The Ethics of Culling Wildlife — More News from GEIG

Dateline Florence (I just like saying that), where the Global Ecological Integrity Group Conference continues:

One of today’s speakers — an ecologist from Australia — asked: When is it ethically appropriate to cull wildlife to reduce the disease threat to humans?

While I am pleased that such questions get posed, they raise predicate questions which seldom get asked.  For example:

1) Is reducing the disease threat to humans an objective good?

2) If so, how much are we willing to sacrifice in order to achieve it?

a) I.e., are we willing to likewise ask when it is ethically appropriate to cull humans to reduce the disease threat?

3) What criteria do we use to ethically differentiate ourselves from wildlife?

Please understand that I am not advocating for a policy of culling humans.  I rather wish to question the ethical predicates underlying the culling of animals.

People often assume that this set of questions stems from and is founded on a philosophy of animal rights.  I believe that they first and foremost arise from environmental ethics.  Indeed, I wonder how we who embrace the Land Ethic can avoid shouting them from the rooftops.

–David Cassuto

Taking Animal Advocacy Seriously (Part 2 of 3)

A couple of months ago I wrote a post on why it is that people fail to take animal advocacy seriously. Today I want to elaborate that claim by illustrating it with a recent example. As most readers of AnimalBlawg probably know, President Obama swatted a fly during an interview with John Hardwood several weeks ago. Most viewers and commentators believed the episode was kind of funny. The President was amused by the event and commented on his Miyagi type ability to kill a fly with just one quick hand movement.

The people at PETA, however, were not pleased. Condemning the President’s “inhumane” treatment of the fly, PETA spokesman Bruce Friedrich commented that “[w]e support compassion even for the most curious, smallest and least sympathetic animals…[w]e believe that people, where they can be compassionate, should be, for all animals.” In order to curb similar future incidents, PETA sent Obama a fly trapping device named “Katcha Bug Humane Bug Catcher”.

If all that they were trying to do was poke fun at the President, PETA’s reaction to the incident is amusing. One suspects, however, that PETA is actually taking this seriously. Lashing out against this conduct is misguided at best and counterproductive at worst. There are at least two problems with PETA’s position.

First, it is unclear whether flies are sentient beings. Several scientific studies suggest that flies do not have the capacity to feel pain (see, e.g., Eisemann, et al). Animal interests or rights stem from their sentience. Therefore, animals that do not have the capacity to feel pain should not have the same rights or interests as animals that have such a capacity. If flies are not sentient beings they should have the same interests or rights as other non-sentient beings such as trees and plants. If plants and trees do not have a right to life (as most people would argue), non-sentient animals should not have a right to life either.

Second, and more importantly, assuming that flies have the capacity to feel pain, the problem of insect mistreatment pales in comparison with other more pressing problems for the animal advocacy community. Most animal advocates agree that the chief evil that we should unite against is the incredibly inhumane practice of factory farming. The problem with PETA’s response to the fly swatting incident is that it provides the people we are trying to convince about the evils of factory farming (and other evidently cruel practices) with an argument against taking us seriously in general. The argument goes something like this:

(1)   PETA represents animal advocates.

(2)   PETA believes that swatting insects is immoral.

(3)   PETA’s position regarding insects is ridiculous and should not be taken seriously.

(4)   Therefore, PETA and other animal advocates should not be taken seriously.

I am well aware that (4) does not follow from (1),(2) and (3). I am also aware that PETA does not necessarily represent the animal advocacy community. This, however, is irrelevant. Regardless of the soundness of the argument, I believe it represents the way in which most people think about these issues. Take, for example, a comment posted on MSNBC’s website by a reader:

“Are you kidding me?  PETA is upset because Obama killed a fly?  Comments like this take away from their organizations credibility and make them look ridiculous.  Are there not any other situations they could make an intelligent comment about this week?”

-Rebecca Alford, Hartsville, South Carolina (June 17, 2009).

The problem with this is that we have limited political capital with the community and have to be very judicious in our use of it. We should not use up our precious resources to combat acts that – like fly swatting – are neither clearly immoral nor central to our principal anti-cruelty crusade (eradicating factory farming). The costs of doing so are obvious. It weakens our credibility with the general public. The benefits, on the other hand, are marginal at best. If we want people to start taking animal advocacy seriously we should stop fussing over minor issues that make us look silly and concentrate on big picture issues like factory farming and animal experimentation.

Luis Chiesa

Talking Factory Farming and Vivisection in Florence

I’m in Florence at the moment and, when not gawking at the Duomo, am attending the annual conference of the Global Ecological Integrity Group (GEIG).  This conference offers a good venue to talk to my fellow enviros about animal issues.  The audience tends to be receptive, albeit sometimes skeptical — just the kind of folks I want to reach.  Indeed, one attendee told me today that after hearing me speak on ethics and agriculture 3 years ago at this conference, he became a vegetarian.

Today, I spoke on the distorted notion of efficiency within industrial agriculture and the implications of that distortion for a post-industrial risk society.  Once again, the questions were thoughtful, probing and rigorous.  One questioner, however, was an archetype.  Even though my talk was about industrial agriculture, she wanted to talk about animal testing.  Then, during the break, she again approached me — this time with the cliched question about what I would do if my child were sick.  Would I, she wondered, support animal testing to save his life?  I said,  “sure.”  She looked triumphant until I also said that if my child were sick and someone told me experimenting on her would save his life, I would support that too.  The fact that I would do virtually anything to protect my child does not necessarily have any bearing on the morality of my actions.

She was unconvinced.  I wonder if anyone has any techniques for reaching out to folks like this.  She’s a neurobiologist who conducts animal research because she believes in its necessity.  She is utterly certain of the moral rightness of her position.  I do not flatter myself that I can convince her of anything but I would like to get her (and others like her) thinking about other points of view.

–David Cassuto

Proposed Ban on Exotic Animals in Westchester Hits Wall (of Legislators)

elephantThis past Monday, at the invitation of the Committee to Ban Wild and Exotic Animal Acts, Michelle Land and I attended a meeting of the Legislation Committee of the Westchester Board of Legislators.  We were there to testify in favor of proposed legislation banning USDA certified “dangerous” animals from county property.  Such a bill would effectively deny circuses that use wild and exotic animals a venue in Westchester County.  For some time, the group has been attempting gently but persistently to interest the legislature in the horrific treatment of and concomitant danger to public safety from wild animals used in traveling entertainment (like circuses).

Much has been written (see, e.g., here) about the brutal methods employed in the “training” of circus animals.  I have also touched upon it here.  As a result of both this mistreatment and the fact that “wild” animals are just that, the animals are unpredictable and on an number of occasions have caused injury either to their handlers or bystanders or both.

Sadly, none of this moved the Legislation Committee.  Mrs. Hanneford, owner of the Hanneford Circus (an annual visitor to Westchester) soliliquized about her love for the animals and how she would never tolerate their mistreatment.  She did acknowledge employing Tony Frisco, a legendarily brutal trainer of elephants whose casual sadism has been captured on video.  However, Mrs. Hanneford stated that he must be okay because the USDA cleared him of all charges.  As for the tape documenting his deeds, she declared that she had not and would not watch it because he had not been charged with a crime.   Consequently, according to her, the animals are treated “correctly.”

The Legislators tabled the bill.  Despite the presence of the Bronx Zoo 15 miles away, one legislator maintained that the circus represented the “only shot” for many kids to see these animals.  Other members agreed and/or felt that this was a discretionary matter best left to the county executive or the federal government.

All in all, it was a bewildering afternoon.  Nevertheless, the battle is not lost.  The Committee to Ban Wild and Exotic Animal Acts remains steadfast and unbowed.  The fight continues.  Stay tuned.

–David Cassuto

Pennsylvania State Legislator Fights for Animal Cruelty Bill

ear cropThomas Caltagirone, Chair of the Judiciary Committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, authored an animal cruelty bill that is currently languishing in the Senate even though it passed the House unanimously in March.  The bill would outlaw ear cropping and “debarking” of dogs.   Mr. Caltagirone is tired of waiting.   He has declared that no one else’s bill will cross his transom until the Senate acts on his.  None.  Since he chairs a rather important committee, his threat carries significant heft.  I will look forward to and hope soon to hear about the bill’s forthcoming passage.

One rarely finds politicians willing to go to the mat for animals.  It is therefore a privilege and a delight to salute those who do.  Bravo, Representative Caltagirone.  Bravo.

–David Cassuto

Geese and Airplanes — Is Extermination the Answer?

Guest Blogger Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, Pace Law School.  June 22, 2009.

This is my first contribution to the Animal Blawg.  I mentioned to my colleague, Prof. David Cassuto, that I was somewhat troubled by recent stories about how Canadian geese are being managed at LaGuardia Airport following the “double bird strike” which brought down US Airways Flight 1549 in January 2009.  Under New York City’s plan, up to 2,000 geese will be relocated and destroyed (largely gassed) during their June and July molting season, when they can not fly.  The ostensible reason is that the geese constitute a public health hazard.

The latest update on this story was posted just hours ago in USA Today.com — see

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2009-06-21-geese_N.htm

The stories surprised me.  However, quick research revealed that aggressive geese management is quite common.  According to the USA Today article, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Wildlife Services rounds up geese every year from golf courses, parks and other locations where landowners or cities ask for help. In 2008, the agency killed 14,041 geese in 43 states.  Permissions must be obtained for such removals, as Canadian geese are migratory birds, protected under state and federal law.

Given that this process concerned me, so I did some looking into alternatives to extermination.  The one that comes up most frequently is “egg addling” which involves removing adult birds from their nests and covering their eggs with oil. The adult birds continue to sit on the nest for two to three weeks, but the eggs do not hatch since the oil prevents respiration of the developing embryo. I’m not sure this is a satisfying alternative, since it involves disrupting a natural process for the geese.

So, I am left pondering.  We have too many geese . . . how do we manage them in a responsible and respectful manner?

Antibiotics in Your Organic Lettuce and Other Tales from the Factory Farm

I’m writing a piece about CAFOs and climate change for the Animals & Society Institute, which, as you might imagine, is not a cheerful pursuit.  Still, even with all my carping about antibiotics in animal feed, I had not realized that vegetables like corn, potatoes and lettuce absorb antibiotics when fertilized with livestock manure.  Usually, one hears about antibiotic transmission through meat and dairy products.  I was even more disturbed to learn (all of this from the Environmental Health News) that eating organic offers no protection — though, given the way USDA organic certification has been canted in favor of Big Food, I should have guessed.

This information about contaminated produce comes from a 2005 University of Minnesota study where researchers planted corn, scallions and cabbage in manure-treated soil and a similar 2007 study on corn, lettuce and potatoes. In each case, the crops were found to contain antibiotics (chlortetracycline and sulfamethazine, respectively).

The reason organic certification offers no protection lies with lack of USDA restrictions on using manure from animals treated with antibiotics.  Since 90% of the drugs administered to these animals gets excreted in their urine or manure, which then gets spread on soil used to grow vegetables, the vegetables absorb the antibiotics.  Eventually, so too do we.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, animals receive over 25 million pounds of antibiotics each year in the United States.

Recommendations abound to mitigate the problem, although none have so far been implemented.  Some mitigation strategies offer significant cause for concern.  For example, some suggest high temperature composting, which can reduce antibiotic concentrations significantly.  However, it has no effect whatsoever on concentrations of sulfamethazine, a commonly administered drug.  Such proposals terrify me because, even if implemented, they will not fix the problem while likely giving Big Food a free pass to continue using antibiotics indefinitely.

Don’t get me wrong; I favor high temperature composting. It’s part of any sustainable agriculture program and one of many steps necessary to combat climate change.  However, it will not solve the antibiotic problem.

The solution to this particular problem is simple: Ban subtherapeutic antibiotic use in agriculture, much as Europe did in 2006.  The status quo is incredibly dangerous, both to humans and the environment at large.  A ban represents a straightforward solution that no one in this country with any juice will entertain.

Big Food argues that the drugs are necessary to its continued operation.  Even if that were true (which it is not — the National Research Council estimates that a ban on subtherapeutic antibiotics would increase per capita costs a mere $5-10/year), so what?  Industrial Agriculture brutalizes billions of animals in indescribable ways and forms one of the chief sources of greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4 (methane) and N2O).  It also causes widespread environmental degradation and disease, including the swine and bird flu.  I’m hard pressed to come up with a reason why its continued existence should be a national priority.

–David Cassuto

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