Animal Protection During COVID-19 and Beyond: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way

In a new op-ed from Animal Equality UK, Michelle Baxter Wickham calls for more individual and corporate accountability to ensure farmed animals are better protected when we return to "normal."

cow cattle fence

Perspective Policy Reflections

Prior to March, one topic dominated every thought, discussion, and news story: Brexit! In the animal protection movement, this meant one thing: how do we ensure the most fundamental principle underpinning our animal welfare standards—that animals are sentient and feel a range of emotions including pain through to joy—is enshrined into UK law when the transition period ends on December 31, 2020?

But then March hit, and Brexit slipped from the hot topic spot. It’s no longer the main threat to the animals for whom we’re responsible. The coronavirus pandemic has swept over our planet and, at the time of writing, resulted in over 32,000 human deaths. Supply chains are being radically remodeled to meet consumer demand, along with a drastically reduced workforce. Workers in Northern Ireland and the U.S., concerned that sanitization and social distancing protocols aren’t being taken seriously, have staged walkouts. In Canada and the U.S., after workers tested positive for COVID-19, companies have had to close. Avara, Moy Park, and 2 Sisters Food Group, the UK’s three largest poultry producers, put out a recruitment call for hundreds of staff to fill the workforce shortfall. The U.S. has seen mass on-farm culling, where millions of animals have been killed on site due to slaughterhouse closures, and there’s increasing concern that it’s only a matter of time before it comes to the UK. Red Tractor, the UK’s go-to assurance scheme, has ceased in-person inspections, carrying out telephone and online assessments instead. Even at the best of times, such inspections are relatively futile; Animal Equality’s investigations have repeatedly demonstrated failings of Red Tractor and other similar schemes. Nonetheless, nothing can replace having eyes and ears on the ground.

None of this bodes well for intensively reared animals; in times like these, welfare standards inevitably drop down the priority list. Time and again, Animal Equality has exposed cruelty and poor practice on UK chicken, cow, hen and pig farms, and in slaughterhouses. The situation is likely to deteriorate even further when producers are struggling to produce in even shorter time-frames than usual, with insufficient staff. This is factory farming in 2020.

It underscores why initiatives to remove some of the cruelest practices from the supply chain are so important. They raise the basic protections for animals at a time of certainty, so that when uncertainty hits, we have legislation and policies in place to go some way in protecting them. There are numerous campaigns and programs in the pipeline that need our support.

A Better Deal for Animals, supported by a coalition of 36 groups, will formally recognize animals as the living, feeling, breathing beings that they are. This shouldn’t be in doubt given what we now know about animal emotion and behavior.

Compassion in World Farming is leading the call to Stop Live Transport of millions of animals who are exported for fattening or slaughter each year. Just last week, Animal Equality’s team in Spain exposed terrified lambs being crammed together on trucks and transported for up to 10 days from Europe to the Middle East. The footage captured shows lambs getting caught in closing doors and gates, being roughly handled by workers, and stuck in long queues at the port in the searing heat. They’re denied sufficient food, water, and rest. This is an unacceptable situation for the animals, and it increases the risk of disease spreading across the globe.

2018 saw the launch of a European Citizens’ Initiative to End the Cage Age for the billions of hens, pigs, rabbits, and others who are caged. Having lived in lockdown for the past six weeks or more we can all relate to the frustrations and, in some cases, mental anguish at having our freedoms restricted. For the animals who endure physical restraint day in day out, there is no end in sight to their situation, until the day of slaughter of course. These animals retain the natural behaviors that they cannot express. Anyone who has been lucky enough to see a rescued hen escape their cage and experience grass, sunshine, and dust baths for the first time, can attest to this. They instinctively know what to do.

Animal Equality is working alongside other organizations to encourage companies to adopt the ‘Better Chicken Commitment’, helping address some of the most serious welfare concerns in the supply chain. This work has the potential to impact more than one billion chickens each year in the UK alone and will see the end of fast-growing breeds who struggle to stand or walk, and severely overcrowded sheds where each bird has less space than an A4 piece of paper to themselves.

Animal Equality is also calling for a Foie Gras-Free GB which, if successful, will spare the diseased livers of 250,000 force-fed ducks and geese from entering the UK each year. Most people find the thought of this so-called delicacy repulsive and agree that it has no place in a compassionate world.

If we’re to be taken seriously as an animal-loving nation with unrivaled welfare standards, then we need to step up our game. Right now, everyone’s focus is quite correctly on coping with the next few days, weeks, and months in the best way that we can. But history tells us that this won’t be the last time we have to navigate our way through such a situation. Foot-and-mouth disease led to the culling of more than six million sheep, cattle and pigs in 2001; 8,000 people were infected with SARS coronavirus in 2003, and bird flu remains an ongoing concern for the poultry industry. In addition to the devastating loss of human and animal life, the global economy has also been severely damaged following each outbreak. The common thread is our abhorrent treatment of animals.

Our track record suggests that we never truly learn our lesson. So, this time, once we reach the calm after the storm, we need to combine our efforts—individuals, government, and companies—to bring about the necessary changes to ensure that farmed animals are better protected. If we’ve learned anything over the past few weeks—where event spaces have transformed into hospitals, the racing car industry is producing vital medical equipment, and people have adapted to a new way of living—it’s that when the will is there, we can find a way.

That’s a powerful position to be in.


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