The charter of animal rights?

Just before Christmas last year, Dean Cresswell took his dogs for a quick walk in an empty field beside a Canadian Tire in Windsor, Ontario. Halfway through the field, he chanced on a gruesome find: a small brown dog, its neck, muzzle and legs bound tightly with electrical tape, had been left to die a slow death in the frozen field. Two months later, the dog – now renamed Justice – is en route to recovery, thanks to Cresswell’s spur-of-the-moment walk that day and intensive veterinary intervention since. The perpetrator of the cruelty, a 32 year old man named Michael Hill, pleaded guilty to an animal-cruelty charge and was sentenced to two years in federal lock-up.  

“That’s a terrible story with a justice-serving and necessary end. But what does it have to do with beef?” you might be asking.

More than you might first think.

Though the vast majority of pet owners honour, love and well-treat their animals, there are a (hopefully very few) bad apples like Michael Hill. In the livestock industry, the vast majority of livestock producers honour, love and well-treat their animals. In fact, a livestock producer has even greater incentive to care well for his animals than a pet owner, since his very livelihood depends on doing so. Very unfortunately, within the livestock industry there are also (a very few) bad apples who do not live up to animal welfare standards. While Hill’s horrific mistreatment of the little dog does not reflect on all pet owners, a single livestock owner’s mistreatment of his animals immediately and harshly reflects back on the entire livestock industry. It is an unfair double standard built on misinformation, lack of consumer/public understanding and the powerful efforts of animal rights activists.  

“The vast, vast majority of livestock producers treat their animals extremely well. But, our consumers are inundated with anti-ag messages from our opposition. Activists’ fundamental goal is to put all animal agriculture out of business. If you take an ill-informed public and feed them a lot of false, anti-agriculture messages, that’s what they will believe,” says , a long-time cow/calf producer, currently Alberta’s delegate on the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association Board, and a board member with the Alberta SPCA.

Just over a year ago, Animal Justice, a Canadian activist group, launched a national campaign to have the Federal Government legislate an animal charter of rights and freedoms. Under their proposed charter, animals would be granted ‘person’ status in the legal system, much as municipalities and corporations currently hold. As such, animals would gain power within the legal system. Animal Justice says this change is necessary, since animal abusers are too often charged but never prosecuted.

Promoting animal health and welfare is fundamental to every livestock producer’s bottom line. Aside from caring deeply about their animals, producers need their livestock to be as healthy and happy as possible because the animals are valuable assets that will produce best under optimal conditions. That said, legislating an animal charter of rights would take the industry in a very wrong direction down an incredibly slippery slope.

“I’m opposed to taking it as far as a charter because that diminishes the ownership piece. As owners of any animal, we have a legal and moral responsibility to take proper care of them. I’m very supportive of rules, regulations and laws designed to promote animal care,” says Sawyer. “We need to continually look at the regulations our industry falls under because we need to be continually moving forward.”

When you hear an animal rights activist arguing for higher animal standards, more animal rights, better transparency regarding livestock care, what is your reaction? If you are like many producers, you likely roll your eyes, feeling angry and frustrated at the misinformation, at the attack on your right to farm, at the general public who seems so willing to point fingers and jump on the destroy-agriculture bandwagon.

“Yes, it makes me angry. I’m going to cut to the chase and say it pisses me off when we all get painted with the same brush whenever someone – one outlier who doesn’t know or doesn’t care enough – mistreats their livestock. That’s the emotion end of it. I’m standing here looking out the window at my cows – they’re all healthy and in good condition and well cared for – and I ask, why am I getting accused of something I’m not doing?” says Sawyer.

But anger is an inefficient emotion and won’t help agriculture’s cause. While frustration and disgust at unfair assumptions and inaccurate generalizations may be justified, patience, diplomacy, open communication, and transparency will go much further.

“The only way to combat the misinformation out there is to tell our story with a calm, cool approach,” says Sawyer.

Today’s public is largely uneducated about agriculture. This statement is fact rather than criticism: most urban dwellers are at least three generations away from farming life, so understand virtually nothing about livestock management. Because their primary interaction with animals is through their pets, they are very open to anti-ag’s emotion-grabbing but generally inaccurate or misleading messages.

The solution lies in changing not only how the industry shares its story, but how the industry values itself, says Sawyer.

“I’ve realised I need to make two mental shifts. The first is that, yes, I do want to educate people on what I do and how I do it because it will make them more comfortable with consuming my product. The second is I need to learn to give myself a pat on the back for what I do.

“Producers are extremely modest and are horrible at applauding themselves. We need to recognize what we do every day. When all my neighbours got up early this morning, whether they felt good or not, whether they wanted to or not, we all headed out and fed those cows and checked each one. If it looks like it might snow, we put out extra bedding. If one of our cows gets injured, we give her care. Most of what we do is instinctual and intuitive, which can make it hard to put into words. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for all we do. But if we don’t recognize what we do ourselves, how will we tell others about it and help them see what a good job we’re doing?”

ABP, CCA, Canada Beef, the BCRC all do significant extension work on educating consumers and the general public about the cattle industry and its animal care practices. The challenge, of course, is that anti-ag groups are far better funded, and have the benefit of sensational messaging so juicy that media and the general public can’t help latching on.

The solution? Consistent, calm, open messaging from all angles and all levels of the industry.

“Producers need to show and tell what they do, to not be scared to enter into that conversation or show people how they take care of their animals. There are different roles for different parts of the industry, and producers are part of that partnership,” says Sawyer.

“Focus on building trust, building a relationship. Don’t holler at someone, just talk to them. Explain what you do. The thing I hope comes from it is that when they go talk to their neighbour or their friend, they can say, ‘I met a nice, honest guy who told me about how he raises cattle. I forget exactly what he said but I trust him.”

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