2009: Hard on People, Good for Animals

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2009 might have been a rough year for humans: slumping economy, endless war, H1N1, fill in the blank. But it was pretty good for animals. I'm speaking in relative terms, of course. Sure, we managed to kill 660,000 animals every hour in the United States. But conditions improved measurably for millions of these creatures before they died. From the size of their living space to the fact that they were allowed to remain attached to their own tails, welfare standards for animals expanded to horizons that were more than mirages.

Most encouraging was California's decision to ban tail docking for cattle. Arnold Schwarzenegger predictably mocked the bill, claiming that "debating about cow tails" during a budget meltdown was "inexcusable." But on October 11 he went soft and signed it. As a result, on January 1st California, the nation's biggest dairy state, added milk cows to horses as animals worthy of an intact tail. Tails might seem trivial. But given that studies show that docked tails can cause lifelong chronic pain, the state's 1.4 million dairy cows will lead better lives. Plus, where California goes legislatively other states tend to follow.

The Humane Society of the United States called 2009 a "record-breaking year of victories."

The welfare of chickens also saw genuine progress. A number of prominent food producers and retailers deserve praise for insisting that chickens be spared the indignities of a battery cage, a method of confinement that prevents movement, eases egg collection, and gives producers better control of feeding. A typical cage offers a chicken less space than a sheet of paper. Activists have been protesting battery cages for decades, but last year their protests led to unprecedented payoffs. Restaurant chains including PF Chang's, Au Bon Pain, Wendy's, and Red Robin agreed to start switching their buying to eggs sourced from cage-free chickens. Radlo Foods responded as one might hope, becoming the first national producer of eggs to phase out battery cages.

By no means should "cage-free" be taken to mean that chickens are happily exploring a bucolic pasture--cage-free confinement can still be quite confining. But at the least, it allows more movement. And more movement is never negligible. It always means less suffering.

Two states, Michigan and Maine, enacted comprehensive animal welfare reform in 2009. Michigan, thanks to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, banned not only battery cages but also veal crates and gestation crates. Maine, thanks to a bill initiated by Senator John Nutting, also made veal and gestation crates illegal. A veal crate, as many consumers know, is designed to cause muscular atrophy by preventing a calf from moving during the whole of its 14-week existence. The space is so restricted that the calf cannot even lie down. Crated calves are force-fed a milk substitute that lacks iron, to foster the pinkish flesh that consumers have come to expect--an expectation that many chefs, searching for more humanely raised calves, are working to break them of.

Then there is another crate: the gestation crate, designed to keep a sow, a breeding pig, confined while pregnant. The rationale should not be easily dismissed: producers argue that crates prevent sows from fighting and seriously injuring, if not killing, each other. Still, it's an immensely cruel way to treat any animal, much less one as intelligent as a pig. Experts routinely note that confinement in gestation crates drives sows to deep psychological distress.

Not to be overlooked are a miscellany of other welfare laws that were issued 2009. Here are a few: Nevada banned the practice of keeping, possessing, or training dogs for fighting; in Oregon, private citizens may no longer possess monkeys, alligators, tigers, lions, or bears; all garments produced in New Jersey containing animal fur must now indicate on a label the animal it came from and its place of origin; Washington state cracked down on puppy mills, establishing strict standards for anyone owning over 10 breeding dogs.

The Humane Society of the United States called 2009 a "record-breaking year of victories." What's most exciting about these advancements is that they came from a grassroots movement of consumers who are realizing that a civilization that treats animals with respect is a healthy civilization. It might not have been such a bad year for humans after all.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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