From Fur to Feathers – Making Economic Sense of the Humane Treatment of Animals

By: Katie Burch, J.D. Candidate ’14 | July 30, 2013

The typical way that we humans think about animals is changing dramatically.

Take, for instance, the ground we’ve covered since the 1650 Katzenklavier, a cruel “kitty keyboard that would drive nails into the tails of cats, causing them to cry with musical harmony,” or the porko-forte, a similarly cruel keyboard made of live pigs.  Today, animals and music share a much less painful relationship, although somehow we’ve decided that only certain animals should benefit from that treatment.

Who among us can hear the opening chords of Sara McLaughlan’s “Angel” and avoid seeing the bruised and battered faces mistreated dogs and neglected cats?  But when you hear the song, do you ever see mental images of caged poultry or cattle?  Probably not.

That’s because, somewhere in time, a proverbial line has been drawn in the sand between how we should treat animals considered pets and animals considered food.  For instance, Arkansas Animal Welfare statutes make it a Class A misdemeanor to knowingly abandon, mistreat, neglect, kill or injure any animal without legal privilege, but a felony to commit aggravated cruelty to a dog, cat, or horse.

But that distinction is beginning to change for some farm animals. Animal welfare groups are beginning to gain traction in their campaigns against the form of wire cages – often housing nearly eight chickens to a cage – which account for nearly ninety percent of the eggs that we eat. In recent years, several national food companies have promised to switch to “cage-free” eggs. The companies include Unilever, which sells Hellmann’s mayonnaise, and Aramark, which supplies food to big companies.

The reason for the change? Speaking to National Public Radio, Paul Sander says “it’s the demand that’s driving it.” Saunder is owner of Saunder’s Eggs, a company currently paying twice the going rate for cage-free eggs than traditionally raised eggs.  In essence, the industry is responding to what Saunder says is “the perception that cage-free is a better product than eggs from a conventional cage house.”

To test the theory, in Michigan, scientists are carrying out a large-scale experiment with three full-sale chicken houses – one with traditional cages, one with nests and perches, and one that is cage-free.  In the houses are over 300 cameras.  Each day, a team of students from Michigan State’s animal sciences department carefully watch videotapes of the chickens, counting how often the chickens spread their wings, peck at each other, and, well, act like chickens.

Note: The study will run for three years, beginning in 2011 and concluding in 2014, with final results to be reported in early 2015.  Since the experiment’s onset, the scientists have released some preliminary observations: hens in cages were cleaner, but cage-free chickens kept more of their original feathers.  Also, cage-free hens may have had more freedom, but twice as many of them died during the initial year of the study.

Taking A Stand for Commercial Regulation of Domesticated Animals

The demand for change in the commercial regulation of farm animals is not likely to end any time soon.  While the jury is still out on whether cage-free chickens are better off, there’s no denying the supply chain reaction that idea has created.

According to the United Egg Producers, demand for eggs from cage-free houses constitutes about 7% of all eggs, up from 3% just five years ago.  Saunder’s business alone is currently up 10% or 12%, and is growing every year.  Doug Balentine, director of Nutrition and health for Unilever North America, told National Public Radio that it will take approximately five years of working with egg suppliers to convert all of the egg farmers needed to supply the eggs for Hellman’s mayonnaise alone.  Initially, “there weren’t enough cage-free eggs for us to do Hellman’s Light mayonnaise.”

In bridging the gap between supply chain of animals for food versus animals for comfort, it stands to reason that the demand for the humanitarian treatment of all animals will soon begin to drive a need for change in the commercial regulation of the sale of cats and dogs in pet stores and over the internet.

According to a compelling argument rendered by UALR Law Review’s Lauren Ferris, there exists a need for legislative changes to be made to existing laws affecting the largely unregulated sale of cats and dogs in Arkansas.  And if Sarah McLaughlan’s voice alone can’t melt even the most hardened of hearts, it’s hard to deny the economic benefits of implementing commercial regulation for Animal Breeders.

If the demand of cage-free eggs alone has doubled within recent years even without solid data to prove that cage-free chickens actually lead better lives, then surely the sands of time are blowing in favor of economic change for animals sold for domestic reasons.

As for the cat organ, you can hear a human model by listening to Henry Dagg’s 2010 rendition of “Over the Rainbow” from 16 kitty squeaky toys.