Aren’t there laws that protect animals from cruelty?

Do you think cruelty to animals is against the law?

You may be surprised to learn that in the United States:

  • There are no federal laws governing the conditions in which farmed animals are raised.
  • The majority of farmed animal suffering is exempt from state anti-cruelty laws.
  • Many state anti-cruelty laws exempt “standard” or “commonly accepted” agricultural practices, which are not defined by the legislature, but rather are defined by the industry.
  • If the anti-cruelty laws that protect dogs and cats were applied to farmed animals, many of the most routine U.S. farming practices would be illegal in all 50 states.

Farmed animals are abused and killed in numbers so staggering as to be almost incomprehensible:

  • Globally, the death toll for these farmed land animals exceeds 70 billion every year. That’s nearly 191 million every day, or nearly 8 million every hour, 133,000 every minute, or about 2,220 every second.
  • The number of aquatic animals killed for food every year is in the trillions.
  • Around 9 billion farmed land animals are killed each year in the U.S. alone (about one million every hour; nearly 17 thousand every minute; around 278 every second).

Investigations and industry whistle-blowers have revealed abuses on farms and in slaughterhouses so horrific, most people cannot even bear to watch the videos of them. Despite their vast numbers, and the severity of abuse they suffer, farmed animals receive only minimal protections by our legal system, and the vast majority receive none at all.

Farmed animals are unprotected by most state anti-cruelty laws and even omitted from the federal Animal Welfare Act. The only federal oversight of their treatment comes during transportation and slaughter. The 28 Hour Law requires vehicles transporting animals for slaughter to stop every 28 hours to allow animals exercise, food, and water. This law is rarely enforced, and the USDA claims it does not apply to birds, which represent over 95% of farmed animals.

The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act is also limited. The Act requires that large animals be stunned into unconsciousness and rendered insensible to pain prior to slaughter. Typically, electric current is used to induce a heart attack or seizure; or a captive bolt gun is used to deliver a blow to the skull or shoot a rod into the animal’s brain. Animals can suffer one or more failed stuns, in which case, they may be paralyzed without losing sensibility. Unconscious animals whose necks are not cut soon enough may regain consciousness after being hung up to bleed out.

The Washington Post reported that, “Hogs, unlike cattle, are dunked in tanks of hot water after they are stunned to soften the hides for skinning. As a result, a botched slaughter condemns some hogs to being scalded and drowned. Secret videotape from an Iowa pork plant shows hogs squealing and kicking as they are being lowered into the water.”

The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act has been wrongly interpreted to exclude birds, as well as rabbits, fish, and other animals routinely raised for human consumption. The law also permits ritual slaughter in which animals are not rendered unconscious before slaughter.

Over 95 percent of U.S. land animals killed for food are birds, yet they are exempt from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and there is no federal law requiring they be handled humanely. Birds are usually immobilized via electrical stunning. Hanging upside down in leg shackles, the birds’ heads are passed through an electrified water bath. Nobody knows whether this shock renders them unconscious, and they may suffer severely painful shocks before they are stunned. Every year, several hundred thousand chickens and turkeys are scalded alive.

Unfortunately, compliance with, and enforcement of, this Act has been inconsistent, and animal protection organizations continue to expose widespread and horrific violations of it.

Under state law, the industry defines what practices are “standard” and therefore exempt. As a result:

  • Animals routinely have their testicles, tails, horns, beaks, toes, or “extra” teats amputated without anesthesia.
  • Animals are intensively confined in spaces so small they cannot turn around, extend their wings, or lie down comfortably, as in gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages.
  • In the U.S., nearly all birds raised for food are factory farmed in densely populated sheds, where vast amounts of waste accumulate, and the resulting ammonia levels commonly cause painful burns to the birds’ skin, eyes, and respiratory tracts.
  • Because most egg-laying hens are packed in cages (usually less than 8 1/2 square inches of floor space per bird), hens can become immobilized and die of suffocation or dehydration, and their decomposing corpses are found in cages with live birds.
  • Ducks are cruelly force-fed, to the point of organ failure, in the production of foie gras.
  • Hens are systematically starved in order to artificially re-start their egg-laying cycles.
  • Male chicks in the egg industry are ground up alive, and sickly piglets are killed by slamming their heads on the ground.
  • Calves can be taken away from their mothers, mere moments after birth, causing distress for both.
  • On transport trucks, chickens, turkeys, pigs, sheep, or cows are crammed together, forced to stand in a pool of urine, feces, and vomit; some are trampled or suffocate; some suffer dehydration or frostbite; some become frozen to the trailers or cages; and approximately 200,000 pigs die from heatstroke on their way to slaughter every year in the U.S.
  • In the slaughterhouse, the animals can typically smell, hear, and often see the slaughter of those before them, but they are prodded along by workers, who are under pressure to keep the lines moving at rapid speeds.

Even when farmed animals are covered by state anti-cruelty laws, prosecution for abuse is rare, due to factors like limited investigative resources and the fact that most abuse occurs behind closed doors at windowless facilities.

In fact, far from protecting animals, laws in the United States often protect the abusers. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act is a U.S. federal law that prohibits any person from engaging in certain conduct “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” According to the Civil Liberties Defense Center, “The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), 18 U.S.C. § 43, is a federal law designed by corporations for the purpose of protecting the profits they make from animal abuse and exploitation.”

At the state level, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council has lobbied for several states to institute so-called “Ag-Gag” bills, a class of anti-whistle-blower laws that apply within the agriculture industry, typically state laws that forbid the act of undercover filming or photography of activity on farms without the consent of their owners—particularly targeting whistle-blowers of animal abuses at these facilities. Six states have ag-gag laws on the books: Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, and Utah. An ag-gag law in Idaho was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal judge in the summer of 2015. These laws have also begun to appear outside the U.S., including in Australia.

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