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Life for Today's Farm Animals

Our image of farm animals is for the most part a pleasant one. "Old MacDonald had a farm," goes the children's rhyme, and it is followed by accounts of a moo-moo here, a moo-moo there, everywhere a moo-moo.

The children's rhyme does not mention that the animals are killed for food. But somehow we are left with the idea that except for being killed at the end, farm animals are well cared for. Farm animals (at least in our imagination) enjoy beautiful surroundings and lead natural lives that many humans would envy: cows grazing, chickens scratching on the ground, and pigs rooting in the field. It seems that farm animals don't live a bad life.

Or do they?


The idyllic image of farm animals living contented lives is something ingrained in our consciousness. Farm animals, we imagine, have a pleasant life; and this idea props up our willingness to accept foods based on animal confinement and slaughter.

But how accurate is this picture? Sadly, image and reality do not always agree. Most farm animals do not live out their lives in the barnyard, but in huge, crowded confinement buildings--called "factory farms." "Factory farming" of animals means intense crowding in cages, barns, or stalls; systematic mutilation (dehorning, debeaking, etc.); complete disruption of "natural" behaviors; and intense discomfort during transportation of animals to the slaughterhouse. How do animals really fare on today's farms?


During the 14 to 16 weeks of his brief life, the veal calf spends most of his time in complete darkness in a small crate, in which he cannot even turn around. He only sees light at feeding times (twice a day). Darkness keeps calves quiet and reduces the restlessness and boredom of standing in a bare wooden crate. (Calves, in the "wild," are normally active, playful, and sociable animals.)

In addition, veal calves are kept deliberately anemic so that their flesh will be pale and tender --the "gourmet veal" valued by the consuming public. Straw is not allowed in their crates because that might be eaten, providing iron. They are fed a liquid milk diet which is low in iron but promotes fast weight gain. By the time the calf is killed, he is often so anemic, sick, and weak that he is near death anyway.


Dairy cows are kept under highly stressed conditions to produce maximum milk at minimum cost. This means a concrete stall or a slatted metal floor where each dairy cow remains for 10 months at a time. She is kept constantly pregnant and lactating. In the "wild," a cow would live 20-25 years; in our dairy-consuming culture, she will be lucky to live for four years. When her milk production drops, she is slaughtered for meat.

She is separated from the calves she bears within a few hours after birth. Many observers have noted the strong attachment between the calf and mother, and this separation undoubtedly produces great anguish.

Substantial savings in feed, labor, and barn space have been achieved as the result of a Swedish invention called a "UNICAR." These are cages on wheels, brought into a milking "parlor" two or three times a day where each cow is hosed, fed, and cleaned. The stress of being kept in these cages 10 months out of the year requires that she be given tranquilizers to calm her unexercised muscle and nervous systems.



Chickens are either bred for meat ("broilers") or for eggs ("layers"). In either case, intense confinement is necessary in order to maximize output and profits. This can mean, in the case of laying hens confined to "battery cages," 4 to 5 chickens in a cage one foot square. This is so little space that the chickens cannot even spread their wings. And this is the condition they are kept in 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Broilers" are not kept in cages but in huge sheds. At first they have some room but as they grow bigger there is less and less space per chicken, and in the end they have little more room than the "layers" which are kept in cages.

For all chickens, the stress of the "factory farm" system is intense because of the crowding. Chickens are driven so berserk that they will attack and kill each other. To guard against this possibility, they are routinely de-beaked (have much of their beak cut off), without anaesthesia --a quite painful process. They are routinely dosed with large quantities of antibiotics. Under normal conditions, chickens would live about 15-20 years; but in factory farms, broilers live only two months, while layers live at most about two years. Death comes even earlier for male chicks born to laying hens: because males cannot lay eggs, they are separated from females shortly after hatching and tossed into bins where they usually suffocate underneath other male chicks piled on top of them.


Pigs are also kept in intensely crowded conditions. In some ways, the situation in which pigs are kept is the saddest, because they are quite intelligent creatures. One pig gets the space of about 1/3 the size of a twin bed. There is no room to move, so calories are not burned up doing useless things like walking.

Pigs in the wild are highly social and clean creatures, naturally friendly, loyal, and forgiving. The pig factory is diametrically the opposite: their stalls are built on slatted floors over large pits into which urine and feces fall, creating an overwhelming stench. The ammonia, methane, and hydrogen sulfide are a serious health problem for the pig's lungs.

Also a serious health hazard for pigs is the complete lack of bedding or soft soil. 100% of factory-farmed pigs (who are cloven-hoofed) suffer infections from foot injuries as a result of constant standing on concrete or metal floors of their pens. Cannibalism is the reaction of many pigs under such stress, and tail-biting is a common problem. One common solution to this is tail-docking--removing the tail, again without anaesthetic.


Beef cattle are in some respects the best treated of all factory farm animals. Many cattle are kept in pasture when they are young or during the good weather season. However, "factory farming" techniques make it even into the realm of beef cattle.

Before they are slaughtered, many cattle are confined for long periods of time to feedlots, where the same crowding, high doses of antibiotics, and mutilation occurs as with other factory farm animals.

Castration of young males is a common procedure (almost invariably done without anaesthetic). In one procedure, a tight ring is placed around the calf's scrotum; the animal writhes in pain until after a half an hour or more the scrotum goes numb. (About a month later, his testicles fall off.) Another procedure is just to slit the scrotum and pull out the testicles. Branding of cattle is also a very painful procedure which seriously burns the skin.

Dehorning is another painful procedure--horns just take up room in the feedlot, and allow for the dangerous possibility of the cattle attacking each other due to the crowded and frustrating conditions. Live tissue must be cut, and the bleeding often results in maggot infestation and infection.


Getting to the slaughterhouse is a traumatic ordeal for most farm animals. Animals are crowded together and given no food or water for hours or days. There is no protection against extremes of heat in summer or cold in winter, and some animals die during the process. Others suffer broken limbs or for other reasons simply cannot move under their own power by the time they reach the slaughterhouse.

The act of slaughter itself does not have to be painful. The animals are supposed to be stunned before they have their throats slit. Nevertheless, the animals can clearly sense what is about to happen; they can smell the blood of those who have gone before, and are terror-stricken as they approach the moment of death.

Horribly enough, effective stunning does not always take place; in the hurry of the slaughterhouse, some animals are either incompletely stunned or not stunned at all. In that case, the animal will bleed to death while fully conscious.

. . . AND THAT'S NOT ALL . . .

"Factory farming" of animals is also harmful to humans who eat them. The leading causes of death in this country are heart disease and certain cancers, linked to high consumption of saturated fat, cholesterol, excessive protein, and lack of fiber--the very ingredients of a meat-oriented diet. And this doesn't even touch the problem of all the hormones, antibiotics, and drugs which are pumped into factory farm animals.

There are also serious environmental hazards. The leading cause of water pollution in the United States is livestock agriculture, which dumps billions of tons of manure into our water supply each year, many times the amount of human waste.


Animals on factory farms do not lead pleasant lives, nor do they die easy deaths. Far from a carefree life of ease, animals are treated in inhumane ways which make the slaughterhouse and the release of death practically a godsend. These animals do us no harm, and yet we inflict suffering and death upon millions and billions of them each year. Do we want to be part of a system which produces such pain, suffering, and death, day in and day out, in order to produce inexpensive meat, when meat consumption is quite detrimental even to our own health?

The factory farm system is barbarism, pure and simple. The way to remove it is equally simple: stop buying the products of the factory farm. "Conscientious omnivores" would only buy products from "free range animals," or at least reduce their meat consumption. However, for those who want to completely eliminate meat consumption, there is a broad range of delicious vegetarian foods which are not only tasty but more healthful for us, too. If people do not buy the products of the factory farm, there will be no more factory farms. Changing our diet is all it takes.

--Bernadette Sonefeld and Keith Akers

For free meatless recipes and other information about a cruelty-free diet, write or call:

Vegetarian Society of Colorado
P. O. Box 6773
Denver, Colorado 80206
(303) 777-4828



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