Yes, Pat, It’s Possible

 I love my life on the land and my animals, but the price I have to pay to maintain this lifestyle and my herd of lovely cows is to sell their progeny. This, of course, is the business of farming. But I console myself that I do my utmost to give my animals the happiest life I can while I have them; and ensure humane treatment thereafter.

The other day, I was speaking to a man who loves his horses, dogs and chooks; an honest, hardworking man. He was looking puzzled. “I don’t know,” he said, referring to a recent ad against intensive farming on our TVs. “Those chickens looked OK to me. Their combs are red, their eyes are bright. They’re just moulting, that’s all.”

I had to agree. I felt the same way about the pigs. They were in good condition, bright-eyed, took a healthy interest in the cameras; showed no fear; and their skins looked pink and unblemished. We weren’t shown their housing, so I don’t know how much room they had.

It is easy to believe what we are told, especially when accompanied by images that tug at the emotions. But what if we are shown only one side of the story?

As a researcher of history, I have become accustomed to looking at the big picture. So before we demonise the farmers, let us take a look at the other side.

We are fond of romanticising nature – freedom, fresh air and sunshine: bliss! But take a closer look. Nature is not pretty: It is the survival of the fittest – a harsh concept. It’s the heartbreak of a tiny wren almost dying in the effort of raising the chick of a much larger cuckoo that has smashed its eggs. It’s struggling for sustenance in a bad season. It’s living every second in fear of predators. It may look beautiful to us, but it’s something else for the creatures trying to survive in it.

Susceptible farm animals must be protected from the vagaries of nature.

Chickens, for example, cannot survive in nature: There are no feral chickens. They are at the mercy of predators such as foxes, dogs, feral cats, hawks, eagles, snakes and goannas; and subject to diseases carried by birds, rats and mice.

Pigs need shelter, climate control; they must be kept warm in winter, cool in summer. Sudden changes in temperature make them susceptible to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. There are deadly pathogens out there for pigs. To protect them, they must be housed in a biologically secure environment, with enormous costs. Unauthorised visitors to these places can bring untold suffering to the very animals they wish to help.

So, how have we come so far from protection to what is often seen as little more than a production line?

Back in the middle of last century, in the fifties, sixties and seventies, farmers actually made money. Everyone was into production lines, town and country. Farmers were anxious to have the latest in housing for their animals; to be seen as stream-lined and efficient; hospital clean and hygienic in their husbandry. Doing the best that they could for their animals.

Workers on production lines, realising how soul-destroying it was, soon objected; and were replaced by robots. It wasn’t that easy for the farmers. (And I am not saying it was easy for the workers!)

Farmers wishing to upgrade their housing are faced with a harsh reality. Changing infrastructure involves 5-6 figure sums. Whenever prices approach a level to allow it, cheap imports flood the market, forcing down farm gate prices. (Does anyone ask how these animals have been treated?) With escalating costs and returns of 10-20years ago, farmers can do no more than hang in there. (If they are lucky!) They cannot afford to upgrade.

So, how can farmers make these changes that they themselves would wish for? It sounds impossible, doesn’t it?

The people with movable hen-houses allowing their chooks to scratch daily on fresh ground have all my admiration, but their infrastructure and time investment is huge.

Some friends of mine, passionate animal lovers, toured the world to find the ideal environment for their chickens, finally settling on a concept from Israel. Their investment is also massive.

Do we, as consumers, reward these caring souls for their time and dedication? Or do we buy the cheapest supermarket specials, thus forcing them out of business?

We consumers do have the power to change the lives of our animals: not by spending money on emotional ads that promote negative feelings (despite being presented by kind and well-meaning celebrities like Pat Rafter); but by doing something positive; something we can all do.

Negatives divide, destroy, achieve nothing; only adding tension to an already impossible situation.

Positives unite, simplify, show us the way. Positives make the difficult easy; the impossible, possible.

And now we see: how simple is the answer!

Here is a positive that I guarantee will work: Ignore the cheap supermarket specials and pay a premium for food produced from livestock raised in a proven animal-friendly environment.

The farmers will be only too happy and relieved to have the funds to comply.

Truth or Injustice?

Listening to the local news at breakfast on Easter Monday, I almost choked on my toast when I heard something about drones being sent over farms at a height of less than ten metres to make sure that farmers were not being cruel to their animals. In the same professional tone the newsreader said that a Farmers’ Representative had stated that if they did that then some farmers would shoot them down.

Farmers – a put-upon minority group – accused of wholesale cruelty unless someone was watching? I spent about two hours churning before I realised the date: April 1.

But it set me thinking, wondering why this news item, though outrageous, didn’t seem out of the realm. Animal activists have been picking on the farmers lately. And they go for us at really bad times like droughts and GFCs. They say they want animals to be happy.

“So?” say the farmers. “What’s new? We spend our lives doing everything in our power to keep our animals happy.”

Personally, I think the answer lies in the understanding of what does or doesn’t make an animal happy.

Now, I don’t have particular insight into the minds of my animals (I only wish I did), but I can tell you what any farmer knows: If animals are under stress of any kind, their health and production decline dramatically with death the bottom line.

Conversely, an ideal environment is one with no physical or psychological stresses, in which the animals can happily thrive and perform to their genetic potential.

In other words, farmers have a vested interest in keeping their animals happy, not only from an ethical point of view (which most of us do have), but because unhappy animals do not produce.

Having said that: there are good and bad farmers. I only speak for the good ones.

So: how do we tell if animals are happy?

Not by putting ourselves in their places and thinking how we would feel! (What does a dog like to do best? And how about the expression: ‘happy as a pig in mud’?)

I believe that, in animals, happiness equates with well-being. Farmers gauge this by the health, behaviour and general brightness and demeanour of their animals.

As a race, we are fond of ‘humanising’ animals but the truth is that it is a mistake. They have not the brain structure to allow reasoning or imagination. Grave injustices have been perpetrated on animals due to forcing human expectations upon them.

From the scapegoats of the ancient world, cats burned as witches’ familiars, pigs put on trial for stealing and other crimes in the middle-ages, to the cute monkeys adopted by misguided animal lovers (because they look like babies they are treated as such); history attests to the injustice of human imagination having endowed these hapless creatures with qualities they cannot possibly possess.

The weird, intense eyes of a goat, cat or owl are not evil or supernatural, it is human imagination that sees them so. Despite an uncanny resemblance, those tiny monkeys are not babies, and their sadness and frustration will remain with me forever. Injustice stacked upon injustice! Humanising: A great wrong.

Sadly, history abounds with incidents of animal abuse, yet in some cases they received better treatment than humans. The parable of the prodigal son, for instance, or a great 19th century racehorse and his jockey. (I am not excusing it – on the contrary – just reporting with a heavy heart.)

We must be aware that what an animal may consider an acceptable environment need not necessarily coincide with the human perspective. (That varies also: Take a walk through an inner city park at 7 o’clock on a Saturday morning.)

Is this bandying of accusations pots calling kettles? A case of ‘pull the log out of your own eye …’? Or just another illustration of human injustice?