Ontario Farmers Claim that Animals Can’t Think or Feel

By Camille Labchuk, Executive Director of Animal Justice

Animal cruelty in the farm industry simply can’t stand the spotlight. Numerous undercover exposés have exposed shocking mistreatment of the cows, pigs, and chickens who end up on our dinner plates. Instead of acknowledging their own wrongdoing, the response from the powerful farming industry has been to lobby for so-called “ag gag” laws that make it illegal to film and expose cruelty in the first place, like Ontario’s Bill 156. The bill would outlaw whistleblower exposés on farms and in slaughterhouses, and is fiercely opposed by animal advocacy organizations, consumer protection groups, civil libertarians, and journalists because it is likely unconstitutional.

Yet the legislative hearings on Ontario’s ag gag bill have given the public a rare glimpse of the utter indifference that many farmers still have for animal suffering, and indeed their denial of basic science about the emotional and cognitive abilities of animals.

Consider this submission from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), a notorious farm industry lobby group, which argues that animals can’t think or feel:

“The concept of ‘sentient beings’ refers to beings with the power to reason and think. The term also implies beings with an awareness of their surroundings who respond to sensations, have cognitive thoughts and have the capacity to perceive and experience life subjectively. Feeling is a subjective state, available only to the animal feeling it. As animals and humans are built and function differently, it is unfair to automatically attribute the sensations experienced by humans to be the same as those experienced by animals. Humans have the ability to communicate their experiences, and what they feel. Since animals cannot communicate with us, there’s a huge assumption by animal activists that animals have emotional responses and the ability to reason and think, in the same way that humans do. We simply do not know if animals are capable of reasoning and cognitive thought, therefore we cannot attribute human qualities of reasoning and cognitive thought on animals as the activists would like.”

If you’re surprised by this blatant science denialism, you’re not alone. Animal behaviour expert Dr. Marc Bekoff has called the OFA statement uninformed, anti-science, and extremely misleading. As Dr. Bekoff explains, it’s clear in 2020 that animals are sentient beings with rich cognitive and emotional lives, and there’s no question that animals feel pain and can suffer. Although the OFA equates sentience with reasoning and cognitive thought, a sentient being is someone who can feel. Like us, animals feel. They experience a wide variety of feelings, including pain and suffering, but also positive emotional states like joy, curiosity, and love. Animal sentience is already implicit in Canadian laws against causing suffering to animals. It’s also being made explicit by an increasing number of jurisdictions, like Quebec, which recently redefined animals not as mere property, but as “sentient beings.”

The animals who end up on dinner plates are sentient. Remember that it’s not what we eat, but who we eat that must be considered.

Of course, considering the “who” is a massive public relations problem for the meat industry, as its business model depends on ignoring animal suffering by crowding chickens raised for meat into dark, windowless warehouses; stuffing egg-laying hens into tiny battery cages; and confining mother pigs in crates so small that they can’t even turn around or play with their babies. The animal victims of the meat industry have few opportunities to experience positive emotional states, and experience significant pain and suffering.

Canada unfortunately has some of the worst animal protection laws in the Western world, and Ontario’s ag gag bill is about to make a bad situation far worse. Governments do not regulate animal welfare conditions on farms, and farmers are typically exempt from general animal cruelty laws. Farmers engage in a variety of standard yet painful practices with impunity, such as slicing off chicken beaks and piglet tails without anaesthesia. To make matters worse, there are no public inspection of animal facilities. Instead, the farm industry is left to make up its own rules. The figurative fox is guarding the literal henhouse.

Most people care deeply about animals, but are often unaware of how badly they suffer on farms. When they learn the truth, their trust in the meat industry plummets and they consider dietary changes to avoid contributing to suffering. Without whistleblowers there to shed light where darkness dominates, the public is deprived of an important source of information that may motivate behavioural change.

Take action here to protect animals, worker safety, and transparency on Ontario farms!

Photo courtesy of Louise Jorgensen / Toronto Cow Save

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