“Animal agriculture,” advocates tell us, “accounts for 98 percent of all animal suffering and killing.”  What does “all animal suffering and killing” mean? Lawyers David Wolfson and Mariann Sullivan tell us more specifically that farm animals make up 98 percent of all animals “with whom humans interact in the United States.” 
This 98 percent figure is a cue: Read on, and you’ll likely find a discussion of squalid warehouses crammed full of miserable beings. Next, you’ll read that most farm animals are virtually invisible to federal law.  And finally, because any efficiency is justified in mass production, advocates will often urge support for traditional farming and cage-free eggs. 
Yes, animal factories display an obscene disregard for the interests of any conscious beings caught up in their soulless venture. But it makes little sense to try to replace them with supposedly less offensive business practices such as free-range farms.
Here’s a reality check: US corporations annually process over eight billion chickens.  Add over 100 million pigs, and about 40 million cattle, calves, sheep and lambs.  The total number of fish raised for human consumption is in the billions.  In order to provide quality of life for the cattle and sheep and chickens, we’d have to clear any remaining national parks and forests, and then invade several more countries.
Rather than point out bluntly that our animal “interactions” have gotta go, non-profit advocacy groups lavish money on campaigns that suggest farm animals can be treated more like pets.  Only their naïveté is uncaged. Free-range production, by its very nature, could never be affordable to most of humanity; nor could the planet endure all that methane and manure. And as they push their ill-advised and expensive plans, advocacy groups become consultants to agribusiness. Their employees commit to memory the dimensions of cages, the mechanics of slaughter. What’s gained from this?
Animal welfare laws, even where they could fit, would extend no kindnesses to animals where doing so would substantially cut into profit. And no matter what regulations apply to slaughter, at the bottom line, dead means dead.
Reining in the Activists
Animal-welfare advocacy largely functions to ensure that activists conform to the received social and economic template. It transforms activists into paid, staid professionals who negotiate with a few companies over the caging and killing of the animals we commodify, the animals we use. These professionals select videos and reports for publicity value, then find decision-makers who are willing to negotiate, or at least to add pious phrases like “animal compassion” to the corporate and legislative lexicon. And although the reporters who discuss these campaigns use the terms “animal welfare” and “animal-rights” interchangeably, professional welfare lobbying does not advance animal rights.  It agrees instead to elaborately codify the human right to use other animals, and commodified animals will always be rightless. That’s what it means to be property.
Throughout the advancement of bigger, better confinement and healthy, sustainable animals, free-living animals are continually pushed to the outermost edges of habitable terrain. Professional campaigners relegate animal rights to the margins of activism just as they relegate the animals who can have rights to the margins of the globe. While they focus on goals such as “improving the living and dying conditions” of animals sold as fast food , they let the interests of free animals languish and become invisible. Yet if free-living animals were thought to have a claim to their territory and freedom, then finally, finally, the polluting and resource-consuming ranchers and animal farmers would meet a true challenge! Animal-welfare advocacy deals only with symptoms, in contrast, and will do so infinitely, without ever challenging our permission to use animals.
If campaigners got serious, they’d have to implicate their colleagues and partners. Question revered family traditions. Pause to reflect on the content of their refrigerators. That’s the work of putting animal-rights theory into action; and no, it hasn’t a thing to do with making threats or using force. It involves a commitment to avoid violence -- a far more radical proposal.
Let me illustrate this. I was recently invited to speak by the animal law section of a state bar association. Compilations of the panelists’ work were published. Notices went out to lawyers, students, and activists, announcing such heady topics as defending civil and criminal cases and the effect of the Patriot Act on animal activism. Legal education credits were arranged. PowerPoint technology was in place, as was a collection of gifts for the speakers. The one thing no organizer had assured was that the products of animal agriculture wouldn’t be spread across the back table.
My question about breakfast drew sympathy, then impatience. The caterers, I heard, couldn’t modify the normal routine. I offered to buy the food, to no avail. This carried on for three days. Finally I decided to refuse to speak in the room. The day before the event, one of the organizers sent me an e-mail: Somebody fixed it.
Then there’s the much vaunted “seafood boycott” to rid Newfoundland of its annual seal massacre. If the humane experts and snow-suited militants understood advocacy as meaningfully implicating the habits of their own communities, they would never have buddied up with Whole Foods Market and conjured up a seafood boycott to be turned off and on depending on the Canadian government’s quota for seal pelts. A holistic intervention (rather than a spectacle) means that we’re as respectful of marine life and the marine ecology as we expect the Canadian coast-dwellers to be. And because a holistic intervention would view Newfoundlanders as potential allies, it would exert its economic pressure not on the people living as near to the poverty line as to the sea, but on the government that sets the quotas, opens new markets, and fails to engage the human potential of its coastal populace.
The point of an animal-rights movement isn't to narrowly tailor angst to whatever seems crude and barbaric, preferably done by foreigners. The most difficult, often the loneliest, and yet ultimately the most meaningful activism involves the local vegetarian or humane society or the sing-along at the peace café. The cream in the coffee might seem, to some, unworthy of political action, but the milk of the mothers of others is a good place to begin to interrogate our universal domination of other conscious beings -- indeed, the idea of domination itself. In the cream, we see the experience of a cow whose life consists of pregnancies and separations and whose death is violent, and if animal-rights activism means anything, it involves that cream, that product of deforestation that ruins the earth for animals who could have enjoyed a life of freedom. The cream in the coffee connects us with the polluted streams and the pesticides that poison workers and the land.
After we weather the tempests in our own teapots, we can pressure our universities and municipalities to disengage from the promotion of dairy and flesh products.
Students can be an essential part of this community activism; but so far we find students acting like salespeople. After meeting with the campus “animal rights” group, the University of Connecticut recently agreed to buy Certified Humane Raised and Handled eggs. The campus newspaper explained: “Some students have been vocal in the pursuit of a dining facility that follows a ‘farm-to-fork’ philosophy, emphasizing humane treatment of animals and minimal processing.” The new eggs cost double what the old eggs did, but the dining hall’s assistant manager is delighted with the new, improved oval reproductive morsels: The banana bread is now "lighter and fluffier” and students “seem to be eating more eggs just to try them out.”
When several school cafeterias in Washington, D.C. made similar moves, the Humane Society of the United States praised the trend. The Baltimore Animal Rights Coalition carried the news to suburban Sterling and Fairfax, Virginia, advertising the "conditions in which animals live and die on factory farms” and pressing Wegmans to “join its competitors Whole Foods, Wild Oats and Trader Joe’s” -- groceries that already stock the connoisseur-class eggs.
I hope the reader will wonder why the advocates don’t simply recommend that people refrain from egg shopping. I wonder myself. I presume that they’ve become accustomed to wielding the leverage that’s the privilege of consumers. Being players.
The free-range label appeals to shoppers who see factory farms as inhumane, uncouth, or biologically dangerous. For investors in this sector, profits can be impressive. Britain’s latest figures, out last month, show that the value of non-cage egg sales has overtaken cage-produced eggs. Even McDonald’s uses free-range eggs these days. And at Zuma, over the road from Harrod’s of London, customers pay £55 ($96) for a Wagyu burger -- the ground flesh of cows that were once given massages and beer on New Zealand grass.
Most “free-range” offerings are, in reality, mass-produced commodities involving no pastures at all. The egg and dairy industries are notorious for their overall treatment, and the few cast-offs living in sanctuaries were typically found starved, neglected or abused -- common situations for animals raised for human consumption, including on so-called family farms.
Showing Animal Agribusiness the Door
So the animal-rights revolution will not be found on the farm. Even when advocates do intervene for free-living animals, activism is meaningless unless it champions a lifestyle free of animal products. Notably, militant groups that condemn meat eating still leave dairy and eggs up to the activist. Then, still ambivalent about boycotting animal agribusiness, the militants set off to release and rescue animals.
Little if anything changes after a private act of rescue. The laws protecting the industries become stricter, but demand does not change. Radical activism would mean going to the root of the problem, dissuading the public from supporting animal agribusiness. A firebomb can’t do that any better than an undercover video showing violations of the Animal Welfare Act. These aren’t radical acts. Contrary to an increasingly popular belief, making oneself and others vulnerable to law enforcement doesn’t make anyone radical. Offering oneself as raw material to the prison industry supports the makers of cages. In a world where coercion has, for so long, been the tedious norm, truly radical activism seeks and models a view in which respect prevails.
No one can be arrested for buying eggless noodles. Yet setting oneself free from the social addiction to animal products is serious direct action. It’s not a matter of decrying the worst abuses -- agriculture’s torture photos -- but of challenging the appalling communal injustices of the everyday. At a time when corporations have legal personhood, yet the conscious individuals used as raw materials do not, no activism can be more basic, more direct, or more needed.
And it’s difficult. Even the people at your peace marches and your progressive book readings will deny a radical idea when it implicates lunch. Don’t alienate people, you’ll be told. Everyone must travel at their own pace along the path. I believe this hesitance is born of fear, and that it goes back a long way. People still associate survival with fighting and vanquishing; just look at children's cartoons and the old fear is there. We homo sapiens are an insecure lot. We’re all still fighting and vanquishing animals by deliberately ignoring the unremitting destruction of their territory. By ignoring their numbers when they fall in the wars we wage. By the deforestation of their habitat and the expansion of our farming. By only permitting them to exist insofar as we can take advantage of them as tourist attractions, experimental subjects, film props, guards, playthings, or something to package in bright yellow foam and unwrap, ingest, and excrete.
The free-range notion doesn't challenge any of it. It injects an incoherent sort of flexibility into people who'd otherwise by drawn to vegetarian ideals. But professional welfare advocacy hasn’t come for ideals; it's come for bargaining power. The sprawling welfare administrations could never pressure multinational corporations, or make high-profile agreements and expand their sphere of influence and grow their millions in various banks if their members were vegetarians. So they become gatekeepers, experts on how to handle the 98% of animals with whom we interact.
Animal rights is only a viable idea as long as there is an animal world at liberty to avoid such interactions. We think of the future for wolves, for caribou, for nectar bats, pronghorn antelope, Atlantic salmon and sea turtles.
There is a saying that people often somehow resemble the animals with whom they live. Perhaps we could say that people resemble the animals for whom we advocate. Those who advocate for the rights of free-living animals -- which are, ultimately, the only animal rights there are -- won’t be tamed.
Lee Hall is legal director of Friends of Animals, an animal-rights advocacy group founded in New York in 1957. Lee thanks Priscilla Feral and Daniel Hammer for helpful discussions of the ideas in this essay, and welcomes further discussion at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Lee Hall
Groups To PETA: “You Have Used Us Enough”
Homeland Security (Part One): Doing Time for the Towers
 Jim Mason, “The
Root of (Just About) All Evil” in Vegetarian Viewpoints, the
newsletter of the Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society (Vol. 10, No. 3; Summer
2005). A similar statement appears in “The Animals’ Platform: Animals in
Agriculture” (draft 2004), published by the Institute for Animals and
Society (hereinafter “The Animals’ Platform: Animals in Agriculture”).