Working as an animal rights campaigner for SAFE often makes you wonder whether you are making a difference. Animal exploitation is so widespread that you can’t help but question whether all your efforts are actually bringing about some benefit for the animals you are trying to help.
Working in animal rights also means that complete victories are rare and as such they should be cherished. The disappearance of circuses using exotic animals and an end to keeping dolphins in captivity for example, are achievements to celebrate as they represent a permanent change in the animal-use landscape.
Working against the worst cruelty
But what about the results of SAFE’s main campaigns, the ones on factory farming issues? Unfortunately, small steps seem to be the only way to victory here. As an animal rights organisation, SAFE is opposed to all livestock farming but we realize that our society as a whole is not yet ready to give up on all animal products. SAFE is therefore prepared to work on more welfare-based campaigns to at least stop the worst forms of factory farm cruelty. SAFE’s campaign to ban sow stalls was successful in that sow stalls will be banned in a few years but sows will still be farmed in alternative intensive conditions and will still spend months in farrowing crates for many years to come. The situation is similarly grim for battery hens. While our efforts to ban battery hen cages will result in an eventual phase-out of the standard cage, another type of battery cage, called a colony cage, will take its place and many hens will continue to suffer extreme confinement for decades to come.
With all this grim news, it is easy to forget that we are making progress! Public awareness of factory farming issues has grown enormously over the last decade and more and more consumers are now deliberately avoiding factory-farmed pork and eggs. While some of these people may avoid all eggs and pork most do not, and choose to buy free range products. This development has seen a huge increase in free range eggs in supermarkets and a number of small goods companies offering free range or free-farmed pig products.
The ethical consumer
The media and food industry magazines have recognised this change in consumer behaviour and a number of articles have been published to discuss the rise of the ethical consumer and the consequences for the farming sector. It has been good to see that these articles all contributed the growing public awareness to the success of animal rights groups in getting the issues into the mainstream media.
Retailers have started to respond to consumer concern. Supermarkets are allocating more space to free range products on their shelves, cafés and restaurants are switching to free range eggs and meats, McDonald’s replaced their battery eggs with free range in the South Island and Domino’s Pizza now uses free range chicken and wants to replace all their other factory-farmed meats with free range.
As an animal rights organisation, SAFE does not promote free range. Free range farms still exploit animals and there are a number of welfare problems associated with outdoor farming. Male chicks of egg laying breeds are destroyed at only one day of age, some layer hens are debeaked and free range pigs may have nose rings inserted to prevent them from digging. Large-scale free range egg farms keep tens of thousands of hens in massive flocks in unnatural conditions. Free range animals are slaughtered at the same young age as their factory-farmed counterparts and the journey to the slaughterhouse is, of course, a stressful time for all animals.
Small steps forward
In the context of taking small steps forward however, the move towards free range needs to be seen in a positive light. When consumers spend more money on a product because of animal welfare concerns, they acknowledge (often for the first time) that they understand that factory farmed animals suffer. The challenge for animal rights groups like SAFE is to use this newfound public understanding to encourage consumers to widen their circle of compassion and to take further steps to help animals.
So in the end, I do believe that we are making a difference for animals but that we still have a long way to go. The change to free range must not be seen as the end goal but rather as a stepping stone to a more compassionate society, a society where animals are not exploited for their eggs, milk, meat or fur. The steady growth of the number of vegetarians and vegans gives me hope that a future without the exploitation of animals is possible. SAFE will continue to do all it can to stop cruelty to animals but we can’t do it without your help. Your decision to stop buying animal products is the single most powerful thing you can do for the animals, the environment and your own health so why not give it a go? Like me, you will feel so much better for it!