First it was McDonald's. Then Burger King. Now it's one of the titans of the U.S. Senate. Suddenly, mainstream America is beginning to show sympathy for the animals in our food chain.
The humane movement, too often ridiculed for its overwrought emotionalism and scattershot priorities, has begun chalking up solid, sensible gains against the unimaginable cruelty inflicted on chickens, cattle and pigs by the nation's industrial food producers.
In the words of Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., "I believe the American people are concerned and are becoming increasingly sensitive to the treatment of animals. Reports of cruelty to animals through improper livestock production and slaughter practices have hit a nerve."
It's about high time.
No issue in the human-animal relationship cries out for righting as much as society's disregard for the mistreatment and suffering of food-producing creatures.
If you believe, as I do, that one important measure of our humanity is our regard for other living beings, then the grisly practices of industrial ranching are immoral.
I'm speaking of what is hidden from sight: horrors such as the butchering of live steers, the periodic starving of chickens to stimulate greater egg production and the rigid confinement of animals in cages where they can hardly move for the entirety of their lives.
Some of these commonplace practices occur in regular defiance of federal law; others are not regulated. All are done in the name of efficiency.
For many years, the animal rights movement addressed the problem chiefly by urging people to eat vegetarian. Other issues consumed their day-to-day energy. They protested fur. They complained about puppy mills. They vilified hunting.
They left many sympathizers uncomfortably on the sidelines. Me among them. I still eat meat, wear leather shoes and support ethical hunting. Yes, I allow that sacrificing animals to sustain ourselves is cause for debate and reflection in an advanced society. But there is nothing whatsoever worthy of debate about raising pigs in crates too small for them to turn around in.
I have long believed that humane organizations overlooked potential areas where they could broaden their consensus, even as they pursued their lofty goals. Many thoughtful hunters, for instance, share the vegan's revulsion when they learn about a slaughterhouse that cuts the hooves off live cattle.
In the late 1990s, animal rights activists changed their priorities. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, challenged McDonald's. Not so much for serving meat but for being party to a system of cruelty. In August 2000, McDonald's capitulated and agreed to buy meat only from suppliers that could ensure minimum humane treatment of livestock. On June 28, PETA secured even grander promises from Burger King. Now, Wendy's is feeling the pressure.
I have disagreed with PETA in the past. But in this case, I say bravo. PETA is not just the most raucous of the big humane groups, but it deserves the trophy right now for doing the most for the largest number of animals _ those that feed us.
As a result of McDonald's new policies, the cages that hold 5-million egg-laying hens will be doubled in size. To better its rival, Burger King said it would insist that its suppliers provide even more space for chickens. Both companies said they would not buy from egg producers that withheld food from animals for days at a time to promote molting and increased egg production.
The chain-reaction success of these activist campaigns and the purchasing clout of the fast-food giants might add up to nothing less than a revolution in American ranching.
As remarkable as these developments have been, they still didn't prepare some people in the humane movement for the moment this week when Byrd rose on the Senate floor to pay tribute to animals and to join in denouncing the cruelties of industrial livestock handling. At Byrd's urging, the Senate approved $3-million for the Department of Agriculture to increase enforcement of humane laws and to research methods to ease the suffering of food animals.
One by one, Byrd denounced the various ways in which farm animals are tortured. "It is sickening. It is infuriating. Barbaric treatment of helpless, defenseless creatures must not be tolerated even if these animals are being raised for food. . . . Oh, these are animals, yes, but they, too, feel pain."
"I could not have said it better myself," said Sean Gifford, spokesman for PETA.
John Balzar is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
Los Angeles Times