A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Moving the Peanut for Farm Animals

An activist-politician-campaigner for animals at factory farms

Paul Shapiro – working for better conditions at factory farms

Paul Shapiro called me up to complain, in the nicest and friendliest way, about what I’d written about the work of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) toward improving conditions for egg-laying hens in factory farms.

I’d questioned a statement from HSUS president Wayne Pacelle when he was on a visit to Iowa to push for better treatment of these animals. “I’ve said it a thousand times,” he’d said. “We do not want to end livestock production.”

Shapiro is director of the HSUS’s Farm Animal Protection Division, which has driven farm animal welfare laws such as Proposition 2 in California, and other laws in Arizona, Michigan, Maine, Colorado and Oregon. And he believes that what he and the HSUS are doing is the best possible thing for the chickens – and part of a humane strategy for all factory-farm animals.

I understand the politics of Pacelle’s remark and the value of what the HSUS is doing. After all, the governor of Iowa had been calling the HSUS an agency that couldn’t be trusted, and the organization didn’t want to come across like it wants to put the factory farms of Iowa out of business. But there’s also a case to be made for saying what you mean and meaning what you say. (It may also be a good way to assure that you can be trusted.)

In his teens and early 20s, Shapiro would probably have agreed – and then some. When he was still at high school in Washington D.C., he founded his own animal rights organization, Compassion Over Killing, to promote kindness to animals and a vegan lifestyle. He majored in peace studies at George Washington University, and got arrested several times for holding demonstrations that included a sit-in at the fur department of Neiman Marcus, where the group chanted “Stop the insanity, no blood for vanity.”

But Shapiro decided that you don’t convert people to your cause by condemning them for what they’re doing. So today he takes a more pragmatic approach to getting protections for animals. A few years ago, he left the organization he’d founded and joined the staff of the HSUS, where he focuses on making life better for the billions of animals who live out their lives in the misery of factory farms in any given year.

“Hey, man,” he tells me. “I agree that [getting them an extra] square foot of space is not that great. But considering that chickens have no federal legal protection whatsoever, getting them legal protection at the federal level seems to me like a pretty historic and really monumental advance if we can get it done. And I don’t think many other people have proposed any alternatives as to what we can tangibly get for these animals.”

“We’re going to have technologies that will render factory farming obsolete and view it as an expensive and archaic way to produce food.”

I agree that any improvement is absolutely better than none, but when he suggests that we should therefore all get on the same page, I suggest that there’s no harm in having vigorous debates within the animal protection movement and holding each other to high standards. After all, the HSUS has had to be dragged, practically kicking and screaming, into the modern world of the no-kill movement for companion animals. And when I visited their offices in Washington D.C. to talk about this with their former president, Paul Irwin, he brought in tuna sandwiches for lunch.

“Hey, man, I hear you!” Shapiro replies, quickly adding that Pacelle moved quickly to put a stop to anything but vegan food at the HSUS as soon as he took over.

And then he’s right back on message about achieving whatever improvements he can for the egg-laying hens.

“I’m a firm believer that you don’t go from A to Z without going through 24 other letters first. Incremental progress begets more incremental progress and we just keep on, as [animal rights campaigner] Henry Spira said, ‘Pushing that peanut forward.’”

So, is there a plan to bring an end to factory farming altogether?

Shapiro believes that ultimately the answer lies in the drive toward in-vitro meat, grown in laboratories from the cells of real animals.

“We’re going to have technologies that will render factory farming obsolete and view it as an expensive and archaic way to produce food,” he says. “People are actually growing meat that’s anatomically identical to animal meat in the labs. Theoretically, one cell from an animal could produce the world’s meat supply for a year.”

While it doesn’t taste or look good yet, the technology for in-vitro meat is ramping up very fast. Within a few years, it may well be being used as a protein supplement to be added to other food in developing countries. And scientists working on it are bullish that within maybe a couple of decades we could be in a Star Trek-like era of replicators producing delicacies based on the cells of any animal at all.

Shapiro compares this to how the abuse of cart and carriage horses on city streets came to an end. “They weren’t freed by humane sentiment,” he says. “They were freed because of the invention of the internal combustion engine. I think that various technologies will help lead to something like that.”

He adds that meanwhile we need to keep pushing forward with reforms. “The more Americans learn about how farm animals are so routinely abused, the more they are going to demand changes.”

I ask him about the attempts by four states this year to make it a criminal offence for groups like Mercy for Animals and HSUS to go undercover to capture video of abuses at factory farms?

“Fortunately,” he says, “we were able to kill all of those bills in Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and Florida. But I believe they will all be reintroduced in 2012 and it will be a fight all over again.”

Shapiro is ready for the fight. “I want to see a world where our relationship with animals is one that’s not based on violence and dominance but on compassion and respect. And I feel like we need to take steps – as the saying goes, ‘The longest marathon begins with single steps.’”

Hey, man, I’m with you.

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What you can do: Go meat-free. Even just one day a week makes a big difference. The HSUS has a page of recipes here. And Farm Sanctuary and Mercy for Animals are smaller organizations that are doing first-rate work for farm animals and could use your help.