Animal welfare in an agricultural setting is something I've always felt very strongly about. This, along with environmental concerns associated with large-scale farming, is why as most of you know, I've been vegetarian for the past 15 years. I've not been against the consumption of animals, but I've never wanted to support industries whose welfare practices and sustainability are in question. Additionally, I've felt that as a whole Americans do consume too much meat without thinking about where our food comes from, so to off-set the over-consumption, I've abstained. My mandatory week or fortnight visits to all sectors of the food animal industry has now given me the opportunity to be even more knowledgeable about the practices that are involved in getting your dinner onto your plate. Although some of these experiences were a bit hard for me to stomach, I'm really glad I have now seen things first-hand.
|Not from my actual farm placement...but just imagine this when the birds are 3 or 4 times this size! No room to move!|
We were able to split our week between a laying farm (where cockerels and hens live together, fertilized eggs being collected for hatching into the birds you eat) and then a broiler farm (where the birds you eat are raised up from chick to slaughter weight.) Really all I can say is that there is a reason why these farms hide themselves away from the public eye so well. I spent an entire morning just walking up and down the masses of birds picking up the dead carcasses until my bag of dead birds would get too heavy for me to carry. The vast majority of chickens on the market are genetically-altered breeds that no longer resemble the wild poultry species that are able to move around. The breast are too large, the legs too weak, and growth is too fast. As a result many of the birds are too lame to stand fully upright, and if they fall down will actually be suffocated by their peers due to the high stocking density within barns. In some barns I was in there were 60,000 birds packed in. We saw them half-grown, so I can't imagine how they manage when they double in size. The barns are dusty and smelly and no way to live (we wore jumpsuits, ventilators and had to shower before and after entering the barns!) We rationalize this by downplaying bird sentience, but having seen them running in 'fear' and having heard them 'cry' when they'd get knocked down and unable to run away from us, I cannot justify keeping animals in these conditions.
We even saw barns that housed birds destined for a fancy chain of grocery stores that will remain un-named. These birds get sold at a higher premium for offering a supposed higher degree of animal welfare. People pay for them because they're told they live in barns with windows, lower stocking densities and 'enrichment' to encourage natural behaviors. Well, I call BS! The birds are still packed in, just to a lesser degree. The windows are too thick and tinted to allow for any UV penetration or visual stimuli, and the 'enrichment' consists of hays bales lining the barn on their sides, so that they are too high for the birds to even jump up on. After seeing this, I really encourage you to think about where your poultry are coming from, rather than just be taken in by the nice green grass and red barn pictured on the label.
(No worries...that was the big rant! Things are much better from here on out!)
|With calves at the dairy farm (sorry about the small image size!)|
|An especially friendly calf|
My next placement took me away from agriculture and onto 2 weeks with a dog and cat shelter. It was absolutely eye-opening to see the vast number of animals that get relinquished each week, and how few get adopted out each day. The intake certainly outweighs the outtake, so it is a wonder this shelter is able to manage as well as they do. I have great respect for the people who work day in and out in such an emotionally draining and physically exhausting job. I hope that in my time at the rescue I was able to lend a hand and be of some help! One of the downsides to this placement was that it was all the way on the other side of town...meaning I had to leave an hour and a half early each morning to catch the right buses, only to then arrive 25min early before the gates opened. I managed to make the most of this time sitting in a park or on the seawall overlooking the Firth of Forth while enjoying my morning thermos of Yorkshire Gold tea. The trips home each afternoon when I was tired and smelly, however, were exhausting.
One important distinction to make re: organic systems in the UK is that some preventative medicines are allowed, as are antibiotics and other medications required to treat conditions as they arise. The wash-out period after having administered any medications is extended, but the animals ARE cared for. In the States, once an animal has been treated with antibiotics they are no longer allowed to be classed as organic and therefore must leave the herd. Some people then argue that there is a diminished level of care given to these animals as the farmer may try to forgo treatment all together, hoping the issue will resolve itself rather than take the economic loss of selling the animal off. Having lived with the farm owners here and talked with them extensively about their practices each night over supper, I can be certain that this is not what I experienced on this particular farm. It was wonderful to see an agricultural system that in theory I really support also be so honorable in practice.
|I love this piglet's expression!|
|Napping piglets! They look cute now, but just pick one up and you'll hear the most blood-curdling screams!|
|Outdoor raised pig set-up|
|Group of dry sows enjoying the sunshine and dirt.|
|The next stage-pork salted and curing|
SO, after much deliberation I have decided for my own health to return to selective-omnivorism. :) Having developed a more complete understanding of the food animal industry, I have now decided to eat UK (preferably Scottish) beef and lamb. I am comfortable enough with the farm assurance schemes in place to feel that the animal lived a good quality of life on a pasture before going to market/abbattoir. Once I return to the States I may have my work cut out for me in trying to decide what meats I am comfortable eating, and when I go to restaurants I'll still consider myself vegetarian unless I can be confident in the meat's source, but, now you all know...I'm no longer vegetarian. I'm guess I'm now going to have to put my blog title in quotes! :)