Putting Farm Animal Protection on the Map, One Step at a Time

Within this decade, we've gone from 0 to 7 states having anti-cruelty laws for animals in agribusiness laws.

At the beginning of this decade, not a single state in the nation had an anti-cruelty law that explicitly prohibited any standard agribusiness practice, regardless of how much suffering the practice may cause. Today, seven states have banned and are phasing out some of the most extreme forms of farm animal confinement; one state has banned and is phasing out both the production and sale of foie gras; and just this month, California, our nation’s largest dairy-producing state, became the first to ban any kind of common farm animal mutilation, in this case tail-docking of cows.

Clearly, times are changing, and for the better. Concern about the treatment of farm animals has never before been so firmly cemented in the mainstream.

For years, U.S. animal protectionists looked at our allies in Europe and wondered why we were falling so far behind them on basic farm animal welfare issues. While we’re still significantly trailing the European Union’s admittedly modest animal welfare laws, that gap is now slowly closing, and the political strength of the American farm animal protection movement is greater than ever.

The fact that farm animals are beginning to gain a semblance of state-level legal protection from certain abuses makes sense, given that Americans have long believed that animals deserve some legal protection. Dog fighting is a felony in all 50 states, and cockfighting is criminal in all 50 states. It’s hard to find anyone who believes that these laws are inappropriate; if anything, they’re not strong enough.

So the change isn’t necessarily how people feel about animals, but rather it’s in our application of longstanding anti-cruelty sentiment to animals whose suffering, for far too long, we simply ignored.

Of course, it doesn’t take a logician to realize that if we—correctly—believe that putting two chickens in a ring and allowing them to fight is so heinous that it warrants criminal sanction, perhaps we ought not be putting eight chickens in a cramped cage where they can barely move an inch for their whole lives.

The fact that Americans want meaningful legal protection for farm animals is confirmed even by the American Farm Bureau’s own polling. A 2007 Farm Bureau-funded nationwide poll found that 68 percent of Americans think the government should take an active role in promoting farm animal welfare, while 75 percent say they’d vote for a law in their state that would require farmers to treat their animals better.

And voting for better treatment is exactly what they’ve been doing. Whether in a blue state like California, a red state like Arizona, or a swing state like Florida, each time specific farm animal confinement systems have been on the ballot in the U.S., voters have overwhelmingly sided with the animals.

Fortunately, these laws represent a case in which our common sense aligns with sound science. We instinctively know that animals who have been built to move shouldn’t be virtually immobilized in cages and crates for months on end, and a wide array of scientific evidence confirms this simple idea.

However, there’s certainly a long way to go. Even with the meaningful progress made in recent years, we can’t ignore the reality that in the U.S., billions of farm animals are still raised and slaughtered, often in ways that would shock most people.

But the recent progress—which is dramatic relative to the decades prior to this one—offers reason for great optimism that quite frankly didn’t seem realistic just ten years ago.

Farm animal protection is finally on the map in the United States, and we can all agree that it’s about time.


Paul Shapiro is the senior director of the Humane Society of the United States’ factory farming campaign. Follow him at twitter.com/pshapiro.
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