Behind farm gates

Raising animals for human consumption is nothing less than animal abuse

Outrage and shock rippled through the ranks of South Africa’s animal lovers earlier this year when a pet cat – Tango – was microwaved alive by students at a University of Kwazulu-Natal student residence.*

While horror stories such as this may not be highlighted very often, one thing’s certain, international research has proven the link between animal abuse and domestic violence. As much as 80% of domestic violence and child abuse cases take place where there is also abuse against a pet, according to the research.

If our country’s domestic animals and humans are being treated similarly, many of us can only shudder to think what commercial farm animals – referred to as ‘ production units’ – might be going through behind farm gates. Born to a short life of captivity and suffering, the treatment of commercial farm animals for human consumption is ‘criminal’, according to Louise van der Merwe of the Humane Education Trust (het) and editor of Animal Voice. “While we fight crime and violence on our streets, big business is involved daily in crimes against animals”, she said.

53 billion animals are killed every year for food. Even worse than that, is the manner in which they live their short lives.

In an internationally award-winning documentary aired in 2005, local television programme Carte Blanche and the HET revealed to the public exactly what animals in South Africa are forced to endure at the hands of humans.

One of the most horrifying scenes was of half-dead horses being carted off for slaughter in the back of a truck. There were three layers of the beleaguered beasts. A layer of corpses at the bottom, a second layer of those too weak to stand and a third who had survived the ordeal, trampling the others. They were subject to further physical abuse by workers.
“We constantly delude ourselves we are proudly South Africans, but we cannot even be proudly human in this type of treatment of animals. They’re as vulnerable as small children. But children have our instant outrage when they’re hurt or abused”.

Even more blood-curdling are other regular South African farm practises.
Such as the treatment of newly-born male calves. Wrenched from their mothers, they are often auctioned off just four hours after birth for as little as R30, unsteady and fearful and sometimes with their umbilical cords still dripping. “Some of these animals can barely stand and farmers know they won’t survive without colustrum”, said van der Merwe. She had also come across a horror story where a farmer in Port Elizabeth boiled his ‘useless’ newborn male calves live as pig feed.

She said the pig and the egg industry were ‘disgusting beyond words’. The only time in her life a breeding pig (who lived her potential 5 years of life in a space the size of a desktop) used her legs was to climb on the ramp to go to the abattoir.

Chickens didn’t fare any better. Destined to life in a space less than an A4 piece of paper, they are de-toed to prevent them from damaging other chickens and de-beaked at 10 days to fit into their cage. In a free-range world, chickens peck up to 15000 times. Their beaks are the equivalent of human lips or fingers.

Several years ago, van der Merwe attempted to take Lemoenkloof Poultry Farm to court on three charges. She said it took 18 months for the Attorney General to decide not to prosecute as ‘that’s the way the industry is run’.
But despite some failures and limited resources, van der Merwe has had numerous triumphs to her credit regarding animal rights.

In one, she published a photograph of the-then common practise of plucking feathers from ostriches live. With feathers free from blood, ostriches fetch a higher price. “These pictures were sent around the world, exposing the local industry who were going to sue us and then retracted. This was a success that changed the industry from within”, said van der Merwe. Another project saw Woolworths banning all battery eggs last year. There are 18 millions hens in battery cages in the country.

An employee of Pretoria University’s Onderstepoort veterinary school who wished to remain anonymous, verified the above farming methods were in practise, saying the veterinary profession were against it.

But oddly enough, chief executive officer of The South African Meat Industry Company (SAMIC), Manie Booysen, rejected all of the above claims outright. “These conditions are not happening on farms in South Africa. Sheep and cattle are treated very well”, he said. SAMIC represents different farming groups at all levels of the industry and research projects also happen to be funded by the industry. Maybe no surprise, then, that SAMIC paints such a positive picture of husbandry methods.

According to Booysen, who is in daily contact with farmers, ‘piggeries look like a hospital inside, with space for pigs to move around’.
The Animals Protection Act was established in 1962.

The law classifies animals as ‘movable property’, like a chair or table. Its been said it exists not to protect animals, but to protect human sensibilities.

In an attempt to get animals re-classified as ‘sentient beings’, organisations including van der Merwe’s, obtained 100 000 signatures in 2000 – to no avail.

Del Jones is the Farm Animal Unit spokesperson for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA). “We need to change legislation and the code of conduct. Currently there’s nothing that makes provision for animals or something expressed that gives the animal rights. But we also need a judicial system to act on cases of cruelty”.

Reflecting on van der Merwe’s failed legal attempts with Lemoenkloof, she said: “Even though the law says you cannot confine an animal, the then-Attorney General apparently found the farm practises acceptable”.

Jones believes there may also be ‘rotten eggs’ at the top of the judicial industry.

Chickens’ mothering instincts have inspired poets and writers for centuries. Science has concluded pigs are as intelligent as the great apes.
But as with human slavery several centuries ago, now animals are herded, branded, bought and sold.

“As with apartheid, what you don’t see, you never know about. Supermarkets are massively guilty as most of their food comes from ‘abominable suffering’ and they knowingly keep this information from consumers”, said Van der Merwe.

Amongst other reasons, consuming ‘kind’ foods may well assist in steering our evolution. As Mahatma Ghandi succinctly said: ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated’.