Mark Bittman on Animal Rights, and Wrongs

March 16, 2011

In his column in today’s New York Times, Mark Bittman contrasts the arrest of a Brooklyn woman for cruelty to a pet hamster with the quite legal state sanctioned brutality and killing inflicted on hundreds of million of meat, egg and dairy producing animals each year.

The hamster is a good hook—Jonathan Safran Foer made the same point in his book Eating Animals by reflecting on his pet dog.  In fact, Bittman quotes Foer to make his point:

…we protect “companion animals” like hamsters while largely ignoring what amounts to the torture of chickens and cows and pigs. In short, if I keep a pig as a pet, I can’t kick it. If I keep a pig I intend to sell for food, I can pretty much torture it. State laws known as “Common Farming Exemptions” allow industry — rather than lawmakers — to make any practice legal as long as it’s common. “In other words,” as Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of “Eating Animals,” wrote me via e-mail, “the industry has the power to define cruelty. It’s every bit as crazy as giving burglars the power to define trespassing.”

For Bitman, what separates the protected animals like the hamster and Foer’s dog from the unprotected ones is our intention to eat them, or use their products.

But thanks to Common Farming Exemptions, as long as I “raise” animals for food and it’s done by my fellow “farmers” (in this case, manufacturers might be a better word), I can put around 200 million male chicks a year through grinders (graphic video here), castrate — mostly without anesthetic — 65 million calves and piglets a year, breed sick animals (don’t forget: more than half a billion eggs were recalled last summer, from just two Iowa farms) who in turn breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, allow those sick animals to die without individual veterinary care, imprison animals in cages so small they cannot turn around, skin live animals, or kill animals en masse to stem disease outbreaks.

All of this is legal, because we will eat them.

But I don’t think that quite explains it.  Bittman isn’t wrong, I just think his view needs to be broader.  A better way of looking at the seeming hypocrisy is as a matter of property rights.  As long as we define animals as property, we as their owners are pretty much free to do with them as we will. In a society that regards individual property as almost sacrosanct, the burden is on the state to prove why and when it can stop me from treating my charges any way I see fit.  Slaves in this country were treated as animals.  Animals are still treated as slaves.  In both cases, it’s because the law saw them, human or beast, as the sole property of their masters.

There are laws that forbid certain cruelties to the animals we define as pets (no such laws really existed towards slaves), but there are, after a fashion, rules that regulate how we treat food animals too.  They may not be as strong, and they may be corrupted, as Foer points out, by the industry that benefits from their breech, but the fact is they exist, and are subject to the evolving, shaping forces of public sentiment and citizen action. 

I’m not arguing that we need to redefine animals legally as something other than property.  I’m no lawyer (sorry, mom), but there doesn’t seem to be much gray area in the law between humans and everything else. But I do wonder how, as long as society sees animal as property, we can really effect the crucial changes in how we raise and slaughter the animals that feed us.  Because Bittman’s overall point is not just right, but urgent. Perhaps there is a legal path toward redefining the use of animals as a privilege.  Why not put animals in the same category as rental cars, where we have the right to derive benefit from them, though they belong to someone else, and we must pay dearly for their abuse.  From Hormel to Hertz—  that would be a huge step up in animal welfare. (It would also necessitate a whole new profession of animal lawyers, and thus an entire David E. Kelley franchise).

If we can change the laws, great.  But I wonder if before we can change the law we have to change our faith.  The role religion plays in shaping these debates is vastly underestimated, even though you could argue that our entire legal approach to animal welfare derives from the Genesis myth, in which God gives man dominion over animals. Though subsequent Jewish law and philosophy provide room for argument over our obligations to animals and nature, society as a whole doesn’t do nuance very well.  Most good Christians woul tell you God tells us these creatures are ours. Period, end of story.

I wonder then, if what began with faith can’t evolve through faith. After all, it was the Christian pulpit that spearheaded the struggle against slavery. It was people of faith who rose up against what they saw as an abomination of God’s word. Maybe it will be our religious thinkers and leaders, the people whom the leaders of government and the factory farming industry turn to for prayer and moral guidance, who will be most influential in helping society redefine our relation with animals.  For that to happen, they will have to see our treatment of these creatures as a spiritual crisis, a moral aberration, a sin, even. They will have to believe, and to preach, that one way to draw closer to God, is to draw closer to animals.

I, for one, believe that’s true.




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