hands together, drooling over the prospect of thousands of dead mice.  On the other hand, these animals routinely undergo experiences we would not inflict on our pets.

470,000 Die, Receive Brief Mention In Local Paper

Just a little something I noticed today….

An egg farm near Roggen, Colorado, owned by Boulder Valley Poultry, burned to the ground on April 30.  The extremely brief article (which matches other, extremely brief articles in other papers) declares the event an accident, and winds up by reassuring consumers that their supply of eggs is unlikely to be affected.

Oh, yeah, and 470,000 hens died.  In two barns.

What an interesting, unremarked, casual aside.  These aren’t unbelievably huge buildings.  235,000 chickens in each one?  To give each chicken one square foot of floor space in an open-floor plan (an extremely minimal investment), the barns would need to be 100 ft x 2,350 ft (almost half a mile long).  How densely were these chickens packed?

Also, “many local producers have agreed to step up production”.  How do you do that, I wonder?

Bad Animal Husbandry Has Consequences

Scared Sheepless by Chris Ayers Design

Image from "The Daily Zoo" by Chris Ayers - http://www.chrisayersdesign.com

Two ranch-hands in Wyoming contracted Campylobacter jejuni infections via castrating lambs with their teeth.

I’m sure that, with some effort, they could have found some other way to do that.

This is one of those situations where I can see both with the eyes of an animal welfarist and with those of a ranch hand.  The animal welfarist says, “Why are you doing that with no anesthetic?!?  With your teeth?  Why are you castrating them at all?  You could just [insert high-maintenance management program, expensive castration alternative, or impossible immediate job switch here]!”  The ranch hand says, “I have 1,600 sheep to do — can you imagine what it would cost, or how long it would take to anesthetize every one?  Or to separate every adult ram, because they’ll fight?”

(Hate this problem?  Ask why they have 1,600 baby sheep — they have such a large flock because they’ve been forced to expand their business to compete with even larger companies, to supply people who buy wool sweaters and ground lamb from enormous box stores.  Buy local, and know what you’re buying.)

Either way, this is another one of those horrible consequences of exceeding the Monkeysphere — the sheep have become items, not individuals — and of assembly-lining the process.  Forced to do something 1,600 times in a short period, the ranch hands found the fastest, lowest-effort way they could in which to do it.  I notice that no-one checked to see if the sheep caught anything from their mouths!

“No Nonsense Guide” Contains Nonsense

In my search for What The Hell Is Going On I have been reading a lot of different books from a variety of sources.  Today I was leafing through a copy of The No Nonsense Guide to Animal Rights, by Catharine Grant, which has a foreword by Ingrid Newkirk of PETA and a definite animal-liberation bias.  I tend to avoid such books not because I entirely disagree with them, but because they tend to prefer emotional arguments over logical ones.  In their search for a black and white view of the world, they also occasionally take logic a little too far: Following a description of a visit to a pretty much idyllic little English farm, wherein the animals all had enough space, affection, shelter, food, water, and medical care, with owners who knew them all by name, the book immediately adds: “However, even organically reared animals are raised to be killed…[and so] many animal rightists believe that all husbandry is inherently unjust.”  Take that, caring and affectionate farmers who put so much time and work into your animals!

Anyway, the part that got me was in the book’s description of the farming of sheep for wool:  “Most sheep…live outside.  Free-roaming sheep are a common sight in many parts of Britain, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.  The sheep are largely left to themselves until they are herded for shearing.”  Sounds as good as sheep can have it, doesn’t it?  So what’s wrong with this hands-off approach to sheep husbandry?  The book notes that, because the sheep are left to themselves, “many sheep die of exposure or neglect every year.”

Where is the happy ground here?  If the farmers provide good (but barn- and pasture-based) care for their sheep (or cows), the sheep are healthy and protected from harm but are still captives in thrall to their evil human overlords, which is Wrong.  But if the farmers let the sheep loose to graze freely and without interference over the countryside, they are abandoning the poor defenseless sheep to the cruel vagaries of nature.

Assuming we stopped all human use of animals tomorrow, and we could just let all domestic species loose and they would be able to fend for themselves…aren’t we just abandoning them to whatever horrible death nature has in store?  Is living for 7-10 years well loved, well fed, warm, and healthy in a barn, under the care of humans, really less preferable to being eaten by a mountain lion or starving to death when one’s teeth wear down with age?  Nature does not offer a guarantee of a peaceful death.  Neither do humans right now (although such a guarantee should be a part of humans taking responsibility for an animal) — however, living with humans, even under current conditions, gives a much greater probability of a humane death than does living in the wild.

If the issue is about freedom, and freedom of choice, for the animal…would (at least some) animals not choose warmth, safety and protection with humans if given the opportunity?  Feral cats and dogs choose this option all the time, as do rats, cockroaches, coyotes, foxes, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and all the myriad species who live in close contact with human habitation.

It sounds like letting animals loose to roam and not protecting them is just as horrible as keeping them in barns and pastures.  Are we required by this book’s extra-compassionate moral code to not only stop using animals but also then to spend the rest of our lives following around the wild animals and protecting them from harm?  We are all fighting together against the big, scary thing that is the universe, life, and death.  Why not do it literally?

Home Sweet WTF

“The goal of managing any mouse colony … should be to maintain adequate numbers of animals in as little shelf space as possible….”

Husbandry protocol, University of California, Irvine

The image to the right is of a standard laboratory mouse cage.  This is considered a pretty cutting edge mouse habitat these days.  The unit is actually fairly airtight — the blue and red things are valves through which air enters and exits the chamber when the cage is inserted into a “ventilated rack system” (described below).  These cages are designed to work with the rack system keep the environment the mice are in separate from the outside environment, usually by running any air going into or out of the cage through a replaceable HEPA filter in the top of the cage (not visible in the picture).  This keeps immunocompromised mice from getting sick, and keeps lab workers from catching anything the mice might have.

According to the manufacturer’s web site, these palatial enclosures have 75 square inches of floor space.  That might sound like a lot, but that translates to about 7 3/4″ wide by 12″ long in a cage 6 1/2″ high — about the size of a sheet of typing paper.  (The cages are commonly called “shoebox cages” for a reason.)  That measurement also doesn’t count the intrusion into the living space of the enormous food hopper, under which the mice must squeeze to get from one side of the cage to the other.  These cages are of course perfectly within guidelines for the absolute minimum space requirements per adult mouse.  (Here is an amusing page comparing mouse cage sizes to human equivalents.)

Generally, facilities limit the number of adult mice in such a cage to five, which works out to fifteen square inches of space per mouse — the size of a three by five index card.  In practice, these cages are often far more full even than this.  For example, breeding colonies often keep two adult females with an adult male and, either through protocol or lack of finesse on the part of the researcher or technician, may allow the resultant litters to remain in the breeding cage until they are weaned at about 21 days.  At left is an image of a 21-day-old mouse next to an adult.  Average litter size for a laboratory mouse is between 6-8 pups (although as many as 20 can be born at one time).  Imagine the cage just before weaning, with three (or more!) adults and potentially more than twenty “pups” that are fully half the size of the grown mice.  I have picked up cages in which the bedding was not visible through the mass of mice inside.  They do make larger cages which can be used for breeding, but these require more space, are more difficult to change and sterilize, and are more expensive to purchase, and are not always used.

Here is a photo of a ventilated rack system made by Allentown, Inc., a primary rodent housing supplier.  These racks are, again, the cutting edge for keeping a lot of mice in a very small space.  Previously, mice were placed on shelves on rolling racks; in this technologically advanced age we have perfected a model for keeping mice in almost the absolute minimum space possible.  These racks hold 100-200 cages apiece, with a single “standard” size mouse room able to potentially hold three to twenty racks.  I worked in a facility which had six 150-cage racks in a single room (one of many mouse rooms).  One technician was assigned to oversee all 900 cages in this room.  How diligent do you think that person could be when inspecting individual mice (remember, 1-5 mice per cage, potentially 4,500 mice in this room) for disease?

The boxes on top of the rack are the intake and exhaust blowers, which force air through the system and keep the rack either positively (no outside germs get in) or negatively (no inside germs get out) pressurized.  Although all cages receive equal amounts of fresh air (at 40-60 full air exchanges per minute, it must be like living in a wind tunnel), light is definitely in short supply down on those bottom racks.  The techs I worked with used to carry flashlights to see the bottom rows.

Note that there aren’t actually laws dictating minimum required living conditions for mice and rats.  Rodents are not covered under USDA regulations (which is one reason they are so popular as laboratory animals).  “Minimum living space” for mice and rats right now is “whatever we want it to be”.  Currently, more or less voluntary standards for this are set by the laboratories themselves, under the guise of the National Research Council, which could be considered to be just a bit biased in favor of the scientists.  There is a voluntary system of conforming to these standards via accreditation, but no federal agency is involved in enforcing them.  In fact, here is a page wherein the federal government is currently busy trying to buy a rack with even smaller (61-square-inch) cages for its own use.

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.