Opinion: Think humans’ treatment of animals has improved in 50 years? think again

Fifty years ago, my first article arguing that it is wrong to treat animals as we did appeared in the New York Review of Books. Two years later my book “Animal Liberation” was published, after which it is credited with triggering the modern animal rights movement.

Similar ethical perspectives are now supported by many philosophers. But the factual descriptions in that book of what we do to animals have long ceased to capture current conditions accurately. In updating the book, I could not avoid the question: Have we made progress in our attitudes toward animals and our treatment of them since 1975?

Many people are concerned about cruelty to animals, but focus on how we treat our companion animals, especially cats and dogs, which number about 840 million worldwide. That number is dwarfed by the approximately 200 billion vertebrate animals raised for food in appalling conditions in factory farms. In any objective assessment of the lives, and deaths, of animals under human control, the welfare of intensively farmed animals far outweighs the significance of how we treat our companion animals.

Of these vertebrate animals raised for food in close confinement, about 124 billion are fish. There is now strong evidence that fish can feel pain, and there is no justification for ignoring that pain. Beyond that, an estimated 460 billion to 1.1 trillion fish are hauled out of the ocean every year, ground up into fishmeal, and the bulk fed to carnivorous fish. A typical farmed salmon has eaten 147 fish before it is killed itself.

After fish, chickens are the most consumed vertebrates: About 70 billion are raised and killed each year, typically in large sheds containing about 20,000 birds each. Today’s chickens are bred to grow so fast that their immature leg bones cannot easily support their weight, causing them chronic pain for the last fifth of their lives.

For that reason, John Webster, an emeritus professor at the University of Bristol who is also a veterinarian and a widely respected expert on the welfare of farmed animals, has described modern intensive chicken production as “the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”

Because of the growth and further intensification of animal production, humans cause more suffering to animals today than they did in 1975. Nevertheless, the trend since 1975 is not all negative. The idea that animals should have rights has gone from being ridiculed to being widely held. In many countries, safeguarding animal welfare is seen as an important government responsibility.

In Europe, reforms have reduced the suffering of hundreds of millions of animals raised for food or used in research. It is now illegal in the 27 countries of the European Union and in the United Kingdom to keep egg-laying hens in bare wire cages that, in 1975, prevented nearly all hens from spreading their wings fully or laying their eggs in the nest that hens instinctively seek if given the opportunity. These countries also prohibit keeping breeding sows and veal calves in individual crates that prevent them from turning around or moving more than a single step.

Regrettably, most other parts of the world lag behind Europe in this respect. That includes the United States, where, in the absence of any federal legislation to regulate how farmed animals can be raised, billions of them still live in conditions that have not improved over the past 50 years.

Then there is China, which 50 years ago produced relatively few intensively farmed animals but is now the world’s leading producer of pigs and a huge producer of chickens. To increase production still further, China is now building a massive skyscraper “farms,” 26 stories high and a total of 800,000 square meters, all to be filled with closely confined pigs.

Mahatma Gandhi said that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” By that standard, there are no truly great or morally progressive nations yet.

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, is founder of the charity The Life You Can Save. His book, “Animal Liberation Now,” will be released in North America on May 23.

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