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Opinion Editorial

Is consumer change the only way to reduce cruelty in industrialized agriculture?

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

The blurb on a local tourism website says B.C.’s Fraser Valley “is known for its historical roots, agriculturally rich soils, and awe-inspiring vistas.”  Sadly, it’s also becoming known for some of the most horrific cases of farm-animal cruelty in Canada.

In June, undercover video released by animal activists showed horrific conditions at three Abbotsford egg farms, including footage of chickens, some still alive, buried up to their necks in feces. The video was turned over to the B.C. SPCA, which said it was “investigating another situation where chickens have allegedly suffered as a result of what appears to be a blatant disregard to adherence of the industry’s own agreed-upon standards of care and a failure to either comply with or put in place processes to ensure this type of suffering does not occur”.

It has since emerged that one of the operations being investigated by the B.C. SPCA is chicken-catching company Elite Farm Services, which was named in a major animal-cruelty case in Chilliwack last year.

In that case, footage obtained by animal activists showed chickens being mangled, stomped on, thrown against a wall, and smashed into transport crates. The B.C. SPCA recommended charges, but more than a year later Crown counsel has still not prosecuted anyone.

Crown counsel did charge dairy company Chilliwack Cattle Sales and several of its employees in a shocking animal-cruelty case in 2014.  Again, undercover animal activists obtained video, this time revealing dairy cows being beaten with chains and kicked and punched in the face by workers. Other cows were shown with open wounds and infections. Chilliwack Cattle Sales was fined $300,000 and some of the employees received jail time.

The response from the dairy and egg industries to these cases was predictable.  “I want the world to know that the overwhelming majority of dairy farmers were very disappointed by what happened,” said one leading Chilliwack dairy farmer, adding that what happened at the Chilliwack Cattle Sales farm was not the norm. 

A spokesman for Egg Farmers of Canada, commenting on the chicken cruelty in Abbotsford, told media: “By no means do we tolerate any animal mistreatment. Care of our hens is a top priority. And we take this allegation very seriously.”

Yet across much of the world, exposés of farm-animal cruelty have become almost routine. The ease with which the undercover investigators have been able to find and reveal abuse suggests that animal cruelty in intensive farming is not the rare occurrence that operators claim.

Media coverage of animal cruelty on industrialized farms in the United States has become so commonplace and damaging to the industry that it has lobbied for “ag-gag” laws criminalizing undercover videos of the cruelty.

Despite the cruelty scandals, industrialized animal farming continues unabated in the Fraser Valley. Even the most horrific cases seem to fade from public memory. Is it compassion fatigue or perhaps cognitive dissonance, as many of us don’t want to associate the cruelty with what we eat? And “livestock” don’t attract the same empathy as puppies or kittens, as evidenced by the ongoing Chilliwack Fair rodeo, which sees calves, steers, and bulls routinely brutalized for entertainment.

One answer, for many animal advocates, is to keep pressing government and the animal-agriculture industry to improve animal-welfare standards on Canada’s farms. For many others, the most effective action is to eliminate, or at least reduce, the consumption of animal-based products—a notion that would have been farfetched a few years ago but now seems entirely plausible.

For example, global dairy consumption declined by 22 percent between 2006 and 2016, largely because of the rise of nondairy alternatives. The continued introduction and improvement of plant-based products—such as A&W Restaurants’ recently launched Beyond Burger and even egg alternatives—suggest the same could happen with animal proteins across the board.

As these products become competitive on price, taste, and nutrition, one crucial question could arise in consumers’ minds: if I can eat well without cruelty or slaughter, why not?

It’s a question that may ultimately have as much impact on the Fraser Valley’s factory farms as the cases of shocking animal abuse for which they have become notorious.

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Opinion Editorial

Glue traps a cruel way to control rodents

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

Aneurin Bevan, a minister in the Britain’s postwar Labour government, once described his Conservative party opponents as “lower than vermin.”  It was perhaps the ultimate insult, considering that vermin are, as one dictionary puts it, “noxious, objectionable, or disgusting animals collectively, especially those of small size that appear commonly and are difficult to control.”

But vermin is just a label for wildlife, usually rats and mice, whose efforts to survive and thrive conflict with human efforts to do the same. Rodents don’t aim to cause us trouble but sometimes they do. Of course, being humans, we have employed science and our industrialized might to create an array of weapons, including traps, electrocution and various poisons, to keep them at bay.

Even animal lovers see little alternative to using lethal methods to keep their homes free from rodent infestation. Coexisting with rats in your kitchen is a bit of stretch for even the most compassionate among us. Preserving public health and safety and protecting food in homes, restaurants, warehouses, etc. are paramount.

But must our conflict with rodents be the cold, pitiless, all-out war on “vermin” that it seems to be? Should lethal methods always be the first choice and, if they are, shouldn’t they be as humane as possible? Consider one of the main products sold by major Canadian retailers to deal with rodents: glue traps.  These are boards made of wood, plastic or stiff cardboard coated with an adhesive on which rodents become stuck by their feet or fur.  They are anything but humane.

A 2003 Oxford University study found that rodents caught in glue traps “are likely to experience pain and distress” and “forceful hair removal, torn skin and broken limbs.” The study states that when boards are collected, the rodents are often squealing.  A pest control operative interviewed for the study described the animals to the researchers as “screaming their heads off.”

According to the study, the pest control industry recommends glue traps be checked every eight or 12 hours but, when used by the public, the length of time may be several days.

New Zealand and Ireland have banned glue traps and, after a campaign by animal advocates, a number of big wholesalers in the U.K. agreed to stop selling them. The Vancouver Humane Society has asked Walmart Canada, Canadian Tire, Rona and Home Depot to stop carrying the traps, but none of the companies has responded.

There are alternatives to glue traps, but none of the options is ideal.  Rodenticides, for example, are known to poison hawks, owls and other animals that eat rodents. The least inhumane lethal method is the snap trap, which is best purchased from specialty pest control companies.  Live traps can be used, with the rodent released elsewhere, but animals may return if released nearby or may suffer if relocated to areas without adequate food.  There is also the risk of animals being left for long periods in unchecked live traps.

The need for these methods can be greatly reduced through prevention and exclusion measures such as keeping garbage and compost secure, ensuring bird feeders don’t spill and sealing gaps where rodents can enter the home.

The B.C. SPCA has published a wealth of information on such measures on its website and also recently launched AnimalKind, a wildlife and rodent control accreditation program for pest control companies. The program accredits companies committed to using animal welfare-based standards approved by the B.C. SPCA.  To date, two companies, AAA Wildlife Control in the Lower Mainland and Alternative Wildlife Solutions on Vancouver Island, have been accredited. The accreditation standard prohibits the use of glue traps except under certain extreme circumstances and with a list of other conditions that companies must meet.

There are no easy answers when it comes to dealing with human/wildlife conflicts but we can take steps to minimize animal suffering and use the most humane methods possible.  Glue traps are certainly not one of these methods and consumers should avoid them.  In addition, they should urge retailers to stop selling them.

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Opinion Editorial

Treatment of sled dogs is morally indefensible

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

The welfare of sled dogs came to public attention in 2010 when Robert Fawcett, an employee of Howling Dogs Tours in Whistler, B.C. filed a claim for post-traumatic stress disorder. He had allegedly been ordered by his employer to kill surplus sled dogs after a downturn in business following the 2010 Olympics. He shot, stabbed and bludgeoned 56 dogs to death.

In the same year, filmmaker Fern Levitt and her husband went dog sledding in Northern Ontario. In her words: “After an exhilarating ride, I went back to see where the sled dogs lived. What I saw was unexpected and distressing — hundreds of dogs, all attached to chains several feet long, unable to move beyond their very short restraints. It was an image that I will never forget.” One of the employees told her that 30 of the dogs would be ‘culled’ if homes couldn’t be found for them.

The result was Levitt’s film Sled Dogs, which was released at the Whistler Film Festival in 2016. Every winter, Canadian SPCAs and humane societies across the country warn people to keep their animals indoors.

The Nova Scotia SPCA describes what can happen to a dog left outside as “an excruciating death.” Yet all across Canada and the US there are thousands of sled dogs chained to stakes, often 24 hours a day, with only a wooden hut or plastic igloo for a shelter. Sled dog operators say these dogs are different from companion dogs– that they’re bred for these conditions. But science does not support their claims.

In Sled Dogs, Dr. Paula Kislak, a veterinarian with the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association states: “(Sled dogs) have the same basic needs and requirements and desires (as pet dogs), and people who claim otherwise don’t have any scientific basis to claim that.”

In fact, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s code of practice for Canadian kennel operations states: “Tethering of dogs (i.e., chains or ropes used to tie the animal to an immovable object such as a stake or building) as a primary method of confinement is not acceptable.”

The code also states: “All housing should allow for enrichment strategies. Dogs are pack animals and require social interaction with their own species and with people. They do not do well in isolation.”

Dr. Kislak cites the extremes of weather as sometimes unendurable — both the high temperatures in summer and the sub-zero cold in winter. “The animals succumb to frostbite, they succumb to hypothermia, they succumb to stroke.” In summer, there’s no escape from biting insects and flies.

Perhaps even more morally indefensible is the use of sled dogs in the gruelling eight to fifteen-day, 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska (due to start on March 3) and the similar Yukon Quest race. The dogs are exposed to a high risk of injury or death, as documented in Levitt’s film. They’re expected to pull a sled weighing up to 250 pounds through harsh winter conditions, including blizzards, whiteouts, gale-force winds and temperatures that can reach -73C with the wind chill.

Levitt’s film shows heart-rending scenes of dogs suffering from vomiting, extreme exhaustion, dehydration, bloody diarrhea and bleeding feet at checkpoints during the Iditarod. Dogs can’t be replaced, so mushers may be reluctant to remove ailing animals. In one disturbing scene, a severely compromised dog was forced to go on, in spite of advice from a veterinarian who was obviously trying to get the musher to remove the dog voluntarily, pointing out that the dog’s pulse was abnormally and dangerously high.

In fact, the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian admitted that about a third of the dogs fail to finish. In 2017, despite all precautions and the sled dog controversy, six dogs died — and that doesn’t take into consideration those who may have died before the race in training, or after the race as a result of the strain on their bodies.

As a result of the Howling Dogs “massacre” in Whistler, B.C.  there were increased penalties in the Provincial Cruelty to Animals Act and basic standards were created for sled dog care.

Shamefully however, both 24-hour tethering and shooting dogs remain legal. The rest of Canada has no standards at all. Sadly, any time animals are used as commodities, their welfare is in danger of being compromised, even when the animal is man’s best friend.

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Opinion Editorial

Chickens are birds, just like eagles, but they get no respect

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

It seems the world loves chicken but not chickens.

When KFC in the United Kingdom recently ran out of chicken, there was near panic, with customers complaining to their members of parliament and even calling the police. During this year’s Super Bowl, football fans reportedly consumed a record 1.35 billion wings and McDonald’s is reportedly planning to become a “credible chicken player” in the fast-food market. In 2016, Canadians ate about 32.5 kilograms of chicken per capita, the highest consumption ever.

All this reflects a trend away from red-meat consumption, which has likely been fuelled by concerns over its negative impacts on health, the environment, and animal welfare. But the downsides of chicken consumption and production have not attracted the same level of public attention, especially when it comes to animal-welfare concerns.

Most people think of chicken in terms of nuggets, not birds. When those Super Bowl fans are gnawing on wings, they are not thinking of the feathered appendages used to shelter chicks or to escape from danger. (Yes, chickens can fly.)

Although we admire the majesty of eagles or show affection for our pet budgies, most of us accord chickens rock-bottom status in the animal world. Some birds are feathered friends. Chickens are, forever, food.

Yet the science is clear that chickens are birds—and they share many of the same behaviours and abilities as other birds. Although we put labels such as “wildlife”, “pet”, or “livestock” on animals, the animals themselves only think and feel as individuals, each with their own needs and desires, oblivious to human categorization. The rooster crowing at sunrise may feel like an eagle, regardless of our perceptions.

A recent review of the scientific data on the cognition, emotion, and behaviour of chickens concluded that they “are just as cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex as most other birds and mammals in many areas” and that they “have distinct personalities, just like all animals who are cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally complex individuals”.

The review, by neuroscientist Lori Marino, found that chickens:

  • have complex negative and positive emotions, as well as a shared psychology with humans and other ethologically complex animals. They exhibit emotional contagion and some evidence for empathy.
  • possess a number of visual and spatial capacities on a par with other birds and mammals.
  • share some very basic arithmetic capacities with other animals.
  • can demonstrate self-control and self-assessment, and these capacities may indicate self-awareness.
  • communicate in complex ways, including through referential communication, which may depend upon some level of self-awareness and the ability to take the perspective of another animal.
  • have the capacity to reason and make logical inferences.
  • perceive time intervals and may be able to anticipate future events.

Marino concluded: “These capacities are, compellingly, similar to what we see in other animals regarded as highly intelligent.”

It’s clear that chickens don’t deserve their low status in the animal kingdom, but should that even matter when it comes to how they are treated? The real ethical question should be about their capacity to suffer. In modern poultry production, there is no doubt that they do.

Chickens raised for meat are bred to grow so fast they are crippled by their own weight, leading to heart disease, skeletal disorders, and lameness. They are transported to slaughterhouses in cramped, unheated trucks with limited ventilation in all weathers, during which time they can legally be deprived of water, food, and rest for up to 36 hours. After short, miserable lives of deprivation, stress, and pain, more than 600 million chickens in Canada are shackled upside-down and slaughtered each year.

Aside from obvious animal-welfare issues, the overuse of antibiotics in poultry production has been cited as a cause of antimicrobial resistance, threatening the effectiveness of antibiotics for human use. Large poultry farms have also been identified as sources of air and water pollution. (A proposed poultry operation in Alberta, which would house 130,000 chickens, is meeting fierce opposition from local residents over environmental concerns.)

One answer to these problems is for consumers to avoid eating chicken altogether, but given its near universal popularity, how likely is that? Yet new developments in the plant-based-food sector suggest that finding a competitive alternative to chicken may not be as improbable as it seems.

number of plant-based chicken substitutes have successfully entered the market (not all available in Canada), but they have yet to make much of a dent in the poultry industry’s dominance. However, plant-based and “clean meat” start-ups continue to improve their products and attract investment. One small company making headlines is New Zealand’s Sunfed Meats, whose  Chicken Free Chicken consistently sells out in its home country and reportedly tastes very close to the real thing. After attracting significant international interest, the company says it plans to go global.

It’s easy to dismiss the idea that “fake chicken” might one day replace the animal flesh so popular today. But consider what’s happening in the dairy industry. Between 1996 and 2015, per-capita consumption of milk in Canada decreased by 21.5 percent. Meanwhile, the global market for plant-based dairy-alternative drinks is forecast to top $16.3 billion dollars this year—up significantly from $7.4 billion in 2010. The emerging plant-based sector is not going away and could be the “disruptor” that brings dramatic change to the food industry and our diets.

If such change is coming to confront poultry producers, it can’t come too soon for the billions of chickens that suffer to provide nuggets and wings to consumers whose appetites may be greater than their capacity for empathy.

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Plant-based diets go mainstream in Canada and the United States

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

There are few think tanks as serious and sober as Canada’s Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) and the same could be said for its digital magazine Policy Options. Yet in July, there among the magazine’s weighty articles on economic productivity, NAFTA, and pension reform, was a piece titled “Plant-based diet should be central to national food policy”.

Such headlines used to be the preserve of animal-rights pamphlets and vegan websites, but during the last decade the case for a plant-based diet has entered new realms, gaining increased credibility along the way.

The Policy Options article, written by economist and agronomist Jean-Pierre Kiekens, argues that: “Changing our food habits would bring huge benefits, including disease prevention, healthy longevity, environmental protection, biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation. The federal government is currently in the midst of a public consultation on a national food policy—it should consider a vigorous promotion of a plant-based diet.”

The arguments for eating less meat are not new, of course, but the sheer weight of evidence in favour of a shift away from animal protein has propelled the case for dietary change from the fringes of public discourse into the mainstream.

The scientific evidence establishing the environmental impact of global meat production has been clear ever since the United Nations published its landmark report Livestock’s Long Shadow in 2006, which concluded: “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.” 

Since then, further UN research has established that 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the livestock industry. Many more scientific studies have identified animal agriculture as a major cause of water pollutiondeforestationbiodiversity lossantibiotic-resistant bacteria, and zoonotic infection diseases.

As the environmental studies on the impact of livestock production have piled up, so has the evidence of health risks associated with red meat consumption.

Meanwhile, the dismal animal welfare record of industrialized agriculture is regularly exposed to public scrutiny by many undercover investigations carried out by animal rights groups.

While the downsides of meat consumption and production have accumulated, the benefits of a plant-based diet have attracted more attention—and not just from foodies, vegan bloggers, and fad-following celebrities. Now, it’s health professionals, chefs, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, scientists, and investors who are promoting the shift toward meatless meals. Even the federal government is proposing to encourage Canadians to adopt a more plant-based diet in the new Canada Food Guide.

The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada have long supported a vegetarian diet as healthy but now mainstream medical groups are starting to adopt similar positions. In 2014, Dr. Kim A. Williams, President of the American College of Cardiology, made news when he revealed that he was vegan and recommended plant-based foods to his patients.

The trend has also brought economic opportunities, with plant-based start-ups emerging everywhere. Last year, a group of 40 investors managing $1.25 trillion in assets launched a campaign to encourage 16 global food companies to diversify into plant-based protein. In the U.S., the new Plant Based Food Association, with more than 80 company members, is set to challenge the lobbying power of the American meat industry.

As plant-based eating goes mainstream, the old image of healthy but bland hippie food has faded. Meatless cuisine has become popular and fashionable, and has even entered the upscale dining scene. A Washington Post food critic, in a glowing review of plant-based fine dining in Los Angeles, concluded: “Much of the meatless food I’ve been eating of late has been alarmingly good.”

Here in Vancouver, there has been a proliferation of plant-based eateries. A directory published by Earthsave Canada lists more than 115 vegan, vegetarian, and “veg-friendly” restaurants, cafés, and other retailers in Metro Vancouver. Meanwhile, 11 Vancouver schools have adopted Meatless Monday programs and the University of British Columbia recently launched Canada’s first plant-based culinary training summit for chefs and food service professionals. In June, four Metro Vancouver cities attracted praise from Sir Paul McCartney for endorsing Meatless Monday.

Meat is not about to disappear from our tables anytime soon, but there’s little doubt that the plant-based diet is an idea whose time has come. A growing number of plant-based food enthusiasts, from cooks to consumers, have seen the future—and it tastes good.

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Opinion Editorial

Ending some rodeo events could restore goodwill

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

The city of Chilliwack has made national headlines recently, but for all the wrong reasons.

In June, animal rights group Mercy for Animals released undercover video showing alleged abuse of chickens by employees of Chilliwack-based company Elite Farm Services at several poultry facilities. B.C. SPCA officials said the footage, which allegedly showed workers throwing and hitting chickens, simulating sexual acts with them and letting some injured birds slowly die on the ground, was “absolutely sickening.”

In May, several employees of dairy farm operator Chilliwack Cattle Sales were sentenced to jail for abusing cows in another shocking animal cruelty case. Undercover video showed employees punching and kicking cows and striking them with canes and chains.

It is unfortunate that, because of these cases, many people across the country may only know the name Chilliwack because of media coverage of animal cruelty.

But now the city finds itself embroiled in another animal welfare controversy, this time involving a dispute over the rodeo at the annual Chilliwack Fair. The Vancouver Humane Society, as part of its campaign against the rodeo, released photos from last year’s fair showing calves with ropes tight around their necks, tongues hanging out, as they are pulled off their feet and thrown to the ground. Steers are shown having their necks twisted until they are bent completely over. The humane society says the photos are evidence of inhumane treatment of the animals and is calling on the fair to eliminate calf-roping and steer-wrestling. The fair’s management has agreed to review the events and its board will vote in September on whether to cancel them for next year’s rodeo.

The issue of animal cruelty at rodeos is not new to B.C. In 2007, the Cloverdale Rodeo dropped calf-roping and several other events following the death of a calf and a long humane society campaign against the rodeo. In 2015, the Luxton Rodeo near Victoria folded, followed by the Abbotsford Rodeo in 2016, both after humane society campaigns.

It’s clear that on the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island at least, rodeos have lost public support. A 2015 survey by polling company Insights West found that 63 per cent of B.C. residents are opposed to rodeos. 

The Chilliwack Fair must weigh up all the arguments and evidence concerning animal welfare at rodeos, including the photographic evidence from last year’s rodeo. It should also take into account the public disquiet over the treatment of rodeo animals that has been so clearly demonstrated by the demise of other local rodeos.

The fair also has an opportunity to undo some of the damage done to Chilliwack’s reputation by those recent high-profile animal cruelty cases. By voting to end calf-roping and steer-wrestling, the fair’s board, would make a strong statement that Chilliwack cares about animal welfare and that it supports the evolution of rodeo toward a more humane form of entertainment. It could show that it supports the kind of family-friendly, non-controversial events that people in the Lower Mainland want, not outdated spectacles of animal abuse.

If, on the other hand, the board votes to retain the two controversial events, it will signal that it doesn’t care what happens to the animals and it doesn’t care what many compassionate Canadians feel about rodeos.

A recent editorial in a local Chilliwack newspaper advised the board to rely on more than emotional observations and “outside complaints” when it makes its decision in September. To take an insular, mind-your-own-business position would make the board, and by extension the community of Chilliwack, look out-of-touch, parochial and backward. Is that the face a 21st century community wants to show visitors, investors and the rest of the country?

The Chilliwack Fair needs to stand up for animals — and for the reputation of its city.

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Opinion Editorial

They refused to run an ad about animal cruelty at the rodeo

Article originally published in the National Observer.

Earlier this year, a tiny community newspaper in Iowa won a Pulitzer Prize for taking on big agriculture companies over factory farm pollution.

The Storm Lake Times, which investigated the effects of nitrogen from farm drainage on drinking water in the state, was praised for its “editorials fuelled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”

The family that owns the newspaper reportedly lost a few friends and a few advertisers, but never doubted they were doing the right thing.

“We’re here to challenge people’s assumptions and I think that’s what every good newspaper should do,” said one family member at the time.

It’s a great example of a community newspaper showing courage and tenacity in seeking the truth. Some newspapers still uphold the highest standards and values of a free press.

Then there’s the Williams Lake Tribune. In May, I tried to book a full-page ad in the Tribune on behalf of the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS), where I work as the communication director.

The ad, as I informed the Tribune’s publisher via email, would express VHS’s opposition to the Williams Lake Stampede rodeo, which took place between June 29 and July 2. The event may be lesser-known than the famous Calgary Stampede kicking off this weekend, but from the perspective of the VHS, it’s every bit as cruel.

Rejected by the corporate owner

After a couple of days of silence from the publisher, I emailed again and received this reply from an executive at Black Press, the Tribune’s corporate owner:

“In consultation with our lawyer we have determined that we are entitled to decline advertising in the circumstances. The Williams Lake Tribune is a sponsor of the Stampede because it is a significant community event that the paper supports. We appreciate that your society opposes the event and we respect your right to that opinion. You were wise to check with us before commissioning artwork and design.

“While we cannot say definitively that we will decline all possible advertising, we can say, from experience, that anti-Stampede type display advertising that suggests or argues gratuitous cruelty to animals by image or text is unlikely to be accepted by the Williams Lake Tribune at this time.”

Since the words “unlikely to be accepted” seemed to leave the door slightly open, I sent the executive the planned content of the ad to see if it would be acceptable. This included a photograph of the steer-wrestling event taken at last year’s Williams Lake Stampede, accompanied by text stating: “You know in your heart this is not right. Stop cruel rodeo events at the Williams Lake Stampede.”

The executive replied that this would not be accepted.

A matter of public interest

This is not the first time a Black Press newspaper has refused one of VHS’s anti-rodeo ads. In 2015, Abbotsford News rejected a full-page ad opposing the Abbotsford Rodeo (which was ultimately cancelled in 2016). No reason was given for the rejection.

It’s perfectly legal for a newspaper to refuse an ad for any number of reasons. The ad might be libelous or gratuitously offensive or misleading to readers. VHS’s ad did contain a graphic image of a steer being wrestled to ground, but it only showed what a rodeo-goer would typically see at the stampede — the very activity that the Williams Lake Tribune says it promotes and supports.

If the Tribune finds a photo of steer-wrestling offensive and unacceptable, how can it support the event?

It’s also perfectly normal for a newspaper not to agree with an ad it might carry. The Tribune could have made this clear with a disclaimer on the VHS ad or it could have run an editorial explaining its contrary position on rodeo.

But the Tribune chose instead to suppress a legitimate point of view on a matter of public interest. It didn’t trust its readers to make up their own minds about rodeo. Unlike The Storm Lake Times, it didn’t challenge assumptions, “like every good newspaper should do.”

The B.C. and Yukon Community Newspaper Association, of which the Williams Lake Tribune is a member, says part of its mission is to: “Improve standards in the practice of the profession of journalism, and to promote a high standard of conduct and professional ethics in the business of newspaper publishing.”

The Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics guidelines state that, “Defending the public’s interest includes promoting the free flow of information, exposing crime or wrongdoing, protecting public health and safety, and preventing the public from being misled.” (Italics added).

Clearly, ethics matter to journalists and to the public they serve. People still believe that a free press is vital to democracy, that diversity of opinion matters, that newspapers should be courageous defenders of free speech.

What isn’t clear is whether those things matter to the Williams Lake Tribune, which, to my knowledge, has not been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

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Opinion Editorial

Battery cage ban lacks enforcement tools

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun.

Ethical Canadian consumers might have been pleased to hear the recent announcement by the National Farm Animal Care Council that the infamous “battery cage” for laying hens is to be phased out.

But while the end of this cruel cage system is welcome, the council’s new codes of practice for hens are far from any guarantee of good animal welfare.

An obvious issue is that egg farmers still have until 2036 before all hens must be out of battery cages. So, for the time being, supermarket shelves will be full of eggs from long-suffering hens that have been crammed into small cages.

By 2036, all hens must be in either cage-free housing or in “enriched” cages. Enriched cages, while bigger than battery cages, still restrict natural behaviours like running, full wing-flapping and flying, and do not permit unrestrained perching and dust-bathing. Even in an enriched cage system that meets the new code requirements, many of the welfare problems inherent in battery cages remain. In short, a cage is a cage. That is why an enriched cage would still not meet the standards required by the B.C. SPCA Certified Program, a third-party animal welfare certification system. Farmers who do opt for enriched caging will be committing to a major investment, guaranteeing these cages will continue to compromise animal welfare for decades.

But perhaps the most serious shortcoming in the new codes relates to inspection and enforcement. The National Farm Animal Care Council itself defines the codes of practice as “nationally developed guidelines” for the care and handling of farm animals. Guidelines are not regulations or laws. The codes refer to “requirements” that farmers “may” be compelled by industry associations to comply with and these requirements “may” be enforceable under federal and provincial legislation.

The codes also list a number of “recommended practices,” which are even less meaningful than code requirements, as they merely “encourage adoption of practices for continual improvement in animal welfare outcomes.” But no one is going to make a farm implement such practices, as the codes state that “…failure to implement them does not imply that acceptable standards of animal care are not met.” In other words, good practice is optional.

In fact, no independent, third-party body inspects egg farms to ensure the requirements under the codes are being met (unless they have signed up to a separate certification program like the B.C. SPCA’s or Certified Organic). It’s still the egg industry policing the egg industry, whatever spin is put on it.

So where does this leave the compassionate consumer who cares about animal welfare? For people who buy eggs, the least inhumane choice remains eggs that are certified organic, which are guaranteed to be cage-free and have the highest welfare standards. Consumers who continue to reject eggs from any cage system will send a strong market signal to parts of the egg industry that may be pinning their hopes on developing enriched cages under the new codes.

The most humane choice for consumers is, of course, to eliminate egg purchases altogether and transition to a plant-based diet. This has become a more feasible and popular option, as an increasing number of plant-based protein sources have rendered eggs unnecessary to a healthy diet. Reduced demand for eggs still means not only fewer hens in cages, but also fewer unwanted male chicks destroyed (by an industry that needs only hens) and fewer “spent hens” being shipped off to slaughter at the end of their lives.

While the end of the battery cage is a welcome victory for those who have long condemned its obvious cruelty, it’s not yet an end to the animal suffering inherent in the egg industry.

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Opinion Editorial

Animals used in TV and film production need protection

Article originally published in The Province.

The shocking video of a terrified dog being forced into a pool of churning water on the set for the Hollywood movie A Dog’s Purpose has put the spotlight on the use of animals in film and television production. It’s an issue acutely relevant in B.C., as the provincial government appears willing to allow local productions to use animals from suppliers facing animal cruelty allegations.

In 2016, the producers of the CBS television show Zoo, which was being filmed in Vancouver, was reportedly planning to use animals from Ontario’s controversial Bowmanville Zoo until pressure from the animal rights group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) convinced CBS to cancel the plan.

PETA had confronted CBS with a shocking viral video showing the zoo’s owner, Michael Hackenberger, allegedly whipping a tiger. Bowmanville Zoo has since closed down and Hackenberger is currently facing animal cruelty charges.

Documents obtained by the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request have revealed that the B.C. government granted a permit to Hackenberger to supply animals to be used in the making of Zoo, despite strong objections from the BC SPCA, which pointed out that Hackenberger was the subject of an animal cruelty investigation by Ontario SPCA.

The B.C. SPCA also informed government officials that the facility where the animals were to be housed on arrival in B.C. had also been the subject of animal cruelty investigations. (The name of the facility has been redacted from the FOI documents.)

Despite these objections and widespread media coverage of the tiger-whipping video, the B.C. government granted Hackenberger a permit to supply 18 animals, including tigers, lions, leopards and baboons to Zoo’s producers. While CBS was shamed by PETA into cancelling the shipment, the provincial government, oblivious to the ethical alarm bells, was happy to see the animals shipped across the country from one captive animal facility facing cruelty allegations to another.

CBS is currently filming another season of Zoo in Vancouver. It is not known if they are using live animals in the production.

These revelations hardly inspire confidence in the provincial government when it comes to protecting animals used in B.C. film and television productions. The same could be said of the industry itself, which took no role in determining whether the animals from Bowmanville should be used or not.

The industry has relied in the past on the presence of representatives of the American Humane Association (AHA) on production sets. But as the BC SPCA pointed out in its objections to Zoo’s plans, the AHA has no legal jurisdiction for animal welfare in Canada.

It’s worth noting that the AHA had a staff member on the set of A Dog’s Purpose, when the dog was thrown in the pool. Perhaps more troubling, the AHA was the subject of a damning 2013 exposé by the Hollywood Reporter, which alleged that the association underreported incidents of animal abuse on television and movie sets. Similar allegations were made in a Los Angeles Times story in 2001. Can the AHA really be relied on to ensure “no animals were harmed” in the productions it monitors?

Even if the safety and welfare of animals can be effectively monitored during production, what happens when the cameras are turned off? Too often, it means that lions, tigers and other exotic animals are returned to their cages at the animal rental agencies to languish until the next job. B.C. is home to several such agencies, which are not subject to regular inspection.

While no one is suggesting banning domestic animals such as cats, dogs and horses from our screens, the entertainment industry needs to guarantee their safety and well-being. But with advances in Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) it is no longer necessary to use captive wild or exotic animals to make movies and television shows. They should be retired to sanctuaries along with any other captive exotic animal that is not part of a genuine conservation program.

When it comes to compromising animal welfare for the sake of entertainment, it’s time to say “cut.”

Categories
Opinion Editorial

Trouble in Canada’s dairy industry is good news for cows

Article originally published in the Georgia Straight.

Canada’s dairy industry is in trouble and that could be good news for cows.  Between 1996 and 2015, per-capita consumption of milk in Canada decreased by 21.5 percent, with similar declines in the United States and Europe.

A key reason for the trend is the rise in market share of dairy alternatives—soy, nut, and other plant-based milks—that consumers are turning to in droves. The American dairy industry, in an obvious move to hobble this competition, is trying to get Congress to help outlaw the use of the word milk in marketing any of the nondairy products. Clearly, the industry is running scared.

And it’s no wonder. Revelations of poor animal welfare and evidence of the environment-damaging practices in the industry have been compounded by scientific studies undermining the health claims for dairy products.

Here in B.C., the horrific animal abuse exposed in 2014 at Chilliwack Cattle Sales, Canada’s biggest dairy operation, shocked consumers. The company, which pleaded guilty and paid a total of S300,000 in fines, was characterized as a bad apple by the B.C. Dairy Association, which stated: “We strongly believe this to not be the norm.”

While it’s impossible to know whether or not such deliberate cruelty has occurred at other B.C. dairy farms, inspection reports from the B.C. Milk Marketing Board found that one in four farms in the province failed to comply with the provincial animal-welfare Code of Practice. During an 18-month period starting in January, 2015, the inspections revealed cases of overcrowding, lame or soiled cattle, tails torn off by machinery, branding and dehorning of calves without pain medication, and other examples of poor welfare.

Beyond criminal cruelty and industry-code violations, animal welfare is routinely compromised through standard practices in dairy farming. Contrary to the images used in dairy-product marketing, most cows are denied access to pasture and are kept indoors. Yet research done at the University of B.C. has found that, guess what, cows like to go outside. Further UBC research suggests the public thinks cows should be allowed outside. But most B.C. dairy cows spend their lives confined indoors.

Another inherent issue is the separation of dairy calves from their mothers. Yet another UBC research study found that the calves experience “a negative emotional state” following the separation. The researcher, Prof. Dan Weary, has stated: “We can’t say that separation is just some instantaneous event that may be painful but doesn’t bother the animal….It does bother the animal. It bothers them enough that their mood state changes for at least a couple days.”

Again, a subsequent study found that consumers don’t like the practice, as Weary summarized: “People are dissatisfied with this idea that we’re doing something which seems very unnatural—taking a baby away from its mother in the first few hours of its life—and that we need to have awful good reasons for doing that.”

In short, just about everything in modern dairy farming raises animal-welfare concerns and the public finds it disturbing. 

Consumers may overlook these issues as necessary evils because they believe dairy products to be essential to human health. But that perception is being rapidly debunked by the latest medical research. One major study found that “higher consumption of milk in women and men is not accompanied by a lower risk of fracture and instead may be associated with a higher rate of death.”

On top off all this, the dairy industry is a significant contributor to climate change, producing about four percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The industry also requires vast amounts of water and has created significant pollution in North AmericaChina, and elsewhere.

Some of the new dairy-free products, such as almond milk, can be resource-intensive but not on the same scale as dairy milk. Newer milks—such as Ripple in the U.S. and Vancouver’s own Veggemo—are made with plentiful peas, giving them a relatively high protein content and an environmentally benign reputation. 

If such alternatives continue to improve and multiply, they are likely to increase their market share at the expense of the dairy industry. If so, it could not only be good news for the cows but also for our health and the environment.