Animal welfare advocates throughout the nation rejoiced following the election on Nov. 6. What is being proclaimed as the “strongest animal protection law in history” by Mercy for Animals, Proposition 12 was passed with 61 percent of the vote by the citizens of California. Californians are paving the way for the continuing abolition of cruel factory farming practices.
According to Ballotpedia, the passing of the initiative means that there will now be minimum space requirements established for calves raised for veal, breeding pigs, and egg-laying hens. Any eggs or meat that comes from animals that are confined to cages that do not meet the new requirements will be banned from sale. Since the common practice of factory farms is the extreme confinement of animals, where there is an inability for them to even turn around, lie down, or fully extend their limbs within their cages, the passing of Proposition 12 is seen by most as a huge victory. Animals in factory farms spend their entire lives in the same position, sitting within cold, metal cages, and their lives are most often cut short due to the common spread of disease and extreme stress placed upon their bodies. While a chicken can naturally live 8 – 15 years, laying hens only last about 20 months, and while a mother pig can naturally live around 20 years, when confined to gestation crates, they survive less than three years, according to the organization Four Paws.
While numerous California-based and national organizations supported the initiative —most importantly , the Prevent Cruelty California coalition headed by the Humane Society of the United States — other organizations like Friends of Animals, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Humane Farming Association, and Action for Animals, have actually come out in full opposition to the proposition. It is easy to see why such organizations may be wary. The fact is that this is not the first ballot initiative passed by Californians that was supposed to help confined farmed animals. In 2008, the Humane Society developed a very similar initiative titled Proposition 2, which banned the confinement of pregnant pigs, calves raised for veal, and egg-laying hens, but instead of stating specific square-foot requirements, the wording of the law was based on animal behavior and movement, which caused confusion among farm operators. Calves must now be given at least 43 square feet of usable space by 2020, which is quite a welcomed change since previous practices entailed keeping the young cows in spaces as small as possible in order to ensure the most tender of meat. By 2022, breeding pigs will be given at least 24 feet of space per pig, which is another great change. However, most of the negative sentiments arising among the opposing organizations are related to egg-laying hens.
While the new requirements based on actual measurements are very helpful when it comes to the treatment of calves and pigs, hens are actually getting the short end of the stick. Proposition 2 in 2008’s election stated that hens must be given enough space to fully extend their wings, but Proposition 12 is only allowing for one square foot of space per hen by 2020. In 2022, egg-laying hens must be in a completely cage-free environment, which sounds nice, but images of green pastures with chickens freely wandering amid dandelions and clovers that may be evoked when the term “cage-free” is used are completely illusory. The United Egg Producers’ guidelines for what can be truly defined as “cage-free” actually just means that each hen must have between one and one and a half feet of floor space. Although there may not be metal cages involved, hundreds, if not thousands, of hens will still be legally allowed to be thrown into a large shed or warehouse as chicks, never to step foot on a patch of grass or even see the sunshine, as these sheds rarely contain even one window. This is why Central Valley Eggs, the largest factory-farm complex in California actually supported the initiative, according to Californians Against Cruelty, Cages, and Fraud.
It is clear that Proposition 12 had its shortcomings when it comes to the animals that seem to always be left behind. Chickens are not protected by the Federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, unlike cows and pigs. They are often seen as unfeeling, unintelligent creatures, when there are actually a significant number of studies that prove otherwise. According to Earth Sky, chickens can discriminate between quantities, possess self-control, have complex forms of communication, anticipate future events, and form social relationships. While evidence is growing concerning the cognitive and emotional intelligence of chickens, practices such as cutting off the beaks of chicks with searing blades and the immediate killing of all male chicks, through either suffocation or mechanical grinding are still completely legal. The use of hormones and artificial lighting to induce continuous egg production (when natural ovulation is only supposed to occur once a month, like with humans) are also common practices.
While the best way to advocate for the welfare of animals is to leave them off your plate, victories for calves and pigs brought upon by Proposition 12 are still a cause for celebration and Californians should be proud that their state has taken a true stand against unnecessary, inhumane farming practices. At the same time, one must remember that cage-free certainly does not mean cruelty-free, and if eggs must be eaten, supporting small family farms is the way to go.