Animal Welfare and Commercial Livestock (Print Version)
by Harry Valentine*
Le Québécois Libre, April
15, 2011, No 288.

Mooooo, baaah, oink oink, cluck cluck! Laws are now in effect in Ontario requiring people to treat farm animals gently and humanely. SPCA and animal welfare officials may now visit commercial farms unannounced to carry out surprise inspections to ensure that farmers are treating their livestock properly. These laws, however, were enacted in response to news reports that showed the deplorable conditions and abusive treatment of dogs and cats at puppy mills. While the laws were intended to give officials authority to undertake surprise inspections of suspected mills, they also give the officials similar authority over commercial farms that raise livestock for supermarkets.

Tugging on Heartstrings

Owners of puppy mills had been portrayed as ruthless business types who sought to profit from selling inferior products to unsuspecting customers. Independent and private investigation revealed that most puppy mills sold their puppies and kittens to commercial pet stores. Most prospective customers who visit pet stores quickly become emotionally involved with the animals on display, attracted by a puppy or kitten perceived as being cute, gentle and affectionate.

The animal may be blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and walk with a limp. It may evoke a sense of sympathy in some buyers who want to provide the animal with a good home and provide much affection. Those decisions keep puppy mills in business. A department store that sells a defective product may face an irate customer demanding a refund or a fully-functioning exchange product. Pet stores that sell products from puppy mills depend on customers' reluctance to demand refunds or exchanges, or launch lawsuits for having sold defective products.

People who care about animals have initiated private campaigns to educate the general public about puppy mills and the link between them and many pet stores. Their programs seek to discourage prospective pet owners from buying pets at commercial pet stores. They encourage prospective pet owners to do some research on breeders, to visit their premises and see firsthand the conditions under which animals live and raise their young during the first few weeks of life.

Free-Market Methods

The free market had long ago devised methods of assuring animal welfare on commercial farms that raised livestock for supermarkets. Most farm livestock are sold at auctions where people bid on cattle, sheep and hogs. The quality of the livestock is a high priority. The people who do the bidding have years of experience in dealing with livestock. They can quickly assess each animal and pick out the problem animals.

A pack of wolves will employ the exact same technique when inspecting a herd of elk or antelope. A wolf pack can quickly and routinely select a sick, weak or very young animal that becomes their next meal. At an auction, buyers for a large metropolitan zoo, pet food company or glue factory would size up a herd of commercial livestock and seek the exact same features in the animals. Puppies from puppy mills would share similar physical features as inferior livestock, but the naivety and emotional reaction of buyers makes the sale.

Operators of hog mills or cattle mills elicit low prices at livestock auctions for inferior products, while operators of puppy mills often elicit higher prices, courtesy of buyers' naivety. Auctions involving experienced and discerning buyers provide a stark choice to livestock breeders: high prices for high-quality product or low prices for inferior product. The free-market method of livestock trading encourages breeders to raise quality product for the discerning eyes of buyers. It requires breeders to maintain high standards in their treatment of animals.

Targeting Farmers

Now we have the spectacle of government officials showing up unannounced on the premises of commercial livestock farms. Veterinarians never visit puppy mills, but they do visit the premises of many commercial livestock farms to help maintain the health of the livestock. Many livestock farmers are skilled in various aspects of veterinary medicine and provide care for their animals that is far superior to anything that occurs at puppy mills that supply animals to some pet stores.

But such practices would be of little or no relevance to government officials who are now empowered to inspect commercial livestock operations. Many of them may seek to score points with their superiors, while lacking basic veterinary skills. To this end, they may cite commercial farmers who have a long record of raising quality animals for lacking the certification to provide veterinary medical assistance to their animals. That the quality of that veterinary care far exceeds the medical care provided to animals at a puppy mill will be of little or no relevance.

The legislation that gives animal welfare officials authority to undertake unannounced inspections of commercial livestock operations also has the potential to raise food prices at supermarkets. Or it may open up opportunities for out-of-province producers to sell cheaper products to supermarkets that may in turn sell at competitive prices to consumers. It may achieve little, on the other hand, in shutting down puppy mills that raise inferior animals by very abusive means, to be sold at high prices to naïve and unsuspecting buyers who visit flea markets, who buy online or who buy via channels in the underground economy.

* Harry Valentine is a free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.