Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Animals feel. Common sense. Right?

An interview with Bernard E. Rollin University distinguished professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University and University Bioethicist in residence.

Retaining a thick Brooklyn accent Bernie (as he is known by his students) is a force to be reckoned with.  A proud weightlifter and connoisseur of Harley Davidson motorcycles, you might not peg him as a Columbia-educated University distinguished professor.  My first encounter with this giant of animal welfare came as he guest-lectured a bioethics class I was taking in the fall of 2006.  His plea for students to embrace logic, critical thinking, and practice “weight-lifting with your mind” was imprinted on us with his use of punctuating profanity as he lectured.  He is what you would consider a “Rock Star” professor on par with Temple Grandin in reputation among students.

Bernie has published several widely read books including Animal Rights and Human Morality (1981), which helped set up a logical framework for the animal rights movement. For nearly a decade between the mid 1970’s and early 80’s he worked to make key amendments to the U.S.  Animal Welfare Act. The amendments concern treatment of research animals; such as controlling pain and prohibiting repeat use of animals like cats for research procedures at vet schools and research institutions.  Up until these amendments passed students in vet school were required to operate on the same dog or cat up to 20 times. The animals were kept alive and “worked on” over the course of several weeks with little to no attention paid to pain relief or after-care.  Much focus was placed to the nuts-and-bolts of animal anatomy with little to no attention paid to minimizing animal suffering. In a particularly gruesome lab exercise cats were fed cream and later their intestines sliced open, while conscious, to instruct students how food passed through the digestive tract. The cats were given ketamine at a low dose to render their brains dissociated from sensation; mostly to prevent flinching during surgery. However the drug wore off and the pain would be fully felt by the animal for days until it’s next round of surgery. Bernie’s 1985 amendments to the Animal Welfare Act ended this and other horrific practices in vet schools and research labs around the country.  His current work has been focused on the welfare of farm animals, an organic transition at an institution with deep roots in agricultural understanding. His most recent book Putting the Horse before Descartes is an autobiography that chronicles his 41 years at Colorado State and his wielding of the battle ax for animal-welfare awareness.

After years passing since my first encounter with Bernie I felt it time to go to his office and sit down and have a joint “weight-lifting” session on these issues.  So, one week before classes started for the fall semester of 2010, I did just that.  

Kristopher Hite: After watching Food Inc. and other “foodie” themed documentaries, and reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma, I’m wondering what your perspective is on how animal treatment in the meat industry is portrayed by these authors and producers.

Bernie Rollin: There’s a certain bias but it’s basically true. We’re in a transitional moment because part of the (meat) industry, I’d say 25%, has taken heed to things like prop 2 in California – that was the thing three years ago that was passed 2 to 1. The proposition made it illegal to raise chickens in cages, pigs in boxes, or veal calves in boxes. It passed by considerably more than anything else on the ballot and that was the year that Obama got elected. It tells you that, at least in California, Arizona, Michigan, Ohio (after a bunch of posturing) and Florida (which had a referendum that capitulated) that the industry is becoming aware. I just talked to an industry guy for this new book I’m writing and he said “we made a serious mistake when we gave each chicken 48 inches.”  You see they’re beginning to get it. You wouldn’t have heard that five years ago from an industry person. 

KH: Do you think that this “Real Food” advocacy has had an influence?

BR:  Oh yeah, it’s all had an influence; the animal welfare movement has had an influence too.
This book we’re doing is very interesting and it wouldn’t have been done before the PEW commission.  Do you know about the PEW commission? 

KH: No


KH: Briefly, what is the PEW charitable trust?

BR: They are the SUN oil company fortune; 6 billion dollars plus or minus.  You wouldn’t expect these studies from oil money, but they are fairly left wing.  They did a study on “biotech,” they did a study on the pollution of the oceans, all this kind of stuff. Shit, maybe ten years ago they were approached by John’s Hopkins who had done some Delaware, Maryland, Virginia epidemiology of microbes in the soil in the water and they found all kinds of shit; fluoroquinolones in drinking water – these are cutting edge anti-biotics, you know, kind of the last resort for hospital nosocomial infections and things like that. And  Hopkins has a good relationship with PEW and so they said “Why don’t you fund a commission looking at industrial agriculture “  so they funded a $3 million commission.  There were 15 of us on the commission including the former secretary of agriculture, former governor of Kansas, dean of a vet school, two deans of public health, an executive from Cargill, and we all looked at the affect of industrial agriculture on the environment, on human health, on animal health, on animal welfare, and on rural community health. And we had specific, very specific indictments of industrial agriculture. In fact I couldn’t believe that the other 14 people didn’t know anything about animal welfare. But by the time the commission finished in 3 years they voted unanimously to demand the abolition of animal confinement in 10 years. Which just fuckin’ amazed me. 
This report is available online and since its publication in 2007 it has had an enormous influence on congress, because PEW does, and they are going to phase out antibiotic use in animal feeds. So that is a good place to start reading if you want to understand the major criticisms of industrial farming. And as I said, I think about 25% of the industry has already taken heed. We had 800 editorials in response to the published commission report. Of the 800 two were negative. The two that were negative were puppets of the industry.

We know they’re fighting a losing battle, so I think you’re going to see a change in industrial agriculture.  This book I’m doing is being done by two icons in animal science, old guys, very senior. They were trying to do kind of a “response” to the PEW commission, but they didn’t know what the hell they were doing and so they called me up and they said “will you help us?”  Well I looked at the thing and realized there was a theme they couldn’t articulate.  Namely, how does the industry respond to these concerns? But not how do they whine about it, but how do they change in response to it.  I figured if I could get in there and turn the book in THAT direction, it would be fairly subversive, you know. The first thing I did was try to find industry people to provide responses, but none of them could or none would. Not a single one in any of these areas.  I said fine. I went to the people on the PEW commission and said, Would you indicate what the problems are and make some suggestions for immediate progress, not pie in the sky, and they all said yes.  So essentially, this will be a mainstream industry book with a bias in the direction change.  I was sort of proud of orchestrating that. I imagine the book will be out within two years.  I was happy about doing this because there’s absolutely no fucking reason that you have to raise animals the way they do.

KH: That brings me to my next question. If the operating mantra of all corporations in the United States is money, money, money – sell what the “free market” wants to buy, how much of the responsibility of this change in the meat industry falls on consumers and their being more conscientious?  One statistic that slapped me in the face from Food Inc. was that the average American eats 200 lbs of meat every year.  If the goal is to reduce animal suffering, then how much responsibility falls on us?

BR: A lot of it. A lot of it is general taste.  But, if you try to take Americans’ hot dogs away you’re going to get a revolution. You can give them all the data you want on rat shit and carcinogens.  One way to ensure something happens in America is to tell Americans – NO. In Marin County, California they passed a “no breeding without a license” law. Breeding immediately proliferated.  You don’t tell Americans what to do. You motivate them. We have a huge tradition of freedom in this country. To me, the emblem of this is bikers. If you travel like I do all over the west people greet you. “God bless you young man” that kind of shit, because they see bikers, however pathetic that may be, as continuing the tradition of freedom.
There was a guy 15-20 years ago who was poaching small game in Utah. Didn’t have a license and didn’t believe he had to have a license.  He was kind of a mountain man, lived off nature. He was caught by a game warden and he killed the game warden… And he was a hero in Utah. He wasn’t a villain. They wrote songs about him. People told him about the cops coming. That is huge and people don’t fucking get it. The left wing liberals don’t get that independence is a wild streak in America. It’s a crazy streak. It’s not like Sweden.

KH: I just watch the Documentary - Gonzo - about the life of Hunter S. Thompson, and I was amazed at the people who sat down to interview and discuss his life, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, Jimmy Buffett and so on. I bring up this film as it pointed out how he got his start in journalism spending time with the Hell’s Angels biker gang all over California in the 60’s. I realized how intertwined the “freedom” carried by the Hell’s angels was intertwined with the Merry Pranksters and how that association kind of led to the reemergence of the “freedom movement.”  But, from my perspective, being born in the 1980s, I see the back end of all that, the residual energy from that movement being co-opted by the sell-outs. 

BR: That’s classic though.  See you didn’t live through the 60’s and I did. The 60’s created a counter-culture like psychedelic art, Peter Max, that kinda shit. Well, within a year 7-up had psychedelic commercials. It’s very much like Hinduism, the history of Hinduism. It doesn’t fight intruder religions. It swallows them.  My colleague, Jim Boyd had a tapestry in his office of a lot of the Hindu gods, and one of them is Jesus. You see, capitalism is very clever that way. You don’t beat ‘em you join ‘em.

KH: Where is the forefront of the fight for farm animal welfare? 

BR: If you hope to change industrial farm animal production conditions the most promising arena is at the state legislature through citizen initialed referenda.
KH: why the shift in strategy when you had had so much success in the 1980s with research animal welfare at the federal level. 
BR: . BR: The Ag lobby wields much more power ($) than the research lobby and so federal action is not feasible for political candidates. Big dairy and pig businesses are billion-dollar-a-year industries and waging battle with them would be political suicide for current or potential federal congress people.

KH: What is the driving force behind state referenda such as the famous prop 2 in California?

BR: The Humane Society of the United States - HSUS.   They campaign and inform people about current industrial farm animal production practices then assist bringing forth reforming referenda for state-wide voteWhen this was attempted in Colorado then-Governor Bill Ritter did not want language like "No hog houses allowed in Colorado" to show up as an amendment to the State Constitution (unfortunately that is how Colorado's referenda process works: only constitutional amendments can be voted on by the public). BUT, it ended up alright because Senate bill 201 was passed in 2008 in lieu of the constitutional amendment. This came to be after the humane society came together with the ag lobby and hashed out the terms of  senate bill 201.

The passage of this bill in Colorado set a precedent for the rest of the country showing that both sides (animal rights activists, and industrial farming operations) can work together whereas many times people say there is no room for compromise on farm animal welfare issues. 

END of interview - see summary of a follow-up conversation below.

A more market-driven change-maker Bernie brought to my attention is the Global Animal Partnership or GAP. Bernie was just appointed to the board though he has not attended any meetings yet. GAP is the organization Whole Foods uses to rank its meat in terms of animal welfare, the 1-5 scale you see in their butcher shop. A detailed outline of criteria used to judge an animal’s lifelong welfare is available in the GAP pamphlets at whole foods butcher-shops. Mostly, these criteria involve maximum transport time, frequency of electric prod use in beef raising, clipping of beaks in chickens, and tail removal in pigs.  At a minimum, animals must have enough space to move freely without in obstruction according to their “natural behavior” to make it onto the bottom rung of this scoring ladder.  One point Bernie emphasized about this scale is that any animal raised on a ranch automatically gets a four out of five ranking. Considering they are not confined and have freedom to move as they please for the majority of their lives. The practices that get a piece of meat from a 4 to a 5 on the scale have to do with the branding and castration policies of the respective ranch, and the top score goes to the animal who spend their entire life on the same farm including slaughter. 

Perhaps it is na├»ve for me to assume that the general taste Americans have for meat consumption will change which I think is what Bernie was trying to tell me throughout our conversations.  According to the Humane Slaughter Act passed in 1958 all cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep and swine must be rendered “insensible to pain” before being chopped up into pieces. This really is as far as we have come on a national level to agreeing on any kind of “animal welfare.” When I consider that this act does not apply to chickens, and that chicken meat makes up nearly 90% of overall meat consumption in the US I see we have really come nowhere on a national level.  These facts are discouraging and make me lose hope that less per-capita meat consumption can somehow be legislated.  But, perhaps we the people CAN be motivated to acquire alternative tastes by public criticisms and indictments such as documentaries, books, national commissions and publically visible interviews with subversive insiders like Bernie. In a recent lecture presented by one of Bernie’s animal welfare compatriots – Temple Grandin – mentioned something that might truly revolutionize the way meat consumption happens in the United States. Real-time streaming video at all stages of farm animal production to facilitate USDA auditing.  As chief justice Louis Brandies once said “sunlight is the best disinfectant” so too might transparency and the open-access philosophy lift the proverbial curtain on the more dubious practices inherent in current industrial farm animal production.    



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