When animal cruelty propaganda is harmful

A bit of a serious posting, this one. I’ve been burbling on about chickens for months now, ever since we decided to get them. But it wasn’t a trivial decision. I’ve never kept animals, as a child or as an adult. I had neither the time nor the inclination.

So I’m immensely aware of our obligation to treat our livestock properly and humanely. We’ve read as widely as we can, attended courses and lectures, and talked to experienced poultry keepers. We’re also acutely aware of the unpleasant practices of the poultry industry, and the impact that the laws and regulations intended for commercial farms have on domestic chicken keepers, not always for the better.

Before going on, here’s a picture of real and commonplace animal cruelty, taken at a French street market just before Christmas.

Turkeys at Desvres market, Christmas 2011

Spot the problem? No, neither did I at the time. More later in the post.

I was prompted to revisit the subject by a link to a YouTube film about cruelty at a turkey farm, linked on a thread on Allotments 4 All. The film itself is here YouTube Turkey Cruelty Film. If you don’t want to watch it, suffice it to say that it shows anonymous farmworkers being physically violent to helpless creatures on an intensive farm.

There are many other similar films on the internet, and as I watched this one I did indeed become enraged, not with the cruelty being depicted, but by the realisation that I was being exploited by some fairly blatant propaganda. Not only that, but such propaganda actually takes attention away from the real problems.

A bit of research shows that these films have somewhat of a common approach. An “undercover agent” joins the farmworkers and secretly films appalling abuses. The name of the farm is revealed. Its major customers are exposed. They are almost always McDonald’s (if USA) or Bernard Matthews (if UK). The people who perpetrated the cruelty, however, are never prosecuted, having mysteriously left the farm’s employment. These films are patently staged.

But even an enactment of cruelty is perhaps justifiable if it exposes a common practice. The argument offered is that kindness to animals comes second to making money. I can understand that, but before I believe it, I’d like some rational explanation of how Mammon is served by beating and killing livestock. Does it make them more productive? Clearly not. Does it save farmworkers’ time? Apparently not that either – they seem to have time on their hands in which to amuse themselves with their cruel antics. So I don’t buy the business model either.

Why are these films so popular with campaigners? Why not just let the facts speak for themselves, for example with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s excellent “Chicken Out” films? See them here on 4od and get campaign details at Chicken Out.

I suggest that the answer is that we want very much to believe that cruelty is the result of some sadistic impulse or at least of corrupting greed. Since we personally don’t suffer from either of these things, then we can’t be cruel to animals, however ignorant we are of how much our actions are hurting them.

Let me end with the turkeys at Desvres market. The stall was doing a brisk trade, and although the birds were in cages, they weren’t too cramped. The woman running the stall was handling the birds efficiently but humanely. She wasn’t hurting them, still less kicking or tormenting them as shown in the YouTube films. No worries there, then.

We were sufficiently struck by the bright turquoise heads of the turkeys to ask what variety they were. The stallholder shrugged. She didn’t really know, other than they were Hungarian. So when I got home, in my naivety I Googled “Hungarian blue headed turkey”. There’s no such thing, of course. Their heads and wattles are red when they’re contented, and turn blue when they’re distressed and frightened. These had been trucked from some Hungarian battery farm through the night without food or water, and were now exposed to the cold wind of the street market.

And, I submit, that’s what we should be concerned about. Not with myth, but with reality.

A deeply unhappy blue-headed turkey awaiting its Christmas fate

Still in a cage, but a much happier red-faced turkey

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