What would you do if your neighbors kept their dog permanently caged, never letting her out to exercise or relieve herself, in a crate so narrow that she could not turn around or lie down with her legs outstretched? You'd probably call the police and have them charged with animal cruelty. In California, that is how the vast majority of breeding sows and veal calves are treated -- and it's legal.
Immobilized calves produce the most tender veal. Keeping sows in crates yields a marginal saving on labor and feed costs. In agribusiness today, profit eclipses animal welfare.
In February, Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) introduced Assembly Bill 732 to address the cruelest forms of confinement. The bill would prohibit keeping a pregnant pig or a calf in a crate so small that the animal is unable to turn around. It also requires that calves have enough space to stretch out their legs while lying down.
These requirements do not appear to pamper pigs or calves excessively. Yet the bill has fallen victim to the Assembly's Agriculture Committee, which asked to review it after the Public Safety Committee had passed it. Since there were not enough votes to get it out of the Agriculture Committee, it had to be deferred and can't be brought up again until January.
A Zogby poll in April showed that more than 70% of Californians support legislation to require that calves and pigs have freedom to turn around.
This broad support is reflected in the varied public figures who have spoken out against factory-farming practices. Pat Buchanan said on MSNBC: "I've certainly seen some of these hog confinements.... They have no opportunity to move. And it looks like it's cruel."
Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) spoke on the Senate floor against keeping hogs and calves in crates. Reminding the Senate that these creatures feel pain and suffer, he said "our inhumane treatment of livestock is becoming widespread and more and more barbaric."
How could anybody be against giving all animals the freedom to turn around and lie down comfortably?
Astonishingly, the California Veterinary Medical Assn. opposes the Hancock bill, claiming that there is insufficient scientific data to show that pigs and calves need to be able to turn around or stretch their limbs. That ignores the extensive European data on which sweeping changes in European farm animal law are based. But unfortunately it is the owners -- in many cases, the agribusiness industry -- not the animals, paying the vet's bills. Veterinary associations are scarcely more "independent" about animal welfare issues than are agribusiness industry groups, which have also opposed the bill.
Both point to a lack of injuries from fighting when animals are crated, but European farmers have found ways to overcome that problem while still allowing their animals freedom to move around and socialize with others of their species. The agribusiness groups complain that the bill would make common animal husbandry practices a crime. So it would. And so, when those practices are cruel, it should.
In Britain, the provisions of Hancock's bill are already law. And the decision has been taken to phase out individual crates for pigs and calves across the 15 current and 10 future member nations of the European Union. Once the new European laws are fully in effect, the U.S. will be notorious among industrialized nations for the harshness with which it treats animals.
Current practices do not reflect the wishes of the American people. In Florida last November, voters approved a ballot initiative that banned gestation crates for sows. The Zogby poll tells us that Californians would do the same, if given the chance. Will our legislators force us into a expensive initiative process?
We hope that when AB 732 comes up again next year, members of the Agriculture Committee will not prevent the entire Assembly from having the opportunity to pass a bill that reflects the values of the people. Its passage would be a step toward removing a dark shadow from our claim to be a humane, civilized nation.