Bruce Friedrich: Advent and factory farms

by Rich Heffern

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"Advent is upon us. It's a particularly holy time of the year for Christians, a time for us to ponder the meaning of Christ's birth, his proclamation of "Good News" for the poor and downtrodden, and the degree to which our lives align with Christ's vision. And so I view Advent as a key time to reflect and consider whether I'm living up to my Christian call to service on behalf of a more compassionate world.

From 1990 to 1996, I lived and worked in a "hospitality house" in Washington, D.C., sharing my life with the city's most down and out people, as a part of the Catholic Worker movement. We provided shelter to homeless families, as well as food, clothing and blankets to the city's poor. While I was there, a friend gave me Christianity and the Rights of Animals by the Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey, an Anglican Priest and professor of theology at Oxford University. It changed my life.

As a result of my prayer over Linzey's work and conversations with my spiritual director at St. Aloysius Catholic church, my focus turned to animal protection, where it's stayed for the last 15 years. Since that time, I've occasionally been asked why I focus my efforts on protecting animals, rather than humans. So, as this Advent season begins, I decided to offer some thoughts on why I view working on behalf of animals -- and especially farmed animals -- as God's work.

Pope Benedict XVI stated in an interview that the question of animal treatment is a crucial one for the faithful. By any measure, what happens to farmed animals today is anti-Christian. For example, as His Holiness explained, "Hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds." Similar abuse occurs in all of the farmed animal industries. Explains His Holiness, "this degrading of living creatures to a commodity contradict[s] the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible."

Indeed, it doesn't take much reflection to see that the Pope is right: God created humans and other animals out of flesh, blood and bone. We share the same five physiological senses and the ability to feel pain. God designed us this way. God designed all animals with a desire to enjoy sunlight, fresh air, fresh water and the rest of God's creation. God designed pigs to root around in the soil for food and play with one another. God designed chickens to make nests, lay eggs, raise their chicks and establish communities (the "pecking order").

Yet agribusiness today denies animals their most fundamental needs. Chickens are crammed into cages by the hundreds of thousands, each with less space than a standard sheet of paper on which to live. During pregnancy, pigs are stuffed into tiny metal crates so small they can't even turn around. Forget rooting in the soil or laying their eggs in nests -- these animals can barely move. The one natural thing they do get to experience is agony, and lots of it.

Agricultural Frankenstein scientists "play God" by manipulating animals to grow so quickly that their hearts, lungs and limbs can't keep up, often causing heart attacks, lung failure or crippling leg deformities within weeks of birth. Modern farmed animals have their beaks seared off and are castrated without pain relief, mutilations that, if done without anesthesia to a dog or cat, would be illegal. Finally, those who survive these factory farms are trucked by the billions -- without food or water -- to a hellish death at a slaughterhouse. Chickens and turkeys have it the worst there: Nearly all of the 9 billion slaughtered each year are conscious when their throats are cut, and, according to the USDA, millions are boiled alive.

Michael Specter, writing for the New Yorker, described his visit to a modern chicken shed: "I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe. ... There must have been thirty thousand chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn't move, didn't cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way."

Bruce Friedrich is the vice president of policy and government affairs for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

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