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What Farmers Know About The Humane Treatment Of Animals


If you’d have dropped by our farmhouse last night, you could have sat outside with my husband and me, warmed by a crackling fire in the fire pit and surrounded by two Great Pyrenees, a black lab, and a Shar Pei. Bullfrogs were croaking from where water sits in the ditches, and our chickens cackled as they settled onto their roost. Our Holstein cows moved through the pasture, munching on grass loud enough for us to hear, and in the distance, the neighbor’s dog and a coyote did battle over who could howl the loudest.

Out here in the country, we know our animals. We also believe there’s a fundamental difference between what they are and who we are. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States and author of The Humane Economy: Animal Protection 2.0, has a harder time making that distinction. His recently released book covers a host of topics, from orca whales to wolves in the wild, and seeks to explain “how innovators and enlightened consumers are transforming the lives of animals.” He’s as passionate an advocate for feral cats as he is for future Cecil the Lions, and his sense of urgency coupled with his goal to find solutions to senseless acts of animal cruelty—such as dog fighting—is commendable.

But as in most cases, those who control the definitions control the discussion, and Pacelle’s definitions are unhelpfully fluid and often contradictory. He couples adjectives like “corporate” and “industrial” with “horror” and “cruelty,” but turns right around and disparages the family farmer for labeling their products as such.

Scare Tactics And Marketing Clichés

He lauds Chipotle and blames the nation’s food safety problems on “factory farm operations” but seemingly doesn’t have a problem with Chipotle’s grass-fed beef cross-contaminating food with E. Coli (not to mention their “corporate” structure and “industrial”-like proliferation on every street corner).

He condemns killer whales swimming in circles at Sea World because it’s unnatural but has no problem making his dog and cat live in a high-rise, which is also unnatural. He won’t eat eggs, even though they’re the natural, biological product of a hen, but he’s fine with eating, say, apples, even though they’re a completely natural, biological product of an apple tree.

It makes for a compelling but often confusing read. Rather than linking the treatment of animals to segregation and slavery (a comparison that is unhelpful at best and offensive at worst to those men and women who have suffered at the hands of others), Pacelle could have included some instructive and educational side notes — “Did you know, or instance, that hormone-free chicken is just… chicken? There are no hormones approved to use on chickens. So those signs you see touting hormone-free chicken? It’s all marketing”—instead of resorting to scare tactics and marketing clichés. But maybe that’s for another book.

What If?

As the daughter of a farmer (I’m the fifth generation to farm on my side of the family) and the wife of a farmer (he’s sixth-generation on his side), I agree with Pacelle’s insight, that “We are in the midst . . . of an epic political, cultural, and economic realignment in the treatment of animals.” He’s right: Consumers now have a big say in how farmers can or cannot handle their animals. After all, it’s in our best interest as farmers to correspond our supply to consumers’ demand. But I can’t concur with how he gets there.

Pacelle’s book encourages more than what it claims at the outset. He’s not looking for a society that treats animals humanely — that is, to be human and not act like animals in our treatment of animal life. (Note the distinction implicit in the definition.) He’s looking for a society that treats animals like humans—right up to animal health care plans for dogs and cats and contraceptive rights for wild horses.

I believe we do a disservice to both humans and animals when we lump them together and expect them to behave and be treated the same. As a Christian, I have to wonder: What if, instead, we understood that there is an order to creation, that God gave man the job of caring for animals, that there is a responsibility entailed in doing so, that a human is different from a creature, we take good care of our animals, and they in return take good care of us?

I Do Want You to Know

Pacelle makes the sweeping statement that “The last thing the industry wants is for you and me to think, even momentarily, of all that happened before the meat reached the grocery store. The ideal producer, by their lights, is someone who doesn’t let conscience get in the way of what he or she wants. And that’s their image of the ideal customer too.”

Now I’m not sure if, according to Pacelle, I’m a “factory farmer” because our farm is bigger than some or just a “family farmer” because our farm is smaller than others. But either way, I actually do want you think about more than just the milk your Cheerios are floating in or the steak that’s smothered in mushrooms on your dinner plate.

I want you to know where your food comes from. I want you to meet a farmer. I want your children to know that milk doesn’t magically show up in grocery stores and that bacon doesn’t just come from the meat counter. I want you to know that as Americans, we enjoy some of the highest food safety standards in the world, and we can be grateful for that. (Our farm, for instance, undergoes government safety and health inspections more times per year than, say, your local Panera Bread Co.)

I also want you to know that my family treats animals well and with respect. I want you to know that my husband calls his cows his “girls” and that he’s taken more phone calls in the middle of the night, the kind where he fumbles for his clothes in the dark and dashes out the door to help a cow give birth, than I can count. I want you to know that when our animals are sick, we don’t deny them the medicine they need to be cared for, just like I wouldn’t make our daughter suffer when she’s ill. I want you to know that our animals are looked after not just by my husband, but by veterinarians, a hoof trimmer (read: pedicures), and even a nutritionist. (Not to mention a friendly black Lab who believes it’s his duty to lick their noses any chance he gets.)

Are You Doing Your Part?

But most of all, I want you to know that because of all that, while I don’t believe animals are humans, I do believe they deserve to be treated humanely. My Great Pyrenees, for example, bites and nips at her puppies when they get too close to her supper, because she’s an animal. I don’t bite my infant daughter when she eyeballs my taco salad, because I’m a human. There’s a difference. Treating animals humanely — being human in our care of them — is our job as farmers. We spend our days making sure our animals are comfortable, well-fed, healthy and as free from as many stresses as possible, because when they thrive, we do too!

Pacelle’s right. We are in the midst of a realignment over the care of animals, and what form and shape that takes will depend largely on consumers. But that realignment doesn’t necessarily mean that farmers have to completely change how they’ve been caring for animals for thousands of years. It may mean that farmers, like each generation before, will need to continue to seek improvements and ways to refine their husbandry practices and stewardship of land and animals. But it may also mean consumers will need to do their homework too rather than falling prey to public relations stunts, scare tactics, and misunderstood labels.

So are you up for doing your part? Chat with a farmer. Ask questions. Read up on what “cage-free” and “organic” and “humanely raised” really mean. Visit or take a virtual tour of a conventional farm to see if there’s really a difference. Peruse the scientific studies. Consider that the food that ends up in your oven and on your grill is some of the safest and most plentiful in the world. Give thanks for the advances that have allowed us to raise, care for, and harvest animals safely and humanely. Pat your dog on the head. Watch that hawk circling above. Mow around the nest of new baby bunnies whose mama took over your back yard.

You’re a human. It’s what you do.