Book Review


By David J. Wolfson
Farm Sanctuary, 1999
Softcover. Includes Photos. 61 pages
ISBN: O-9656377-1-9
To order send check or money order payable to United Poultry Concerns $4.50

Reviewed by Karen Davis, PhD

"The essential point of this booklet is to demonstrate the absence of a presumed presence of law."
Beyond the Law

The author, David J. Wolfson, is a Wall Street attorney and an animal advocate. In Beyond the Law, Wolfson reveals the discrepancy between how the laws of the United States define "cruelty to animals" and how these laws define and interpret cruelty to farmed animals--those unfortunate beings cursed with being raised for their flesh, milk, and eggs. If a practice, however inhumane, can be economically defended as a standard agricultural practice, such as the debeaking of chickens and turkeys, then it isn't deemed "cruel" under the current system. The federal Animal Welfare Act excludes farmed animals from oversight, and the federal "Humane Methods of Slaughter Act," which applies to cattle, pigs, sheep and horses, is not enforced by the Department of Agriculture; moreover, it excludes all birds, so that 98 percent of all animal slaughtered in the United States are not even mentioned. So much for the federal government.

This leaves the states, and indeed, every state in the Union has an anticruelty statute, allowing misdemeanor fines and minimal jail time to be imposed on convicted animal abusers. In view of the lack of protection for farmed animals at the federal level, these state criminal statutes, Wolfson points out, are "the sole protection from unnecessary suffering and cruel treatment for animals raised for food or food production."

For this very reason, however, over the past two decades many states have quietly amended their anticruelty statutes to exclude all animals raised for food and to exempt practices affecting these animals from regulation or even investigation by a licensed cruelty investigator, thereby ensuring that 95 percent of all animals in this country have no legal protection of any kind. "Farmers" can do whatever they want to animals raised for food without fear of legal intervention. According to Wolfson, "Specifically, 30 states have enacted laws that create a legal realm whereby certain acts, no matter how cruel, are outside the reach of anticruelty statutes as long as the acts are deemed 'accepted,' 'common,' 'customary,' or 'normal' farming practices. These statutes have given the farming community the power to define cruelty to animals in their care."

Protected farming practices include not only the range of current routine abuses--debeaking, claw removal, food withdrawal, castration, electric prods, lack of sunlight, fresh air and space to turn around in for starters--but any new abuses that the agribusiness community chooses to inflict on animals in the future. Exemption from state anticruelty laws is an acknowledgement that modern farming practices are so cruel and inhumane that they can only be conducted outside the legal framework. In 1997, when two Texas medical doctors clubbed to death 22 emus with metal baseball bats because the birds weren't profitable, I urged the prosecuting attorney of Tarrant County, Texas to prosecute these men for what they had done. He said, "If we prosecuted these guys, we'd have to prosecute people all over the state for doing the same thing."

Which is exactly why such people are all "doing the same thing." Because, in addition to their personal obliquity, which the absence of law sanctions and encourages, they're immune from prosecution, either because the law has granted them this immunity or because, as in this case, the prosecuting attorney doesn't care about such crimes, or because, as also in this case, prosecutors who don't give a damn can invoke the argument that "there's no proof that the alleged offender's conduct was motivated by cruelty." (There was plenty of proof in this particular episode.) The farmed animal production system in the United States relies on government and public collusion in the "motivation" argument, which runs: "We're not being deliberately cruel, like setting cats on fire for fun; we're acting in the interest of business, increasing our company's wealth and that of the nation, while saving consumers money." As Wolfson rightly says on page 46, "at the heart of this subject lies a simple conflict--the humane treatment of animals versus profit." In reality, this conflict isn't only simple; it is insurmountable.

Beyond the Law is divided into four parts. Part I introduces the subject, focusing on the fact that "Today, the majority of U.S. states prohibit, at least in part, the application of their anticruelty statutes to farm animals." Part II shows how these animals receive "absolutely no federal protection while on the farm and extremely limited federal protection during transport and slaughter." Part III briefly discusses "accepted," "common," "customary," or "normal" farming practices. Part IV documents how amendments to state anticruelty laws "place animals raised for food or food production beyond the law's reach in the majority of states." Part V compares the abysmal situation in the United States with the slightly better one, at the discussion level at least, in Western Europe. Part VI concludes with an outline for reform, noting, however, that "The main purpose of this booklet is not remedial, but rather to present the realities of the current system," including "the reality that more such animals are now being abused than ever before in the history of the United States."

Beyond the Law is an invaluable resource for people who want an overview as well as a specific account of the current federal and state legal system as it pertains to animal farming practices and the status of farmed animals in the United States. The booklet is both analytical and practical, yet short, readable, and to the point; it places the modern situation in a condensed historical perspective, showing that far from achieving progress on behalf of farmed animals in the United States, this country has regressed. Specific states such as Idaho, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Tennessee are chosen to look at how these and other states have amended the wording of their anticruelty laws from having offered farmed animals some protection of sorts to having purposely abandoned these animals to those who "exploit animals without regard to moral or ethical considerations." An Appendix lists each state, in alphabetical order from Arizona to Wyoming, that currently exempts "customary farming practices" from its anticruelty statute and quotes the wording of the statute.

Beyond the Law is so good, useful and informative, I only wish that the Victorian-style postscript about the "protection of dumb brutes" were not there. Such talk is insulting even as an historical reference; the discussion should not, in any case, end with such an image, even if this happens to be the language of a well-meaning judge writing in 1888. Nonhuman animals are not "brutes," and cloying Victorian maxims about the "benevolence of men" do not comport with the reality glimpsed in this booklet. We owe our fellow creatures respect, including a language and a set of laws that promote justice.