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Sustainability News

March 7, 2016

smiling wayne wearing black suit jacket and light blue tieA Thought Leader Series Piece

By Wayne Pacelle

Note: Wayne Pacelle is president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal protection organization. He is author of the book, "The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals," and his March 2016 Wrigley Lecture is titled "The Humane Economy." 

A decade ago, Arizona voters approved a ballot measure to stop the extreme confinement of pigs and veal calves on industrial-scale farms. Opponents mounted a vigorous and mocking campaign, claiming that food costs would rise and farmers would suffer if these animals were given just a little room to move beyond tiny crates. The electorate saw through those scare tactics and passed Prop 204 in a landslide, with 62 percent voting to give animals raised for food better lives.

Prop 204 was just the second successful measure of its kind in the nation and had far-reaching reverberations none of us could have predicted at the time. Just weeks after it passed, the national trade association for the veal industry announced it would voluntarily phase out confinement of calves in crates everywhere in the U.S. And Smithfield Foods – the nation’s biggest pig producer, with a million sows in crates – said it would phase out extreme confinement of pregnant sows.

Now ten years later, Smithfield has just about completed its conversion, and confinement crates are essentially a thing of the past for the veal industry. What’s more, more than 60 major food retailers – from McDonald’s to Safeway to Cracker Barrel – have said they’ll phase out their purchase of pork from operations that confine the pregnant sows. Within the last year, that same set of big brands, along with some former laggards, announced that they’d stop purchasing eggs from suppliers that confine laying hens in battery cages – the small wire cages that immobilized the hens for the 18 months they lived and gave each bird less living space than a sheet of paper.

It wasn’t the first time that Arizona led the way on animal welfare. In the mid-1990s, the Phoenix-based chain PetSmart decided to stop selling dogs from commercial breeders, whose ranks were dominated by out-of-state operations commonly known as puppy mills. Like the pigs and calves and hens in crates, the mother dogs on mills lived in harsh confinement, often exposed to extremes of heat and cold, denied veterinary care, and bred every single heat cycle. It was a high-volume agricultural model applied to pet production.

PetSmart, subsequently joined by its prime competitor, Petco, instead became adoption centers for pets from shelters and rescues. The animal organizations jumped at the opportunity and so did the public. PetSmart and Petco have since placed 11 million dogs and cats with families.

Think of it. Eleven million is equal to the human population of, say, Ohio. These adoptions have reduced euthanasia rates of healthy animals. They’ve also turned out to be great for business, drawing more people into the stores. Adopters have proved loyal customers and spend five times as much as other shoppers. In December 2014, as a sign of the times, BC Partners, a London-based firm, acquired PetSmart for $8.7 billion in the largest global private equity deal of the year. That’s right: the biggest private equity acquisition in all of 2014 was not a company involved in finance, energy, pharmaceuticals, or mining, but pet products.

Welcome to the new humane economy. The world is changing for the better for animals. Major cosmetics makers are investing in non-animal testing methods and purging the beauty business of hidden cruelties. Circuses are dazzling crowds with human acrobatics, with the public having rejected the sad sight of wild animals made to “perform” in such spectacles as Ringling Bros. and SeaWorld shows. Entrepreneurs and innovators in the food business are developing plant-based proteins and cultured meat that promise to take the animals out of the equation entirely, removing the violence and immense environmental costs that come with intensive animal agriculture.

Animal friendly changes are not happening at the same pace in every sector of the economy. Resistance remains and setbacks will occur. But there is no rolling back the growing recognition that animals matter and that we must treat them with dignity and decency. That serves as the incentive for businesses to align their practices with the value of animal protection.

Every one of us is, and will be, touched by this far-reaching transformation in food and agriculture; in the pharmaceutical, chemical, and cosmetics industries; in film, television, and live entertainment; in tourism and wildlife management; in the pet trade for dogs and cats and exotic wildlife; and in fur and leather fashions. Collectively it promises to relieve or end the suffering of billions of creatures, while allowing businesses to shed cruelty and find a more sustainable way forward. My guess is, Arizona voters and corporations aren’t done in their task of spreading humane sensibilities far and wide.