19 November 2006

Coddling Aggravated Animal Abusers

According to this Associated Press news story, Robert Tomlin, 22, of Smithsburg, MD, was convicted of aggravated animal abuse after he admitted and pled guilty to throwing four of his ex-girlfriend's kittens into a fire pit, burning them alive. The incident occurred after he and she argued. First, Tomlin hit his girlfriend so hard it made her ear bleed. Then, when she fled to avoid further assault, he burned her four fully-conscious kittens alive. What punishment did he receive for his crime? Circuit Judge John McDowell sentenced him to 1.5 years in prison, but then immediately suspended the sentence except for the 134 days of time served. Burning four innocent kittens alive only gets you 134 days in prison in Maryland, or 33.5 days per tortured murdered kitten. Apparently, kitten torture and murder comes cheap in Maryland. According to the AP story, Judge McDowell told Tomlin that "Taking defenseless animals as you have, and destroying them . . . there is no excuse for that."

McDowell is surely right! There is no excuse for that, and yet, McDowell elected to suspend Tomlin's sentence. If there is no excuse for aggravated animal abuse, shouldn't such abusers be given the maximum sentences allowed by law for such crimes? McDowell's actions are typical of judges presiding over aggravated animal abuse trials all over the country. No matter how abhorrent the animal abuse in question, it is never taken with the seriousness of human abuse, despite the well-established fact that animal abusers often go on to abuse humans. Convicted aggravated animal abusers, especially first-time abusers, are typically given light-slap-on-the-wrist sentences. Of course, animal abusers know that these crimes aren't taken seriously. Perhaps if we started given these criminals the maximum sentences available without parole, would-be animal abusers would think twice about torturing and killing innocent animals.

Now compare Tomlin's crime with that of Adam Durand. Durand's "crime" is described here. Durand, along with two other members of Compassionate Consumers (Megan Cosgrove and Melanie Ippolito), entered one of Wegmans' egg factories through the manure pits to determine whether Wegmans' eggs really are "cruelty free" as the Animal Care Certified logo on their egg cartons suggests. What Durand and his colleagues found were rows of battery cages stacked four high filled with six to nine birds per cage, many of whom had died in their cages. In the course of shooting their undercover documentary video, Durand and his colleagues found 11 hens that were so near death that they would not have survived another 24 hours without immediate medical attention. [For example, one hen had fallen into the manure pit below the battery cages and was buried in manure up to her neck. That hen lacked access to food and water and was barely able to breath, due to the weight of the manure crushing her body.] So, while their intent was simply to videotape and document the horribly inhumane conditions present in Wegmans' egg factories, they couldn't, out of conscience, let these 11 totally neglected hens die. These hens had a combined market value of less then $50 and all of them would have been dead within the next day or two regardless, so strictly speaking Wegmans was out nothing. Nevertheless, Durand was sentenced to nine months in prison for saving the lives of 11 abused and neglected hens. He has served one month of his sentence and is now out on bond while his case is being appealed. If his verdict is not overturned, he will have to serve the rest of his sentence, in which case he will end up serving considerably more time for trying to rescue 11 hens from certain death than Tomlin served for burning four kittens alive.

The question I wish to pose is this: Who is the real criminal in the Wegmans case, Durand, who videodocumented the horribly inhumane way Wegmans raises its hens and who along the way happened to rescue 11 hens from certain death, or Wegmans, which raises its hens in inhumane, unsanitary, cruel battery cages and neglects those hens to the point that many die in their cages from starvation and/or dehydration? Let's be clear on what the conditions are like for hens confined in battery cages. Two distinct strains of chickens have been selectively bred: “layers” for egg production and “broilers” for meat production. Since "layers" are thought to produce insufficient and inferior meat and since males do not produce eggs, male chicks of the layer strain are identified by chicken sexers, who discard them either by throwing them into plastic bags where they are allowed to suffocate or by throwing into meat grinders where they are ground up alive. In 1995, 247 million unwanted male chicks met this fate. Like their "broiler" counterparts, at one week of age, the female chicks of the layer strain are debeaked using a scalding hot blade that cuts through the highly sensitive horn of the beak leaving blisters in the mouth. No anesthesia is used. However, since "layers" are kept alive longer than "broilers," most egg producers debeak their birds a second time around twelve weeks of age. Worse still, "layers" are permanently confined in 16” x 18” battery cages, 6-9 birds to a cage. Thus, the average egg-laying hen has only 48-58 square inches of cage-floor space, not much larger than a 5x8 index card. [Wegmans prides itself in giving its hens 75 square inches of floor space, but keep in mind a standard sheet of typing paper is 93.5 square inches. Even with 75 square inches of floor space per bird, the birds are so tightly packed together that they cannot even stretch out their wings.] The cages have slanted wire mesh flooring which is totally inappropriate for the birds’ feet, which sometimes grow fast to the cage floor making it impossible to reach food and water. Ninety-eight percent of the eggs produced in the U.S. come from layers permanently confined in such battery cages. After a year and a half of this existence (assuming they don’t die in their cages, as do 12-18% of them per year), about the time when their egg production begins to wane, the birds are either crammed even more tightly into portable crates, transported to the slaughterhouse, and turned into soup and other processed foods, or they are kept for another laying cycle, whichever is cheaper. Those unfortunate enough to be kept and “recycled” are force-molted to prepare them for the next laying cycle. The primary method of forced molting involves the withholding of all food from the hens for a period of 5-14 days. In a typical month, 70 million hens are at some stage of a forced-molt (according to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service). After one or two forced-molt laying cycles, the spent birds will suffer one of two fates: Either they will be sent to slaughter as described above, or as is increasingly favored, they will meet with on farm disposal whereby they are ground up alive and fed to the next generation of hens. During the first six months of 1999, 98.7 million laying hens were sent to slaughter and another 21.9 million met with on farm disposal. These millions of birds are forced to endure all of this inhumane treatment, just so we can indulge in an inherently unhealthful product loaded with cholesterol (300 mg. per egg) and fat (50% of eggs’ calories come from fat, most of which is saturated), which has somehow come to be associated with breakfast.

[My primary interest in this post is with aggravated animal abuse and with our society's unjustifiable tendency to coddle animal abusers while criminalizing the conduct of animal liberators who are trying to prevent such abuse. Nevertheless, it's worth noting that raising birds in this inhumane unsanitary way is thought to have created the conditions necessary for the evolution of the virulent strain of bird flu. Raising birds in this manner is not only cruel and inhumane, it puts all humans at risk for a major bird flu epidemic. Doing right by hens and banning battery cage hen husbandry systems would be a major step toward reducing our risk of dying from bird flu. More ethical synergy.]

To see for yourself whether I have accurately described the conditions inside battery cage egg production facilities, you can view Adam Durand's documentary video (aptly entitled Wegmans Cruelty) for free at Google video here. Or if you prefer to download a copy of Wegmans Cruelty for free, you can do so here.

Subjecting animals to these conditions is itself a form of aggravated animal abuse. Debeaking chickens without anesthesia is cruel and abusive. Forcing chickens to live their entire lives crammed in cages with only 75 square inches of floor space is cruel and inhumane. Raising hens in conditions which guarantee that many of these hens will lack access to food and water and will, as a result, die slow agonizing deaths from starvation or dehydration is horribly abusive. Forcing a hen to endure the wretched stench of her dead decaying cagemate is abusive, as well. No animal should willingly be subjected to such abuses, and yet the battery cage system of hen husbandry makes it inevitable that the hens will be subjected to most if not all of these abuses and the egg industry knows it. Why does Wegmans subject its hens to all these abuses? Because doing so reduces per egg production costs and thus increases profitability. All of the hens' most significant interests are sacrificed just so that Wegmans can make a few cents more per carton of eggs.

Robert Tomlin is an aggravated animal abuser to be sure. He brutalized four innocent kittens and deserves to serve every single day of his 1.5 year sentence. Sadly, Judge McDowell decided to go easy on him and suspend his sentence. But now consider Wegmans. At this very moment, Wegmans is brutalizing 700,000 hens with the government's blessing. I suspect that an underlying reason our government coddles aggravated animal abusers like Tomlin is because if we as a nation were really to start taking aggravated animal abuse seriously, we would have to start holding corporations like Wegmans responsible for their crimes of inhumanity.

Judge McDowell was right about one thing. There is no excuse for animal abuse, whether it is perpetrated by a pathetic individual like Tomlin for spite or by a greedy corporation like Wegmans for profit. We may not be able to persuade district attorney Rick Healy to charge Wegmans with animal cruelty and abuse, but we can choose to stop purchasing eggs, and we can boycott Wegmans entirely until it empties its battery cages and permanently gets rid of those cages. Whole Foods no longer sells eggs from caged hens. We can and should hold Wegmans to the same standard.

Sadly, we live in a society that not only coddles aggravated animal abusers, it facilitates them. Last week, the Republican-led lame duck Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which makes it a felony for animal rights activists to engage in non-violent peaceful protests that result in businesses losing money. Legal experts say a protester could be charged with terrorism if s/he were to engage in a sit-in that caused an animal-exploiting business to lose profits. The right to protest unjust policies and institutions has been a fundamental legal right since the founding of our country. That right is now in jeopardy, thanks to the U.S. House of Representatives. The government is obviously complicitous, no doubt due to the efforts of powerful animal industry lobbyists. Since we can't count on our government to do what is right where animals are concerned, we must do what is right ourselves and boycott those industries, like Wegmans, that exploit animals for profit.

The bottom line: If you were the judge in the Robert Tomlin case, you would have thrown the book at Tomlin and given him the maximum sentence allowed by law. Hold Wegmans (and other inhumane egg producers) to the same standard. Wegmans is clearly guilty of raising its birds in cruel abusive battery cages. Wegmans is also clearly guilty of consumer fraud. It raises its hens in inhumane battery cages and then markets eggs from those same abused hens to well-meaning consumers using the misleading Animal Care Certified logo. Say "no" to cruelty. Say "no" to fraud. Say "no" to eggs. And say "no" to Wegmans until it dismantles its battery cage system of egg production.

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