For all the animals, humans have become gods. We at not like to reflect on this too deeply, because we have not been particularly just or merciful gods.
If you watch the National Geographic channel, go to a Disney film or read a book of fairy tales, you might easily get the impression that planet Earth is populated mainly by lions, wolves and tigers who are an equal match for us humans. Simba the lion king holds sway over the forest animals; Little Red Riding Hood tries to evade the Big Bad Wolf; and little Mowgli bravely confronts Shere Khan the tiger. But in reality, they are no longer there. Our televisions, books, fantasies and nightmares are still full of them, but the Simbas, Shere Khans and Big Bad Wolves of our planet are disappearing.
The world is populated mainly by humans and their domesticated animals.
How many wolves live today in Germany, the land of the Grimm brothers, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf? Less than a hundred. (And even these are mostly Polish wolves that stole over the border in recent years.) In contrast, Germany is home to 5 million domesticated dogs. Altogether about 200,000 wild wolves still roam the earth, but there are more than 400 million domesticated dogs.
The world contains 40,000 lions compared to 600 million house cats; 900,000 African buffalo versus 1.5 billion domesticated cows; 50 million penguins and 20 billion chickens. Since 1970, despite growing ecological awareness, wildlife populations have halved (not that they were prospering in 1970). In 1980 there were 2 billion wild birds in Europe. In 2009 only 1.6 billion were left. In the same year, Europeans raised 1.9 billion chickens for meat and eggs.
At present, more than 90 per cent of the large animals of the world are either humans or domesticated animals.
The last 70,000 years has been the epoch of humanity. During these millennia Homo sapiens became the single most important agent of change in the global ecology. Since the appearance of life, about 4 billion years ago, never has a single species changed the global ecology all by itself. Homo sapiens has rewritten the rules of the game. This single ape species has managed within 70,000 years to change the global ecosystem in radical and unprecedented ways.
Religions along with its belief in human distinctiveness, was one of the by-products of the Agricultural Revolution, which initiated a new phase in human–animal relations. The advent of farming produced new waves of mass extinctions, but more importantly, it created a completely new life form on earth: domesticated animals.
But then domesticated species paid for their unparalleled collective success with unprecedented individual suffering. Although the animal kingdom has known many types of pain and misery for millions of years, the Agricultural Revolution generated completely new kinds of suffering, that only became worse over time.
To the casual observer domesticated animals may seem much better off than their wild cousins and ancestors. Wild boars spend their days searching for food, water and shelter, and are constantly threatened by lions, parasites and floods. Domesticated pigs, in contrast, enjoy food, water and shelter provided by humans, who also treat their diseases and protect them against predators and natural disasters. True, most pigs sooner or later find themselves in the slaughterhouse. Yet does that make their fate any worse than the fate of wild boars? Is it better to be devoured by a lion than slaughtered by a man? What makes the fate of domesticated farm animals particularly harsh is not just the way they die, but above all the way they live.
Two competing factors have shaped the living conditions of farm animals from ancient times to the present day: human desires and animal needs.
Hence humans raise pigs in order to get meat, but if they want a steady supply of meat, they must ensure the long-term survival and reproduction of the pigs. Theoretically this should have protected the animals from extreme forms of cruelty. If a farmer did not take good care of his pigs, they would soon die without offspring and the farmer would starve. Unfortunately, humans can cause tremendous suffering to farm animals in various ways, even while ensuring their survival and reproduction.
The root of the problem is that domesticated animals have inherited from their wild ancestors many physical, emotional and social needs that are redundant on human farms. Farmers routinely ignore these needs, without paying any economic penalty. They lock animals in tiny cages, mutilate their horns and tails, separate mothers from offspring and selectively breed monstrosities. The animals suffer greatly, yet they live on and multiply. Doesn’t that contradict the most basic principles of natural selection?
The theory of evolution maintains that all instincts, drives and emotions have evolved in the sole interest of survival and reproduction. If so, doesn’t the continuous reproduction of farm animals prove that all their real needs are met? How can a pig have a ‘need’ that is not really needed for his survival and reproduction?
All instincts, drives and emotions evolved in order to meet the evolutionary pressures of survival and reproduction. However, if and when these pressures suddenly disappear, the instincts, drives and emotions they had shaped do not disappear with them. At least not instantly. Even if they are no longer instrumental for survival and reproduction, these instincts, drives and emotions continue to mould the subjective experiences of the animal.
For animals and humans alike, agriculture changed selection pressures almost overnight, but it did not change their physical, emotional and social drives. Of course evolution never stands still, and it has continued to modify humans and animals in the 12,000 years since the advent of farming. For example, humans in Europe and western Asia evolved the ability to digest cows’ milk, while cows lost their fear of humans, and today produce far more milk than their wild ancestors. Yet these are superficial alterations. The deep sensory and emotional structures of cows, pigs and humans alike haven’t changed much since the Stone Age.
Why do modern humans love sweets so much? Not because in the early twenty-first century we must gorge on ice cream and chocolate in order to survive. Rather, it is because when our Stone Age ancestors came across sweet fruit or honey, the most sensible thing to do was to eat as much of it as quickly as possible. Why do young men drive recklessly, get involved in violent arguments and hack confidential Internet sites? Because they are following ancient genetic decrees that might be useless and even counterproductive today, but that made good evolutionary sense 70,000 years ago.
A young hunter who risked his life chasing a mammoth outshone all his competitors and won the hand of the local beauty; and we are now stuck with his macho genes. Exactly the same evolutionary logic shapes the lives of pigs, sows and piglets in human-controlled farms. In order to survive and reproduce in the wild, ancient boars needed to roam vast territories, familiarize themselves with their environment and beware of traps and predators. They further needed to communicate and cooperate with their fellow boars, forming complex groups dominated by old and experienced matriarchs. Evolutionary pressures consequently made wild boars – and even more so wild sows – highly intelligent social animals, characterized by a lively curiosity and strong urges to socialize, play, wander about and explore their surroundings.
A sow born with some rare mutation that made her indifferent to her environment and to other boars was unlikely to survive or reproduce. The descendants of wild boars – domesticated pigs – inherited their intelligence, curiosity and social skills. Like wild boars, domesticated pigs communicate using a rich variety of vocal and olfactory signals: mother sows recognise the unique squeaks of their piglets, whereas two-day-old piglets already differentiate their mother’s calls from those of other sows.
Professor Stanley Curtis of the Pennsylvania State University trained two pigs – named Hamlet and Omelette – to control a special joystick with their snouts, and found that the pigs soon rivalled primates in learning and playing simple computer games. Today most sows in industrial farms don’t play computer games. They are locked by their human masters in tiny gestation crates, usually measuring two metres by sixty centimetres. The crates have a concrete floor and metal bars, and hardly allow the pregnant sows even to turn around or sleep on their side, never mind walk. After three and a half months in such conditions, the sows are moved to slightly wider crates, where they give birth and nurse their piglets. Whereas piglets would naturally suckle for ten to twenty weeks, in industrial farms they are forcibly weaned within two to four weeks, separated from their mother and shipped to be fattened and slaughtered. The mother is immediately impregnated again, and sent back to the gestation crate to start another cycle. The typical sow would go through five to ten such cycles before being slaughtered herself.
In recent years the use of crates has been restricted in the European Union and some US states, but the crates are still commonly used in many other countries, and tens of millions of breeding sows pass almost their entire lives in them.
The human farmers take care of everything the sow needs in order to survive and reproduce. She is given enough food, vaccinated against diseases, protected against the elements and artificially inseminated. From an objective perspective, the sow no longer needs to explore her surroundings, socialize with other pigs, bond with her piglets or even walk. But from a subjective perspective, the sow still feels very strong urges to do all of these things, and if these urges are not fulfilled she suffers greatly. Sows locked in gestation crates typically display acute frustration alternating with extreme despair.