In one of the early episodes of "Portlandia," the satirical show that makes fun of all things Portland, Ore., a couple dining out interviews the waitress about their potential chicken dinner.
Specifically, they want to know details of the chicken's diet (sheep's milk, soy and hazelnuts), his free-roaming privileges and roaming area (four acres), whether he had friends and was a happy chicken, and so on. Their server answers patiently, even producing Colin's papers. Colin, that is, the chicken.
So goes the joke on people who get a tad carried away about the quality of life of the animals whose slaughter they ultimately condone and whose flesh they consume. It was, if you'll pardon the expression, delicious.
But the reality side of the factory farm story isn't so tasty. Humane treatment of animals, whether being bred as pets or for display in grocery stores, is a work in progress, the relatively few successes of which are meager testament to our own humanity.
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Inasmuch as the way people treat animals reveals their character, the way we mass produce animals for human consumption reveals much about our nation's character. That character is being tested even now on Capitol Hill.
While most eyes this summer have been riveted by human bloodshed from Syria to Egypt, a handful of animal rights advocates has been glued to the farm bill, which, you'll recall, became controversial when House Republicans severed a food stamp provision that customarily was attached.
What may have escaped much notice, however, is an amendment by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that would pre-empt state and local laws governing food production and other animal-related industries, including puppy mills, confinement of farm animals, animal fighting, shark finning, and the sale of meat from horses, dogs and cats.
Despite strong opposition from animal rights groups, as well as more than 200 fellow House and Senate members, King has invoked the Commerce Clause to defend his amendment. He avers that having so many different laws in different places violates the federal government's authority to regulate interstate commerce. One of the problems, as he sees it, is that states such as California that have strong laws about how chickens must be raised (enough room in a cage to stand and spread their wings) can impose their standards on other states that sell their egg products in California.
"The impact of their large market would compel producers in every other state to invest billions to meet the California standard of 'means of production.'"
King, whose legislative history regarding animal welfare is poster material for cruelty (and dunder-headedness) -- he thinks dogfighting is fine and children ought to be able to watch -- also promises that his amendment will put an end to "radical organizations" such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.)
I probably should confess that I love anything with a heartbeat, and there is no humane treatment I could imagine opposing. Do I think we should play classical music for cows as they amble to the slaughter? Oh, why not, if it makes them less anxious?
More to the point, is making a hen's cage a little larger really so cost-prohibitive that we can't manage to make a miserable life a tiny bit less miserable? Is someone's taste for foie gras so worthy of protection that we condone force-feeding cruelly confined ducks until their livers bloat and become diseased?
The list of humans' cruelty to animals is too long and too horrible for this space. The fact that some states aim to protect animals seems to me cause for celebration rather than federal opposition. Here's a thought: Instead of trying to undo what some have done in the spirit of a more humane society, why not encourage other states to become part of the movement?
King, perhaps, represents a certain contingent that holds to a biblical view that animals don't deserve the same consideration as humans. As King said in his defense of dogfighting, there's something wrong when we outlaw dogfights but allow people to fight. The obvious difference is that people who step into the ring have a choice in the matter -- and state-sanctioned torture of animals would seem to undermine the notion that humans are of greater value to the Divine.
The fate of King's amendment will be determined when Congress reconvenes in September. For now, dozens of animal rights organizations, as well as the head of the National Conference of State Legislators, are lobbying hard to kill it.
Humanely, of course.