Legal abuse of animals
by Katrina Sharman
June 21, 2006

Three quarters of the world’s 4,700 million egg laying hens are confined in battery cages. Most of these birds barely have room to flap their wings and never live to feel the earth under their feet.

Across the shopping aisle, their cousins, 44 billion "broiler" chickens (each year) live a short but miserable life, reared for meat in dimly lit sheds and fed a diet including antibiotics, before being transformed into food such as drumsticks, burgers and nuggets.

It is now more than three decades since Peter Singer kick-started the modern animal rights movement with his ground-breaking work Animal Liberation. With the release of his latest book, The ethics of what we eat (co-authored with Jim Mason), it seems like an appropriate time for reflection.

Are animals actually doing any better?

At first glance, it would appear not. After all, the intensive "factory farming" of animals has become a global phenomenon, with the "Old MacDonald" style of farm fast disappearing from the rural landscape.

A report released last year by the world’s largest network of animal protection societies (World Society for the Protection of Animals) reveals that approximately 2.5 billion pigs around the world are raised in factory farms each year, where they spend most of their time crammed into sheds. Many females spend part of their lives in "sow crates", in which they can barely take a step forward or backwards for some of their reproductive cycle. Their piglets fair little better, with most only seeing the sunshine for the first time on their way to the abattoir. These sensitive, intelligent animals, who are at least as smart as our family dogs, also apparently share cognitive skills with primates.

This all sounds like a terrible nightmare. It demonstrates a clear and continued violation of the right to bodily integrity and bodily liberty and would surely be actionable were animals not classified in law as mere property. And if you think that it couldn’t happen in a beautiful, natural landscape like Australia, it does.

The good news for animals is that knowledge about the extent and magnitude of animal suffering is spreading and the animal protection movement is growing in size, legitimacy and sophistication as a result. In the same way that the environmental movement was once seen as fringe, discussion about animal rights and the basic right not to suffer is fast moving into the mainstream.

Community education about the lives of animals has a crucial role to play in this movement because the bulk of animal suffering is hidden from the public eye. As consumers, we only ever see the "end product" of animal use, be it meat, clothes, cosmetics or pharmaceuticals. We also have a limited but rapidly growing understanding of the complexity of other animals’ lives.

For example, while it was once thought that the use of tools was the exclusive domain of humans, we now know chimpanzees and magpies use tools, great apes and whales have complex communication abilities and pigs can experience apathy, stress and chronic depression when their behavioural needs are not met.

Arguably, the suffering of animals alone should be sufficient grounds for providing them with a better life, however as individuals, we are all persuaded by different ideas. Whichever road we decide to take, the news is promising. Globally, evidence is growing to suggest that communities are rediscovering respect for animals and are expressing opinions and preferences, both in public forums and at the checkout.

Recently Wellington hosted New Zealand’s national animal rights conference. The fact the guest list included a number of lawyers and politicians is perhaps indicative of the most profound change for animals on this side of the South Pacific to occur in recent years, namely, the emergence of the animal rights law movement.

Following a North American lead, organisations like the Animal Rights Legal Advocacy Network (ARLAN) in New Zealand and Voiceless in Australia are spearheading debate and discussion amongst the legal community about the many barriers to justice that confront animals. And while most lawyers would never condone extremist animal rights activities which are unlawful or violent, it is important to recall that we all have a duty to question our laws. It was Martin Luther King Jr who cautioned us to "never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal".

Although the obstacles to greater protection for animals are significant, they are not insurmountable if we are willing to open our hearts and minds to this important social justice movement.