The question of whether animals are sentient beings used to be a matter of debate. The cause of this debate may seem dubious to you if you’ve ever gotten to know an animal. Just about everyone I know who has ever had a pet or raised a farm animal knows darn well that animals have feelings and consciousness: They demonstrate those feelings in countless observable ways.
The question of animal consciousness is no longer the subject of serious scientific debate. In 2012, a group of scientists issued the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,” which concluded that nonhuman animals have all of the neurological requirements to enable them to experience consciousness. According to Marc Bekoff, a pioneering cognitive ethologist and co-founder with Jane Goodall of the Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “The database of research on animal sentience is strong and rapidly growing. Scientists know that individuals from a wide variety of species experience emotions ranging from joy and happiness to deep sadness, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
With this knowledge, the animal abuses suffered on factory farms seem all the more difficult to abide. Let’s use pigs as an example. Pigs have the same intelligence level as dogs. They’re naturally inquisitive, curious and mentally engaged. Yet in factory farms, pigs are housed by the thousands with zero access to sunlight, straw, fresh air or dirt. Sows grow and deliver piglets in cages so small they can’t turn their bodies around or, often, lie down. The list of abuses goes on, and one could make an equally awful list for every type of farm animal.
Factory farming may seem like a problem so big it’s impossible to tackle, but it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the report Factory Farm Nation by the public interest organization Food & Water Watch, it’s been over just the last two decades that smaller farms have given way to factory farms: “Even a few decades ago, there were small- and medium-sized dairy, cattle and hog farms dispersed all across the country. Today, these operations are disappearing. The remaining operations are primarily large-scale factory farms...where thousands of animals on each farm can produce more sewage than most large cities, overwhelming the capacity of rural communities to cope with the environmental and public health burdens.”
If given the choice, I’m sure every one of us would fight legislation that permitted chopping off a cow’s tail or horns without painkillers, for example; but the legislation that has facilitated the growth of factory farms is wrapped in blander packaging. “The incredible growth of factory farming is the result of three key factors,” says the Factory Farm report, listing misguided farm policy; unchecked mergers and acquisitions between the largest meatpacking, poultry processing and dairy companies; and lax environmental rules and lackluster enforcement.
We can all do something to help reduce the suffering of animals on factory farms. One step is to keep our dollars from supporting them, whether by following a vegetarian or vegan diet or by only buying meat, eggs and dairy from well-raised animals. But we can also support groups that fight for animal welfare. We can demand that our politicians address the farm policies that encourage the growth of these operations and support political candidates who understand the important health and moral consequences of the commoditization of animal life. It’s up to us to be stewards of the earth, and protecting the animals that live here is an important part of that promise.