Cruelty can’t stand the spotlight. ~ Gretchen Wyler
Animal advocacy seems to be a topic that just naturally generates debate. From special-interest groups, to lawmakers, to family conversations around the dinner table, a concept that should be fairly straightforward (preventing cruelty to animals) has somehow become psychologically loaded. A great..big..minefield.
It’s for this reason many people are hesitant to publicly express their views about animal welfare. Although the majority of people in the United States self-identify as “animal lovers”, many times they seem to back away from the topic of animal advocacy when it’s raised in conversation.
Why? Because oftentimes those who call for compassion and proposed solutions to cruel practices when it comes to the treatment of animals (especially animals raised for food) tend to find themselves labeled as extremists; liberals; bleeding-hearts.
How do I know this? Because in certain situations, I myself have felt that pressure to keep quiet many times. And, I’m deeply ashamed to admit, sometimes I did.
But this time, I just can’t.
Although I’m extremely sensitive to other people’s viewpoints and beliefs, and will firmly defend anyone’s right to believe what they believe, I also feel that once you know something, you can’t un-know it. That when you’re faced with cold, hard facts, there’s no going back to the way things were before. You then have only 2 choices: accept those facts as the established status quo and play along, or disagree. And be prepared to explain exactly why you disagree.
So what recently prompted all this soul-searching and self-retrospection?
One word: Liver.
The Foie Gras Industry
Foie gras, the fatty liver of ducks and geese and the current “It” delicacy amongst foodies, is at the center of a controversy regarding the 2004 California Foie Gras Law (S.B. 1520), which banned it in that state due to the inhumane methods in which it is produced. The ban, which took effect in 2012, was overturned last month by a federal judge (that ruling is already being appealed), thrusting foie gras production once again into the spotlight.
Now, I‘ve known about the methods of foie gras production for years. But what I find particularly upsetting are the recent misleading and erroneous arguments of those who proudly defend it.
In the world of food animal production, the foie gras industry is particularly cruel and barbaric. Unlike the beef, chicken, and pork industries, it’s the only factory farming practice that purposely induces a disease state in the animals it raises for human consumption.
A duck’s liver naturally weighs around 50 grams. However, to qualify as foie gras, industry regulations require the liver to weigh a minimum of 300 grams for ducks and 400 grams for geese. In order to enlarge the liver of the birds used in production (and induce fatty liver disease, which is what turns a normal liver into foie gras), the birds are force-fed large quantities of a fat-laced mash multiple times daily for up to 4 weeks.
This causes the liver to swell to up to 10 times its normal size – roughly the size of a football – and become diseased. Liver disease causes a cascading effect of complications, including respiratory distress, kidney disease, spleen and blood disorders, and seizures from hepatic encephalopathy, a brain disease brought on by liver failure.
The Ugly Truth
In many facilities, birds raised for foie gras production are housed in shoebox-sized cages that virtually immobilize them. If not kept in cages, they are housed in overcrowded, often dirty barns and pens, and given no access to water for swimming. Since ducks are aquatic animals, they need water to clean their eyes; without it, they can suffer eye infections that lead to blindness.
The force-feeding process (called gavage) involves forcefully shoving an inflexible rubber or metal tube down the birds’ throats, which can cause bruising and perforation of the esophagus, as well as bleeding and inflammation of the birds’ necks from repeated insertion of the tube. Wounds in the esophagus frequently become infected. Since the stomachs of the birds often can’t contain all the food being forced into them, the birds often vomit, sometimes aspirating the food and contracting pneumonia, or choking to death on their own vomit.
According to the ASPCA, “The birds’ livers become so enlarged…that according to documentation by veterinarians, the animals must experience unspeakable pain and suffering. The results of necropsies on dead birds that have been force-fed reveal ruptured livers, throat damage, esophageal trauma, and food spilling from the dead animals’ throats and out of their nostrils.”
Many of these birds are so ill and in so much pain from their swollen livers that they are unable to stand or move. Twenty percent of them (a rate that is 10 to 20 times higher than birds in other factory farms) die before they even make it to slaughter.
Many European countries have passed laws against force feeding, including Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway and Poland. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, Holland, Israel, and South Africa have interpreted their existing general animal cruelty laws to prohibit force feeding.
The Heart of the Matter
Like any controversial topic, foie gras production has its defenders. There are those who argue that legislation should not be able to tell them what they can, and cannot, eat. That their freedom of choice trumps any moral obligation they might feel to ensure the welfare of animals. That foie gras tastes delicious; it’s an exotic delicacy; that after working so hard during the week, they deserve to treat themselves.
Some refer to the existence of “humane” foie gras facilities, where the geese and ducks are allowed to roam freely. Sadly, regardless of whether they are confined or not, all birds raised for foie gras will still suffer from an induced disease state that would not exist in these animals without human interference.
So, what about the legislation issue? Is it proper for the law to intervene if a human behavior causes the torture of another living being?
First, let me be clear that this has nothing to do with eating meat, which is what some foie gras supporters are fond of turning it into. I believe the choice of whether to eat meat or not is an intensely personal one, like religion or political affiliation. Meat consumption is not the issue here. Rather, it has everything to do with deeming acceptable an industry that creates disease in animals and, during the process, subjects its victims to prolonged suffering.
It’s also about reconciling our treatment of companion animals versus food animals. To put it bluntly, imagine you had a neighbor who owned a dog that he confined to an extremely small space in his backyard, a space too small for the dog to stretch out or move comfortably. Then every day for a month, 3-4 times a day, this neighbor forced a thick tube almost as large as the dog’s throat down its esophagus, pumping fatty food in huge quantities into the dog’s stomach until the dog became so sick that his liver shut down.
For that one dog, this treatment would be called abuse, cruelty, and neglect. Where I live, in Arizona, it would also be considered a felony, subject to fines of up to $150,000 and up to 2 years in prison.
What is it called in the world of foie gras production? Standard operating procedure.
Cruelty is cruelty, whether it’s imposed on a race of human beings or a species of animals. We shouldn’t get to pick and choose those whom we deem less deserving of cruelty than others.
Advocacy: A Personal Conviction
So what is it that you feel passionately about? The hunting of whales and dolphins? Inhumane treatment methods in food animal production? Breed-specific legislation? Whatever it is, speak what’s in your heart, and remember that animal advocacy comes in many different forms.
Sometimes it’s standing up verbally (or in writing) for what you believe is right… and taking a stand against what you feel is wrong. Or volunteering your time or resources to a group or organization that is working for change. Or choosing not to support with your dollars an industry that causes pain and suffering in animals.
And sometimes it’s as simple as passing along information you’ve learned to others regarding a situation that perhaps they had no idea was occurring.
What people choose to do with that information? That’s entirely up to them.
1 Photo Credit: Animal Protection and Rescue League