Nathan Runkle with Mercy for Animals spoke first. Mercy for Animals believes that non-human animals have the right to live without suffering. Nathan shared a bit of his personal history about how he grew up and what influenced him to think about his relationship to animals. The question he posed is whether or not animals can suffer? He shared a story about piglet dissection at his high school, where the teacher who was a pig farmer, had killed piglets that morning, but one of the piglets was still alive. A student slammed it against a table to try and kill it and this led to a legal case against the teachers and student. The courts sided with the teacher/farmer, since “thumping” piglets is a normal practice.
He then gave examples of animal cruelty in the media, which focuses on treatment of cats and dogs. However, Runkle says that roughly 27 billion animals are abused each year in the US, with over 99% of the animals abused each year in the food industry. Fifty years ago most of the farms didn’t engage in abusive practices, but the industry still uses images of traditional farmers for slaughter houses/agribusiness farming. So why don’t we have laws that protect these animals? There is the US Animal Welfare Act, but that legislation does not considered farm animals as animals – so none of the violence done against them are considered animal cruelty. Mercy for Animals does grassroots work in Ohio and in Chicago, which includes leafleting, education, a library outreach campaign, marches, public demonstrations, and campaigns against the fur industry and circuses. They also run commercials on MTV, plus campaigns of animal rescue and civil disobedience. Nathan said the average person in the US eats about 2,174 land animals during their life. He concluded his talk with the importance of changing our diets.
Adam Durand with Compassionate Consumers spoke second. Compassionate Consumers is based out of Rochester, New York. They focus on chickens used for poultry and eggs. They documented the problem in their area in 2004 by going to egg farms owned by Wegman Food Markets. They did an animal rescue and produced a documentary to help educate the public. A local reporter got the documentary first and did a good story, according to Durand. The same day the story appeared, their new website was launched that had the video online. A month later the State Police began arresting and charging members who had participated in the animal rescue. They were charged with trespass, larceny and burglary. All of them were indicted by a Grand Jury and then offered plea deals, except Adam who went to trial. During the trial the State Police admitted that there was cruelty at the farm but that this was “not a problem as it was a business.” They got lots of media coverage and eventually Adam was sentenced to 6 months in jail plus fines. He then talked at length about his jail experience and how he had to compromise his ethical code while in jail, like serving eggs to the other prisoners. He mentioned the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which considers animal rights activists as “terrorists” and how this act is really designed to intimidate activists from engaging in more substantive actions to stop animal cruelty.
Next on the panel was Nicole Matthews, with PETA. PETA has about 200 staff on the east coast. They spay and neuter dogs and cats, have a straw program that allows people to take bales of straw for outdoor dogs and a doghouse give-away program. Nicole then mentioned a recent court case that allowed chimpanzees to file a lawsuit against the industry, thus recognizing that these primates have rights as well. PETA does fundraising, education campaigns and a grassroots campaign, which is the area that gets most of the attention. They have had some recent victories. They also do PETA 2, which is a youth-based project. Nicole works on the KFC campaign and has been organizing to eliminate abuses including live scalding, life-long crippling, and debeaking. Chickens are not covered under legislation, like cows, for abuse during slaughter, so they have been doing demonstrations across the US and in many other countries to target KFC, the largest fast food chicken outlet. PETA also has a VegAdvantage campaign that tries to get restaurants to serve vegan options.
The last speaker was Harold Brown, with the Farm Sanctuary. Harold was a former cattle farmer. Harold says that all agriculture is a fallen structure, meaning that the way it is practiced is unsustainable. Humans have created mono-cultured animals to suit human needs. Harold says we see animals primarily as utility, not as living beings. Unlike the rest of the speakers, Harold addressed more philosophical aspects of the animal rights movement and larger policy issues that animal rights activists need to think about. He mentioned US trade policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA that have significant impact around agricultural practices. He cites the example of US corn being dumped in the Mexican market and how that causes displacement of small farmers many of which migrate to the US. He also said that these trade policies are resulting in companies exporting our factory farm practices around the world as well as foreign companies doing mega-farm projects in the US because the standards here are not as good as many European countries. Harold also addressed briefly that there are some successes in fighting CAFO (concentrated animal factory operations) construction around the country, but that much more needed to be done around these very fundamental issues.