The Animals’ Election

Two victories for animal protection, and the myths they burst

Dog-lovers nationwide cheered Tuesday night as Barack Obama declared that he will be bringing a puppy to the White House.

Yet the real victory for animals came at the polls themselves. In California and Massachusetts, voters passed ballot propositions that could have far-reaching consequences for animal protection in America.

The biggest victory came in California, where 63 percent of voters passed into law Proposition Two, which effectively bans the caged confinement of veal calves, gestating pigs, and egg-laying hens. California’s hens will be the most immediate beneficiaries of the ban—20 million of them will be released from their crammed battery cages by 2015, when the law comes into effect. But long term, the effects could go national: After Arizona’s voters passed a similar ban in 2006, Smithfield Foods—one of the nation’s largest pork producers—announced it would start phasing out gestation crates.

Closer to home, Massachusetts’s voters banned greyhound racing. In doing so, voters sent a clear condemnation of keeping active dogs in tight wire cages for 20 or more hours a day. They also rejected the notion that a sport propped up by state-sponsored gambling (a 1986 state law granted the racetracks subsidies and tax breaks) can be a bastion of free market liberalism. The vote made Massachusetts the 35th state to no longer participate in a pastime that, with 800 injuries on this state’s tracks alone since 2002, is one of the few remaining legal blood sports.

But the new laws’ biggest impact could be to break down some of the myths associated with the animal protection movement.

The first myth is that animal protection is the preserve of a white, liberal elite. Proposition Two’s opponents sought to paint the initiative as the concoction of confused urban do-gooders, and pointed to the support of prominent Hollywood stars like James Cromwell and Ellen DeGeneres as evidence. The opponents ran ads (funded by the nation’s largest agribusinesses) in which salt-of-the-earth farmers reminded blue collar workers that in lean economic times, they couldn’t afford to jeopardize their right to a cheap dozen pack of eggs.

Yet the polls told a different story. While San Francisco’s latte-sipping hipsters certainly voted for the ban, so did conservative family farmers across the state anxious to stop the encroachment of polluting factory farms. In Kern and Shasta counties, both places with rural populations where John McCain won the vote by a large margin, Proposition Two also enjoyed majority support.

More strikingly, Proposition Two’s support transcended class and racial lines. Proposition two received one of its largest margins of victory in Los Angeles county, where less than a third of the population is white and the median Household income is $7,000 lower than the California state average. And in San Bernardino county, heavily hit by home foreclosures, the vote was still strongly in favor.

The second myth of animal protection is that animal and human welfare are necessarily in direct conflict. Proposition Two’s opponents, branding themselves as Californians for Safe Food, extenuated this conflict by casting cage-free agriculture as a risk to public health. Opposition television ads featured anxious-looking doctors fretting that moving to cage-free was venturing into the unknown.

But voters realized that treating animals better can be good for human health and the environment. They noticed that America’s organic farmers (and the retailers, like Whole Foods, that stock them) have already gone cage-free, and that the food safety-conscious European Union is following suit.

The third myth is that animal protection is a new and radical idea. Stalwarts of greyhound racing in Massachusetts sought to cast themselves as preservers of a historic sport, battling against animal rights extremists set on destroying tradition.

Massachusetts’s voters saw it differently. They remembered that greyhound racing has been controversial since it first took place in Massachusetts in 1935—one reason why attendance numbers have been falling for the last few decades. By contrast, they saw compassion to animals as a more enduring tradition—the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which spearheaded the Proposition, was founded in 1868. In favoring this legacy, voters continued a tradition that dates back to 1641, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed what was likely the first animal protection law in the world: a code requiring that “No man shall exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usualie kept for man’s use.”

Most significantly, though, voters burst the myth that the animal protection movement can’t achieve real change. In the past, animal-abusing industries have relied on lobbyists to keep effective regulation at bay—with the result that no federal law exists to ensure humane standards on America’s farms. When animal advocates brought a bill to California’s State Assembly similar to Proposition Two, it never left the Agriculture Committee.

On Tuesday night, America’s voters sidelined such lobbyists. The National Pork Producers Council responded with shock: Its president, Bryan Black, was quoted in Pork Magazine worrying that California could be a “bellwether” for similar initiatives in other states. For the sake of the animals, let’s hope he’s right.

Lewis E. Bollard ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.