Commentary

Warehousing animals is beneath humanity’s moral dignity

The world has received another reminder of the potentially disastrous
consequences of confining large numbers of animals inside cages and sheds,
with little room to move. Industrial animal farms depend on a complacent
public that does not entirely grasp what goes on inside these vast agricultural
buildings, and it is time for religious communities to scrutinize such farms
and draw attention to the fact that they are the source of massive animal
cruelty and environmental degradation, as well as dangerous breeding
grounds for disease.

The emergence of 2009’s swine (H1N1) flu, whose main viral ancestor arose
on U.S. factory farms in 1998, affords religious leaders an opportunity to
address the moral ethics of industrial agriculture from both a human and
animal imperative.

The United States consumes more meat than any place on earth. According to
the USDA, the average person consumed 222 pounds of meat in 2007. That’s
an increase of 78 pounds in less than 60 years. For the sake of profit and
expedience, agricultural industrialists meet this demand by confining animals
by the hundreds of thousands in cages and crates so small they can’t even
turn around. Denied the slightest touch of mercy, they may lay in their waste,
often unable to engage in basic movements, may never feel the ground
underfoot, or see the light of day. They are slaughtered at a rate of a million
an hour around the clock.

As the concerned author Matthew Scully writes, “Factory farming has no
traditions, no rules, no codes of honor, no little decencies to spare for a
fellow creature. The whole thing is an abandonment of rural values and a
betrayal of honorable animal husbandry.”

There are no religious grounds that can justify this perverse treatment of
animals. Major religions and denominations in this country have spoken
plainly and without much qualification about the importance of treating farm
animals humanely. These statements are grounded in the many scriptural
passages that describe God’s love for creatures.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its statement For I was Hungry
and You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers, and
Farmworkers, said the faithful must “question certain farming practices, such
as the operation of massive confined animal feeding operations. We believe
that these operations should be carefully regulated and monitored so that
environmental risks are minimized and animals are treated as creatures of
God.”

In The Book of Discipline, it says that the United Methodist Church
“support[s] a sustainable agricultural system . . . where agricultural animals
are treated humanely and where their living conditions are as close to natural
systems as possible.” And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America affirms
that “Scripture speaks of humanity’s kinship with other creatures. … God’s
command to have dominion and subdue the earth is not a license to dominate
and exploit. Human dominion, a special responsibility, should reflect God’s
way of ruling as a shepherd king who takes the form of a servant, wearing a
crown of thorns.”

The welfare of animals has historically found its place within the realm of
religious concern. William Wilberforce, the 19th century British abolitionist,
together with a clergyman, Arthur Broome, started the Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the first modern animal protection
organization, in 1824. Indeed, it was because of their faith, and their belief in
a God who created all things, that they devoted their time to protecting and
caring for animals. Moreover, Wilberforce and Broome were not alone; many
leaders of religious thought and practice have shared their belief in
compassion for animals, from St. Augustine to C.S. Lewis.

Today, the same kind of powerful moral voices are heard on behalf of the
creatures for whom we are responsible. From the Reverends Jack Hayford,
Greg Boyd, and Robert Schuller to Brian McLaren and Fr. John Dear, religious
leaders are calling upon the faithful to support initiatives that curb intensive
confinement practices of farm animals.

This year’s emergence of swine H1N1 flu shows, once again, that the lives of
humans and animals are inexorably intertwined — for better or for worse. In
the Hebrew Bible, Job said: “Ask the animals and they will teach you” (Job
12:7). This time, they’ve given us a lesson we must heed, not just for their
sake but for ours.

Christine Gutleben is director of the animals and religion program for The
Humane Society of the United States. For more information, visit
www.humanesociety.org/religion.