In the 1980s, the animal rights movement was a sorry sight. In Chicago, it consisted of three to five activists handing out soggy leaflets in the rain outside a fur store on a Saturday, one also holding his skateboard. No one remembered to bring the signs and no one could agree whether to protest carriage horses or captive whales at the Shedd Aquarium on the next Saturday.
Passersby were abusive. “Your shoes are leather,” they would yell, a simplistic syllogism that both meant human use of animals was inextricable and that we were hypocrites. Our shoes were not leather.
“Get a job,” they would yell, an absurd allegation since demonstrating on Saturday did not mean we did not have jobs—we did.
“Why aren’t you helping people?” they would accuse, listing crack babies, AIDS patients and the homeless. Some of our more interactive activists would fire back, “What are YOU doing for people,” which produced a mute silence. Who were the hypocrites?
“You people are clowns,” we also heard a lot—and worse.
Trying to get news media or lawmakers to care about veal calves, downer cows forklifted to slaughter, male chicks ground up at birth and other industrial farming practices was a fool’s errand. Media feared losing their food advertisers with animal abuse stories and still do. Lawmakers were more sympathetic to the animal operations that were their rural constituents than high school kids clutching skateboards. They still are.
Animal rights changed
How did animal rights change? First, of course, the Internet and nanotechnology heightened both veracity and reach. Undercover activists could record real time factory farming atrocities on their cell phone cameras and upload them for all the world to see. No one could dispute their factuality or ignore them anymore including an indifferent news media.
Secondly, activists forewent “supply side” tactics—beseeching hostile lawmakers to regulate animal operations in their state—for the “demand side”: they went directly to implicated food outlets and, more importantly, their customers with clear evidence of grisly, intentional and unethical deeds. Once the McDonald’s, Wendy’s, KFCs and Burger Kings of the world were outed as buying and serving animals from abusive operations, things began to change….
In fact, going undercover at animal operations to capture images of atrocities was so successful, “ag-gag” laws that criminalized humane investigators and even media who received their images were rapidly written by state legislations. Ag-gag or “Animal Facility Interference” laws were successors to “Food Defamation” laws that were introduced in the late 1990s under which Oprah Winfrey herself was tried for speaking against hamburgers during Mad Cow scares. She was acquitted.
The Animal Rights Tableau Enlarged
Something else changed in animal rights. “Vegetarian” was no longer considered cruelty free. Images of veal calves freezing in huts, their moms trucked to rendering plants and dead egg laying hens amid live ones in battery egg operations convinced new generations that dairy and egg productions were as cruel as meat. Wool, leather, down and angora were seen as cruel “fabrics” just like fur. Zoos, oceanariums, animals used in research and medicinally, carriage horses, puppy mills, ritual animal sacrifice and wet markets were exposed for their cruelty. Treatment of animals began to be viewed worldwide with international organizations forming.
For those not horrified by chickens boiled alive or euthanized by gassing, Big Pharma’s presence on the “farm” also became a turn off. The diseases animals got were shocking and what did the medicines that treated them do to people?
For example, Merck markets 49 vaccines to prevent poultry diseases like fowl pox, turkey coryza, bursal disease, coccidiosis, laryngotracheitis, hemorrhagic enteritis, avian encephalomyelitis and of course salmonella and E. coli. It markets 25 vaccines to prevent cattle diseases and sells pig vaccines to prevent pneumonia, diarrhea, septicemia and the shedding of Salmonella typhimurium.” It even markets vaccines for use in aquaculture.
More than 90 percent of broiler chickens in the US are vaccinated “in ovo” –– as embryos—against diseases like Marek’s, Gumboro and Newcastle.
In addition to vaccines, hormones, antibiotics and “growth promoters” like ractopamine and arsenic are also in use on US farms, though banned in other countries. Meat is “preserved” with chlorine “baths,” ammonia gas puffs, carbon monoxide and nitrates.
The animal rights battle is not over
Today the public no longer laughs at animal lovers nor do food producers ignore us. Many stores and restaurants offer plant-based meat and cultured meat is just around the corner. But, and it is a big but, animal operations trying to protect their profits are actually worse than two decades ago. For example, the US government has allowed the speed of slaughterhouses’ kill lines to increase, meaning more animal miss the stunner and more birds are boiled live.
And there is another but—media still protect meat operations. For example, millions of animals were swiftly and brashly culled by farmers when slaughterhouses shutdown from COVID-19: the animals represented no profit.* How often—if ever— do media report that is the reason that animal prices are now higher at the grocery store?
*So much for “we treat our animals humanely.”
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.