Friday, December 3, 2010

The Cruelty of Factory Farming, an essay by Justin Van Kleeck

Martha note: It's Civic Soapbox Friday. . .

Having been an animal lover all of my life, it was not difficult to become vegan almost 12 years ago. As a vegan, I avoid inflicting suffering on animals by not using animal products.

Now, I still have a visceral, pained reaction when I see, hear about, or learn of the multitudinous ways humans intentionally harm animals.

I walk every morning through downtown Harrisonburg, and far too frequently I am passed by a poultry transport truck with dozens of white turkeys crammed into cages and stacked on top of each other. I can see the birds…and smell them…and watch their feathers float through the air as they continue on their way to one of the area processing plants. This leads me to think about the practice of animal farming and, through that, about factory farming, one of the cruelest practices in human (or animal) history.

Strangely enough, the Animal Welfare Act, which is the primary legislation to protect animals from abuse and needless suffering, covers only dogs, cats, and animals used for research. This leaves farmed animals, who are not explicitly covered by the AWA, with almost no protection or legal guarantee that they will be treated humanely, with the consideration they are due as living, feeling beings.

Here in the Valley, we are lucky to be surrounded by farms that are not run like the worst factory farms in the rest of the world. Sadly, however, much more harshly operated factory farms provide most of the animal products we buy. In the worst of the worst of these farms, animals are mostly kept in tiny cages or noxious, warehouse-like buildings without access to the outdoors, in conditions so unhealthy that farmers have to pump them full of antibiotics. Male chicks of laying hens are ground up because they cannot produce eggs, and young dairy calves are quickly whisked away to a short life in a crate to become veal. In slaughterhouses, poultry and sometimes other animals can still be conscious while they are skinned, butchered, and processed.

Despite these and other cruel industry standards, America lacks humane legislation, reliable labeling for how animals were raised, or significant support for ethical alternatives. Only a few states like California and Ohio are taking steps to phase out these practices.

The lack of widespread, reliable protection for farmed animals makes it an ethical imperative that we become conscientious consumers of animal products. Unless we buy direct from the farmer, how can we be sure we are not paying for factory-farmed animals. Even if we don’t opt for the most humane step of going vegan, and so refusing to turn animals into mere commodities, we can become vegetarian. Or if we do use animal products, we can shop compassionately, researching the producers of them. And we can speak out against farmed-animal abuse, telling our legislators and company executives that we care about farmed animals, too…not just our dogs and cats.

Yes, taking steps to reform the agricultural industry will be difficult, not to mention immediately suspect in a time of economic hardship. Still, it is the only way to protect our farmed-animal friends from cruelty. All we need to do is make the connection between the food in our grocery stores and the animals on farms. Then, it will be easy for us to see that farmed animals deserve consideration and a life without intentional, unnecessary harm… that we owe them more than a miserable life in a factory.
--Justin Van Kleeck is a writer and editor who lives in Harrisonburg 


  1. Nice to hear a voice for animal rights and human responsibility on the radio!

  2. I find this and most pleas for animal rights unconvincing. Animals are not our "friends" and to suggest that we need to concern ourselves with their "suffering" distracts us from the suffering of our fellow humans, who should constitute a different class of animal. Rights are not natural or God-given, and they are not inherent possessions. They are simply rules about how certain others should be treated. To suggest that the rules that govern out treatment of animals deserve the same designation as the rules by which we treat other humans is to water down a powerful idea just when its principles should be more precisely focused. 27% of us live on less than $1.25 a day. The amount of money spent on feeding, housing and treating the medical conditions of animals in this country could wipe out most of the worst human poverty in a matter of a few years. Our priorities are sadly askew and our vision parochial and self-centered. Caring for animals does not make us "humane." Caring for our fellow humans does. While these are not mutually exclusive, I will contend that they should be ranked in priority. While 35,000 real live people starve to death every day around the world, spending any energy on the suffering of animals epitomizes the bourgeois values that makes Americans rightfully dispised by those who truly suffer. The argument that granting "rights" to animals teaches respect for all life and thus for humans has our priorities completely backwards.

  3. Thank you for your comment on my essay. There is a very big difference between spending billions of dollars on pets and transitioning to a lifestyle that does not require the exploitation and suffering of animals. There is also no reason why attempting to end the clearly cruel conditions most animals face is against helping humans who suffer. You point to America as epitomizing a sentimental concern for animals over suffering humans...and yet America is by far the worst country when it comes to how it treats its food animals. Those animals, like all animals, are living, feeling, conscious beings; perhaps their lives are not as rich or "beneficial" to the world as a given human's life, but does that mean they deserve no consideration whatsoever? Does that mean it is perfectly fine to treat them as mere objects that only exist for our benefit? Does that mean it is perfectly ethical to exploit them in ways worse than any human is exploited and abused? You can approach this as an either-or, zero-sum issue, but doing so misses a great many chances to end the very real, very sad suffering that we humans deliberately cause animals.

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  5. I would also make one other point: If you are concerned about human rights, then continuing to consume animals is one of the worst things you could do. Livestock worldwide are one of the worst uses of natural resources and biggest polluters--responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. Animal foods return only 1/5 of the energy required to produce them...which means you could feed five times more people with the plant food those animals typically eat than with the meat you get from it. Then there is the amount of land (unless you pack the animals together like sardines in a tin can) and water they use, also threatening human supplies. Lastly, we Americans and others in developed countries eat vastly more meat and animal products than people in developing countries, which also have nothing like the industrialized approach to animal husbandry that developed countries do. This is why leading international organizations are calling for a worldwide transition to non-animal-based diets if we want to avert a dire situation for all humans.

  6. A people is judged by its treatment of the weakest members of its society. That includes old people and children, and the animals, pets or food, who depend on us and upon whom we depend.

    We aren't powerless to protect these people and animals. The dollar in your pocket carries at least as much weight as your vote at the polls.

    Go to or to find good human rights or animal rights organizations. And then start donating today.

  7. Dear Justin,

    In my opinion your argumentation is as sound as iit could be. Moreover, I'm in awe of the spirit you're putting into your quest. I can only agree with everything you said above. Every living soul is absolutely worth to be cared for and to spend their time on this earth as nicely as they can. For whoever disagrees, I wish them to spend a hot afternoon caged into one of these horrible transport trucks on the highway. They'll change their mind in a minute, for sure.