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Photo of pics grazing at what appears to be a farm.
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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-seven-foot 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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  1. 14 Responses to “ The Lives of Animals ”

  2. Erika Pahapill says:

    Thank you for this article on the ethical treatment of animals. I have been becoming more and more interested in this subject, and on finding out how we can improve conditions for animals and change our laws.

    I am not strictly against eating meat, but I am becoming more open to the idea of "vegetarianism."

    I find it interesting that the Bible describes God creating animals as companions to mankind. He gave mankind power to rule over the animals, in the same way Jesus had power over his sheep - to take care of them and love them! That's the way I interpret "having power over" the animals. The Bible also says that God gave mankind all kinds of grains and fruit to eat. There is no mention of eating animals.

    After the great flood God gave Noah and his descendants permission to eat animals. Therefore, I don't look at eating meat as a sin; what might be sinful, however, is the cruel way we go about killing animals.

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was thrilled to see the issue of factory farming addressed in U of T Magazine. Finally people are beginning to openly question the way we eat.

    Quite simply, there is no ethical way to eat animals or animal products. No matter how humanely the animal is raised suffering is involved in the transport and slaughter. The meat and dairy industry would like to keep us ignorant of the mistreatment of animals. That is why we are unwelcome on their farms or in slaughterhouses.

    Sadly, I feel most humans are much too selfish and unwilling to change to give up meat, even if eating it means that the animals are exploited and mistreated. But, as an old Chinese proverb says, “ To close one’s eyes will not lessen another’s pain.”

    Susan Larson
    MEd 1983 OISE

  4. Kristen McMartin says:

    I agree with Susan Larson. I believe most humans will not give up meat due to selfishness and apathy towards "farm" animals. Selfishness I've come to expect, but the apathy I find most disturbing. What does that really say about us?

  5. Patrick Tanzola says:

    I just wanted to congratulate you on such a compassionate and intelligent article on agricultural animals. It’s very heartening to see these kinds of statements made at U of T. I hope these attitudes gain more traction here.

    Elah Feder, MSc

  6. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    This article cites the farrowing crate as an example of the cruelty that sows experience on an industrial farm. However, the purpose of the crate is to protect the piglets. Sows will sometimes crush newborn piglets by accidentally lying on them. The crate prevents unnecessary loss of life.

    Consider also the “feed lot” style of raising beef. Environmentally, this system is superior because it uses far less land. A planted crop produces higher yield then a pasture, so less land is used to feed the cattle. Feed lots can utilize methane gas to heat the buildings and collect manure to produce a better fertilizer. The feed lot also protects the cattle from predators.

    The article seems to suggest that the farmer is the culprit in this “violent” system. Yet the consumer is really the driving force. The consumer wants meat at a low cost. Many farmers have gone out of business as a result of the high cost of machinery, land and the hundreds of restrictions, laws and inspections that are already in place. Is the consumer willing to pay for the vet to castrate the piglets under anesthesia? Is the consumer willing to eat meat that has been under anesthesia?

    Farmers are not the hard-hearted women and men that your article portrays. They are sensitive people who get up in the middle of the night to care for a hurt animal. They try to feed the population with as little environmental impact as possible.

    U of T Magazine should find out the real facts about food production and then ask the people who want to change the system to see if they are willing to share the responsibility by paying more for their food.

    Glen Eagle
    BA 1976, MDiv 1979
    Churchill, Ontario

  7. Anthony de Souza says:

    This is an excellent article, which I read on the occasion of the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, on Oct. 4.

    We raised a chicken in our backyard many summers ago. I slaughtered the bird for Thanksgiving. We had difficulty eating our Thanksgiving meal, and our family did not eat chicken for almost a year after.

    It is so easy to be desensitized to some of the atrocities we commit.

  8. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I feel that this article conflates animal welfare and animal rights. For instance, at first, it examines the well-being of factory farmed animals — this concerns animal welfare, which is a reasonable evolving discussion on how we should use animals.

    However, when the article quotes Messrs. Berkman and Scharper saying that non-human animals have the same or similar rights as humans, due to divine fiat, this becomes a discourse on animal rights. The problem with the latter is that instead of rationally and collectively arriving at how to use animals, they appear to claim that moral use of animals is derived from religious traditions. Such claims are specious.

    In the Christian bible, man was granted dominion over fish, birds, and animals that “creeped” about. In Islamic and Judaic tradition, slaughter of animals entails opening their throats while they are fully conscious. Clearly, arbitrarily assigning animals rights by citing religious traditions is flawed.

    As a modern progressive society, we should undoubtedly be concerned with how best to treat animals for food, scientific study, and conservation, but an a priori assumption of animal rights is a poor place to start from.

    Alex Ling
    BSc 2009 UC

  9. ka says:

    I believe that it is a sin to keep animals locked up in cages or cooped up in small spaces, unable to enjoy their short lives. I have always believed that they have feelings. I know we must use them for our daily bread but there is a humane way to slaughter them that has been known for generations and it is not being done in our slaughterhouses. We have always known what is right and wrong in the treatment of animals but I think we ignore this for the sake of financial gain and profit. We should not be trading our meat products around the globe. We should eat what is in our own backyards, as humans have done for centuries.

  10. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I applaud Ms. Gibson's approach in this article. Almost 20 years ago, thanks to the good work done by animal welfare groups, I became aware of the conditions and treatment of animals in factory farms and decided to become a vegetarian.

    Since that time, the way in which "food animals" are treated has not changed; it is still abysmal. It's really only within the last five years that the mainstream media have begun to draw attention to the issue. I'm not sure why it has taken us so long to admit what has been going on, but I'm glad to see it is finally being brought to the forefront.

    I think many people who continue to eat meat deliberately close their eyes to the reality of meat production (and egg and milk production for that matter). This needs to change. We need to bear witness to the ongoing cruelty taking place around us.

    Perhaps with more exposure to the reality of the situation, more people will begin to change their own individual habits and demand broader societal change. As Mahatma Ghandi so eloquently said "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Let's see Canada become a leader in ensuring that our food is treated humanely and with compassion.

    Wendy Horan
    BSc 1996
    Nelson, B.C.

  11. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I found this well-written and well-researched article both revealing and disturbing. Now I understand what cruel places factory farms can be. Now I understand also something that I but dimly realized before: that the slice of beef or pork on my plate probably came from an animal that was raised under conditions of the most unimaginable horror. Perhaps others who have read Stacey Gibson’s piece will have similar feelings.

    The question of cruelty to animals defies easy solution. People are not going to stop eating meat tomorrow. Nor are the owners of factory farms going to stop looking out for the bottom line. However, we all do have the power to modify our eating habits and thus help to bring about the “little bit of change” that will force a curb on the worst excesses.

    John Best
    MA 1968

  12. Janice Gillett says:

    Thank you for publishing the ugly truth on animals in production factories. Weekly reports of transport accidents with animals strewn about the street writhing in pain is criminal. Animal cruelty can be viewed on YouTube, with videos of workers beating and torturing animals in these factories. These are not isolated incidents and can be viewed in all corners of the world. The amount of power the meat industry has over the world, along with the pharmaceutical companies and veterinarians, must be removed. Stop eating animals. It's legitimized animal cruelty.

  13. A nna Cernac says:

    When you think about all the money that people waste:the new cell phone each year, the new car every three years, the coffees, the junk food, the take-out lunches, etc. What if some of that disposable income was used to buy better, organic food? In the end, both people and animals would benefit from a healthier life.

    Is it really too expensive to buy a dozen organic free-run eggs for $5.99? That's about 50 cents an egg - 50 cents that allows a hen to live a decent life while creating a healthier product for your breakfast. Every one of us wastes more than 50 cents a day on mindless things. What if everyone bought organic eggs? Maybe retailers would get the idea that this is a popular item, they would stock more of them, the supply would increase and the price would drop.

    McDonald's uses free run eggs in Europe but not in North America. Why? The Europeans passed a law banning caged hens so McDonald's had to comply. We should do the same in North America. And eggs are just one aspect. Factory farming is not sustainable. There are too many hidden costs that are shifted to the taxpayer. Do the research, look at the results, then see where you can start making the changes in your daily life.

  14. Nora Mark says:

    Great article! More people need to be educated about the treatment of food animals. I am not a vegetarian but I prefer to buy organic eggs and meat. During recent trips to the U.K., I noticed hog farms had lots of space for them to roam. If a country the size of England, with a much higher population, is able to manage their animals more humanely, there is no excuse for Canada not to do the same. Yes, it's more expensive but we don't need to eat meat every day either. There are plenty of healthy and cheap alternatives that are easy to prepare, such as baked beans. I also observed while dining with friends in the U.K.: they buy local and in season and are less inclined to buy expensive items that are imported.

  15. William Gallagher says:

    This is an excellent article suited for larger reading population than U of T. I would love to see you publish a followup to include anthropology and cosmological theology. There is a growing need to understand our selves in the larger context of being conscious life forms in a physical capsule rather than mortal beings with a "soul." Science has already demonstrated there are many universes with many dimensions. What is our purpose in all of this?