Michael Vick's egregious dog-fighting racket, circus elephants being beaten with bull hooks, furless fox carcasses, tortured lab monkeys, billions of pigs, cows, chickens and turkeys who spend their short, painful lives in factory farms before appearing on a table—whether meat eaters or vegans, most all of us have, at one time or another, experienced a heavy heart over the myriad cases of animal abuse occurring daily. So rampant, widespread and largely ignored, an "end" to animal cruelty seems impossible. But is it?
The arguments for and against our reliance on animals are as heated as debates on gun control, abortion, gay marriage. Humans have always had relationships with animals—we worshipped, hunted, and domesticated them over thousands of years, forging deep-seeded beliefs, cultural practices and in most recent times, gargantuan industries dependent on the lives of countless creatures. What has transpired at the hands of industry though, is nothing compared to our holistic tribal hunter days—yet many people still approach modern animal enslavement as if it were. Replete with indignant intolerance at the animal rights movement, those pro-animal industry advocates dismiss the case against cruelty as sappy and misguided, as if wanting to spare an animal's suffering some how means inflicting harm onto humans instead.
Despite the resistance, animal advocacy groups have tirelessly made headway in exposing animal mistreatment over the last several decades. Regardless of whether you approve--tactics like the naked women common in PETA posters, for example--you likely recall an animal cruelty issue they've successfully brought attention to using that approach. And while the percentage of Americans who call themselves vegan or vegetarian still hovers at an incredibly low number (fewer than 5 percent according to this research), food consciousness is on the rise thanks to the undeniable health risks that come hand in hand with conventionally raised animal products, especially when they're processed into less recognizable iterations.
Ocean Robbins (son of vegetarian best-selling author, John Robbins), adjunct professor at Chapman University, founder and co-host (with his dad) of the 75,000-member Food Revolution Network, began a fascinating discussion in a recent blog on the Huffington Post about animal cruelty, or rather, it's potential end. He cited some major victories for animals, including the recent case of Coles, the largest supermarket chain in Australia, which announced that effective January 1, 2013, it will stop selling pork and egg products from animals raised in factory farms. Along with the nation's other largest chain, Woolworths, which already sells cage-free eggs and is moving towards stall-free pork products by mid-2013, the two chains make up approximately 80 percent of the nation's supermarket outfits.
Here in the U.S., laws have passed in Michigan and California that will ban battery cages for egg-laying hens, and nine more states may soon ban gestation crates for pregnant sows, according to Robbins. The nation's largest fast-food chain, McDonald's, announced its commitment to phase out gestation crates for pregnant sows by the end of the next decade (Burger King and Wendy's plan to phase out gestation crates in half the amount time as McDonald's), and it began honoring a commitment to purchase 1 million cage-free eggs every month. The Golden Arches also opened its first 100 percent vegetarian location in India this year. Chipotle is rapidly expanding locations of its fast-casual chain of Mexican inspired food with a focus not only on locally-sourced produce, but also meat and dairy that comes from animals treated better than those conventionally raised and fed a steady diet of controversial antibiotics and growth hormones.
Major supermarket chains have also made commitments to observe animal welfare standards; Whole Foods hasn't sold egg products that come from battery cages since 2006. The chain, known for its wide selection of organic and non-GMO food as well as vegan and vegetarian staples, has done a considerable amount of education on the health, environmental and ethical benefits of choosing organic and humanely raised animal products, or none at all.
Still, as Robbins notes, "the animal agriculture industry routinely does things to animals that, if you did them to a dog or a cat, would get you put in jail." The massive industrial animal agriculture sector is the most notable source of animal cruelty by sheer volume: More than ten billion animals--just in the U.S.--have been turned into food this year (that's not including fish). Undercover footage regularly leaked by animal advocacy groups expose unimaginable mistreatment of animals. Robbins cites a recent poll, which found that 94 percent of Americans think animals raised for food don't deserve to be cruelly treated, and more than 70 percent of Americans support undercover investigations routinely used by animal welfare organizations to bring charges against abusers and enlighten the general public to what really happens to their food.
According to Robbins, "so long as consumers are kept in the dark about the real source of their food, farm owners have no economic incentive to do more than the minimum necessary to appease regulatory authorities." And many of us are turning up the light every day on the undeniable reality that we are what we eat. Nothing could be more true or obvious, and it's reflected in the resurgence in growing our own food, supporting local market economies and cutting corporations out of our diets. It is more than just a trend for the "organic elite", it's an awakening to the true power of what we choose to put into our bodies. Likewise, the cosmetics we use, the products we clean our homes with, the clothes and shoes we wear, are all intricately linked to who we are, who we become--and if we saw firsthand the cruel practices that often play a part in those products, most of us would choose otherwise.
Eradicating cruelty does not mean an end to animal products. While a vegan planet is the ideal for many animal rights activists, humane industry is the achievable focus—a critical stepping stone that could usher in a new world not just for innocent animals, but a world where humans are kinder, more accepting and more cooperative with each other, too.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger