The Real Problem With the USDA

Given the mainstream media’s focus on human affairs, it is easy to forget just how many non-humans we victimize every day. And now that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has removed animal welfare inspection reports and enforcement records from its website, the few who have not forgotten will no longer be able to monitor whether even the most minimal standards of humane treatment are satisfied.

The USDA’s move is disgraceful but not at all surprising. This particular agency oversees and helps to facilitate a massive industry — factory farming — that rigidly confines, neglects, injures, and kills billions of animals every year for food and other products (leather, soap, perfume, toothpaste, etc.). So it was hard to take them very seriously when they professed concern for how animals are treated. If anything, their recent decision to suppress this information is much more consistent with their deadly mission.

Fortunately, Harvard animal law and policy fellow Delcianna Winders, along with several animal-rights/animal-welfare groups — PETA, Beagle Freedom Project, Born Free USA, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — are fighting back. On February 13, they filed a lawsuit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia against both the USDA and Animal and Plant Health

Inspection Service. Plaintiffs are demanding reinstatement of the records, which include reports of inspections at over 7,800 animal-research facilities, animal censuses, and enforcement actions against various violators of the Animal Welfare Act (zoos, circuses, research laboratories at government agencies and academic medical centers, and commercial breeders).

The USDA, however, is not the only bad actor here. Arguably even worse are all the owners and executives of corporations who profit from the mass slaughter of animals. They are not only completely indifferent to the animals they abuse; many of them are also indifferent to the workers they employ to do their “dirty work.” Chicken farmers across five states recently filed a class action lawsuit against Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, Koch Foods and Sanderson Farms for colluding to keep their wages artificially low and treating them like indentured servants.

Millions were (rightly) outraged when Harambe the gorilla was shot to death after a three-year-old boy walked into his exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo, and millions more were (rightly) outraged when Cecil the lion was shot to death by Walter Palmer after being lured out of his habitat at the Hwange National Park in Matabeleland North, Zimbabwe. But where is the outrage for all of the pigs and cows that are killed every day in our slaughterhouses? How are any of these killings different from Harambe’s or Cecil’s?

There is no rational basis for thinking that the killing of a gorilla or lion is much worse than the killing of a pig or cow (or bear or deer). Whatever people may want to believe, scientific research demonstrates that all of these animals, from gorillas on down, are highly intelligent, both cognitively and socially, and are quite capable of suffering, of rich emotions (including love and compassion), and of deep relationships (both intra- and inter-species). [See generally Steven M. Wise, Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (Perseus Books, 2002)]. Maudlin as it may sound, the fact of the matter is that whenever we kill any animal, we are killing another animal’s good friend and beloved family member.

For all the love and attention so many of us heap on our pets, we humans are absolutely brutal to animals that have not managed to charm their way into our homes. At the root of this brutality is society’s contemptuous, self-superior attitude toward non-domesticated animals, including animals in captivity, livestock and wildlife. All too many of us humans think that we matter much more than they do and that this mattering more somehow licenses us to treat them much worse than we may treat each other. But these pernicious (biblical) assumptions are just plain wrong, nothing more than self-serving rationalizations.

The mere fact that we humans are, on average, more cognitively intelligent than non-humans means only that we have more power, including the power to exploit and kill. It does not mean that we have the moral right to exploit and kill, any more than more intelligent humans have the moral right to exploit and kill less intelligent humans. How intelligent a creature is, whether human or non-human, is morally irrelevant. The reason why most non-human animals have the moral right, and should have the legal right, to live out their lives free from gratuitous, human-caused suffering is not because they are intelligent but because, like humans, this is their strong preference. No, they can’t express this preference in words. But they can express it in other ways — for example, through vocal utterances and body language indicating intense fear of, and aversion to, physical pain, emotional pain and deadly threats.

For now, the compassionate among us need to insist that the USDA repost animal welfare inspection reports and enforcement records. But for the long term, we need to work toward a world in which humans refrain not merely from mistreating animals but also from killing them for trivial purposes. Food does indeed qualify as a trivial purpose because humans can live quite well, in fact even better, without meat and dairy — as millions of vegetarians and vegans around the world prove every day.