Note: If you haven't read the previous installments, you can find them here:
The Vegan Pagan: Introduction
The Vegan Pagan: Interstice the First
The Vegan Pagan: Interstice the Second
The Vegan Pagan: Your Health
The Vegan Pagan: The Case Against Animal Sacrifice
The Vegan Pagan: Climate Change and Food Equity
This is the last full installment of The Vegan Pagan before I finish the series next month. I made the decision to post it last because I've been a vegan activist long enough to know that many non-vegans expect the animal rights argument first, and many also don't realize there are other reasons for making the ethical choice I have. But while it was useful to place health, ecological and humanitarian arguments for veganism at the forefront of this series, I think it's also important - especially for Pagans - to know about the abuses of animals in agriculture, just as it was important for us to have a discussion about the issue of animal sacrifice from a vegan perspective.
I'm not going to pull any punches here. There are graphic descriptions and depictions of animal violence below, so please prepare your mind before reading any further. That said, I challenge you to read the entire post. If your impulse is to stop reading or look away, good. That means you have a soul. That means you are capable of compassion. Read and look anyway, especially if you disagree with the arguments I've presented in this series. See the face of your disagreement. Take responsibility for your choices. Reconcile them to your position if you can.
Finally, I should point out that I am not discussing the abuses of animals in clothing, entertainment and research here. Taken together, these would require a massive blog entry or another series entirely, and I don't want to overwhelm you with material. However, I am providing media recommendations in the closing installment next month for those of you who want to investigate these abuses on your own. I should also mention that while I have previously endeavored to avoid using animal rights activists and organizations as resources in this series, I will be utilizing them here. I urge you not to dismiss them out of hand but to give them a fair hearing. Thank you.
Animals and Food
Much of the growing demand for animal products worldwide is being met by concentrated animal feeding operations, or factory farms. Worldwide, some 56 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for food each year. Factory farms account for 67 percent of poultry meat production, 50 percent of egg production, and 42 percent of pork production. These facilities rely on commercial breeds of livestock, usually pigs and chickens, that have been bred to gain weight quickly on high-protein feeds. Factory farms are also very crowded, confining animals closely together-many of the world's 17 billion hens and meat chickens each live in an area that is less than the size of a sheet of paper. Cattle in feedlots often stand knee-high in manure and arrive at slaughterhouses covered in feces. - Meat Production Continues to Rise
The US alone consumes 9.1 billion animals a year1; primarily chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows. It isn't possible to meet that demand with low-impact agriculture methods, so as quoted above, the vast majority of these animals live on factory farms or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). What follows is a snapshot of CAFO life for each species along with footage of investigations into CAFO operations.
Chickens (8,648,756,000 Killed in the US Per Year)
The natural lifespan of a chicken is 5-8 years. Intelligent and inquisitive animals, they can count at least to six, and even chicks can do basic arthmetic. They are also social animals, preferring the company of those they know to those they do not and recover more quickly from stress in the company of an acquaintance2.
Conversely, chickens used for meat live an average of 42 days. Because of selective breeding, they grow 300% faster than normal during this time in order to achieve market weight. A third of these animals have difficulty walking because their skeletons cannot support their bodies, and many die of acute heart failure long before slaughter because their hearts and lungs cannot effectively circulate oxygen. When they are taken to slaughter, many are still peeping the sound of baby chicks, even though their bodies are much larger than those of adult chickens3.
These chickens live the entirety of their brief lives confined in windowless warehouses with upwards of 20,000 other birds. The floor litter is never changed, and dead chickens are often left to decompose until the rest are taken to slaughter. When that time comes, the living birds are grabbed in bunches and shoved into small crates, which are then loaded onto transport trucks. Once they arrive at the slaughter facility, they are passed through an electrified bath intended to stun them. However, many remain conscious through this process and go on to have their throats slit and feathers scalded off while they are still awake and able to feel pain.
Chickens used for eggs are bred differently, and male chicks of egg-laying breeds have no value to the industry. As a result, 260 million male chicks are killed each year upon hatching. Some are sucked through pipes onto an electrified kill plate, some are gassed, some are ground up alive in a macerator4 and some are simply thrown into plastic garbage bags and left to suffocate.
Female chicks are debeaked, most commonly by having their beaks seared off without benefit of anesthesia. This is done to prevent stress fighting and abnormal feather-pecking as a result of close confinement in battery cages. These cages are stacked in tiers, also in windowless warehouses, where up to 10 hens are packed together in one tiny wire enclosure. Urine and feces are permitted to drain to the floor of these enclosures, which means that hens on the lower tiers spend their entire lives covered in waste.
Sick hens do not receive veterinary care. At best, they are euthanized; at worst, they are ignored and left to die. When a hen's egg production drops because of her age, some farms starve them to induce a final molting phase, but afterward these animals are worth very little. Many are killed on the farm, while others are sent to slaughter where their bodies become food scraps5.
This is the life of a factory farmed chicken in the best of circumstances. But employees of factory farms - who are forced to view and treat these animals like objects - often subject them to deliberate cruelty. So in the next section, we'll be looking at the life of factory farmed turkeys alongside recent investigations of cruelty on industrial turkey farms.
Turkeys (239,385,000 Killed in the US Per Year)
Wild turkeys live about 12 years and grow to weigh about 18 pounds. Males breed with many mates and leave the rearing of hatchlings to females. They are omnivores and forage for food, which might include nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, and salamanders6. Conversely, farmed turkeys live about 136 days, weigh about 35 pounds and live in crowded factory warehouses, where they subsist on a diet of antibiotic-laced animal feed7.
In these warehouses, which might hold upwards of 10,000 birds, bright lights shine around the clock (as they do in broiler chicken warehouses) to stimulate a desire for food. Because of this, and because of selective breeding, farmed turkeys grow to a weight 3 times larger than their wild counterparts in only 4 months. This often gives rise to heart problems, leg problems and crippling. These turkeys are also bred to develop large breasts, which makes it impossible for them to mate, and this means that all female turkeys are artificially inseminated8. This after having portions of their beaks and toes removed without anesthetic in order to prevent them from injuring one another in the cramped spaces they are forced to live9:
Then, at the end of their 99-to-136 day lives (for hens and toms, respectively), they are slaughtered much as chickens are and with the same hazards.
This is the best life a farmed turkey can hope for, but what happens when human cruelty becomes part of that life? In one of many undercover CAFO investigations, Mercy for Animals documented the following treatment of turkeys at the second-largest turkey farm in the world10:
But is this cruelty the exception or the rule? It's prevalent enough that many US states - prompted by their factory farming supporters and constituents - are pushing anti-whistleblower, or ag-gag legislation that would criminalize undercover filming on factory farms11. Why? Because these investigations inform the public about the conditions of animals on CAFOs, and that information is changing minds.
Pigs (112,126,000 Killed in the US Per Year)
Pigs have a natural lifespan of 8-12 years, depending on the breed. They are sophisticated beings; more intelligent than a dog or a three-year-old child, able to learn and play video games, more capable of focusing their attention than a chimpanzee and able to communicate their emotional states with signals taught to them by human researchers12. They're highly social animals as well. They live in small, matriarchal groups, they're able to identify and respond to other pigs as individuals and they can even outwit one another when competing for a prize13.
On factory farms, however, breeding sows live their entire lives confined to gestation and farrowing crates where they cannot comfortably lie down or even turn around. These crates are built, row upon row, above slats so that waste can fall through the cracks and accumulate. Eventually, this constant exposure to ammonia and feces causes respiratory disease in many sows, while the hard slats themselves cause damage to joints and lameness. But perhaps worst of all, the prolonged suffering and boredom these intelligent creatures are forced to endure drive them toward neurotic behaviors like biting at the bars of their enclosures. By the time they are 'spent' and sent to slaughter at 3-5 years of age, most sows are completely insane.
At 17-20 days of age, piglets are separated from their mothers. Their tails are cut off, and the testicles of male piglets are ripped from their bodies, both without benefit of anesthesia. Afterward, they spend the next six months of their lives confined together in small pens until they reach market weight and are sent to slaughter14. What follows is Mercy for Animals undercover footage15 of these and other factory farming abuses of pigs:
Transport to a slaughterhouse can be grueling for these animals after long confinement, and many arrive weakened, injured or dead. Those who do not are stunned with a captive bolt stunner designed to render them immediately unconscious, hung by a hind-foot to have their throats cut and passed through a boiling water bath. However, many pigs remain awake after captive bolt stunning and suffer seizures even after their throats are cut. As a result, these animals are boiled alive16.
Cows (32,459,000 Killed in the US Per Year)
Veterinarian Holly Cheever shared a story about a mother cow she was asked to examine at a dairy farm in upstate New York. The cow had given birth for the fifth time, but even after her calf was taken away from her by farmers, it seemed she wasn’t producing as much milk as new mothers usually do. Nearly two weeks after giving birth, it was discovered that the cow had actually delivered twins, and chose to hide one of the calves from the farmers. Cheever is quick to point out the cow’s ability to remember the disappearance of her newborns, following each of her four previous births. She was able to process this information and mentally negotiate giving up one of the calves in order to hide and save the other. Every morning and evening, for 11 days, the mother cow walked out to the edge of the pasture and tended to her baby. Sadly, after the calf was discovered––and even with several pleas from Cheever––the farmer took it from its mother. - VegNews: The 5 Best Moms of All Time
Cows are perhaps the most contemplative of factory farmed animals17; they form deep family bonds, make decisions based on compassion and feel joy when they solve complex problems. Most especially, mother cows and their calves form powerful emotional connections even in the absence of nursing:
We hypothesized that nursing was essential for the formation of the cow–calf bond, and predicted that in comparison to cow–calf pairs allowed to nurse, the milk feeder pairs would spend less time close to one another, less time allogrooming and have a longer latency to reunite after a period of separation. Our results provide little support for these predictions. Time in proximity, allogrooming, reuniting after a period of separation and preference for the related cow/calf over an unrelated pen mates all indicate that a bond formed (Gubernick, 1981, Newberry and Swanson, 2008), even in the absence of nursing. - The effect of nursing on the cow–calf bond
More than 270 million cows were used across the world to produce milk in 201318. These animals, which have a natural lifespan of more than 20 years, were constantly impregnated, gave birth roughly every 273 days and were sent to slaughter 'spent' before they saw their fifth year of life. In that time, they gave birth to 5 calves, who were taken away while they were still wet with afterbirth. Most of these dairy cows were bred to produce 20,000 lbs of milk per year each and lived their entire lives connected to milking machines that left them with mastitis, a common swelling of the udder glands. Cows who collapsed because they were too sick or injured to stand, known as 'downers' by the dairy industry, were routinely prodded, dragged and beaten19 as this Mercy for Animals investigation20 illustrates:
Cows used for meat are divided into two categories; those used for veal and those used for beef. Veal cows are male calves taken from their mothers - often abusively - at birth and chained by their necks in small crates where they cannot walk or turn around. This confinement, along with the iron-deficient formula they are fed, ensures the meat of these young animals is tender when they go to slaughter at 18-20 weeks of age. Until that time, however, these animals live in their own waste and often suffer from ulcers, pneumonia, lameness and diarrhea21:
Cows raised for beef are subject to dehorning, castration and branding, often without anesthesia. Dehorning is the mutilation of living tissue involving the use of hot irons, caustic chemicals, blades or hand saws22. Castration methods include removing the testicles with a scalpel, crushing spermatic cords with a clamp and constricting blood flow to the scrotum until the testicles die and fall off. Branding is done with an iron hotter than 950°F, which is pressed into the skin for several seconds. Between 6 months and a year of age, these animals are moved from pastures to feedlots, where they reach their market weight less than a year from the time they were born. In the end, the slaughter of pigs and cows is virtually the same; they are ostensibly rendered insensible to pain before shackling and slaughter, but often they are still conscious when their throats are cut.
The Pagan Connection
On my honor as a Pagan, what I have told and shown you is only the tip of the iceberg. The degree of suffering meat animals endure is so terrible that it would take many times many blog entries like this one to describe it, and that suffering is the primary reason why vegans sometimes appear self-righteous to non-vegans. Please know that what they and I are feeling has nothing whatever to do with superiority. Rather, it is profound and persistent grief.
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness holds that "non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness23." In short, animals are thinking beings capable of behaving with intention. They feel delight, confusion and sorrow. They love their children. They want to live.
So as a Pagan, you must reconcile this to your faith: If you hold the Earth sacred, if you hold that every life the Earth creates and sustains is sacred, then you must decide whether or not the protracted suffering and violent deaths of 9 billion lives every year is in keeping with your values. If it is not, then you must decide whether or not to participate in that suffering and death. We are not obligate carnivores; we can live and thrive on a plant-based diet. So why not choose to do so, when that choice would have such a powerful, positive impact? These are the questions so many vegan Pagans have asked themselves at the crossroads, and they are the questions I place gently before you now as a friend and fellow Pagan.
Thank you for reading. I wish you every good and sacred thing, and I'll be back in March to close the series.
- 1. Farm Animal Statistics: Slaughter Totals
- 2. Are Chicks Brighter Than Babies?
- 3. Chickens Used for Meat
- 4. Chickens Used for Eggs
- 5. Birds on Factory Farms
- 6. Wild Turkey Meleagris gallopavo
- 7. Turkeys
- 8. Turkey Production on Factory Farms
- 9. Butterball Abuse
- 10. Turkey Torture
- 11. Ag-Gag Bills at the State Level
- 12. Meet the Animals: Pigs
- 13. More about Pigs
- 14. Pork Production on Factory Farms
- 15. Breeding Misery: Inside the Pork Industry
- 16. Iowa Pig Slaughterhouse
- 17. Meet the Animals: Cows
- 18. World Dairy Cow Numbers
- 19. Cows
- 20. Dairy's Dark Side
- 21. Ohio Veal Investigation
- 22. Dehorning: Dairy’s Dark Secret
- 23. Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness