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Culture & Society

The Lives of Animals

Most animals raised for food in Canada live on industrial sites where they never go outdoors. Under our laws, this is perfectly legal, but is it ethical?

Gracie, a five-year-old Yorkshire pig, is lying in a patch of shade at Snooters Farm Animal Sanctuary in Uxbridge, Ontario. At 600 pounds, she needs all the relief she can get on this muggy spring day. Despite her prodigious size, Gracie has a finely etched daintiness to her: delicate translucent pink ears; tiny black eyes shadowed by long lashes; legs that seem too slender to carry her corpulent body. Mud cakes the top of her pale snout. Behind her, a black pot-bellied pig named Valentine trundles about, snuffling at the ground. She stops a few feet away from Gracie and won’t pass her; there’s a hierarchy here, and Gracie can be short-tempered.

Gracie was the first factory-farm pig that the sanctuary rescued, in 2005. An employee at an industrial farm found out that the three-week-old piglet had a leg infection, and that the owner had decided it would be more economical to kill her than to treat her. The next day, the worker snuck the 10-pound piglet out in her bag, and brought her to Snooters. By then, the infection had spread to Gracie’s brain, leaving her with neurological damage – which accounts for her bad temper and why Valentine gives her wide berth.

“Everybody loves their pets, but food animals are regarded as second-class citizens. We treat them as inanimate objects, but each has his or her own personality,” says Brian Morris, co-owner of the 25-acre sanctuary, which is home to 25 rescued animals, including two calves, a dozen pigs, and horses and chickens.

Snooters is one of a growing number of sanctuaries in Canada that exist partly in response to industrial agriculture. Factory farming began in earnest after the Second World War, and the vast majority of the animals raised for food in Canada now pass through this system. Any way you look at it, it’s big business: in terms of profitability; in physical scale (some Canadian factory farms, for example, house up to 50,000 laying hens); and in environmental footprint, with one study showing that livestock production worldwide is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gases. Even the sheer size of each animal is massive, as many have been bred to grow as large and as rapidly as possible – to yield the most amount of flesh in the shortest time frame.

Seven-hundred million animals are eaten each year in Canada, and most did not spend their days in pastures. Rather, animals are often raised indoors, without ever touching grass or feeling the fresh air. In their cramped environments, they might not be able to walk around, or, in the case of chickens and turkeys, flap their wings – much less graze, forage or form social groups.

If Gracie hadn’t been “lucky” enough to get a leg infection and be rescued, her fate would have been similar to the majority of the 1.5 million sows raised in Canada each year: she would have spent a great deal of her life pregnant in a two-by-sevenfoot steel cage – a space too small to turn around or walk in. With nothing to do, she would have rubbed against and bitten at her bars incessantly, or tried to root at her floor. She would have given birth in a small farrowing crate in which she couldn’t turn about, and nursed her piglets through bars. After her young were weaned at two to three weeks, she would have, once again, been artificially inseminated. By 24 to 30 months, after a few litters, Gracie wouldn’t have been as productive, so she would have been sent to slaughter. Her male piglets, in turn, would have been moved to overcrowded pens. Because tight quarters lead to aggression, their teeth would have been clipped and their tails cut. As well, they would have been castrated. These procedures would have been done without anaesthesia.

The first time Gracie would have gone outdoors and felt the sun on her would likely have been the trip to the slaughterhouse. Because she would have been caged most of her life, she might have suffered from leg, joint or cardiovascular problems, making it difficult to walk up the transport ramp. This slow movement would have increased her likelihood of being goaded with an electric prod. She could have been in the truck – without food, water or rest – for up to 36 hours. Crowded conditions could have meant no room to lie down or turn around, which could have led to injury. Gracie could also have been harmed if the truck wasn’t equipped with proper ventilation and temperature control. According to an international animal protection agency, between two and three million animals die during transport every year in Canada and another 11 million arrive at their destination injured or diseased.

“It’s a nightmare, a horror story,” says Stephanie Brown, director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals. “These are thinking, feeling, inquisitive creatures – and their destiny is suffering and misery. It’s legitimized animal cruelty.”

Lesli Bisgould, an adjunct professor in U of T’s Faculty of Law, who established the first animal-rights practice in Canada, puts it just as bluntly: “If they’re arriving dead, why? What’s the problem? What’s happening before they get there that they can’t even make it to the ultimate destination?”

Or, to put it another way, if millions of animals are in a state of suffering, what does that say about us? A growing number of biologists, ethicists and other thinkers are criticizing the ways animals are treated on factory farms. They are contemplating what we need to change in our behaviour and our laws; what our moral obligations are to those who depend on our goodwill; and examining quality-of-life issues concerning animals. As industrial agriculture has only been around for about 65 years – a mere blink in the several-thousand years of human agricultural history – we are still playing catch-up in our moral reflections. “I think new technologies have always raised new ethical questions, and usually the ethics and the spiritual response is much slower than the technology,” says John Berkman, a professor of moral theology at U of T’s Regis College whose expertise is in animal ethics.


The days when Descartes saw animals as furry machines (they are not rational, he argued, and therefore not conscious), and people claimed that animals couldn’t feel pain, are long gone. If we ever really did believe that, biologists have since proven that mammals and birds are sentient creatures with a wide range of physical, emotional, psychological and social needs. “Whenever we do studies, we find out that they are more sensitive, more aware, and more vulnerable to stress than we think. It’s almost never in the opposite direction,” says Monika Havelka, a biologist at U of T Mississauga. “We always seem to find out that they suffer more than we think that they do.”

Scientists have known for several decades that animals – from humans, to pigs, to chickens, to dogs – have almost identical central nervous systems, meaning we all experience stress, fear and pain in very similar ways. When something or someone in our environment upsets us, for example, we have the same fight-or-flight responses: our heart rate accelerates and our adrenal gland releases stress hormones (known as cortisols). Cows, for instance, hate the sound of loud voices and will get extremely anxious when people yell, says Havelka. “[Farm animals] certainly feel a tremendous amount of stress. We know that they can have very high cortisol levels, and we know that transportation, crowded conditions, noises and changes in temperature can all send their cortisol levels skyrocketing.”

When people talk about animals having emotions, they are often criticized for “anthropomorphizing” – but the assumption that humans are the only animals with feelings is a human-centric prejudice, a fallacy. All mammals have a limbic system (the site of basic emotions in our brain) and can all experience fundamental emotions, such as fear and happiness, says Professor Marc Bekoff, a world-renowned ethologist and conservationist who spoke at U of T in May. Bekoff is the author of The Emotional Lives of Animals, and cites example after example of observed animal emotion: from pigs suffering from depression, to cows holding grudges, to elephants experiencing joy while playing. “To say animals don’t have a rich emotional life, or they can’t feel pain – that’s just nonsense,” he says. He employs scientific evidence and evolutionary theory, as well as common sense, when it comes to assessing animal experience. While speaking about how it is legal in many parts of the world to castrate pigs without anaesthesia, he says, “When an animal is struggling to get away from something, you don’t have to be the brightest light on the block to know they feel.”

“If we analyze our emotions, they’re not that different in kind,” adds Havelka. “Most of what [humans and animals] feel are the fundamental, basic emotions. We’re scared to be alone, we’re scared of new situations, we can be angry if we feel we’re being mistreated, we like to be around others who make us feel calm and accepted. We want to feel secure.”

One way animals feel secure is through their social groups, and many form hierarchies and cliques. This is easily observed in herd animals such as cows, who have evolved to move in large groups. Havelka cites one study that shows sister cows like to hang out together, proving that they care not only about having company, but who that company is – and making it profoundly at odds with their nature to be constantly penned or separated. The opposite extreme, of overcrowded living conditions, prevents animals from establishing a social hierarchy – which leads to aggression. “It’s like people trapped in a crowded elevator,” says Stephanie Brown. “Eventually, they are going to start to fight.”


Although we are now more scientifically fluent about the inner lives of animals, we are more likely to treat them like, well, Descartes’ furry machines. Legally, all animals are property (and always have been), meaning we own them and can use them for our own purposes, says Lesli Bisgould, who is currently writing a book on animals and the law. Whether one looks at the Criminal Code’s general anti-cruelty laws or at legislation that applies to agricultural animals, one finds the same qualifiers – prohibiting “unnecessary” or “undue” or “prolonged” pain and suffering, she says. “That means we have permitted ourselves to cause necessary pain and suffering. And what does that mean? When is it necessary?” asks Bisgould. “You’d never use the word ‘necessary’ in that context with another human being.”

While in the eyes of the law, an animal is property, a corporation can be granted rights of personhood – making, legally, an animal an “it” and a corporation a “he” or “she.” (Corporations, of course, also have privacy rights – their facilities are private property, making it next to impossible to see how any animals they own are treated.) Animals – displaced from their natural environments and deprived of acting out many of their instincts – are essentially rendered into units of production. “Corporations, by law, are required to maximize profits. That’s their obligation to their shareholders,” says Bisgould. “Every penny spent on animal welfare is a penny that doesn’t go into profits.”

When it comes to legal rights for animals, Bisgould advocates for a large-scale shift in thinking: if corporations can have legal personhood, why would we not extend the same rights to living entities other than humans? She adds, “It’s a bit of a circular problem, because if animals were legal persons – meaning not that they have human rights, all the same rights we have, but the basic rights to their lives and to have their interests considered before we do things that are going to hurt them – if it ever got to that point, it’s unlikely we’d be eating them. Because their interests in their lives would conflict with our relatively trivial interest in eating them.”


“What does it do to your psyche and to your spiritual well-being if you are part of this system of violence?” asks Stephen Scharper, a professor of anthropology at U of T Mississauga and U of T’s Centre for Environment, who focuses on issues of religion, ethics and the environment. Scharper views factory farming as a “seamless garment of violence”– one that violates the dignity of animals, contributes to environmental destruction, and often employs non-unionized workers and pays them minimum wage for work that can be both emotionally troubling and physically dangerous.

Scharper points to several religious traditions concerned with the peaceful, respectful treatment of animals. Followers of the Jain and Hindu religions abstain from meat entirely, believing that the cycle of violence brings with it bad karma – which would affect their salvation. He also cites Judaism’s kosher dietary laws and the Islamic tradition of halal, both of which have strictures on how animals are to be treated during their lives and slaughter. Scharper, a Christian himself, is the co-editor of The Green Bible, which interprets Christian scriptures through an environmental lens. He notes that one of the first injunctions in Genesis – to take care of the garden – can pertain to both the environmental crisis and animal welfare. “If we are defacing God’s creatures and God’s creation, we are rupturing our friendship with God, living a life of sin and therefore affecting our future salvation,” he says.

Professor John Berkman of Regis College ties the notions of non-violence and respect for other beings into an even broader theological framework. He notes that every animal (human or non-human) deserves the opportunity to live well and to flourish according to his or her own abilities, within his or her own community – whether the animal is a dolphin in a school of dolphins or a cow grazing in a pasture with a herd. And respecting the natures of others, and recognizing our place within the larger picture, shows up in many religions. “This gets to a theological vision that ultimately the world is not to be disposed of however humans deem, but each creation has its own end, its own telos, its own purposes, and part of human life is to understand and respect those various purposes – not only those of human beings,” he says.

Because Berkman believes respecting the natures of other animals and giving them the opportunity to flourish is so important, a pure reduction-of-pain model concerns him. “Reducing suffering is the project of modernity,” he says. “That is a good thing in itself, though there are certain intellectual limitations and problems with a pure suffering approach… somehow, then it would seem to be OK to do whatever you want to do with animals as long as you kind of keep them in a half-drugged state where they’re not experiencing any suffering.”


If one accepts that there are ethical and spiritual concerns surrounding the treatment of animals on factory farms, what then, is the answer? Is it a radical overhaul of the system? Not eating animals? Changing a few regulations?

Bisgould is not convinced there are any laws that can really improve things for animals used in industrial agriculture (although she would like to see a change in privacy laws, which would allow people to see where their food comes from). One can ask for bigger cages or make anaesthesia mandatory before castration, but these improvements are minimal in the grand scheme of the suffering the animals endure, she says. The demand to produce vast amounts of meat for human consumption means there’s no room for animals to live well, she adds.

“When there’s no market, we’ll stop producing them,” says Bisgould, pointing to the cosmetic industry, which began to make massive changes after people found out their products were being tested on animals. “In that sense, all of us have a lot of power, but we have to be willing to re-examine our own behaviours because a lot of us love to eat animal products – and I totally get that, but we have to be open to a little bit of change if we want these harms to go away.”

Wayne Sumner, a professor emeritus of philosophy at U of T, points to vegetarianism as the moral ideal. (A vegetarian himself for several decades, he says, “I’ve backslid a bit since then. I don’t live up to my own ideals.”) “For most of us living in big cities in Canada, we can get by perfectly well without eating animals or eating animal products. I think that’s ethically admirable, but I would take a harder line as far as animal suffering is concerned,” says Sumner. “It’s not just admirable not to cause animals to suffer, it’s an obligation not to cause them to suffer.”

Scharper favours a “context of consumption” approach, which takes into account quality-of-life issues for animals and humans, and environmental concerns, when choosing what meat to eat. Of factory farming in particular, he adds, “This is a crisis of imagination and of the way we think. And because we’ve allowed ourselves to be colonized by a pragmatic, endsdriven model, rather than to other ways of looking at the world – of integration, of deep empathy, of deep participatory solidarity – we can’t think of other ways to be human. That’s what we are challenged to do now.”

Berkman, a vegetarian himself, references a modern Mennonite poster that reads: A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other. “People asked, ‘Why just Christians? Why shouldn’t everybody not kill each other?’ Well, this is a modest proposal for peace. At least people who are supposed to agree, fundamentally, about what life is about, should be able to not kill each other,” he says. He relates this back to animal suffering, arguing for at least eating free-range meat: “Ultimately, I would like to see a much broader vision where we come to an agreement about respecting the goodness and the inherent dignity of animals, and that unless we absolutely need to we should let them live according to their natures and peaceably. The modest proposal for change is let’s not be engaged in institutionalized cruelty, which almost everybody knows is wrong.”


Before ending the conversation, Bisgould makes one important distinction between humans and other animals. “We’ve tried for a long time to distinguish ourselves from other animals to justify hurting them. And all of the distinctions that we’ve drawn over time have been disproven by our own science. They don’t think, they don’t reason, they don’t feel, they don’t form social bonds. So we don’t have the factual premise for this entitlement that we continue to claim,” she says. “If there is perhaps one difference, it might be this second-order thinking that we do, this thought about thought. And since we have that capacity, aren’t we obliged to use it? Instead of saying, we’re better than you, therefore we get to hurt you, let’s use our morality and say, I have a choice between sustaining myself in a way that causes profound pain and suffering, or a way that doesn’t. How do I justify choosing pain and suffering? How do I justify it?”

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