A ranch owner in San Diego County disposes of 30,000 nonproductive egg-laying hens by feeding them into a wood chipper. Live hens are dumped into the shredder, some likely to hit feet first, some breast first. Sound like a scene from a horror movie? It's a true story. One would surely expect the ranchers to be prosecuted, but California humane slaughter laws do not cover unproductive egg-laying hens.
"Spent hens" are often packed into containers and bulldozed into the ground -- buried alive. Or they are often gassed using carbon dioxide distributed unevenly among tens of thousands of birds; it's common for them to die slow, painful deaths.
California's anti-cruelty statutes, which are separate from the humane slaughter laws, supposedly cover these animals, but it can be difficult to prosecute what is called "standard industry practice." And district attorneys don't like to bring cases they don't think they will win.
When a horrified neighbor saw ranchers cramming live chickens into a chipper, animal advocates thought they had a winning case. Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns led the push for prosecution.
Unfortunately, a San Diego deputy district attorney found no criminal intent on the part of the owners. She concluded that they "were just following professional advice" from two veterinarians. The ranchers named Dr. Gregg Cutler as one. Cutler denies directly authorizing the use of a chipper in the case but says he has no problem with the procedure. He is on the animal welfare committee of the American Veterinarian Medical Assn.
In order to dispel notions that the association had condoned the act, the organization's Web site displays the following quote from Executive Vice President Dr. Bruce W. Little: "It is absolutely absurd and ludicrous to believe that any veterinary medical association, especially an association that has for more than 150 years been the leading voice for humane and proper care of animals, could or would advocate throwing live chickens into a wood chipper as an appropriate method of euthanasia." Yet the man who reportedly condoned such "ludicrous" action remains on the organization's animal welfare committee.
Further, the AVMA has let farmed animals down in other areas. The majority of laying hens in the United States are forced to go into an unnatural molt by the sudden withdrawal of food for up to 14 days. This process shocks them into another round of laying. Even though this violates California's anti-cruelty statute, which states that a person who causes an animal to be "deprived of necessary sustenance" is guilty of a crime, but cases are not prosecuted. Forced molting is outlawed in Europe. Even McDonald's does not permit its suppliers to starve hens. Yet the AVMA has refused to take a clear stance against forced molting. And those with the power to prosecute people who starve animals look to that organization for expert advice.
Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) introduced a bill this year that would ban the housing of pregnant sows and veal calves in crates so small that the animals are unable to turn around or lie down with limbs outstretched. She was forced to defer her bill for lack of committee votes. The California Veterinary Medical Assn., which led the opposition, based its stance on the national group's policies. Florida residents, in a referendum, passed a ban on sow gestation crates last year despite AVMA opposition.
A Gallup survey in May found that 62% of Americans supported strict laws concerning the treatment of farmed animals. Yet AVMA policy on farmed animal welfare interferes with the enforcement of existing law and too often blocks legislation that would protect animals. And a veterinarian who apparently condones putting live hens into chippers remains on the organization's welfare committee. If the AVMA hopes to continue to be seen as "the leading voice for humane and proper care of animals," it is time for change.
Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethicist, is the author of "Animal Liberation" (revised edition, Ecco, 2001). Karen Dawn runs the animal advocacy media watch DawnWatch.com.