by Bruce Silverman, VMD, MBA

Aside from my title’s familiar allusion to Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now, there certainly is a horror in the animal world to be raising Cain about, of late. 

Actually, it’s more than one horror, and I’m sure many of us can rattle off a good number of them:

  • unwanted, neglected horses and the horse-slaughtering operations south of the border;
  • meat packers’ abuse of downed cows on the way to the butchering lines;
  • Black Hole of Calcutta-sized pig-gestation crates;
  • inaccurate captive-bolt executions of steer and cows;
  • foie-gras ducks and geese with torn throats and liver pathology

. . . the list goes on and on. 

At least the recent attention these have drawn will possibly make some difference if enough concerned citizens continue the crusade for righting these wrongs. But what’s spurred my writing this guest post is a recent news article in the May 1, 2008 issue of JAVMA (the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association).

The article reviews California’s Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (PFACA) which will require more spacious housing quarters for veal calves, egg-laying hens, and pregnant sows.

Should this initiative slated for a November vote pass, these animals of burden would “not be housed in a manner that prevents them from ‘lying down, standing up fully, and fully extending [their] limbs’ and ‘turning around freely.’” “Violators could be charged with a misdemeanor and face a fine of up to a thousand dollars, imprisonment, or both.” 

Very, very cool.  I really like this. . . Some sound empathy, hopefully made into law, for the animals that spend and give their lives to provide for our sustenance.

But then there’s a certain Mr. Scott Macdonald who enters the picture from stage left.  He’s our nemesis and represents California for Sound Farm Animal Agriculture, created to defeat the initiative.

His group argues that the initiative has no merit, despite the 790,486-person petitioner support, and he claims that California’s animal-farming industry is already practicing in a manner which balances productivity with animal welfare.

Macdonald believes that any further changes should be left up to scientists and animal health professionals after a thorough analysis of all the facts and practices. 

Well, Mr. Macdonald.  We’re not naive. You embody the likeness of the Big Three spin doctors in that entertaining yet reality-inspired film Thank You for Smoking, who represent Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

We’ve all seen the recent, gut-wrenching Egg Industry Exposed video, and even if we actually believe that that one poultry farm is the only place of vileness of the many layer-hen, veal calf and pig gestation operations in California, it is definitely one too many, and the laws for such egregious practices need to be cinched down as close to the ground as possible.

So despite what Mr. Macdonald will have us believe in general about the entirety of the animal-farming industry, at least requiring universal spacious living arrangements via tougher laws will route out the inevitable outlier bandits who need to be reigned in lest more innocent layer-hens, veal calves and pigs suffer, needlessly.

But there’s one pretty big issue not being addressed through all of this. On second glance at the story, I see a catch to all this. “If passed, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act would take effect in 2015.”

It’s 2008, and we’re looking to 2015 for the implementation of PFACA, should it pass. That’s SEVEN long years.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand business and economics, so I can see that California’s chicken, veal and pig operations might not take kindly to a new law which requires a substantial sum of money be spent to turn production farms into Pleasure Domes for the inmates. So I’m imagining that the people behind the Act are trying to be reasonable with the amount of time leading up to implementation.

And even in being reasonable, they are, in fact, still actually being a bit more aggressive than the recent Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production’s recommended ten year phase-out.

But whether it’s seven or ten years, isn’t the cramped, stressed existence with animals suffering from chronic sores, infections, trampling, and broken limbs still far too long? Doesn’t that sound like an exceptionally LONG, LONG period of time? How many poor animals will suffer and die during that time? 

I can imagine that it will be quite a large number, and I’m pretty sure someone out there at each of these animal production operations doesn’t even have to imagine – knows full well -- the exact pounds or kilograms or tonnage of nameless animals expected to be lost to corporate profit gains each of these years.

Remarkably, none of this even qualifies as conspiracy theory. The picture is all right in front of us.  So can this timeline be shortened? Can the PFACA people come up with a viable option to facilitate their demands?  Can they suggest financial resources somewhere in the vast state of California to ease the financial burden on the industry in this transition?

Perhaps THIS is a possibility Mr. Macdonald also needs to research, rather than denial of the problem. Then real progress can be made, and sooner rather than later. 

His group can even lay claim to that coveted inner circle of industries willing to work with activist groups and thus demonstrating a strong social and environmental conscience. It would even be great for marketing purposes and revenue.

And in the end, after this power struggle is over, everyone can make up, move forward together in a positive direction, and spare a lot of innocent animals from misery and cruel slow death. And everyone, including the animals, can be a lot happier.

Dr. Bruce Silverman works as a relief practitioner in the Chicago area and contributes to Veterinary Economics.