This was the article I hoped I would never have to write. Every writer (journalists, mostly, although they are often delaying the inevitable) will occasionally find themselves in a tricky situation, in which they will be called upon to shine the light of truth and journalistic integrity into the darkness that reality often brings. In doing so, the author of the piece ought to know full well that a certain amount of pushback is due when he or she brings certain truths to the surface. We all have individuals and institutions we revere, often unquestioningly, and we find our hackles being raised when the aforementioned are brought under close scrutiny. My take on this currently developing issue, it should be noted, is certainly not the final say in the matter, nor should it be read as such. The following simply reflects my concerns about the situation at the present juncture in time, and offers a perspective of caution as the story develops.
In the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate and respect the work of the animal rights organization “Mercy for Animals”. The work that they’ve done concerning undercover investigations is to be praised, informing the public about the horrible realities that billions (yes, billions) of sentient beings face every year. In addition to working to document the abuses against animals, Mercy for Animals creates informational films about living a vegan lifestyle, helping to educate others about why its so important to be true to our own values of compassion, mercy, and kindness by leaving animals out of our diets.
While the above still holds true, a recent news story has caused to me reconsider my position concerning Mercy For Animals, and what they truly stand for. In early January, it was reported that Mercy for Animals had released horrific footage of piglets being subjected to unimaginable cruelty at an Oklahoma factory farm. After the release of the footage, Tyson’s public relations team swung into action and announced that they were ending their professional relationship with the slaughterhouse. Mercy For Animals praised this move on the part of Tyson Foods, proudly claiming “Progress for Pigs” on their website. On the surface, this all seems well and good. Tyson will no longer (as far as we know) be getting their pigs from this particular slaughterhouse, and Mercy For Animals appears to make progress in achieving a more humane standard.
Upon a more thorough inspection, this news is nothing if not completely absurd. On their personal website, Mercy for Animals mentions that they have “urged” Tyson Food to likewise “encourage” (not require) their suppliers to choose other methods of killing in accordance with the American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines. I knew very little about the AVMA, or their guidelines for killing (a rather gruesome act to have “guidelines” for) farm animals, so I did some investigating, and what I discovered was abhorrent. According to the AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals: 2013, the following is a list of approved methods for killing animals, farmed or otherwise:
-CO2 poisoning (gassing the animals)
-Blunt force trauma
Let us take a moment to consider the implications of what we’ve learned. Mercy for Animals has put their stamp of approval on “alternative” AVMA-approved methods of killing. They’ve encouraged Tyson to choose other AVMA methods of slaughter, and Tyson has made mention that they are considering making a change (which is certainly no guarantee that change will be made). And even still, the AVMA considers blunt force trauma to be an acceptable method of killing. We should note that the undercover video that MFA recorded dealt with piglets being subjected to blunt force trauma; if Tyson wished to, they could make a strong case that they were simply following AVMA approved guidelines for slaughter.
We need to ask ourselves honestly: do any of the above methods seem humane by any stretch of the imagination? Do any of them seem to be “progress for pigs”? I would believe the answer to be a firm “no”. Mercy for Animals could have said that this behavior by Tyson is unacceptable; they could have spent time, money, and energy focused on doing vegan education instead of working with the institutional supplier itself to create an arbitrary “change” which will only lead to an equally inhumane and cruel form of death for these sentient beings.
After a few years of writing about these issues, I’m no longer naive about the responses I’m most likely going to receive from well-meaning and otherwise upstanding individuals. They’ll ask me, “But shouldn’t we be doing all that we can for the pigs suffering right now?” “Isn’t this a step in the right direction?” “We can’t expect the world to go vegan overnight, you know”. My answer to those questions is simple: Yes, we should. No, it isn’t. And, of course I know the world isn’t going to go vegan overnight. Here’s the primary issue: if you’re a non-vegan, and you heart that Mercy for Animals has, for all intents and purposes, provided a veritable seal of approval on Tyson pork, will this cause you to eat more pork or less? If you’re a non-vegan, and you learn that Perdue might possibly be banning gestation crates in the next ten years or so, and that PETA has praised them for this, will this make you eat less meat or more? If you’re a non-vegan, and you notice that Whole Foods has begun using animal welfare rated products (wherein the animal might have just been decapitated instead of torn to pieces while alive, perhaps), are you going to strongly consider going vegan? Of course not.
If Mercy for Animals has a vision for a vegan world, then why are they condoning actions that merely serve to make the general public more comfortable with their habits? It makes no sense. Does it really, honestly matter in a moral sense if a sentient being is gassed or electrocuted? I would argue that it makes no difference whatsoever. In this real-life situation, Tyson receives a phenomenal amount of positive PR for their “high welfare standards”, and Mercy for Animals is allowed to declare “victory” and “progress for pigs”. Its a win-win for everyone. Except for the pigs themselves. If you continue to tell the public that this method or that method of slaughter is somehow “better”, you are not allowed to be concerned or frustrated that the world around you isn’t going vegan.
This story is still developing, but the information I researched was as up to date as recently as this week. If I’ve omitted a critical detail that someone spots, please feel free to inform me; I am as fallible as the next writer. But the driving force behind this peace is the concern that this story is similar to many other large animal rights organizations declaring “victory”, when in fact the institutions simply shift to another equally horrific form of slaughter, if they even shift at all. You’ll have to forgive me if I see this form of campaign as a waste of time. If we wish to realize the vision of a vegan world, it’s not going to come from us telling non-vegans that this particular pig was killed “humanely”, so thats ok. Encouraging any form of animal consumption will have a deleterious effect on our goal of realizing a compassionate world, and all of our advocacy (in my opinion) should be creative, non-violent forms of vegan education, which can come in so many wonderfully effective forms. Over the years, I’ve come to learn about so many individuals whose lives were changed when they shared a dialogue with someone who encouraged them to be true to their own values of compassion and mercy, which means going vegan as a matter of fundamental justice. This approach is honest, truthful, and very straightforward. Additionally, it respects the intelligence of the individual and their capacity to make these positive, life-affirming changes.
Will the world go vegan overnight? No. Will it take many, many more years to see a vegan world if we continue to support groups such as Mercy for Animals that encourage “humane” consumption? Absolutely. As a full disclosure, I support much of the work that Mercy for Animals does, but I cannot throw my support behind this campaign which (in my opinion) will simply bring more of the same for the animals involved. I certainly wouldn’t claim to have all the answers, but I am quite sure of one thing: We must choose a path that will achieve real results for the animals themselves, and that means choosing to advocate for veganism, not welfarism.