Animals built to move should be allowed to move.
It’s an elemental principle behind California’s Proposition 12, which was just affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, and it’s the legal standard approved in recent years by voters in multiple states seeking to extend some kindness to animals raised for food.
The voter-approved 2018 ballot measure took aim at gestation crates for mother pigs and battery cages for laying hens – confinement systems so severe and restrictive that the animals, standing shoulder to shoulder or wing to wing, cannot even turn around.
The nation’s highest court indirectly took up this matter of the treatment of the animals, but more directly whether the states have authority to restrict commerce in pork and eggs within their boundaries based on animal welfare and food safety concerns.
Our nation’s highest court determined, in rejecting a pork industry challenge to a voter-approved ballot initiative in California, that such an exercise of authority was constitutional under federal law.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the majority, dismissed the pork industry’s challenge to Proposition 12 and said that the law is constitutional because it is fairly applied and it reflects core social and scientific values related to the humane treatment of animals and food safety. This was a matter for voters and other policy makers to decide, not judges, wrote Gorsuch.
The Iowa-based National Pork Producers Council, which represents thousands of pork producers centered in the Midwest and North Carolina, argued that California’s law would impose “extra-territorial” effects and drive up production costs for farmers. But there were plenty of farmers and farm groups who saw California’s law as a market opportunity for more humane treatment. And significantly more than 60 of the pork industry’s biggest food retail customers, including McDonald’s and Costco, said they oppose keeping pigs and laying hens in small cages and crates and thousands of farmers are supplying them with what they want.
Anyone can get lost in the weeds over the legal wranglings inside the courts over these many months in relation to laws of commerce and state’s rights. But let’s not lose sight of the real issue at the heart of it all.
This issue is about sentient living beings, millions of them, unable to take a step or turn around because their 600-pound bodies are locked inside an iron cage called a gestation crate, measuring just 2 feet x 7 feet or smaller.
If you want a front row seat, go read the book, Dominion, by author Matthew Scully, who explains in a National Review opinion piece what it looks like from the inside: “Hundreds of crazed pigs engaged in stereotypical ‘vacuum’ chewing on nothing at all, and rooting with imaginary straw, and ‘nest building’ with straw that isn’t there for the piglets they’ll never get to care for… In every industrial gestation facility, there is a ‘cull pen’ for the dead or dying, the weak who are slowing the system down or getting in the way, the ones who just couldn’t endure their ‘housing arrangements’ anymore… Everywhere, you see sprained, fractured, and swollen limbs, never examined, never even noticed, because who cares as long as it doesn’t affect their productivity?”
Millions of Californians want to grant pregnant pigs a bit of room to move. Prop 12 also gives some desperately needed space to intensively confined calves raised for veal and egg-laying hens.
It’s unquestionable that pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and cattle all have their feelings and their fears, and that it matters to them if they can gambol in a pasture and feel sunshine on the backs and stand on soil or grass.
But Prop. 12, and similar measures that preceded it, don’t even ask for those simple life pleasures. They just ask for a few feet of space for the animals. That’s anything but radical. It’s the minimum to demand for any animal.
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The pork industry has fought to block any federal legal standards to protect animals raised for food. Then they went for the jugular and tried to eviscerate the few state laws to protect these animals. It is a landmark ruling, and a common-sense one, to reject their political and legal maneuvering.
For the health of our families and communities everywhere, it’s imperative that more of us today comprehend the deeper fundamental difference between traditional farmers as stewards of the land and custodians of the animals under their care and the routine miseries inflicted on animals living withing warehouses and cages, unable ever to pull fresh air into the lungs.
The high court ruling is cause to celebrate, but now it’s time for Congress to act and end once and for all, extreme and cruel practices that are typically hidden from the consumer but all too well known to the animals caught up in this meat-production system. They’ve got a ready vehicle in the Pigs Inside Gestation Stalls (PIGS) Act, just introduced by Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, to do that very thing.
Wayne Pacelle is president and Julie Marshall is national Ccommunications coordinator for Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy, based in Washington, DC. Pacelle played a key role in the creation and passage of Proposition 12. Pacelle is the author of the 2017 book, “The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals.”