February 5, 2015

Animal rights activist posits solutions to meat industry abuses

Cheryl Leahy (A.B. ’03), an animal rights lawyer and lecturer at UCLA, discussed the tactics and legal tools used to address large-scale animal rights issues in the United States at the Law School on Tuesday afternoon. She described the suffering animals encounter in factory farms and the specific logistics of exposing and changing the abuse.

Leahy serves as general counsel for Compassion Over Killing, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of animals. She primarily targets factory farming in her work, which aims to reduce systemic suffering in a long-term, legal way. Her approaches involve undercover investigations and creative litigation to address both the cruel practices in the factories and the misleading marketing of the animal products.

“We need to think strategically [about what] solutions we can create with the tools that we have,” Leahy said. She added that one of the biggest challenges to her work involves companies that don’t obey the laws put in place by state and federal governments to protect animals.

Leahy pointed to the misinformation circulating in the public sphere as evidence of the lack of transparency in the farming industry, saying that people congratulate themselves for giving up steak, while keeping chicken or pork in their diet. In fact, “cattle raised for beef have the best lives,” Leahy said, “and it’s between pigs and egg-laying hens for the worst.”

“Eight to nine billion animals suffer each year,” Leahy said, and went on to highlight the most common malpractices for each kind of factory farm animal.

Physically restrictive environments are common, according to Leahy, especially for pigs and egg-laying hens, which are both kept in crowded cages. Because hens can be aggressive, their beaks are cut off to prevent the birds from attacking one another in the natural pecking order. Often animals are not stunned before slaughter: Investigations have uncovered that boiler chickens are placed in the boiler while still conscious, and that cows consciously leave the knock-box intended to kill them. Leahy’s work has also found examples of body modifications occurring without proper painkillers: pigs castrated by hand, fully conscious, and the tails of veal twisted off until broken.

“It’s important to say [that] you can’t have dairy without veal,” Leahy added, arguing that people recognize the cruel treatment of veal, but miss the connection between veal and dairy. Veal are young calves that are usually male, and are often the offspring of dairy cows. A market that necessitates dairy also necessitates the production of veal.

Leahy emphasized the need for more interest in this section of work, especially from law students. “There are solutions,” she said. “This will change as long as we apply ourselves strategically.”