By Simon Longstaff
ABC Radio National recently broadcast an investigation into the practice of ‘puppy farming’ http://www.abc.net.au/rn/backgroundbriefing/stories/2009/2752846.htm. The report examines the commercial breeding of dogs in conditions that animal liberationists liken to the factory farming of chickens. As such, the story presents a further example of how animals can be reduced to the status of a commodity in order to satisfy the wants of human beings. And like most commodities the surplus animals are simply discarded – with the program reporting high numbers of animals being put down.
The images and video posted on the site may be intended to inform but they also provoke an emotional response. The publishing of these images involves some interesting ethical questions. For example, it seems likely (from the program content) that at least some of the images were collected in circumstances involving trespass onto the property of the puppy farmers. One imagines that the producers will have debated this issue – no doubt reaching the conclusion that the ‘ends justified the means’. Whether the reasoning of the producers would be accepted by those subjected to trespass is unlikely. But more generally, it is important to question the wisdom of promoting an ethical cause by means that are ethically questionable. On the other hand, it could be argued, in defence of the trespass, that there was no viable alternative to trespass if the alleged cruelty to animals was to be disclosed. That is, that the trespass was the ‘lesser evil’.
I think it likely that we are going to see many more programs of this kind in the future. Indeed, I predict that issues of animal welfare are set to become of increasing public importance over the next five years. This is not to say that we will see a massive increase in the incidence of vegetarianism. However, I do think that even meat eaters are going to insist that the conditions in which animals live and die be significantly improved.
Indigenous people who hunt and kill animals for food have always beheld their prey with a sense of reverence – recognising the intrinsic value of the creature whose life is taken in order to sustain that of the hunter. In such circumstances, there has been a true relationship between hunter and hunted. The commercial production of food and the relative dislocation of most people from the world of agriculture and animal husbandry has broken this link. In turn, much that is cruel in the treatment of animals has been allowed to happen in the shadows (tolerated because unseen). It is this that I think that is on the cusp of changing as activists and the media combine to throw light on the plight of animals destined to feed, comfort or entertain us.
As noted above, I do not foresee an immediate move to liberate animals in the way some would prefer. However, I think that the more information is made available, the more intolerable will be any situation in which animals are allowed to suffer for our sake. The minimum standard will be that animals be allowed to live well and if necessary, then to die well.
The changes that this will require will be profound. There will be additional costs associated with the production of food. No doubt the impulse to lower costs and increase profits will exert its usual, powerful influence. However, I think that people will find the ethical cost of cruel treatment of animals unbearable.