Prop. 2 -- for animals and our humanity

Ten years ago, I received a brochure that included a picture of sows locked up in coffin-size crates. The brochure stated that the intelligent animals were confined that way for life. I remember my reaction: horror, then denial. That had to be illegal! I learned later that such confinement was standard industry practice in the United States.

Five years ago, The Times published an Op-Ed article by Princeton University professor Peter Singer and me in which we supported a state bill to ban the housing of calves and sows in crates so small they cannot turn around or even lie down with outstretched legs. A Zogby poll at the time showed that about 70% of Californians supported the legislation. Lobby-driven legislators killed it. But ours is a state in which the ballot initiative process lets the people rule when the government fails to support their wishes. Californians have the opportunity in November to pass Proposition 2, which would enforce these changes in caging environments. The proposition would also ban battery-cage existence for millions of laying hens.

Predicting more sympathy for mammals, opponents have cynically suggested that the calves and pigs are irrelevant when it comes to considering Proposition 2; they point to an announcement by Smithfield Foods, the country’s largest pig producer, that it plans to phase out sow crating. But if fulfilled, that promise wouldn’t take full effect until 2020, five years later than Proposition 2’s already lenient deadline. To save just one animal from living immobilized, many people would head to the polls, and this bill would affect thousands of calves and pigs and millions of birds. And polls have shown that voters do not condone unmitigated cruelty to birds. Voters accept an animal’s death as part of the food chain, but they don’t expect their morning eggs to come from suffering. Jamming animals into small, stacked cages undoubtedly causes relentless suffering. Last week, Oprah Winfrey did a special on the confinement of animals in which a farmer said he couldn’t judge if the 750 sows locked in individual crates were “happy” -- as if you can’t judge if your dog is “happy” when he bounds around just before his walk. Still, he speculated that the animals were content. Viewers heard that as they watched the confined animals pitifully pushing their snouts through the bars in front of them or chewing on those bars incessantly. The Humane Society spokesperson reminded viewers that the California Veterinary Assn. has endorsed Proposition 2.

Our humanity is not the only reason to support Proposition 2; we can do so for our health. If humane animal housing means a few less servings of ham and eggs, no reputable doctor would object. And while the opposition runs commercials showing children sucking on thermometers, studies have shown the likelihood of salmonella contamination in battery-cage facilities to be up to 20 times greater than on free-range farms. Opponents also like to predict bird flu outbreaks -- even while saying that Proposition 2 is misguided because it does not ensure that the hens will be outdoors. Indeed, most cage-free farms keep their hens in sheds; that’s why any mention of bird flu is scare-mongering propaganda. Though we might wish Proposition 2 would have the hens clucking on Old MacDonald’s farm, in reality it only relieves animals of the unspeakably cruel confinement of tiny cages.

Laws that limit animal concentration will curtail factory farming’s devastating impact on the environment. And they will create jobs. While one person might manage 750 individually crated sows in a shed, small family farms employ many more people to raise animals in humane conditions.

Currently, the humane family farmer cannot compete; cage-free eggs are expensive. But if Proposition 2 passes and the standards change statewide, an economist from the opposition says that prices will rise by less than one penny per egg. The opposition has suggested that grocery chains will just buy battery-cage produced eggs from out of state. But when Austria banned battery cages, the major grocery chains there chose to stop selling a product that had become criminally cruel to produce. Some leading California retailers already require cage-free eggs. Now that the whole European Union has banned traditional battery cages, the U.S. lags far behind on animal welfare standards. But noting that Arizona’s anti-crate ballot initiative lead to national reform in the pork industry in 2006, we can just imagine the impact of welfare law changes in a state the size of California. Indeed, opponents have already imagined it. Their campaign funding, with 70% of contributions coming from out-of-state egg producers and farms, should make voters doubt their concern for our California producers.

The Times agreed that something must be done about the treatment of animals but said that this initiative is not the answer, as it doesn’t ban the importation and sale of inhumanely produced food. But similar laws elsewhere have not resulted in the explosion of cruel import industries. We cannot refuse to pass a good bill because we wish it were even better. We must not let Proposition 2 fail and let the industry pretend that we are satisfied with its paltry standards.

More than 30 California newspapers have endorsed Proposition 2; even the New York Times, no doubt aware of the potential national impact, endorsed in our favor. Oprah told her national audience last week, “The way we treat the least among us determines our humanity.” Californians will get to make that determination.

Karen Dawn runs and is the author of “Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals.”

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