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Gestation Crates, Selective Breeding, and the Danger of Anthropomorphic Reasoning

A friend forwarded me a link to this page, which allows you to virtually experience life as a sow living in a gestation crate.  I encourage you to check it out.

It is a powerful tool for those attempting to phase out gestation crates.  In fact, if I were trying to convince someone of the inhumanity of gestation crates, I'd be hard pressed to think of a more effective message.

That being said, the experience provided at the link can be misleading.  You are not a pig.  And, how we project ourselves feeling in those cages may or may not correspond to the way pigs feel who have been selected to live in those environments.  

I was reminded of this when reading Haidt's most recent book when he wrote:

In the 1980s the geneticist William Muir used group selection to get around this problem.  He worked with cages containing twelve hens each, and he simply picked the cages that produced the most eggs in each generation.  Then he bred all of the hens in those cages to produce the next generation.  Within just three generations, aggression levels plummeted.  By the sixth generation, the death rate fell from the horrific baseline of 67 percent to a mere 8 percent.  Total eggs produced per hen jumped from 91 to 237, mostly because the hens started living longer, but also because they laid more eggs per day.  The group-selected hens were more productive than were those subjected to individual-level selection.  They also actually looked like the pictures of chickens you see in children’s books – plump and well-feathered, in contrast to the battered, beaten-up, and partially defeathered hens that resulted from individual-level selection.

Haidt was making a point about how genetic selection works not only at the individual level but also at the group level in humans and animals .  But, he also mentions another important point.  The animals we have on farms today are specifically selected for the environments in which they live.

I wrote a paragraph exactly on this point for our recent book on animal welfare that ultimately wound up on the cutting room floor.  Here it is resurrected:

Seeing a picture of a pig living out its life in a small cage can invoke strong emotions, but we must recall that the pig was genetically selected, in part, because it was relatively unbothered by such living conditions. Some people do not mind spending all day lounging on the couch. Others of us cannot sit still. Animals exhibit similar diversity in their need and desire for movement and exercise. An animal that is constantly fidgeting and stressed about living in confined quarters is an animal that will not rapidly gain weight. Because farmers want just the opposite, they have purposefully selected and bred animals that are not terribly troubled about living in a crate.This does not mean that such animals would not prefer a larger pen or to live outdoors, but it does suggest it can be dangerous for humans to transpose their needs and emotions on farm animals, especially those animals that have been purposefully bred for the environments in which they live.

None of these comments necessarily justify gestation crates, but they do at least suggest caution in making decisions based on anthropomorphic thinking.