The first time I tell someone I am a vegetarian, the conversation is almost always the same. Sometimes I am surprised, but usually not.
“Can I ask you a question?”
I know the question that’s coming.
“Why are you a vegetarian? Is it for health reasons? I ask because I only eat chicken and fish.”
At this point I breathe in deeply and then let out a big sigh. For one thing, people think nothing about asking me why I don’t eat meat and yet if I ask a meat eater why he or she eats meat, they’re immediately on the defensive assuming I am going to attack their choices—like I am a representative for PETA.
I’m not, but I am an organic farmer and I don’t have to work for PETA to know that the companies most people call farmers are not farming—and the thought of being associated with them turns my stomach.
There is no sugarcoating it. Industrial animal agriculture is brutality in its purest form. The modern system of breeding, raising and killing animals for food is a shocking and sickening conglomeration of horrific behaviors with no redeeming qualities.
Unfortunately the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ nature of mass-scale animal agriculture keeps its ugly realities hidden from exposure. Activists occasionally smuggle out videos of abuse from inside industrial farming operations, but they do so knowing if they’re caught they could be arrested and sent to prison for crimes against the corporate fascist state.
There’s no hyperbole in the previous statement. So-called “ag-gag” laws do in fact make it a crime to expose the abuses of industrial agriculture, simply because it might cut into the profit margins of the giant corporations who control the food economy and the government. Constitution be damned, gotta keep the billions pouring in to make sure those executive salaries can be paid! Ain’t capitalism grand?
But while the truth can be covered up it can’t be changed or denied. Food animals living in mass confinement suffer routine and hideous abuse, to the point where their final barbaric slaughter almost comes as a blessing.
The Foul Stench of Fowl Practices
Out of all the animals used for food none are victimized as casually and with so little concern for their welfare as chickens. Every year nine billion of these sweet-natured, self-aware creatures are put to death in the United States, and almost all of these birds are held captive inside industrial facilities before they meet their demise.
In their natural state chickens enjoy their freedom immensely—as is the case on Mayani Farms. They love to forage for food, take dust bathes, lie in the sun and hang out with other members of their social group. Chickens are attentive mothers who care deeply about the welfare of their young ones, going to great lengths to ensure their chicks are well-fed and protected.
For a long time their intelligence was vastly underrated (for extremely self-serving reasons). But chickens are no less self-conscious, emotionally complex or cognitively advanced than most other types of avian species. Those who know them well say chickens have individual personalities, which is a sure sign of self-awareness and intelligence. We experience this all the time. Not only does each breed have certain traits, as individuals, some are extroverts and some are introverts. All of our chickens display very distinct personality traits.
But to industrial agriculture all of this is irrelevant. This contemptuous entity stomps on the truth and grinds it into the dust, along with any sense of compassion or ethical concern. From the Big Agro perspective chickens are meat- or egg-producing machines—nothing more, nothing less—that must be pushed beyond their physiological limits to recoup the cost of maintenance. Inexplicably chickens are not covered by either the Animal Welfare Act or the Humane Slaughter Act (an oxymoron if there ever was one), which gives industrial agriculture free reign to practice what it preaches.
The life of a “broiler” chicken raised for meat is six weeks of unrelenting torment followed by a few more days of mind-boggling cruelty. At tender ages they are tossed into sprawling windowless sheds, where they will live out their days crammed wing-to-wing with tens of thousands of other doomed and despondent birds.
Inside these concrete prisons excrement and urine carpet the floor and ammonia permeates the air, burning their eyes, skin, feet, throats and lungs. With hardly any room to move, chickens trapped in these hellholes must constantly push, peck, scrap and fight for access to food and water, and in the chaotic free-for-all that ensues, death from starvation or dehydration are common. As you can imagine this filthy environment is a gigantic laboratory culture for toxic bacteria like salmonella, which can contaminate chicken products and put consumers at risk for illness and death. This is why the USDA keeps an up-to-date list of recalls on chicken and other meats.
Bred and drugged for super-fast turnover (industrially-raised chickens are slaughtered at just six weeks of age). To give you some perspective our chickens aren’t even mature enough to produce eggs until they’re five or six months (not weeks) old. We never kill our chickens and they’ll die of old age or natural causes.
Industrialized chickens suffer from numerous physiological abnormalities related to their fantastic growth rates and grotesque disproportions. Broken bones, torn cartilage, respiratory dysfunction, heat stroke and gradual organ failure are routine, so in addition to the psychological and emotional damage these animals suffer, most are in constant physical pain as well. The feed of industrialized chickens is laced with a noxious stew of antibiotics as well as an arsenic-based drug called Roxarsone, all of which promote accelerated physical development.
From the time they enter their concrete prisons until the moment they leave broiler chickens endure a nightmarish existence. But life in windowless confinement is a picnic compared to what comes later. Chickens trucked out for slaughter are stuffed inside dark, wooden crates with no space to move and no protection from the elements. Food and water are not provided, despite highway trips that can last for up to 36 hours.
Once the chickens arrive at the slaughterhouse, they will face an assembly line of mechanized torture and death that makes Dante’s nine circles of Hell look like an amusement park. Stunned by electricity but not anesthetized, chickens in a slaughterhouse are carried upside down through the spinning blades of an automated killing machine that is supposed to slice their throats as they speed by, causing a slow, grisly death by exsanguination.
Unfortunately the process moves so fast many of the chickens are missed or only partially wounded, which means that when they are dropped into boiling water a short time later for feather removal a significant percentage will be boiled alive. All of this is as grim and as patently evil as it gets, but it is standard operating procedure at the modern abattoir.
And who purchases these chickens? Your grocery store and fast food “restaurants” are among the biggest purchases of cruelty-raised chickens. And the winner? Kentucky Fried Chicken or as they’re known in the animal advocacy world, “Kentucky Fried Cruelty.”
The Egg Industry Exposed
If chickens raised and killed for food are subjected to fanatical abuse, the situation for laying hens might be even worse. Chickens assigned this duty spend one to two years confined to wire cages, with no possibility of escape or movement. The lights inside their storage sheds are usually kept on 24 hours a day to encourage compulsive eating, and the chickens are pushed to lay and lay and lay eggs until they can’t lay anymore.
To make the best use of space, cages are stacked on top of each other in row after row, and the largest laying hen sheds may hold as many as 100,000 chickens. From top row to bottom row the pull of gravity converts feces and urine into a continuously cascading waterfall of liquid sewage, soiling feathers and leaving laying hens covered in sores and abscesses and burning in pain from painful eye conditions caused by clouds of ammonia fumes.
Laying hens are debeaked—without any anesthesia, of course—to prevent them from pecking and injuring cage mates intruding on their space. Once they’ve outlived their usefulness laying hens are shipped off to slaughter, but their broken, battered and worn-out flesh is suitable only for pet food or chicken soup.
The eggs they produce throughout their lives are frequently contaminated with salmonella—surprise surprise—and can be incredibly dangerous to the people who consume them.
What I’ve just described may sound surreal or exaggerated. But it is the ugly reality of 21st century industrial avian agriculture, where empathy is disallowed and institutionalized viciousness is the norm. In addition to being inhumane this style of food production is also profoundly destructive to the environment, wasting ungodly amounts of natural resources while producing massive quantities of repulsive toxic crap that pollutes lakes, rivers, groundwater, the soil and the air.
There’s Something Fishy about Fish
But hey, what if we just to stick to fish? That way we can still eat meat without supporting cruelty and waste, right?
Not so fast. When we consume “farm”-raised fish, or those caught in the ocean using modern fishing techniques, we are actually contributing to one of the more ecologically destructive activities known to man, woman and child.
Across the Earth’s oceans industrial-sized trawlers use massive drift nets, gill nets, dredges and other large-scale fishing technologies to pull in seafood by the ton, tearing up the ocean floor and ensnaring everything that crosses their path in the process. The victims of the trawlers include dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, seals, octopuses, sea birds, small whales and species of fish that were never meant to be caught and eaten. If it’s smart and cool and beautiful you can bet commercial fishermen are killing it by the tens of thousands.
Meanwhile aquaculture operations have copied the worst practices of their industrial agriculture counterparts. In confinement ponds or pens, fish are packed in so tightly they spend their whole lives swimming in a murky, unsanitary stew of feces, urine and wasted food. Disease outbreaks and parasite infestations are incredibly common on fish “farms,” which is why massive amounts of antibiotics are fed to fish raised in captivity (sound familiar?).
When located in coastal areas these pollution factories contaminate lakes, rivers and harbors while destroying sensitive aquatic ecosystems, and fish “farms” have been blamed for a number of epidemics that have decimated wild fish populations. Fish “farm” operators are notoriously hostile to animals that need to eat fish to survive, and many never pass up the opportunity to poison or gun down seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises or small whales that swim too close to their pens or get caught in their containment nets.
And let’s not forget that the fish we eat for food also have brains, pain receptors and central nervous systems. They, too, are intelligent and aware of what is happening to them, and the terror and pain they experience when dying by suffocation (that’s how fish caught by fishermen normally expire) is undoubtedly immense.
If There’s Nothing to Hide, then Why Hide It?
The processed and packaged chicken and fish products that line grocery display cases and occupy freezer compartments in supermarkets bear no resemblance to the living animals from which they came. This allows the consumer to remain in a perpetual state of denial, buying discrete chunks of flesh that seem to have materialized by magic.
The best way to remedy this ignorance would be to install video monitors adjacent to every meat department in every supermarket, which would run recordings of industrial agriculture and fishing practices on a continuous loop so meat and egg buyers could see exactly what their food dollars were helping to support. Intentional cluelessness is most people’s default position, but when the screaming, bleeding and struggling for survival is going on right in front of you that casually assumed moral indifference is not so easy to maintain.
The chicken and fish you buy in the store may be contaminated by antibiotics, heavy metals, toxins, bacteria and an assortment of other nasty substances that could put your health at risk. But even if it isn’t, we still should be asking ourselves: should we, as omnivores and allegedly compassionate souls, be consuming animal products that come from defenseless creatures who’ve been sadistically and heartlessly violated and abused?
With Healthier Choices There is No Need for Guilt
I hope you don’t think I’m trying to lay a guilt trip on you here, by asking a question like this or by going into graphic detail about the abuse of food animals. Because that isn’t my intent. Frankly that’s a losing strategy and most thoughtful people who care about the welfare of animals know it.
Over the years animal rights activists have tried hard to shame people into giving up meat. But all they’ve gained for their trouble is a reputation for intolerance and obnoxiousness. This isn’t fair or accurate (shoot the messenger much?), but when someone tries to make us feel guilty our natural reaction is to become defensive and hostile, to the point where we become more offended by the “rudeness” of the activist than by the horrific brutality they’re trying to expose.
When I post photos of our farm, our animals and even me holding one of our animals, my intention here is not to shame you but to inform you, so you can make educated decisions about your dietary choices. Every time we put a morsel of food in our mouths we are making a choice, and where there are choices there are always alternatives—and in this case there are far better ones than the usual.
Some try to argue the point but we are omnivores—and damn creative ones at that—who know how to customize healthy and taste-bud-pleasing diets that don’t include meat, or sometimes even eggs or dairy. And even if we do decide to consume eggs, dairy or goat’s milk we don’t have to rely on cruelty-drenched industrial sources to meet our dietary needs. We don’t have to subsidize barbarity if we don’t want to, and it is lazy to continue doing so simply because we prefer the path of least resistance.
Shame and guilt shouldn’t be necessary here. Smarter, healthier and more compassionate decision-making only empowers us, and the sooner we realize it the better off we’ll be—and the better things will be for the finned and feathered companions with whom we share this gorgeous planet.