The welfare of animals in large-scale confinement animal feeding operations is a matter of growing concern. Nine states have passed laws to prohibit the use of “gestation crates” where breeding female hogs, called sows, spend virtually their entire lives in spaces too small to allow them to turn around or take more than one step forward or backward. Two states, California and Michigan, have passed laws to phase out the use of similarly confining “battery cages” for hens in egg production and other states are contemplating similar actions.
While the initial steps have focused on providing more space for animals in confinement systems, the humane treatment of farm animals eventually will require a fundamental change in the industrial factory-like production of animal products. There is simply no way that thousands of livestock or hundreds of thousands of poultry can be treated humanely with the number of animals that are confined in the small spaces allowed in today’s confinement facilities.
Farm animals did not evolve to live in confinement any more than humans evolved to live in prisons. There is simply no opportunity to afford farm animals the dignity and respect that must precede humane treatment when they are confined in large-scale concentrated feeding operations.
Animals are sentient, feeling, living organisms or beings, not inanimate mechanisms. Farmers traditionally have treated their animals with dignity and respect – even when they are used for human food. Today’s factory farms, or CAFOs, preclude even the possibility of humane treatment. Instead, animals are treated as machines.
CAFO proponents claim that animals’ health must be maintained if they are to gain weight or be otherwise productive. However, CAFOs rely on antibiotics, vaccines, and regulated ventilation systems to keep diseases and mortalities at economically acceptable levels. In CAFOs, sick and dying animals are considered an undesirable but necessary economic cost of doing business. Animal factories strive to send animals to slaughter at young ages, before chronic illness results in death.
For example, the natural lifespan of a chicken is 7 to 20 years, but broiler chickens today are sent to slaughter at 6 to 8 weeks and laying hens at around 18 months. The average lifespan of a dairy cow in a CAFO is only 4 to 5 years, about one-third as long as milk cows on traditional family dairy farms. The physical and mental welfare of sick and dying animals is given no consideration other than the impact on the economic bottom line.
Extensive references to studies documenting the inevitable mistreatment of animals in CAFOs can be found in a comprehensive Canadian study sponsored by the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Modern intensive production practices were first criticized on animal welfare grounds in the 1960s based on the intensiveness and degree of confinement in production facilities that today we call CAFOs. Research in the subsequent 50 years has confirmed these criticisms; intensive production systems and severe confinement invariably lead to greatly reduced welfare.
The mistreatment of animals in CAFOs is not only a result of overcrowding, but also includes painful invasive procedures, transportation and pre-slaughter handling, and genetic selection for maximum production and rapid growth. The advent of CAFOs in the 20th century brought about the most significant changes in the 10,000 year history of animal agriculture with respect to the treatment of farm animals. The negative consequences for animal welfare are undeniable.