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News » Cover Story

Laws of the Jungle

From pets to protein, humanity's treatment of animals is fraught with contradiction.

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A dog starved at his Master's Gate
Predicts the ruin of the State ...
The Lamb misused breeds Public Strife
And yet forgives the Butcher's knife ...
The Bleat, the Bark, Bellow & Roar
Are Waves that Beat on Heaven's Shore.

Excerpts from Auguries of Innocence by William Blake

In August, after much public prodding, Lindon's North Utah Valley Animal Shelter announced that it would discontinue the practice of gas-chamber euthanasia. The shift in policy leaves only three animal sheltering facilities in the United States that continue to officially use gas chambers, and while two of them are located in Wyoming, the third is Spanish Fork's South Utah Valley Animal Shelter.

"We're on the precipice of eradicating this practice once and for all," said Jeremy Beckham, director of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition "We're so close."

From his vantage point, Beckham has observed that the general public's attitude is overwhelmingly opposed to animal gas chambers. But he also lamented the confusion of opinion and practice when it comes to animal treatment generally.

There is no "clear ethical principle" that guides public thinking, he said. And while shelters perform a wonderful, necessary service, Beckham stressed that they are prone to being "blamed for problems that began long before the animals showed up at their door."

Stretched for space and resources, shelters are often forced to make difficult and wrenching decisions regarding the animals in their care, especially as many have already experienced domestic violence and neglect prior to their arrival. Shelters typically do not have massive budgets supporting their operations, and in the case of smaller counties, facilities may still resort to using makeshift, unofficial gas chambers or even a gun out of public view. This is not necessarily because the employees hate their animals, advocates say, but because that is all they can think of doing in such dire conditions.

While Beckham and others say ending the practice of gas-chamber euthanasia will be a positive accomplishment, it also invites reflection on where the state and nation's relationship with animals presently stands. Utah code forbids cruelty to animals, but provides numerous exceptions for zoos, hunters, rodeos and farms if the conduct falls within "accepted" practices. And violation of the law as such—when successfully prosecuted—usually results in forfeiture of the injured animal, if possible, and paying a fine.

The growing consensus around shelter gas chambers stands in stark contrast to other, murkier debates around animal rights and treatment. And advocates say greater attention is needed to reconsider mankind's relationship with the furry, the finny and the feathered, from beloved family pets to the realms of laboratory research and commercial farming.

Test Subjects
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that more than 100 million animals are used for experimentation purposes each year. Because 1966's Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulates and protects only certain types of species, the total number of animals used in scientific research is assuredly much larger. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, sheep and primates have some coverage under federal law, but rodents, fish, turtles and birds are left unreported.

Some experiments involve pain and the administration of drugs to relieve any ill effects, but such is not the case in every project. And because the departments that oversee animal welfare inspections are traditionally understaffed and poorly resourced, animal-rights organizations say enforcement of the law has been weak.

The institutions that hold licenses as research facilities must undergo routine inspections and provide accounting for the treatment of the protected animals within their care. Universities constitute most of the licensed research facilities in Utah and report to the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare—part of the Public Health Service—as well as to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Universities are also required to appoint an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) to decide upon the various animal-related projects that are proposed for funding.

Eric Domyan is an associate professor of biology and currently chairs the IACUC for Utah Valley University. Having helped to craft the school's policy regarding their use of animals, Domyan says he's pleased with the balance the university has struck. "We do everything possible to give [our animals] comfortable living conditions and make sure we're meeting all the guidelines," he says.

Domyan stated that he and his colleagues follow federal regulations even for those animals that are not explicitly covered by the AWA. And he maintains that continuing animal research remains crucial.

"As a researcher, I recognize that there is really no suitable substitute for animals to understand certain biological processes," he said. "If you're really interested in understanding how the human body is functioning, a lot of those experiments that you simply can't do on humans because of ethical issues have to be performed with animals if you want to understand them."

Animal testing played a critical role in the development of health treatments like chemotherapy, antidepressants, asthma inhalers and vaccines. And while most researchers agree that such advances are helpful to life in this world, there are many who have misgivings with the idea that there is no other way to conduct this research.

Karen Mizell is an ethics professor at UVU and has been engaged with the issues of animal rights and animal law for years. She decries the lack of transparency that can develop in university research settings, particularly due to the amount of money that goes into those projects. Besides, as she points out, the results of such testing are anything but definitive.

"Animal testing is only about 1% effective for human medicine," Mizell says, explaining that it's rare for experimentation to prove useful across the species barrier. Instead, she says she's of the mind that scientific research can and should be pursued using other means besides animal life, such as through artificial intelligence, tissue testing and computer modeling.

"I can see in the past that there were legitimate scientific uses of an animal for certain kinds of testing," Mizell says. "The problem is that we have made incredible advances in science. That's why we need to be very careful about these very complex animals and their places in the ecosystem."

Animals are complicated creatures that we only begin to understand, Mizell says, and morally, "we cannot overlook that anymore." And she's far from the first person to express such caution, as her sentiments echo closely the observations made by the microbiologist Catherine Roberts in the 1960s.

In her book The Scientific Conscience, Roberts stressed that ethical considerations should come first, and only then should the discovery of intellectual truths be pursued. Outside of this, the search for scientific progress becomes an "intellectual obsession that threatens to become uncontrollable."

Roberts mused that society had arrived at another evolutionary threshold, in which the humane impulse toward animals appeared to be moving us to become more human. Within science, "the problem of painful animal experimentation now concerns all mankind and not just a panel of experts."

Human beings, Roberts wrote, have benefited greatly from advances in knowledge and medical breakthroughs over the years but would do well to remember that it came at the cost of animal suffering. While science should not forget what has come from these past experiments, she wrote, "this is no justification whatsoever for extending our knowledge or continuing the production of new and better preparations by the inhumane methods of the past and the present—for it is time we knew better."

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Ag-tivism
Wayne Hsiung is feeling optimistic. As the founder of Direct Action Everywhere—an animal-rights network involved in open rescues from factory farms—he is currently facing charges of burglary and theft for the 2018 rescue of piglets at Smithfield Foods' Circle Four farms in Milford, Beaver County. He does not know how the case will turn out, but he feels confident that the future will be kind to his activities and to animals generally.

Seeing all sentient life as beautiful and sacred, Hsiung feels that while times have never been worse for animals, there is also much to be hopeful about. In his view, more people are feeling repelled by the violence in their food systems and are recognizing that they have the power to do something about it.

Greater numbers of people are concluding that "the place for human beings and for animals is not a relationship of violence or subjugation or cruelty, but a place where we're kind to each other," Hsiung said. But even if his predictions for popular attitudes are correct, he remains at odds with current agricultural practices.

Animals largely factor into state laws as protected property, and while Utah code condemns wanton destruction of livestock, cruelty by livestock owners has not been accounted for. "No one is really exempted from having to take care of their animals," says Leann Hunting of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, but the "end use [of animals] is left to the individual."

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As the department's director of animal industry, Hunting views her office's role as one of taking both sides into account and then to "regulate and advocate and educate across the board." Whether the policy concerns livestock branding, domesticated elk, fisheries, horse racing or wildlife damage prevention, advisory boards appointed at the executive level determine what the regulatory departments will do.

Farming operations are overseen on both the state and federal levels. Depending on the regulatory body providing oversight, the facilities typically self-report the animals they process. Best management practices around housing, feed and handling are encouraged by the Division of Animal Industry and the State Veterinarian's Office, but they are neither laws nor are they enforced.

Dean Taylor, Utah's State Veterinarian, notes that what some people consider to be animal cruelty is what others consider to be merely traditional management practices—perceptions on these matters fall all over the continuum. "Everybody feels slightly different," Taylor said.

Rep. Mike Kohler, R-Midway, hails from a dairy farming background and has weighed in on this disparity of perception. "Branding, dehorning, artificial insemination, castration, immunizations, hoof trimming and even moving animals around in a corral can be misunderstood," he wrote. "There is almost no way to make that operation look humane to the novice ag watcher without some understanding and experience of animal-care practices." For Kohler and others in the farming community, those and other similar approaches are standard agricultural management practices that are best left to those familiar with the process.

The topic of factory farms has itself become a heated issue in recent decades, starting with the 2006 passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) on the federal level. Passed on a technicality despite much public opposition, AETA broadened punishments that were already present in the law. Journalist Will Potter has shown in his book Green Is the New Red that AETA's vague wording allows for such activities as demonstrations, undercover investigations and boycotts to be punishable as acts of domestic terrorism, bringing with them more severe penalties and imprisonment.

Building off this momentum, Iowa became the first state to propose a so-called "Ag-gag" law, suppressing investigations of operations such as dairy and meat farms. Utah joined in this effort in 2012 when it passed its own Agricultural Operation Interference provision into the state code, criminalizing undercover investigations and recording of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville—who could not be reached for comment on this story—was among the lawmakers who supported the legislation in committee hearings at the time. He viewed it as a means of stopping "the vegetarian people," whom he compared to "terrorists" (as referenced in a 2013 lawsuit challenging Utah's law).

It was not long before a woman named Amy Meyer became the first person to be charged under Utah's new "Ag-gag" legislation. Meyer, an animal activist, was standing adjacent to a Draper slaughterhouse when she saw what seemed to be a sick cow being pushed by a bulldozer. Recording images of what she saw, she was subsequently questioned by Draper Police and charged with agricultural operation interference.

"I was pretty shocked at how they responded to me," Meyer said, "I didn't think they would care at all that a 25-year-old woman on a Friday afternoon had a camera on the outside of their building. That's how threatened they are by people seeing what's happening."

Challenging the law, Meyer sued the state and received support from many sectors. Journalists keyed into the issue due to its bearing on First Amendment rights, as did local conservative groups and radio stations. Meyer said she was impressed by the broadness of the audience that was paying attention to her case, and in 2017, Utah's "Ag-gag" law was ruled unconstitutional in federal court.

What's for Dinner?
Despite legal setbacks and industrial hostility, activists like Meyer and Hsiung see exciting prospects for changing the way we eat and produce food to the mutual benefit of humans and animals. Hsiung believes that a "compassionate food system where we don't harm animals is totally within reach."

Hsiung said people don't ask for more from their food systems because they don't think more is possible, but he believes that changing a solely profit-driven model to one that considers human and animal needs can indeed be better for consumers and producers.

Referring to his friendship with Moroni turkey farmer Rick Pitman, Hsiung points out that real change is possible when people reciprocate and learn from one another. "Do Rick and I agree about what the future of the food system is? Absolutely not," Hsiung observed. "That is part of democracy, too. People can have disagreements—even ethical disagreements—and we try to work them out."

Hsiung noted his friend's expertise in producing protein and indicated that envisioning a better future for animals and humans is most possible when both farmers and advocates are working together. "It's his job to teach me about how that process works," Hsiung said, "so that I can do the best job of painting [a picture of the future] and helping to construct that system politically, legally, economically and technologically."

The private sector is already seeing these kinds of food-production alternatives and market partnerships appearing on the agricultural scene. The Transfarmation Project is repurposing concentrated farming operations to create sustainable and compassionate plant-based systems so that those who currently make their living from working in and around farming operations and animals are not left behind. Other firms are competing to commercialize lab-grown meat through the cultivation of animal cells in order to replace livestock slaughter.

So where does the animal-human relationship go from here? As much as it offers to human lives, science cannot definitively answer what dwells within the minds and hearts of the animals of this planet. Human beings must have personal experience and interaction with animals to truly get a glimmer of what these beautiful and mysterious creatures possess. Proponents of enhanced animal-rights protections say humans will have to bring their whole selves into the picture, but that will not happen in systems that neglect or abuse animals or drive them to extinction.

Rather than enjoying a shared ethical vision and transcendent moral concern, as the academic Theodore Roszak wrote in Where the Wasteland Ends, "we have settled for the artificial environment ... and now use that environment as the procrustean bed to whose size all values and sensibilities must be tailored." A growing chorus of advocates and researchers argue it need not be this way for either humans or their fellow creatures, and that there is no shortage of springs from which to draw to develop new—or old?—traditions and ethics.

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Consider the words of Luther Standing Bear, a chief of the Oglala Lakota: "The Lakota could despise no creature, for all were of one blood, made by the same hand, and filled with the essence of the Great Mystery."

Other bodies of thought and feeling bear similarly powerful observations. The highest virtue in Buddhism is compassion, which one can show to all sentient beings by avoiding any possible cause of suffering and death. And Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, a 16th-century Jewish mystic, wrote that the essence of wisdom is "to extend acts of love toward everything, including plants and animals."

Such examples of moral and ethical ideals can be found anywhere, even in Utah. Starting in 1897, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gave official sponsorship to an annual "Humane Day" celebration by the Deseret Sunday School Union Board. The recurring event designated a time in February for the church membership to take up subjects on "the propriety of being kind and considerate to the animal creation." This occasion was observed for decades. "The object," church leaders announced in The Juvenile Instructor, "will be to teach the children kindness, mercy, forbearance and love toward all the living creations of God."

In whatever way that such traditions and teachings can inform community vision, it is essential that vision indeed expands. Nothing is more tragic than seeing human beings hurt and degrade one another because of the artificially narrow lens through which they see their world. Animals, without the ability to speak for themselves, have been caught in society's machinations and habits and have been greatly harmed as a result. Perhaps there is a better world out there for all, one in which the laws of the jungle mean peaceful and tender flourishing.

"No doubt there are ways and means to ameliorate, at least temporarily, the most dangerous excesses of urban-industrialism and the technocratic politics it breeds," wrote Roszak. "But for the disease of single vision, there can be no ad hoc reform, no quick technological fix. And it is single vision that underlies the despair, the anomie, the irresponsible drift, the resignation to genocide, the weakness for totalitarian solutions, which make radical, enduring change in our society impossible. Until we find our way once more to the experience of transcendence, until we feel the life within us and the nature about us as sacred, there will seem to us no 'realistic' future other than more of the same: single vision and the artificial environment forever and ever, amen."

Wes Long is a graduate of history from the University of Utah. He currently serves the poverty reduction nonprofit Circles Salt Lake through the AmeriCorps program. Special thanks to Kimberly Finch, Rachel Heatley, Rachel Hopper, Daniel Horns, Julie Kiefer, Callista Pearson, Amanda Price, Luke Runyon, Liz Sollis and Bailee Woolstenhulme.