January 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard
Animal rights is an emotive subject and concerns a growing movement. It's no longer cranky and it's not going to fade away so what are the facts and where do socialists stand on the issue?
One issue of the animal rights campaign which affects every one of us is the exploitation of animals for food:
The human attitude to living creatures exemplified by factory farming inevitably finds its parallel in our own level of responsiveness to our own species. A genuine concern for life should extend to all creatures. (Assault and Battery: Mark Gold)
"Factory farming" is the term used to describe everything from milk production to battery eggs. In economic terms it can be defined as an attempt to attain the most efficient ratio of growth time to feed cost. In agricultural terms it means animals are viewed as machines:
Cows must go through yearly pregnancies in order to yield up their milk, cream and cheese. Hardly any cows in dairy herds are allowed to suckle their calves for more than three days. (Voiceless Victims: Rebecca Hall)
In addition cows are subject to genetic breeding through either artificial insemination or embryotomy. But what happens to the calf after its removal from the mother? It may well end up being processed by the infamous veal industry. The pale, tender, white meat much prized by the connoisseur is arrived at by rearing these animals in small wooden crates on a liquid milk diet, deliberately deficient in iron to ensure the unnatural colour of the meat. Rennet, the enzyme extracted from the stomachs of calves, is used in the production of hard cheese.
Pigs, which are as intelligent as cats or dogs, may spend their entire lives in dry sow stalls - a narrow metal stall preventing the sow turning around or lying down properly and where the pig may be permanently chained to the floor. Tail docking and darkness are employed to deal with the problem of aggression created through the boredom and discomfort of this restricted lifestyle. Females may become victims of the graphically named "rape racks” to ensure impregnation. In confinement the pig's instincts such as nesting, rooting about and the maternal instinct have no outlet for expression. Castration of male pigs may also take place because of the fear of "tainted meat".
What about eggs and chickens? Well, for a start, “farm fresh" and "country fresh" eggs are a myth. About 90 per cent of the eggs sold in the UK come from hens confined in battery cages. They are "factory fresh” eggs. Hens in battery cages cannot fly, perch, nest, scratch, stretch or walk. The average wingspan of a hen is 32 inches. The average battery hen will share a cage 18 inches by 20 inches with five other birds. There is a natural pecking order among chickens, to counteract which chickens may be given spectacles to reduce their field of vision. To minimise damage among the stock, debeaking may take place routinely. Battery hens which are no longer economically productive are sold off to be used in soup, pies and other convenience foods as they are fit for little else. Male chicks are the natural casualties of the egg industry, of course. Economically useless, they are killed off at around a day old by crushing, gassing or suffocation, or they may be made into pet food.
Animals and poultry, at the end of their short, miserable lives, are transported, sometimes over thousands of miles to be slaughtered. Live transportation of animals saves on refrigeration and packing costs. As a general rule of animals in transit, those with the least commercial value suffer most. Humane slaughter is another myth of the meat industry. Animals are stunned in different ways according to species. The general rule is that “the equipment is required to leave the animal with its heart still beating in order that the blood shall pump from the body to produce meat which has a minimum of blood in it" (ibid). Cattle, for example, will be led to the stunning box where they are shot by a captive bolt pistol supposed to render the animal insensible to pain. In practice, around 30 per cent of the animals will be fully conscious when the side of the box opens, the animal rolls out and is hoisted by its hind legs to have its throat cut and be bled out.
Workers in slaughterhouses are usually paid on piece rates which obviously militates against any great degree of time or care being taken over stunning. Sheep have to have electric tongs applied to the sides of their heads for seven seconds or longer in order to effectively stun. Anything less and they may be paralysed but fully conscious or improperly stunned and come round as they hang upside down waiting to have their throats cut.
Whether or not socialists are vegetarians, they can still recognise the horrific suffering and concentration camp conditions of the factory farm. Where we differ from reformist organisations is in our treatment of the problem. We do not view it in isolation from the cause. The disgustingly inhumane factory farm system propped up by the fantasy world of advertising is one aspect of an economic system concerned only with making profit, a system where all life is cheap and will always be a secondary consideration in the drive to make profits. Not only humans suffer under capitalism.