If Pigs Could Swim

Why our farm animals would be better off on the other side of the Atlantic

George Orwell once wrote that the Spanish are cruel to animals, but he added, "such things don't matter." Over the years the second generalization has probably startled more readers than the first. Whether or not Kant was right that hardness to animals causes hardness to people, we tend to think the two go together, and no one wants a matador for a babysitter. But among the eloquent essays compiled by Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum in the new book Animal Rights is one by Richard A. Posner, an advocate of "humancentricity," who asks, "Are the Spanish, who watch bullfights in which the bull is killed, more violent toward each other … than Americans, who do not watch bullfights at all? I don't think so."

I don't think so either, but Posner's point rests on the assumption that because we don't watch bullfights, we are kinder to animals than the Spanish, and this is nonsense; the number of Americans who kill animals for pleasure would fill every bullring in Spain several times over. The 25 million or so people in question prefer to describe themselves as hunting, but there is often little of that involved. As the Los Angeles Times wrote with approval last summer, Californians who enjoy decimating flocks of doves "simply park the pickup or SUV next to a field, unfold a chair, pop the ice chest and let it rip." Then there's baiting bears and shooting them at close range, frequently in the back, a custom that the citizens of Maine recently voted to preserve. It is obvious that the real attraction of these "sports" is the thrill of the kill, and the more honest devotees come right out and say so. ("An excitement just rushes through your body," a high school homecoming queen in Louisiana told a reporter last year, "when you see a squirrel and you say, 'I've got to shoot it.'") If one adds the many fans of circuses, rodeos, cockfights, dogfights, and other American spectacles in which animals are tormented or killed, the total would probably fill Spain itself. Judging from the T-shirts and postcards sold at highway rest stops, some of us are even tickled by the sight of wildlife hit by cars. (For a while there, Kraft was selling "road kill" candy animals, complete with tread marks.) Anyone who thinks this is all just redneck culture should look around the bleachers the next time Ringling Brothers drags its miserable menagerie into New York City.

But as David J. Wolfson and Mariann Sullivan point out in another essay in the book, 98 percent of the animals that Americans interact with are farmed for food. It follows that even if we were kind to the other two percent, this would not be particularly relevant to deciding whether—as we all like to think, and as the American Meat Institute claims—"caring for animals is an American value." The important question is how our livestock are treated, and the least depressing way to answer truthfully is to say that they are treated better across the Atlantic. In America egg-laying chickens are packed into "battery" cages so small that they cannot stretch their wings. The European Union requires a minimum of seventy square inches per chicken (as opposed to the forty-eight to fifty-nine square inches common in the United States), and in 2012 it will eliminate battery egg production altogether. (Germany, which has enshrined animal rights in its constitution, intends to eliminate all chicken cages.) While American pigs are kept on bare concrete, European ones are provided by law with hay or other material to satisfy their rooting instincts. Almost half the male dairy calves in the United States are raised in a veal-crate system that has been banned in Britain for years, and will be banned across the European Union in 2007. In short, the tendency in European legislation is to stress animal welfare, whereas the tendency in America is to exempt the meat industry from the applicability of laws regarding cruelty to animals.

If conditions at American farms and slaughterhouses have improved at all in recent years, it is thanks in part to Temple Grandin, a brilliant professor of animal science who is perhaps better known as a chronicler of growing up autistic. Grandin's prose alone makes her new book, Animals in Translation, well worth a read. Fresh and irreverent, yet almost completely emotionless, the style suggests a cross between Holden Caulfield and Star Trek's Mr. Spock—which is so much better than it sounds that I wish Grandin would try her hand at fiction. Catherine Johnson, who assisted on the manuscript, deserves credit for preserving this voice in all its uniqueness, but readers should brace themselves for some startling formulations. "Autistic people are closer to animals than normal people are," Grandin says; and if that seems an unfortunate way of putting things, wait until she tells how she got "spayed." For all this, the book is well researched and insightful. Its main thrust is that life cannot be classified in terms of a simple neurological ladder, with human beings at the top; it is more accurate to talk of different forms of intelligence, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. This point was well demonstrated in the minutes before last December's tsunami, when tourists grabbed their digital cameras and ran after the ebbing surf, and all the "dumb" animals made for the hills.

What makes animals and autistics especially alike, Grandin claims, is a tendency to view the world in details instead of as a whole. Like cows, who will dig in their heels at the sight of a shiny chain or a yellow raincoat, she grew up focusing on "high contrast" objects, ones that stand out sharply from their surroundings. By sharing her insights with the meat industry, for which she acts as a paid consultant, Grandin has apparently helped eliminate some frightening aspects of the chutes and passages through which millions of livestock are forced every day. This in turn has effected a reduction in the use of electric prods—no small feat. But Grandin does injustice to more than mere grammar when she writes twangily of her clients, "They're handling the cattle nice." Factory farms naturally adopt the few humane measures that improve the bottom line, and just as naturally ignore the rest. Unfortunately, Grandin seems to share their priorities. She has nothing to say about veal crates, and she shrugs off the painful practice of clipping chickens' beaks by asserting that the birds would otherwise "get in horrible fights." We would get in fights too if we were crammed together like that, but nowhere does Grandin call for a reform of confinement conditions. On the contrary, factory-farm owners are referred to as "ranchers," as if broiler hens and veal calves spent their days roaming the plains. By the time Grandin asserts that those millions of chicken beaks are merely "trimmed" off—and by "the vet," no less—it has become obvious that she isn't always so detail-oriented after all.

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B. R. Myers is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

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