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HSUS: Against Factory Farming or Not?

Wayne Pacelle’s Humane Society of the U.S. plays both sides

Pigs in gestation crates. Is it OK just to give them a few more inches.

“I’ve said it a thousand times,” Wayne Pacelle, the President of the Humane of the United States, said on a recent visit to Iowa. “We do not want to end livestock production.”

Pacelle was touring the state as part of his book tour, and had come under criticism from state Governor Dave Heineman, who’d called the Humane Society an agency that could not be trusted.

Pacelle counters by arguing that the HSUS works together with the factory farming industry to help improve lives for animals in those facilities. He points, for example, to the agreement he’s made with the United Egg Producers that would give hens in factory farms a little more room to move around in.

Right now, on any given day, there are 250 million hens at factory farms. Most of these facilities cram hens into cages that allow each of them roughly 8 inches by 8 inches. That’s how these birds spend their entire lives.

“We do not want to end livestock production.”
Wayne Pacelle, CEO, HSUS.

The new agreement would mandate new cages that give each hen a space of 12 by 12 inches. That’s the size of a medium-sized floor tile — still wretchedly small, but yes, it’s a little bit bigger.

This may come as a surprise to many, but Pacelle takes great pains to insist that Gov. Heineman’s characterization of the HSUS as an animal rights organization is wrong. And one would think that the nation’s largest humane organization would, indeed, be promoting the concept that animals have certain fundamental rights in relation to people who would abuse them. But Pacelle denies that the HSUS promotes the rights of non-human animals.

“We are a mission-oriented organization,” he’s quoted as saying on Radio Iowa. “We believe that humans have responsibilities when it comes to animals. We don’t talk about animal rights; we talk about human responsibilities.”

Pacelle walks a delicate line on the whole issue of factory farming. In 2008, the HSUS played a significant role in passing Proposition 2, which requires that by 2015 veal crates, gestation crates for pigs, and batter cages for hens must be of a size that allows the animals to turn around, lie down, stand up, and extend their limbs.

That’s better than nothing. If you had to spend your entire life in a seat in coach class on a plane – never even able to step into the aisle for a few minutes to go to the bathroom, you’d consider three more inches of leg room an improvement. But humane? Hardly.

That’s the fundamental difference between animal “welfare”, as promoted by the Humane Society of the United States, and the view that it is simply not “right” to keep any animal in the conditions of a typical Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). That’s the technical term for a factory farm, and the language makes it very tempting to describe animal “welfare” as being comparable to lobbying for better conditions at a concentration camp.

Is it right to be keeping animals in tiny cages, even if they’re slightly less tiny? Is this the kind of goal that the nation’s largest humane society should be working toward?

There’s no doubt that Wayne Pacelle and the HSUS care about non-human animals and want better lives for them. The organization’s basic strategy is classically political, in the sense that politics is “the art of compromise.” You take what you can get – one small step at a time. And Pacelle, whose background at the HSUS, before he became president and CEO, was as the organization’s chief lobbyist, is nothing if not a highly skilled politician. And yes, his approach means the hens will have a marginally better life.

But is it right to be keeping any of these animals in tiny cages, even if they’re slightly less tiny? Is this the kind of goal that the nation’s largest humane society should be working toward?

On his own blog, written largely for staunch supporters of animal rights, whom he also doesn’t want to alienate, Pacelle says that “I’ve often thought of the misery of caged egg-laying hens as emblematic of factory farming—treating the birds, in this case, as production machines.”

But Pacelle believes, as a politician, that you shouldn’t alienate the opposition, either. He wants the HSUS to be what he describes as being “a big tent.” Hence his insistence that the HSUS does “not want to end livestock production.” But how do you square these two concepts?

There are hundreds of good reasons – for the sake of the animals, the environment, and our own health – to shut down these factory farms or CAFOs altogether, and as quickly as possible. And if the nation’s largest and wealthiest humane society won’t take up the challenge and use its influence, lobbying abilities and powerful voice to stand for fundamental change, then who will?

What do you say? Do you think the Humane Society of the United States should be devoting its energies solely toward small improvements at factory farms? Or should it be raising the flag for more fundamental change in the way we treat food animals? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook.