Last week’s breaking news is not the announcement by the Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary, among others, of a so-called “landmark” agreement between HSUS and the United Egg Producers to propose legislation that would in theory improve the lives of billions of chickens imprisoned on factory farms in the United States. Rather, it is the use of the word “victory” to describe what many animal rights activists see as an agreement forged misleadingly in our collective name with some of the most dangerous humans on the planet as far as animals are concerned.
Here’s what the proposed legislation would do (from the HSUS site, with the most of the PR spin catchwords removed and my additions in italics):
1. require a moratorium at the end of 2011 on new construction of unenrichable battery cages and the nationwide elimination of barren battery cages through a phase-out period;
2. require phased-in construction of new hen housing systems that provide each hen nearly double the amount of space they’re currently provided (67 inches, to be exact);
3. require environmental enrichments so birds can engage in important natural behaviors currently denied to them in barren cages, such as perches, nesting boxes, and scratching areas (keeping in mind that everything added to a cage will take away from these extra 19 inches of space);
4. mandate labeling on all egg cartons nationwide to inform consumers of the method used to produce the eggs, such as “eggs from caged hens” or “eggs from cage free hens;”
5. prohibit forced molting through starvation—an inhumane practice that is inflicted on tens of millions of hens each year and which involves withholding all food from birds for up to two weeks in order to manipulate the laying cycle;
6. prohibit excessive ammonia levels in henhouses—a common problem in the industry that is harmful to both hens and egg industry workers; and
7. prohibit the sale of all eggs and egg products nationwide that don’t meet these requirements.
In exchange, HSUS agrees to stop pushing for state-level reform of layer facilities; it agrees to stop investigating cruelty on egg-producing factory farms; and, perhaps most tellingly, it agrees to stop pushing for an end to hen cages altogether (telling because it blatantly shows that HSUS has never been about total liberation, but about amelioration, illusion, and band-aid plastering in an effort to increase its profit margin – I mean, its membership base).
My own sarcasm aside: this is a victory? Remember, this legislation hasn’t even been passed. It’s simply an agreement to propose legislation that the HSUS and the UEP agree upon. But let’s say it passes, becoming the first federal law to protect chickens who are in the process of being exploited on their way to being murdered (and ignoring, for the moment, the obvious contradiction contained therein). Will it be a victory then?
Before exploring the answer to this question, I would like to say unequivocally that all of us at VINE Sanctuary are in complete agreement with the stance that total liberation as a goal is not necessarily contradicted by efforts to make the lives of existing animals better. We reject that as a false dichotomy when presented as a statement of unalterable fact.
Let me better explain this position as follows. Hammering out an agreement with the UEP seems, on the surface, to be exactly the same thing as sitting down with Himmler to discuss whether inmates at Auschwitz should have two slices of bread a day, or three; how many ounces of water they should have; and whether they should work twelve hours, or sixteen, every day.
However, there is one critical difference here between the struggle against human genocide and non-human genocide: the former is far more recent an invention than the latter. The former has barely had enough time to embed itself in the minds of humans, while the latter has been around for many thousands of years: longer than patriarchy, longer than systems of racial superiority, longer than any other codified system of oppression except, perhaps, the idea that land can be owned. And so, while it was reasonable for the armies of the world to assume that they could vanquish the particular human-oriented genocide known today as the Holocaust in their lifetimes, and indeed within a few years, it is completely unreasonable for anyone alive today to believe that systems of animal use will be eliminated any time soon.
Thus, the unreasonable becomes reasonable: we find ourselves in the position of having to consider the quality of the lives of those animals who will be enslaved and tormented for decades to come while we move toward our goal of total liberation. That was not the case with those who sought to free the inmates at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. And so, for this reason and this reason alone, we support measures that will improve the lives of non-human animals who are in the hands of abusive humans; again, so long as these measures actually improve their lives, and so long as our message, and our actions, toward total liberation are never compromised.
And that is the key. In order to ensure that such incremental improvements do not, in fact, end up as feel-good dead-end measures for the humans who enact them, at least two things must occur:
1. Such improvements must never come with agreements to not seek further improvements, nor must the overall message of total liberation ever be diluted. In short, we must not get into bed with the oppressor.
2. Such improvements must actually be improvements, in truth, as opposed to words on paper that are not translated into reality.
Given that the HSUS has gotten into bed with the oppressor by agreeing to stop seeking an end to cruelty using all methods available to it, and has eradicated the message of total liberation completely by agreeing it will never seek an end to caged hens, that alone renders this “victory” hollow indeed. Strike one.
How about point two: the question of whether or not this will truly lead to improvements in the lives of actual hens? Let us consider the possibility that this legislation will be passed in its current version (as opposed to being watered down from its already highly diluted state, as it most likely will be). Will 67 inches of space make a hen happier than 48 inches? Will a perch make her happier than not having a perch? Will having a handful of straw in her cage make her forget that her entire life will be conducted in a warehouse? My gut reaction is hell no, a reaction formed through over 12 years of observing freed layer hens who freak out when they are confined in any way. But let’s say sure. Sure it will. Should we then call this a victory?
Well, the problem is with enforcement, as it always is with agreements of this kind. Who will enforce this legislation? Who will measure the cages, who will see whether or not there are “enrichment” areas in each cage, and who will determine these “acceptable” levels of ammonia? Who will be sure that forced molts are not being used? The same USDA that is so seriously underfunded in relation to its current mandates that it can’t even monitor whether or not anti-US terrorists are poisoning our food supply? And this is something they care about – terrorists, that is. They sure as hell don’t care about animals, as their primary goal is to use them for profit, not to make their lives better.
So, it won’t be the USDA, and as far as I can see, the proposed legislation doesn’t call for the creation of another external monitoring body. In fact, this agreement was reached just at the same time as ag-gag legislation was cropping up in state after state; and while thus far it’s been rejected in state after state, does that matter? Do any of us think the multi-gazillion-dollar agriculture industry will stop trying to keep prying eyes out of their business? They’ve been fighting this sort of oversight from the beginning.
Is it possible, then, that the UEP agreed to this proposed legislation in part because it was counting upon at least some of these ag-gag bills being enacted (or, ideally for them, a similar bill enacted on the federal level), thus effectively rendering it impotent? Call me a conspiracy theorist if you like, but the timing seems awfully, well, interesting to me, given that undercover investigations are often the only thing keeping these people in anything remotely resembling a line.
Even if I knew I couldn’t count upon ag-gag bills being enacted, if I was the head of the UEP, I would be very happy to agree to something that would counter the mounting undercover footage of their operations, in part because I would know it would be represented as a victory by mainline AR “activists” who would spin the agreement as a victory for animals for their own reasons. I would also know that no one would be there to enforce the new legislation, in part because the government most likely wouldn’t be able to do it, one of the most powerful “AR” organizations has agreed not to do it, and (again ideally) undercover investigators will be far more heartily discouraged from doing it if ag-gag bills are passed. It’s a win-win for the animal exploiters, hands down.
For these reasons, I find it amazing that so few people have questioned why the UEP would have made this agreement in the first place. Conspiracy-theories aside, are we really foolish enough to believe that they have come to see the light and suddenly care about animals? Some would say that the UEP is simply responding to public outcry about the abuse of animals, and possibly this is true. But rather than give up a dime of its many billions of dollars – which the industry will have to do in order to live up to this legislation – it is more likely to me that the UEP has counted upon two things in reaching this agreement with the HSUS:
1. That it will reap the profits of a public happy to believe that the animals from whom they steal eggs are being treated well, and
2. the very people who should be their biggest enemy – namely, AR activists – will aid them in this public relations battle.
Industries that make many billions of dollars a year in large part by operating in total secrecy are not about to change as a result of backdoor deals of this sort. They believe, I am sure, that they have effectively neutralized the threat of AR activists by striking this agreement with the HSUS, and by noting the numbers of individuals and organizations who are supposedly animal advocates and who believe this is a victory for animals. How clever of them – how very, very clever.
As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.” We are the voice of the chickens. We have decided they are willing to submit to what amounts to an insane level of torment as long as they receive a handful of straw and 19 more inches of room in which to move? This is the sum total of our demand to the powers that be?
Hell no. That is why there is no “we” here. This is not, and never will be, enough, especially because these extra inches will almost certainly never be seen or experienced by those billions of hens. My bet is that the legislation will have basically no impact whatsoever upon the lives of these hens, even 15 years in the future, because no one will be there to make sure the actions called for by said legislation will be put into place. Strike two – and in this game, that’s all you get.
Unfortunately, however, just as the general public needs its illusions (such as the idea that “free range eggs” are magically produced in the absence of pain and misery), so too, it seems, do many AR activists. Are we happy to accept agribusiness’ assurances that improvements will be made? Are we willing to believe that of its own accord, a multi-billion dollar industry will decide to go along with this legislation, even though it has shown time and again it will get away with whatever it can, in the absence of external monitors? Yes, apparently we are.
This is not about advocacy versus abolitionism. This is about truth versus lies.
Now, as I believe strongly that knocking down the strategies of AR folks should not come without proposals for alternative actions, let me propose some now.
First, please do not call this a victory, and do not perceive this as a victory. We should not need the same kinds of illusions that allow other people to believe in the existence of things like “happy meat,” and in fact, such illusions will kill our movement if we allow them to fester.
Second, the message that all animal use must cease must be pushed now, harder than ever. With the big-guns of the AR movement out there agreeing to water down the message of total liberation, and in fact agreeing to stop monitoring some of the biggest abusers the world has ever known, someone has to stand up for animals, uncompromisingly and completely. For all humans to see members of non-human species as literally equivalent in terms of our “right” to live our lives according to the rules of our own societies, and equally entitled to live free of externally-imposed oppression, is the underlying premise of the goal of total animal liberation, and we must never forget or compromise that.
Third, let’s ramp up undercover work while we can. It’s excellent news that ag-gag bills have largely died in session, of course, but given the existence of AETA, we can’t pretend that other versions will not be introduced, at either the state level again or at the federal level, and we can’t pretend that they won’t be passed. Support the work of undercover investigators who are exposing the sickening truth behind the animal agriculture industries, with your money, your time, and even your own undercover work.
Fourth and finally, commit yourself to convincing at least one other person to go vegan — and go vegan yourself if you aren’t already. The wide-scale adoption of a plant-based diet will end the existence of animal agriculture once and for all.
In the words of Hillel: If not now, when?