Monday, January 24, 2011

Tragedy in Georgia

On January 13, there was another devastating factory farm fire, this one in Norman Park, Georgia. Death tolls vary, but most sources pin the death toll at approximately 12,100 chickens perishing in the horrible flames that swept through a facility owned by International Poultry Breeders. Most of the chickens who were burned alive were still young chicks. Firefighters believe the fire started due to a faulty heating system in the building.

These sorts of incidents have become far too common in factory farms. They generate puny headlines in newspapers (if at all), and the stories often focus on the challenges the farmers have to confront after losing so many animals, rather than the horrors experienced by these sentient beings in the last moments of their short and violent lives.

See what I mean in the following passage, from the report by local news station, WALB Channel 10:

Firefighters... say the deaths of the chicks is a substantial loss to the company, and the cost to build a replacement house is around $100,000. But they have full confidence they'll recover, despite the economic blow. International Poultry Breeders has five other chicken houses on the site.

The online source Claims, a prominent website of the insurance industry in the United States, echoed the tone of WALB's coverage, only it placed the death toll at 17,000. As Claims noted:

Rockingham County Fire and Rescue assistant fire marshal Mike Armstrong says most of the 4-week-old chickens died from smoke inhalation. Armstrong says the fire inside the steel-framed structure was mostly out when firefighters arrived.

And what of the 12,000 - or was it 17,000? - precious beings whose lives were cut short in the most excruciatingly painful way imaginable? Where are their obituaries? How will their truly fleeting drop from the egg to the inferno be remembered, if at all? Are they to be reduced to statistics? Figures in profit and loss statements? Who is going to remember their lives? Why did they have to be robbed of the opportunity to live their lives; to run outside on a warm spring day; get to know each other; to savour a pleasant Sunday with other chickens? Hell, we don't even know if 12,000 died, or 12,100 died, or 17,000 died. All three figures were used in the press coverage of the tragedy. Sadly, these figures have been reduced to meaningless number crunching. Stats. Miles to Pluto.

The time has come for us to stop viewing animals as commodities. It is this same mindset that has led to the construction of factory farms, which are nothing more than efficient mass-killing machines. Imagine how you would feel if these were your children who died the searing hot flames.

Morbid though it may seem, it is only by thinking in those terms that we are able to feel the sorrow of this event and develop a real, heartfelt empathy toward these chickens. For so long, I was one of these types who devoured chicken without even contemplating these matters. I can't bring back those lives I destroyed, and I'll regret that until the day I die. What I can do - what we can all do - is learn the truth about how horribly these chickens suffer. And we can vow that we will do everything we can to transform these "miles to Pluto" - 12,000, 12,100, 17,000 - into individual beings with a purpose and a life and dignity.

This is the key to achieving a more compassionate society, one that does not tolerate the mass murder of animals.

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