Friday, December 9, 2011

Victory? Not on your life - or theirs

The pork producer Smithfield Foods, Inc., has announced that - after lots and lots of pressure from animal welfare advocates - it will no longer keep pregnant female hogs in gestation crates. "VICTORY!" proclaimed a headline on "Smithfield Will Stop Using Gestation Crates."

Those who put pressure on Smithfield Foods to abandon gestation crates, particularly the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), have good reasons to be pleased. Their efforts paid off. Now, female pigs will no longer be confined to areas that are so small, they can't even turn around in a circle.

But before anybody celebrates, let's take a cold hard look at how little things have changed.

Female pigs will still give birth to babies that will be torn away from their mothers. The babies will grow up in darkness, fattened up to eventually be murdered and cut apart for their meat.

And if you listen to the rhetoric of the HSUS, the struggle is over. The good fight has been won. The forces of darkness have been vanquished. "Smithfield's recommitment is an important and welcome move," noted the HSUS president/CEO Wayne Pacelle. "With the company back on track with its phase-out, we're getting closer to the day when the cruel confinement of pigs in gestation crates will be a bygone era for the entire hog industry."

But the real question we face is: Does this step bring us closer to the day when humanity sheds is barbarism and stops exploiting and murdering sentient beings?

I'm not certain the answer is "yes."

What it will mean is that one of the outrages that resulted in animal welfare groups taking hidden cameras into pork producing companies is now gone. Animal welfare advocates have emerged from this struggle feeling very proud of their accomplishments. Self-congratulation, unfortunately, leads to passivity and acceptance. Mass murder will continue behind walls, inside of cold, brutal killing plants. The only change is that a mother pig now has more space to move.

I recall when I first became a vegan, I used to read Gary Fancione dismissing these kinds of animal welfare triumphs as "meaningless," and I'd think, "He's being pretty hard on animal welfare proponents. After all, every little step forward is an improvement. Change is gradual. Victories come in small steps. The end result is a world without animal exploitation, without violence, without meat and leather jackets and cow's milk in our refrigerators."

But I've since learned that as long as tens of billions of land animals are murdered each year, we have no reason to celebrate. As long as our oceans are being depleted of aquatic life, any rejoicing is hollow and meaningless. As long as baby calves are torn away from their mothers to produce milk that human beings have no business drinking; as long as horses are being slaughtered (a cruel act blessed by a Democratic-controlled White House); as long as baby seals are being mercilessly clubbed for fur that human beings don't need to wear to keep warm; as long as the very foundation of a huge segment of our economy is based on mass killings, there is never a reason to applaud or find joy in "triumphs."

What happened at Smithfield is not a victory. It is a droplet of insanity that has been removed from a merciless sea that churns with psychosis, denial and violence. Only by drilling down to the roots, and dramatically altering the worldview that says the mass murder of animals is acceptable, will we have reason to cheer.

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