As a farmer, it’s almost funny as to how some people regard animals. I like my housecats, but they are cats, not people. The difference is a lot more than that one is covered in fur, with a long tail and whiskers, and says “meow.” It perplexes me that people would equate their pets-or, oops, companion animals-on the same level as people. They’re dressing their dogs, sending pictures of their parrots in the stead of family Christmas cards, cooing in baby talk to their iguana, and sharing a bowl of cereal and the spoon with their pot-bellied pig. Fish, finches and venomous snakes are just about the only pet animals that are left with their dignity intact and not personified as extended members of the family.
And now we’re seeing that same principle applied to farm animals, and not just the stock dog and barn cats, but the chickens, cattle, and hogs that end up on our dinner plate.
I’m all for caring for our animals. They need to be fed, watered, have their barns bedded down, given veterinary care, protected from predators, and given space to roam because that is what is right. They are living beings, and since they depend on us, they deserve the respect that any living being that depends on us deserves. The same applies to a cactus in our kitchen — the cactus is living in a pot where it relies on us for water and access to sunlight. It is our responsibility to make sure that cactus stays alive. But you don’t see society raising money to help rescued houseplants or houseplant shelters, or to save sweet corn by converting us to carnivores. You plant murderers, you!
I understand why people relate to animals as fellow people, I do. Pets can be wonderful companions, but they are still animals. Like my cats — it just wouldn’t quite be home without them, but there is a distinct difference between them and my children.
Wes Jamison, a professor of public relations at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, says this phenomenon that we refer to as the Animal Rights Movement is so far only a Western culture thing. He said there was a progression of five ideas that lead to this:
1. Affluence — your food supply is not only secure but abundant enough that you have no fear of starvation.
2. Urban or suburban living — your animal experience is as a pet rather than as a farm animal.
3. Emotional projection — you are projecting human qualities onto animals.
4. Intelligence projection — you are projecting human intelligence onto animals.
5. Value projection — you are projecting human value of life equality onto animals.
Certainly, we are all free to do what we feel brings quality to our lives, within the law. Certainly, hog farmers aren’t going to mind too much that city dwellers are dressing their dogs in poofy dresses as long as they don’t have to see it. But it’s when that dog dresser’s ideas start to evolve into laws that affect the hog farmer’s way of life that this Animal Rights Movement gets its controversy.
I think it’s enough for the marketplace to communicate its desire for certain animal management choices through consumer preference. I don’t think we need laws to force this onto producers. If enough consumers demanded that their eggs only come from free-ranging chickens, then eventually the industry-wide production practices would change.
There is so much blame placed on farmers or on animal rights activists, depending on which side you’re on, but we seem to forget the real crux of the problem: the consumers and their lack of participation in this debate. That’s what makes animal rights activism sketchy — that they’re pushing agendas without a real backing from consumers. Consumers are still buying whatever pork chop is on sale, rather than hunting out the pork chop that was cut from the hog that was raised in the wide-open outdoors and anesthetized before slaughter. Until more consumers start demanding, and sticking to those demands, to eat animals that were raised a certain way, animal rights activists appear to be — and are, really — just acting on their own agenda.