DISPOSABLE LIVES: How Animal Liberation Can Affect Us All
by Kelah Bott
June 09, 2005

    The movement for animal liberation is the bastard child of social justice. Many people fighting for justice on other issues simply don’t see it as relevant to their struggle. Animal liberation isn’t taken seriously, and those fighting for it often have their priorities questioned. Even as we fight for an egalitarian world, a hierarchy of social justice persists. Animal rights always takes a back seat to any other issue. What many people don’t see is that it is all part of the same struggle. The same system that exploits animals exploits workers, women, people of color and the environment.

Problems resulting from our current way of life cannot all be blamed on capitalism, free trade or any single economic system or political structure. The way we treat animals, the environment and each other can be traced all the way back to the advent of agriculture. Pre-agrarian humans had a much different relationship to the world than we have now. People procured food and other necessities using detailed knowledge of their environment. They lived in small bands, had short workdays and were nomadic. Both women and men made important contributions to society, and were therefore both respected. Writer Jim Mason, in his book "An Unnatural Order," posits that once humans started manipulating nature, their relationship to the world and each other changed. Once humans started breeding plants and animals for their own use it wasn’t a big leap to start viewing one another as utilitarian objects.

A new entity, the State, grew out of agrarian society. Wars of conquest followed, along with slavery and the view of women as sexual commodities. Society became one of "dominion." Those with the ability to direct the actions of others took positions of power, and these new roles determined a changed perspective towards the world.

The escalation from animal abuse to violence towards humans is not a new concept. Serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy were known to have tortured animals as children. Cruelty toward animals can be a predictor of future abusive behavior towards people, but they are also intertwined. In a 1997 study of battered women’s shelters (Ascione, et al), 85% of women and 63% of children in these shelters reported incidents of abuse toward family pets in their homes. In some cases, abuse or threats of abuse toward a loved animal were used as a means of control of a spouse or child. Anecdotal evidence also connects meat industry workers with violence at home. Workers have reported a loss of compassion toward the suffering of other living beings, including family members.

But the meat industry's reach extends far beyond the family unit. What kind of work environment instills callousness and violence? Profits for the meat and poultry industry, as in any industry, rely on maximizing output and minimizing production time. For meat-packing, this means speeding up the killing and processing rates at slaughterhouses—and the consequences are dire for both animals and workers. The faster the line speed, the higher the chance that animals will be mutilated instead of killed outright, and left to die piece by piece as their bodies are processed for packaging.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," line speed is the main source of danger in a notoriously dangerous industry. Workers are expected to slaughter 400 cows, 1000 hogs or thousands of chickens per hour, all while using razor-sharp blades. Workers risk being stabbed, blinded, having limbs amputated, or even being killed on the job. Many of these workers are undocumented immigrants, and thus feel that they are left with few choices. Some workers report having this fact held over them as a threat: complain about conditions and we’ll call the INS.

Aside from brutalizing both animals and humans within their facilities, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), or factory farms, are a major source of water and air pollution for rural communities in their vicinity. These "farms" pack as many animals as possible into each cage, shed and pen. For the animals, this means a life of intensive confinement and some, such as gestating pigs and veal calves, are unable to even stand up and turn around for their entire lives. To keep them alive and healthy enough for sale and slaughter, the industry feeds them a continuous diet of antibiotics. According the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), manure and wastewater from these facilities have the potential to pollute the environment with nitrogen, ammonia, hormones and heavy metals among other pollutants. In fact, 35,000 miles of river in 22 states have been contaminated from these operations. People living in the vicinity of CAFOs have reported high rates of miscarriage, respiratory problems, nausea and an inability to leave their home or open windows because of the stench.

While many of us work for a better world, we’re still locked into a worldview that is incongruous with the society we wish to create. As long as we allow ourselves to see any other living being as a commodity we will make no progress. No advancement that we attain on any one issue will be sustainable without a fundamental shift in our perception of oppression and our relationship to our environment.

Though many activists do see a link between movements, we must do more than pay lip service to solidarity if we are to attain real, lasting change. There will be no justice without animal liberation as well as human freedom; otherwise we will remain stuck in the same cycle of violence and oppression that exists today.