Friday, August 1, 2014
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A New Year of Hope for Animals

PRINCETON – The moral progress of a society, it has often been said, can be judged by how it treats its weakest members. Individual chimpanzees are much stronger than human beings, but as a species, we can, and do, hold them captive, and essentially helpless, in zoos and laboratories. Equally subject to human power are the animals that we raise for food, among them sows confined for their entire pregnancies – four months per pregnancy, two pregnancies per year – in stalls too narrow for them even to turn around.

In this sense, 2013 got off to a good start in Europe and the United States. On January 1, a European Union directive came into effect banning the use of individual sow stalls from the fourth week of pregnancy until one week before the sow gives birth. Millions of sows must now have the elementary freedom not only to turn around, but to walk. Nor can they be kept on bare concrete without straw or some other material that allows them to satisfy their natural instinct to root. By the end of January, 20 of the 27 EU member states were at least 90% compliant with the directive, and the European Commission was preparing to take action to ensure full compliance.

Meanwhile, in America, active campaigning by the Humane Society of the US has led to about 50 major pork buyers announcing that they will phase out their purchase of pork from suppliers who use sow stalls. (Some, including Chipotle and Whole Foods, already have.)

Still, Europe is far ahead of the US on farm-animal welfare. The ban on sow stalls there continues the progress made to ameliorate the most extreme forms of animal confinement.

Individual stalls for veal calves were the first to go, in 2007. Last year, the standard battery cage for egg-laying hens was banned, ensuring somewhat better conditions for hundreds of millions of hens (though they can still be kept in cages that severely restrict their movement).

The new standards are compromises that are premised on the assumption that Europeans will continue to eat animal products and do not wish to see a sharp rise in the cost of their food. Predictably, therefore, animal-welfare advocates are not – and should not be – satisfied, even if, as the European Commission’s scientific and veterinary advice indicates, the new standards will reduce animal suffering.

Another European directive came into effect on January 1, banning medical research on chimpanzees. It went unnoticed, because there has been no European medical research on chimpanzees since 2003. During the past 20 years, other countries have also stopped using chimpanzees for medical research; indeed, only the US and Gabon continue to do so, with the US by far the larger user.

Last month, the National Institutes of Health, the US government agency responsible for biomedical research, approved a report recommending the cancelation of the majority of NIH-funded projects involving invasive biomedical research on chimpanzees. The report also recommends that most of the chimpanzees owned or supported by the NIH should be “retired” from research and moved to sanctuaries.

The NIH will retain only one colony, comprising roughly 50 chimps, and any research carried out on these apes will have to be approved by an independent committee that will include public representation. The report also recommends special requirements for keeping the remaining chimps: housing in groups of at least seven, with a minimum of 1,000 square feet per chimp, room to climb, and opportunities to forage for food. The NIH action still needs to be ratified by the director, Francis Collins.

With billions of animals still leading miserable lives on factory farms, more space for pregnant sows and the release from labs of a few hundred chimpanzees may not seem like much to cheer about. But the larger picture is worth celebrating. For centuries, humans in industrialized countries have treated animals as units of production, rather than as sentient beings with a moral status that requires us to take their interests into account. (In more traditional societies, relations between humans and animals have often been closer, but not always better for the animals.)

The struggle to liberate animals from oppression is a moral campaign comparable to the struggle to end human slavery. Indeed, the enslavement of animals, for labor and for food, is more pervasive and more central to our way of life than the enslavement of other humans ever was. With some isolated and short-lived exceptions – for example, in India under the Emperor Ashoka and in Japan under the Tokugawa shogun Tsunayoshi – laws to protect animals from cruelty are less than 200 years old.

It is therefore bound to be a long struggle. But, if the gains made so far seem to be dwarfed by the wrongs that humans continue to do to animals, we can find hope in the fact that, as January’s developments show, the pace of change is accelerating perceptibly.

Read more from the "An Ethical Mind" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedLinda K. Lyons

    Why is it a crime with a big fine and jail time in the U.S.A. (except for 2 states), that if a baby injured squirrel falls out of it's nest in a tree in your own back yard? I'm in Texas and have nurtured this magical sweet being for over 5 years. In the wild they are lucky to survive over 1 year due to humans in cars ,cats, hawks etc. He doesn't bark or meow and his pee and poop doesn't stink. He wags his tail and love's to play...so I ask is it Nature or Nurturer??????

  2. CommentedMarkus Will

    Sorry, Mr. or Ms. S ~, but you are totally wrong.
    1st, meat production is the main reason why there are millions of people starving. It’s easy: In order to get two pounds of meat we have to grow and feed plant nutrition that would make a meal for at least 50 men. TWO POUNDS! Got it? We are unable to feed the world BECAUSE we cling to meat.
    2nd, animals are the opposite of “an ultimately completely stupid life form”. Sure, they can’t neither invent an iPhone nor use it. But who are you to decide how we measure intelligence? Can you, S ~, invent an iPhone? Where do you draw the line? Right below yourself? A world population that is close to extinct itself by ongoing wars, by self-made climate change and by ruining the fundamentals of its existences—is that an intelligent species? I negate. You’re talking of “purposeless creatures” and I ask you: What is your purpose? Eventually, it will be the same as for any other sensitive creature: surviving and keeping the own life joyful and free. We may LIVE different from non-human animals and have more abilities but we ARE NOT different. Learn the real disparity! According to your theory the more intelligent is allowed to eat the less intelligent. Fortunately, this is fiddle-faddle. Otherwise you had been eaten long ago by a more intelligent exponent of your kind. And sure enough I’m doing no wrong by assessing that you, S ~, are not on top of the list.

  3. CommentedNIJAZ DELEUT KEMO

    Still, there is much more to do, my dear professor. If you have 0 (zero, nule), and you get 1 (one), at the end of story you are 100% ahead. So, EU must do much better. Sincerely, Nijaz Deleut Kemo

  4. CommentedS ~

    It seems to me that animal welfare is all at the expense of human welfare, which makes no sense to me when you consider that there are millions of people in the world today dying of starvation and thirst. How is it a triumph to give an ultimately completely stupid life form comfort when that comfort comes at the cost of intelligent human life? This is just as abusive and naive and self-serving as organics and, if it continues, will be even more destructive than it. First bring food and water and comfort to the millions of destitute people in Africa and India, then worry about whether or not your chickens are 'happy' or not. The current supposedly good moral action, toward unintelligent, purposeless creatures that only exist because of domestication in the first place, is directly condemning more and more people to death.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    Although the progress mentioned by the article is promising, I do think it reflects the moral progress of the human society.
    After all animals are not part of the human society.
    It is true that humans, as the most sophisticated developmental level in nature are directly responsible for all other levels, the inanimate, vegetative and animal levels of nature, but overall what happens to the other levels is a direct consequence of the state of the human level in itself.
    In other words if human society steps on to the next level, creating a completely new human system, socio-economic structure adapted to the fully interconnected and interdependent global network we evolved into, and build such a mutually responsible and considerate global organism that even the weakest members of the human species are treated as equals, and each and every human being has its necessity for survival and we all live in a equal society, then we will find that the human influence on animals, the vegetative and inanimate parts of nature will automatically correct itself.
    Humans only need to correct themselves and then the whole ecosystem returns to balance and homoeostasis.

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