HSUS: Hero or Villian?

Nothing divides animal advocates more than the gradualist/abolitionist debate. My report on HSUS’s investigation into a Wyoming pig farm sparked a fierce but mostly civil deabte here at eatingplants.org. What follows are a few of the highlights (with light editing). Personally speaking, this HSUS story did not raise for me the perrennially explosive question about welfare strategies. I think I was too much overcome by the video, which, I think all would agree, could easily drive a behavioral omnivore (note the wording change!) to become a vegan on ethical grounds. In any case, the issue, as you will see below, isn’t easily resolved and, as with every genuine debate, there are serious points to consider on both sides of the divide.


-As despicable as this cruelty is, I don’t think these videos [of abused animals on factory farms] are the answer. HSUS knows full well that no matter what cruelty is exposed, no matter what reforms are in place — even if industrial farming is ended — it is impossible to monitor the breeding, raising, and killing of billions of farm animals. Still, it continues to promote reforms and so-called “humane farms” because truth be told, HSUS would collapse without animal exploitation. These videos embarrass specific farming operations that will probably wind up with no more than a fine, but by singling out one farm, it allows consumers to think other farms are ok, especially if they’re labeled “free-range” or “humane.” That’s good for HSUS since it benefits from animal use.

 -It is seriously misguided to shoot HSUS down, even weakly, for their strategy to effect animal welfare reforms rather than taking a stance to eradicate cages immediately and demand everyone go vegan today. I mean, how well are Francione’s dictates working? What measurable results has he or his followers gotten? Excuse me if my impatience with [abolitionsist Gary] Francione shows. In my opinion, he has done more harm to animals than good by leading well-intentioned animal activists astray . . . Despite the criticisms from a splintered little group of animal activists (abolitionists), HSUS battles on against big, mean, powerful, and moneyed opponents (factory farmers, puppy millers, canned hunters, seal clubbers, would-be horse slaughterers, dog fighters, cock fighters, CCF goons, and others) who hate them BECAUSE they are getting results.

-I think there’s a larger convo here– I don’t follow Francione (I like his ideas and have read his books but frankly I think he presents them in public as a total wing nut and I think his following, at least the hard-core part of it, borders on cultish…) and it’s a shame that he has co-opted and in effect put his peronal Brand on the word “abolition”, which really just means liberation. This is partly why I use the word liberation instead of abolition. I am frustrated about all that too, but just as much as I am frustrated about those who unblinkingly make apologies for reform  . . . Because I think there need to be reasonable discussions about strategy and what works and what doesn’t, I don’t think most AR activists (including Francionites) are well-versed in that, and I think there are good reasons to believe that we need to talk about liberation not reform, and fight for it. I wish there were a better way to talk about this, because I think we all want liberation, and I think there *are* reasonable ways to act on that.

 -It is HSUS, not Francione, who leads activists astray, including myself, until I woke up to the reality that when no one is standing over the animal producer’s shoulder, laws are meaningless! For just one example, some years ago they were amending the Humane Slaughter Act, and I worked with other activists to get this legislation passed. Victory, I thought …. until I learned that many farm animals are being dismembered while they’re still conscious.  . . I support honest advocacy that doesn’t feign victories for animals, that admits we are doing far more harm than good by promoting so-called compassionate farming, as HSUS, Mercy for Animals, Animal Legal Defense and other groups are doing.

-I’m a vegan and I understand [the] dismissal of “humane farming”. . .  I cannot wave my magic wand and make the whole world over into my image of an ideal world. I can’t make the world vegan, today. I must live in the real world. That means that I will work with the HSUS, PETA and humane farmers to alleviate suffering wherever and whenever I can. I believe that I am morally obligated to do so. If I can get a hen out of a battery cage, I will do so. It has been accomplished. If I can get pigs out of gestation crates, I will do so. It has been done. Thanks to groups like the HSUS, PETA, MFA and COK, their advocacy and their undercover videos.

I don’t give a damn about priniciples. My concern is what works for animals, not activists!  Pigs on “free-range” farms may not be housed in gestation crates, but do you really believe they don’t cry when their babies are taken, that “ceritified humane” producers are always nice to farm animals, or that male chicks will be spared on “cage-free” egg farms? While you gloat in your victories, I’ve talked with numerous consumers who are actually proud of eating “humane food.” Congratulations to HSUS and similar organizations for collaborating with animal producers to invent guilt-free animal products!  Further, there are other animals to consider, as well. The farms HSUS and other groups promote inevitably require more land that will rob the habitats of free-living animals who depend these areas for their own survival. For them, such farms are a death sentence. In good conscience, I am obliged do everything I can to work against HSUS and other groups that ultimately promote animal farming.


The Vegan Dialogues


More comments from my article from the Atlantic.com on the psychology of factory farming. I’ve included some representative responses from among the hundreds I received. My purpose here is to remind vegan advocates of the challeneges we face as we try to bring a genuine vegan dialogue into mainstream discussions.  The point is NOT to gang up on and mock the counterarguments presented below, but rather to use them as helpful guidelines to honing our own educational srtategies. Needless to say, the barriers we face are immense, but step one seems to be recogizing those barriers for what they are. Titles are mine.

The article: [http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/08/the-dangerous-psychology-of-factory-farming/244063/]



I can’t help but think that the author’s outlook is itself a product of the nineteenth century in which some sections of society were able to live away from animals for the first time and thus were able to romanticize and anthropmorphize them in an unprecedented was. It is absurd to talk about the “interests”of animals or a “sense of identity” when there is no real self consciousness.

The really revolutionary change in the ninetieth century was not in our orientation to other animals but in out orientation to other human beings. The extension of the concepts developed in the Enlightenment to the masses made the distinction between animals and humanity sharper than ever. This is not a bad thing. This is not to say that wanton cruelty to animals is okay but the reason it is not okay has nothing to do with the animals. It has to do with the way that sort of behavior is pointless and degrading to people.

It seems to me that the ability to feed so many people so efficiently is miraculous. If we are concerned about the moral weight of animal husbandry I suspect it comes from a disenchantment with people. We are more likely to be portrayed as destroyers of nature than the inventors of nature itself. Without humanity there is no meaning, no compassion, no self concsiousness. Our starting point should be the needs of people, the need for food and the human need to be compassionate. Animals are just incidental.


But We Give them Life!

Well, the moral weight of animal husbandry isn’t as obvious as all that, nor has it changed in any obvious way. People have always killed for meat, it’s not as if in the good old days, back when you slept with your pigs, you didn’t later eat them. The personhood, if you please, of animals has always been apparent, to some more than to others. The modern farmer would not weep and say “Oh my god, you are people too!” to a chicken as he cut off its head, if he got to know his chickens more intimately. So no, the point of factory farming isn’t to make killing bearable – that’s just some bad spinoff treatment of the holocaust. Farmers are ok with killing, whether it’s 20 hogs or 20,000, and the rest of us are fine with it too. Few of us are uncomfortable with eating meat, and it’s no secret where it comes from.

The moral quandry of the practice of meat eating lies in this: if we didn’t eat them, they wouldn’t have lives at all. “Better never to live at all, than to live a short, well-fed life in amongst a herd of your own kind” is a judgement call you need a certain amount of arrogance to make on behalf of another. 

It’s a zero-sum moral equation. In the abstract, Farmer Bill could fairly congratulate himself for having created so many lives, albeit by striking a bargain about how long those lives would last. 



I’m not aware of the unimaginable cruelty of the lives of cattle. For the most part they grow up on range, which is a pretty pleasant experience, and at the feedlot they stand around eating amidst a large herd. Then they have a grim experience, dying – less so, if  Temple Grandin designed the facilities. It’s worth focusing on the fact that dying is never a ton of fun, and certainly not as if animals in the wild retire to pleasant cottages on the lake before dying peacefully in their sleep. So I”m just not connecting to the writer’s free-associational moral theorizing  in regards to “Bill”. 


Red in Tooth and Claw

Ah – I see the vegans have invaded the discussion. Fact is, we as a species have been omniverous for a very long time. So are a bunch of other species. Some are even carnivores (gasp!!).  The vegan argument essentially turns upon fluffy bunny morality, and is entirely devoid of any merit. As I said, a lot of species are omniverous, from the pigs metioned in the article, to some of our primate cousins (baboons often frequent discarded prey from bigger predators).  No this unfortunate argument miss the central thrust of the article, which turn on the psychology of the matter, namley that the disconnect that factory farming introduces is unfortunate. I would even venture to say that it has paradoxically led, not on only to the over-indulgence in inferior-quality meat, but also in the growth of the vegan-mindset, among people who, disconnected from nature, and her death-brings life circle, fall for fluffy bunny arguments.

 [Note: please see my post on this topic: https://eatingplantsdotorg.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/red-in-tooth-and-claw-nature-violence-and-veganism/.

Plants Feel Pain, Too!

I know this is probably an exercise in futility, being that I’ve posted this on this guys articles before and got less than enlightening responses, but how come with all the knowledge we have of plant physiology which shows us that plants feel pain, try to defend themselves and communicate with each other even to strategize such defenses, how come it’s not seen as some horrifying immoral thing when we farm loads of corn, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, etc? It seems much more of an aesthetic issue, in that people like this guy identify with the cute animals face and not with the faceless corn or pickle.  This would mean it’s not exactly about rights or morality, but what people can identify with and what makes them uncomfortable.  That’s my two cents anyway.