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Treatment of Farm Animals

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Beginning of a Movement

During its first 27 years, American Humane Association focused on improving the conditions of livestock during transit. It was this issue that led individual humane societies and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals (SPCAs) to band together in a national organization. Through this united effort, members of the new American Humane Association met annually to address numerous national animal welfare issues, two of which have remained in the forefront of the humane movement for more than a century -- humane transport of livestock and the humane slaughter of food animals. But how did American Humane Association's efforts go from protecting cattle shipped in rail cars to the American Humane® Certified program of humanely treated farm animals today? Here's how it all began.

Before American Humane Association

In the late 1860s, local SPCAs took root in cities across the Northeast and Midwest. These new societies typically dealt with local issues, such as the abuse of horses on city streets and the cruel conditions endured by stray dogs and cats. Although they made some headway, they did not have the resources to impact national animal welfare concerns, especially the humane transport of livestock on trains.

At the time many of these organizations were created, Congress passed the first federal humane law on March 3, 1873. This legislation, known as the "28-hour law," required that operators of trains and barges shipping livestock to stockyards provide the animals with feed, water, and rest every 28 hours. This was a monumental action by the nation to address a genuine animal welfare concern. But the modest scope of the law, combined with resistance by the railroad companies and lax enforcement, resulted in little improvement in the conditions endured by cattle, swine, and sheep transported from the grazing lands of the West to the slaughterhouses of Chicago and other cities.

Four years after the law's passage, conditions remained deplorable for livestock. The politically connected railroad companies typically ignored the 28-hour law and provided starving, thirsty, sick, and exhausted animals no protection from the elements. Livestock were packed into cramped, filthy rail cars, and thousands of animals died in transit, and innumerable others were maimed.

The creation of a voice

John G. Shortall, president of the Illinois Humane Society, realized that local and state humane societies, working independently, would have little influence over the treatment of these animals being abused in interstate commerce. So, in 1877, Shortall organized a national convention of humane societies "to protect animals in transit from the West to the East."

Throughout its first year, American Humane Association delegates pressed Congress to improve enforcement of the 28-hour law and to pass stricter protection measures for animals in transport. The members reconvened the next year in Baltimore to address the protection of livestock during long-distance rail transport. Zadock Street, chairman of American Humane Association's Committee on Legislation, told delegates,

"Our opponents admitted, when testifying before [a congressional committee] and also in one of their printed reports, that thousands [of cattle] die in the cars annually, and thousands more are injured; that this meat is sold for human food; that more than nine hundred cattle died in one train while in transit."

A traveling inspector

In 1879, American Humane Association employed Street as an agent to travel the United States for six months, inspecting more than 1,000 stockyards, rail cars, and slaughterhouses to expose inhumane practices and unsanitary conditions. Street discovered widespread filth and cruelty. Stockyard workers typically crowded animals into tiny pens, providing them with no food or water and torturing them with goads and prods. Overcrowding of rail cars was common practice. Street reported that "in one overloaded car, one of the cows had lain down and could not rise again, and the hogs had eaten a portion of her udder, and were pulling her entrails out."

American Humane Association produced an influential pamphlet based on Street's investigations exposing the horrors of livestock transport and the meat packing industry. The Association also began employing agents to investigate the conditions of livestock transport.

Based on this, conditions in rail cars, stockyards, and slaughterhouses improved slightly over the final two decades of the 19th century. By 1885, some stockyards had accepted American Humane reforms and had become clean and humane operations. However, a significant number showed little improvement, as they continued abusing animals with goads and prods, transporting them under unacceptably crowded conditions, and providing them little or no water or feed.

In 1899, American Humane Association field agents reported that the majority of stockyards and railroads abided by humane laws, though many rail cars remained overcrowded and some provided animals with no food or water in transit. At the Association's annual meeting that year, however, members were not placated by the progress and called for universal enforcement of the humane laws. Some members spoke out bitterly against the Department of Agriculture for failing to ensure that all stockyards and rail companies obeyed the laws.

Opposition from industry

By 1899, the National Livestock Association (NLA) was quietly lobbying Congress to amend the 28-hour law to allow the transport of cattle, swine, and sheep for up to 40 hours without rest, water, or feed. This was not the first effort by industrial forces to overturn the 1873 law. The railroad industry had posed a legal challenge to the 28-hour law in 1879. American Humane Association, then two years old, mounted strong opposition to the challenge and emerged victorious when the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts ruled against the railroads and upheld the constitutionality of the law.

In 1900, the NLA was on the verge of marshaling their intended revision of the 28-hour law through Congress when American Humane Association got word of it. Within 12 hours of learning about the proposed bill, American Humane Association sent letters to all 90 members of the U.S. Senate as well as the nation's leading newspapers. This lightening round of lobbying successfully killed the NLA's legislation, and the law remained in effect.

American Humane Association managed to keep the 28-hour law on the books, but enforcement still remained lax. While modern rail cars were equipped with troughs for watering animals in transport, a majority of the shippers refused to use them. American Humane Association field agents found that cattle were often kept in cars for up to 40 hours without rest, water, or feed, and that hogs were packed so tightly onto rail cars that their hair and skin had worn away, creating open sores.

It wasn't until 1905 that the Department of Agriculture began regularly enforcing the 28-hour law -- 32 years after the law was passed.

Treatment of livestock extends to poultry -- and to trucks

Twenty years later, the treatment of poultry was brought to the table. A September 1926 article in the National Humane Review called on shippers of poultry to agree on a uniform coop size to make transporting the birds more efficient and more humane. The birds typically were crammed into very small coops with their feet tied together. Often the coops had weak bottoms, which caused a high frequency of leg injuries during transport.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, transport companies drastically increased their use of trucks to ship these animals to market over the highways. This caused a new set of problems, as the 28-hour law didn't apply to trucks -- an unforeseen invention when the law was passed in 1873. Thus, American Humane Association joined with a most unlikely ally -- the railroad companies -- to insist that the government extend the provisions of the law to cover all livestock shipped on trucks.

The law was not amended, however, so American Humane Association worked with the Livestock Loss Prevention Association in 1946 to present awards to truckers who handled livestock humanely. They also continued to press the Department of Agriculture to extend the 28-hour law to trucks, establish regulation pen sizes, and create feeding standards for animals in transit.

An ongoing battle

Unfortunately, tragedies still occurred. American Humane Association reported in 1952 that some 38% of cattle died or were seriously injured during transport on trucks and trains. And in 1953, the 28-hour law still did not apply to trucks. Despite occasional improvements, problems persisted. In 1960, American Humane Association called on trucking companies to improve their scheduling to ensure that animals would reach their destinations as quickly as possible.

It wasn't until 1964 that American Humane Association and other groups finally convinced Congress to consider legislation that would extend the 28-hour law to animals transported via trucks. Unfortunately, efforts to pass the bill failed. American Humane Association managed to get a similar bill before Congress in 1971, but again the measure failed to win sufficient support.

An unexpected turn of events

A breakthrough finally came in 1975 - though not by way of Congress. Surprisingly, the National Livestock Dealer Association and the American Trucking Association approached American Humane Association for suggestions on how to make the transport of livestock in trucks more humane. The Association gladly responded, though many viewed this as a limited victory because the two associations had no power to force truckers to comply with the guidelines. Today, American Humane continues to work with farm animal transport agencies to develop standards to certify that animals are transported humanely.

Slaughterhouse cruelties

It wasn't just the transport of animals that was a major concern for American Humane Association, but also the humane slaughter of farm animals. Practices at the turn of the 20th century were inexact and cruel, resulting in much suffering by animals. Cattle were often beaten numerous times upon the head, and were sometimes skinned alive. One report concluded, "There is no hell like that of the modern American slaughterhouse."

Humane methods

In 1902, American Humane Association members began debating the humane methods of killing animals for slaughter. The issue came up again at each years' meetings and, in 1904, members condemned the practice of slitting a cow's throat and then skinning the animal alive. American Humane Association members insisted that all animals be stunned before slaughter and that Congress license and regulate slaughterhouses. In 1926, however, the United States still lagged behind other industrial nations when it came to employing humane methods of killing livestock at slaughterhouses.

In 1952, the National Humane Review revisited the issue of humane slaughter, touting a humane killing method then in use in Britain -- the captive bolt pistol. In 1955, however, slaughterhouses had made no noticeable improvements. American Humane Association again called for the adoption of European humane slaughter laws, and described the American slaughter process in an article in the National Humane Review:

"[The cattle] are led into a pen, three at a time. A man from above beats one on the head with a sledgehammer until it falls to the ground. He then would start on the next one."

Quickly and painlessly

Finally, in the spring of 1955, Congress heeded the call of American Humane Association and other groups for reform. Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota introduced a bill that would require slaughterhouses to quickly and painlessly stun animals before slaughter. A similar bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. In July, Senator Humphrey sent a letter thanking American Humane Association for supporting his bill, which was soon signed into law. The federal law, however, only applied to slaughterhouses that sold meat to the federal government, leaving some 13 million animals unprotected.

In 1957, American Humane Association took its humane slaughter campaign to the states and began certifying slaughterhouses applying humane standards with its "seal of approval." By 1968, 23 states had passed humane slaughter laws.

In 1977, American Humane Association led support for the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act -- proposed legislation that would strengthen the original law and would apply to all American slaughterhouses (not just those that contracted with the government), as well as foreign slaughterhouses that exported meat to the United States. The bill passed: Domestic violators of the measure would face stiff penalties, while foreign violators would be banned from doing business in the United States.

Farm Animal Practices Today and in the Future

With more than a century of work in livestock protection, American Humane Association's members were truly instrumental in achieving change for farm animals. Because of this role, American Humane Association was the only humane agency asked in 1995 to serve on the Development Committee for the "Guide for the Care and Use of Agricultural Animals in Research and Teaching," a federal livestock advisory board. The board's task was to write humane guidelines for the treatment of various species of livestock.

As a result of those efforts and the Freedom Foods program -- which ensures the humane treatment of farm animals in Britain -- more than a decade ago, American Humane Association turned its attention toward improving daily farm animal practices. The Association created a set of animal welfare guidelines for the care and well-being of farm animals and launched the American Humane Certified program (originally known as the Free Farmed program) in the United States in 2000.

The American Humane Certified program ensures that food animals are raised under strict humane standards. In addition to providing proper medical care, diet, and water and keeping animals free from fear and distress, American Humane Certified producers must provide appropriate shelter for animals' comfort and rest and provide an environment that allows for the normal expression of the animal's behaviors. For example, American Humane Certified standards require that pigs have enough space to move around and lie down and hens must have the freedom to flap their wings and move around.

Farms that want to be recognized as "American Humane Certified" must be inspected by American Humane Association and found to comply with American Humane Certified standards. We know that the more people who purchase products with the American Humane Certified logo, the more retailers will demand that animals be raised according to American Humane standards. The long-term goal is to completely change the way animals are raised so that American Humane Association's standards will some day be considered the norm.

From the 28-hour law to the American Humane Certified farm animal program, American Humane Association continues to work to protect animals from birth through death. Through our Association, we can set the course for a more humane future for farm animals at all stages of their lives.

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