Of all the criticisms I've seen leveled at California's Proposition 2 -- the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act -- none has been so mean-spirited or grossly inaccurate as the editorial by Lon Allan in the September 9 edition of the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Allan starts off making the same mistake that other opponents of the measure have made: assuming that the bill, if passed by California voters in November, will only affect egg-laying hens (it also includes pigs used for breeding and calves raised for veal). Allan goes on to call chickens "nature's dumbest bird," and his diatribe only gets more callous, ill-considered and misinformed.
His column also reveals how animal exploiters think. In recalling his days helping with the family farm, Allan writes about hens: "We never thought about their happiness, only ours." He even discloses his history of animal cruelty, admitting "I've thrown chickens farther than they're capable of flying."
Allan is only the latest in a rogues gallery of voices arguing that animals exist for humans to do with as they please, no matter the suffering involved nor the harm to human health and the environment.
Ironically, it was Allan's own city of San Luis Obispo, California, that recently hosted a public forum before members of the Senate and Assembly Agriculture Committees regarding Prop 2, a ballot initiative that will ban such intensive-confinement devices as tiny battery cages for hens, narrow gestation crates for sows and barren veal crates for male calves. Present at the meeting was Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who spoke in favor of the measure. Prop 2's opponents at the forum argued that cage-free hens suffer more leg and wing injuries because they have room to move. "I told the committee members that they wouldn't face much of a risk being in a car crash or being mugged if they were crammed side by side in an elevator for 12-15 months," wrote Pacelle in his blog on August 11. "I also said that I was pretty sure they'd be willing to take their chances if it meant getting out of that elevator. People and other animals built to move should be allowed to move, and only in the reductionist world of factory farming can their avian welfare argument be viewed as even mildly logical."
Why would the head of HSUS travel from his home base in Washington, DC, to address a small meeting in California? Because not only will Prop 2 relieve the suffering of 20 million animals raised for food in the state, but California has the largest agricultural economy in the country, generating nearly $32 billion a year, about a quarter of which comes from animal agribusiness. Corporate ag producers across the U.S., and even in other countries, recognize that what happens in California's voting booths on November 4 will reverberate throughout the industry. As a supporter of Prop 2, HSUS understands that a Yes vote on behalf of California's 19 million laying hens is a call to improve the lives of all 280 million hens in the U.S. egg industry. Passing Prop 2 will also tell the nation's pork and veal producers that consumers want pregnant sows and baby calves treated humanely.
Threatened by this modest welfare reform, agribusiness companies have been pulling out all the stops -- and pulling no punches -- to defeat Prop 2. In addition to thus far raising $7 million to thwart the measure, opponents have tried to illegally funnel $3 million of federally regulated funds into the fight. In August, Californians for Humane Farms, the political committee backing Prop 2, filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and American Egg Board (AEB) in an attempt to prevent the spending of any egg board money on the campaign. As a federal commodity promotion program, AEB is strictly prohibited from using its funds for political purposes, including attempts to influence voters. The USDA, the best friend of animal agribusiness, had approved the expenditure.[i]
As evidence of Prop 2's national relevance, currently less than a third of the funding against the measure comes from California sources. Factory farmers across the country are clearly worried they too could be forced to eliminate some of their cruelest business practices. The Yes on Prop 2 campaign, meanwhile, is supported not just by Californians, but by animal protection groups, family farmers, veterinarians and public health professionals throughout the U.S., including the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the prestigious Pew Commission on animal agriculture. According to the Pew Commission's esteemed panel of scientists, veterinary school officials, ranchers and public officials, "Practices that restrict natural motion, such as sow gestation crates, induce high levels of stress in the animals and threaten their health, which in turn may threaten human health."
No, banning battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates isn't an end to animal suffering. But it's a vast improvement over the agonizing confinement California's farmed animals currently endure. Imagine, for example, being a passenger on a crowded airliner, unable to leave your seat in the center row for four months, and you'll have some idea of what a pregnant pig experiences trapped inside a gestation crate. In addition to benefiting sows, the measure will free egg-laying hens who are currently crammed into small wire cages with six or more other birds, each hen with less space than a sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live -- not even enough room to spread a single wing, let alone walk. And Prop 2 will eliminate the notorious veal crate, a barren structure about two feet wide in which a newly-born calf is tethered by his neck to restrict his movement and atrophy his muscles.
From the environment to gay marriage, California has long been a proving ground for progressive issues. In November, the state's rising tide of concern about factory farming practices could lift farmed animals nationwide and create a wave of anti-cruelty reforms.
For more information on Prop 2, please visit YesOnProp2.org.
Mark Hawthorne is the author of Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism (www.strikingattheroots.com). He lives in California and will vote Yes on Prop 2.