Back at the Ranch, a Horror Story
Los Angeles Times ---December 1, 2003 Monday Home Edition
California Metro; Part 2; Page 11; Editorial Pages Desk ----Commentary;
By Peter Singer and Karen Dawn
A ranch owner in San Diego County disposes of 30,000 nonproductive
egg-laying hens by feeding them into a wood chipper. Live hens are
dumped into the shredder, some likely to hit feet first, some breast
first. Sound like a scene from a horror movie? It's a true story.
One would surely expect the ranchers to be prosecuted, but California
humane slaughter laws do not cover unproductive egg-laying hens.
"Spent hens" are often packed into containers and bulldozed
into the ground -- buried alive. Or they are often gassed using
carbon dioxide distributed unevenly among tens of thousands of birds;
it's common for them to die slow, painful deaths.
California's anti-cruelty statutes, which are separate from the
humane slaughter laws, supposedly cover these animals, but it can
be difficult to prosecute what is called "standard industry
practice." And district attorneys don't like to bring cases
they don't think they will win.
When a horrified neighbor saw ranchers cramming live chickens into
a chipper, animal advocates thought they had a winning case. Karen
Davis of United Poultry Concerns led the push for prosecution.
Unfortunately, a San Diego deputy district attorney found no criminal
intent on the part of the owners. She concluded that they "were
just following professional advice" from two veterinarians.
The ranchers named Dr. Gregg Cutler as one. Cutler denies directly
authorizing the use of a chipper in the case but says he has no
problem with the procedure. He is on the animal welfare committee
of the American Veterinarian Medical Assn.
In order to dispel notions that the association had condoned the
act, the organization's Web site displays the following quote from
Executive Vice President Dr. Bruce W. Little: "It is absolutely
absurd and ludicrous to believe that any veterinary medical association,
especially an association that has for more than 150 years been
the leading voice for humane and proper care of animals, could or
would advocate throwing live chickens into a wood chipper as an
appropriate method of euthanasia." Yet the man who reportedly
condoned such "ludicrous" action remains on the organization's
animal welfare committee.
Further, the AVMA has let farmed animals down in other areas. The
majority of laying hens in the United States are forced to go into
an unnatural molt by the sudden withdrawal of food for up to 14
days. This process shocks them into another round of laying. Even
though this violates California's anti-cruelty statute, which states
that a person who causes an animal to be "deprived of necessary
sustenance" is guilty of a crime, cases are not prosecuted.
Forced molting is outlawed in Europe. Even McDonald's does not permit
its suppliers to starve hens. Yet the AVMA has refused to take a
clear stance against forced molting. And those with the power to
prosecute people who starve animals look to that organization for
Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) introduced a bill this
year that would ban the housing of pregnant sows and veal calves
in crates so small that the animals are unable to turn around or
lie down with limbs outstretched. She was forced to defer her bill
for lack of committee votes. The California Veterinary Medical Assn.,
which led the opposition, based its stance on the national group's
policies. Florida residents, in a referendum, passed a ban on sow
gestation crates last year despite AVMA opposition.
A Gallup survey in May found that 62% of Americans supported strict
laws concerning the treatment of farmed animals. Yet AVMA policy
on farmed animal welfare interferes with the enforcement of existing
law and too often blocks legislation that would protect animals.
And a veterinarian who apparently condones putting live hens into
chippers remains on the organization's welfare committee. If the
AVMA hopes to continue to be seen as "the leading voice for
humane and proper care of animals," it is time for change.
Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethicist, is the author of "Animal
Liberation" (revised edition, Ecco, 2001). Karen Dawn runs
the animal advocacy media watch DawnWatch.com.