Like any social-justice movement, the struggle to advance the interests of animals has its share of detractors. The most vocal of these critics come from animal enterprises such as factory farms, labs, puppy mills, circuses and other industries that exploit animals for profit. And, of course, there’s a segment of the population ― sport hunters and those who believe they have a “right” to eat animals, for example ― that enjoys blogging about their affinity for cruelty.
But there are some within the animal-protection movement itself who criticize the methods other individuals and organizations use to advocate for animals. Chief among these cynics’ targets are Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Those who disparage these nonprofits argue that they have sold out to animal agriculture and non-vegetarian businesses by cooperating with them. Here’s one example: Following pressure from Farm Sanctuary, HSUS and PETA, Smithfield Foods — the world’s largest pork producer — announced in 2007 that it would begin phasing out cruel gestation crates on all its company-owned farms. While many lauded this as step forward for animals, one longtime critic of animal-welfare campaigns decried it as a “sad defeat for nonhumans” and cynically labeled it a fundraising ploy.
Although I agree with those who argue that “humane meat” is oxymoronic, I believe that while we promote the benefits of veganism, we owe it to farmed animals to fight for every bit of humane treatment we can win for them as soon as we can. I understand there are those who think this position only benefits animal exploiters; yet, if that were the case, you would expect agribusiness and fast-food chains to be thanking animal advocates.
Let’s consider some of the comments from agribiz. Corporate farmers across the U.S. have their collective knickers in a twist in the wake of California’s Proposition 2 ― which, in case you’ve been meditating in a cave for the last year, will make it a crime to confine hens in battery cages, pigs in gestation crates and calves in veal crates and was primarily sponsored by HSUS and Farm Sanctuary. As Bryan Black, president of the National Pork Producers Council, put it: “It is regrettable that animal rights groups were successful in vilifying hardworking, honest farmers and ranchers who treat their animals humanely and provide them with a healthful and safe environment in which to grow.”
More to the point was Steve Kopperud, senior vice president of Policy Directions, Inc., which lobbies on behalf of agribusiness. Kopperud told attendees at a farm forum in Ohio this month: “The Humane Society of the United States say they aren’t pushing for a vegan society; however, if you cut the crap you’ll find they are in a PETA-kind of agenda. If you think you can sit down with an animal rights group and give them something and they go away, you are absolutely insane.”
Doesn’t exactly sound like they consider HSUS or PETA to be helping them, does it? In fact, Kopperud and many others declare animal rights organizations to be the biggest threat to their way of making a buck: raising and slaughtering animals for food.
And these complaints go back well before Prop 2. In its 2006 outlook report, Poultry Times quoted United Egg Producer President Al Pope (since retired), who noted that at a recent convention, an HSUS official stated that “its goal was to ELIMINATE the poultry industry.” The report goes on with more of Pope’s concerns: “Activists’ actions force the industry to add substantial costs to producing its product. Higher prices affect the customer’s willingness to purchase as we compete with other protein products. Long-term this issue has the potential of greatly impacting the demand and thus the economic well-being of the industry. It is imperative that animal agriculture look beyond 2007 and recognize ‘WE ARE AT WAR.’”
Gene Gregory, now president and CEO of United Egg Producers, used similar rhetoric three years ago in an Egg Industry Magazine article. “I’m afraid we’re losing the battle,” he said. The article described Gregory’s struggle “to compete with the budget of $100 million that the Humane Society of the United States has, and it’s relatively easy for the Humane Society to recruit members on college campuses…. [Gregory] also thinks that when universities go cage-free, it means egg consumption declines because total costs go up and that translates into fewer eggs that end up on student plates.”
In contrast to the grumbling from Big Ag, which is vociferous and frequent, you don’t hear much from fast-food companies, even though Burger King, Carl’s Jr., KFC, McDonald’s and Wendy’s have all been targets of campaigns encouraging them to adopt policies that reduce cruelty to animals (usually by sourcing from suppliers with higher welfare standards, such as not keeping laying hens in crowded cages, or that slaughter animals using methods that minimize suffering, such as controlled-atmosphere killing). That’s not to say these restaurant chains don’t have their gripes against animal activists ― not by a long shot. They just let front groups like the ironically named Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) do the griping for them. You’d be hard-pressed to find many purveyors of hamburgers or chicken nuggets complaining in public about PETA, Farm Sanctuary or HSUS. It’s much easier for them to support CCF, infamous for fighting consumers’ right to have nutrition labels in restaurants and maintaining that humans must eat animal flesh to be healthy. CCF has complained about PETA offering anti-meat and anti-dairy “propaganda” to children, has called Farm Sanctuary’s Adopt-a-Turkey project “a farce” and continues to criticize efforts by HSUS to outlaw cruel agricultural practices, to name but a few examples. (As a paid lobbyist for tobacco, alcohol, meat, soft drink and fast-food interests, CCF is likely to attack anyone who criticizes their clients’ products.)
Animal rights organizations are also putting pressure on corporations by owning stock in the company. PETA, for example, which currently owns 478 shares of Smithfield Foods stock, recently submitted a shareholder resolution calling on the company to publicly disclose a timeline for fulfilling its promise to phase out gestation crates, and McDonald’s shareholders will soon be asked to vote on HSUS’ resolution urging the chain to begin switching to cage-free eggs.
It is not my contention that the tactics and campaigns of Farm Sanctuary, HSUS and PETA are always right. They have their share of misses just like any organization. But when animal exploiters or those paid to shill for them are raising the battle cry against animal advocates, I know we’ve got them on the run. Their vitriol is a signal that we ― the individual activist and nonprofit group alike ― are impacting their bottom line and making a difference for animals.
I love how Steve Kopperud, the trusted advisor to factory farms, characterizes the situation. Warning his Ohio farm forum audience about the reforms animal-protection organizations are working on, he said: “This is a collective threat. If all of the Ohio agricultural community does not sit down and figure out a collective way to stop this right now, you will all wind up as crop producers.”
And that’s supposed to be a bad thing?