By: Rick Berman
Newspaper: The Clarion Ledger

With an estimated 62 percent of households owning a pet, it’s no surprise that animal welfare finds broad support among the public. Increasingly, the public debate about animal welfare has shifted from household pets to livestock. But with only 2 percent of Americans on the farm, the animal welfare debate about the proper treatment of animals has increasingly become influenced by animal rights philosophy, which holds that we should not put animals in any situation they would not agree to if they could talk.

Once you get past that radical view (say goodbye to seeing-eye dogs, house cats and fish sandwiches) the question remains, “What’s truly humane treatment for other animals?” The answer lies in a mix of science and pragmatism. Unfortunately, the theory of animal rights puts ideology above both – to the detriment, ironically, of animals.

Take the volatile issue of horse slaughter. About five years ago, humane horse slaughter was shut down after animal rights activists were able to strip federal funding for commercial facility inspections. What’s happened since then is nothing for an animal-lover to cheer.

Horses are increasingly shipped to Mexico, where they have to endure a longer trip and less humane standards. One recent study estimated that 100,000 unwanted American horses turn up every year, and the cost of feed in this economy has only made conditions worse. Yet the capacity of all the U.S. equine rescues and sanctuaries combined is just 13,400.

From an animal welfare point of view, it’s a net loss. From an animal rights point of view, it’s a net gain because even though unwanted horses are now abandoned and starving, the activists have banned domestic horse slaughter.

Recently, the rights-welfare divide has extended to debates over the housing of hens and pregnant pigs.,Egg-laying hens are generally housed in cages, which ruffles some people’s feathers. Aren’t birds better off running around outside?

The American Veterinary Medical Association notes that hens in cages have lower mortality rates. Moreover, cage-free and free-range environments expose birds to more disease vectors, predation risks, and cannibalistic behavior.

How about pigs? Can it be humane to keep them in individual maternity pens that restrict movement? The AVMA finds that maternity pens provide for sows’ needs. Their food and medication can be monitored. Housing pregnant pigs individually reduces the severity and incidence of injuries to the animals from their aggressive peers.

Animal welfare is a measure of several different factors. It’s a science. But for animal rights activists, there’s an additional angle: If they can force farmers to renovate or build new infrastructure, it radically ups their costs. Higher costs means higher prices and less demand for meat and eggs.

In the EU, where sow-housing regulations take effect in January, production is expected to drop 10 percent. After hen-housing regulations took hold this year, egg prices shot up 67 percent. Production decreased 15 percent.

It’s no surprise to see animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the U.S., which like PETA promotes veganism and works to get rid of animal agriculture, support similar legislation that’s currently before Congress.

The modern animal rights movement has little need for animal science. The goal of animal rights is to eliminate animals from society. It’s an ethical proposition only.

The goal of animal welfare, by contrast, is good treatment. New technology and designs allow farmers to maximize welfare by providing more environmental enrichments.

Animal welfare is a science. Animal rights is a viewpoint. And when philosophy is allowed to trump reality, bad results can follow. In this case, it’s both humans and animals that lose.