Jolley: Five Minutes with Dr. Kurt Vogel, ethics and animals

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Kurt Vogel conducts seminars on animal welfare.  He’s a cattle handling expert who learned his trade while a student at Colorado State University from the best – Temple Grandin.  Now a grizzled Ph.D., he teaches at the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, Wis. The core of his seminars is “societal ethics and how to keep up with them” and he took that message into California, the heartland of agricultural controversy, in May.

“Societal ethics” and cattle?  What the hell is that, I asked myself when I first heard about what Dr. Vogel was trying to do.  In this day of short-attention-span theater, immediate gratification and quickly expanding definitions of acceptable lifestyle choices, what is a societal ethic and how can you keep up with it, even if you’re not tying it to the backside of a cow?

Well, if you want answers to something, you’ve got to ask the questions.  So I tracked down the relatively newly minted Doctor and posed a few pointed questions.  The guy answered in plain English, none of that loopy pop-psych-speak that I expected.  He put his finger on the agriculture/urban disconnect that seems to infuriate both sides from time-to-time.  He suggested that both sides are basically the same decent, honorable people that need to sit down for a long, mutually respectful talk.  It might lead to a shaking of hands, not a shaking of fists, and a better understanding of what’s needed for both to be happy.

Our politicians should only be as wise.

But let’s leave Washington to the beltway crazies and just try to solve our own outlander issues of finding a common ground for aggies and urbanites.  Here’s what Dr. Vogel had to say:

Q. Your seminar on cattle welfare in May took place in the heart of one of the states where animal welfare is a volatile issue – California.  Most farmers are concerned about the health and well-being of the animals under their care and they are a little shocked at the suggestion by some that they aren’t doing enough.  Would you talk about the differences in opinion that is creating this controversy?

A. The opinions that members of society hold toward on-farm animal care are largely based on a trust that has formed over time that farmers do everything they can to care for their animals.  This view is still very common, and for the most part, well-deserved.  I think that the root of this issue can be found in the separation that has formed between agriculture and the rest of society, but there is another force at work that makes the issue of on-farm animal care so polarizing: the questioning of ideologies. 

An ideology is a concept that someone accepts as true and rarely, if ever, questions.  The root cause of the controversy, in my opinion, is the ‘rediscovery’ of agriculture by the public, which is followed by questioning of practices that are performed (or not performed) on the farm.  In livestock agriculture, we accept the ideology that we are doing everything we can to care for our livestock and that only we know what is best for our animals.  When this is questioned by society, we become offended and defensive instead of taking a more objective look at what needs to be explained or improved on our farms.  My advice here is: don’t take questions from society personally – calm down, think about them, and respond appropriately.

Q. In a piece you wrote last month for the National Provisioner, you said, “When the personal ethics of a majority of a group of people are the same for specific issues, these beliefs become part of the societal ethic. The provision of stunning for commercially slaughtered livestock under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978 made the use of pre-slaughter stunning in livestock slaughter facilities part of the societal ethic.”  Are you saying personal ethics tend to become law?

A. That’s correct.  Generally speaking, when a majority of society believes that a specific rule should be followed, it eventually becomes law.  This is what happened with the provision of pre-slaughter stunning.  This legislation was actually phased in.  In 1958, it was imposed on all slaughter facilities that sold product to the U.S. government, and in 1978 it was expanded to include all federally inspected (and by default, state-inspected) livestock-slaughter establishments.  Today, compliance with the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1978 is as universal for slaughter establishments as speed limits for drivers on the highway.

Q. The ‘societal belief’ among people in agriculture is the forces behind these proposals have a specific, vegetarian-driven motive; ending animal agriculture forever.  Statements attributed to Wayne Pacelle of HSUS and Ingrid Newkirk of PETA leave little doubt.  The tipping-point question here is; have the animal welfare/rights groups done a better job of selling their belief system to the public than people in animal agriculture?

A. I think that groups such as PETA and HSUS have done a better job of engaging the public and selling their belief system than animal agriculture has up to this point, but the issue here is not based solely on public relations.  In my view, there are a few major mistakes that have been made by animal agriculture in their own promotion.  The first is that animal agriculture has been slow to engage the public, and has traditionally tried to limit what the public is able to see out of concern that the public will find some part of what they do to be inflammatory. 

The second error was the inappropriate use of advertising to portray an image of specific sectors of the industry that is not true.  During the seminar I gave for Fresno State University, California beef and dairy producers expressed disappointment over the California Milk Advisory Board’s “Happy Cows” commercial series because the images of cows on green, rolling pastures were not a true portrayal of the their dairy industry.  Other sectors of animal agriculture have done the same sort of advertising in some form.  When the public realizes that the commercials are not consistent with the industry, they become disgusted. 

The third error that animal agriculture has made is not focusing enough attention on making sure that egregious animal abuse issues do not arise.  After an undercover video is released that shows unacceptable abuse to animals, it is natural for the public to question what is actually happening on farms.  To combat this, everyone in animal agriculture needs to understand that they must do what they say they are doing.  If they claim they are treating their animals well, they have to actually do it. 

Quite frankly, the majority of society just wants to rest assured that their trust for animal agriculture is valid.  By starting a dialogue with society and allowing the public to see what happens on farms, at markets, and in slaughter facilities, we can strengthen the future of animal agriculture by allowing society to provide a fresh perspective of our facilities and production practices.  But we have to respond to societal concerns with clear explanations when appropriate and corrective action when necessary.  We can all acknowledge that nobody is perfect and that flaws in our production practices do exist.  Society as a whole understands this as well and a great amount of respect could be gained for animal agriculture by openly acknowledging that we aren’t perfect, but we’re working on it.

Q. Your NP article mentioned the” gruesome undercover video of unacceptable calf euthanasia methods was recorded at E6 Cattle Company — a large calf ranch that grows dairy calves as replacement animals for dairy farms — by an activist group called Mercy for Animals.”  MFA just released a similar video showing mistreated hogs on a farm in Iowa. You went on to say, “Not surprisingly, the reaction of the people in the livestock industries that I have observed watching the video is largely identical to the reaction of people that do not make their living in agriculture.”

Shock and revulsion is the best description of how both groups felt, yet the takeaway by those outside agriculture is that kind of mistreatment is standard practice down on the farm.  Is it possible to match up the very similar societal ethic of both groups and create a better mutual understanding?

A. It is definitely possible to create a mutual understanding between society and animal agriculture.  I believe that it is vitally important for both sides to recognize that their core values are not different.  Once this ‘common ground’ is established, it will become much easier to foster productive dialogue.  What is interesting about this whole issue is that the classifications of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are completely imaginary.  Once animal agriculture and society start to interact, both sides will realize that they are all people that have families, eat food, go to work, and do all the other things that members of society do. 

Q. I agree with your statement that people “do not tolerate negligence on the part of those who are responsible for the care, handling and slaughter of livestock.” Do we expand that statement from cattle, poultry and hogs to include household pets, too.

A. That’s a good point.  I totally agree.

Q. Let’s debate the other part of your statement: “They understand that we raise and slaughter animals for food.”

With less than 2% of American actively engaged in agriculture and most of us several generations removed from the farm, isn’t there a significant number of people who don’t realize that the cute little calf they see frolicking in the field is destined to become steaks, roasts and burgers in about 18 months?

A. I agree that most of society doesn’t understand that the calf that they see on spring or fall pastures will be boxed beef in 15 – 18 months.  They also don’t understand that the calf they see will likely gain at a rate of 3.5 – 4.5 lbs/day while they are on feed at a feedlot and that the same calf has a pretty good chance of riding a center-track restrainer and being stunned by a Jarvis® captive bolt stunner if it is shipped to a larger slaughter facility.

My point is that most of society still understands that beef and milk come from cattle, pork comes from pigs, and chicken and eggs come from chickens.  For the most part, they don’t know the intricate details of how to raise and convert these animals to meat, but that is not necessarily mandatory.  If they choose to consume meat, milk, and eggs, then they have a legitimate right to know how the animals were cared for if they would like to.  They also have the right to ask questions about these processes.  Animal agriculture has a legitimate obligation to educate, answer questions, and fix any legitimate problems that are identified by interested consumers.

Q. Let’s talk about labeling.  Rumors abound that statements about the level of care given to an animal might become part of the labeling process.  It takes us all into a taste vs. emotion debate.  Will “Ethically Raised and Humanely Harvested” or similar label statements trump taste and price in the meat case?  With all the information currently required on labels and a variety of ‘approvals’ required to earn certain claims, are we overloading consumers with information they’ll ignore?

A. Research is showing that on initial purchase, consumers are attracted to label claims that ensure the animals from which the product was derived were well cared for.  However, taste and eating experience are the factors that bring consumers back to purchase the same product again.  Depending on the consumer, the price, taste, and animal care labeling are afforded different levels of attention. 

For the consumer that is struggling to make enough money to pay the mortgage, price would be the primary factor of concern.  For a more affluent consumer, price may not be as much of a factor and taste and animal care may rise to the top or their list of concerns.  I think that it is good for information regarding the care of animals to be available to the consumer, but it must be understandable to the consumer, and most importantly, it must be honest.

Q. Thousands of people read Drovers/CattleNetwork.  What would you like to say to them?

A. Engaging the public is one of the most important things that animal agriculturalists can do.  Generally speaking, cattle producers have a set of values that make them well-equipped to engage with society.  Firstly, and most importantly, they value honesty.  Being honest with society will foster the development of trust.  The development of trust is accompanied by dialogue. 

I’ve met a lot of folks in the beef industry that are great listeners.  By listening to the questions and concerns of society, cattle producers can help people outside of their occupation understand what they do and they also can address issues that they may not have recognized before.  It is important to remember that the vast majority of society is not against the use of animals for food and fiber.  They just want to know that the people who are responsible for caring for the animals are doing the right thing.  They will respect and appreciate members of animal agriculture that have real discussions with them, actually hear their questions and concerns, and provide logical and rational responses that are clearly unscripted.


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Rob Wakeman    
Baltimore  |  August, 05, 2011 at 12:18 PM

As a vegan and a supporter of animal rights organizations, I thought this was a great interview. I really like the point about the California Milk Advisory Board. I found the interviews with actual farmers CMAB put up on their website to be much more effective than their dumbass surfing cows.

Harry Haywood    
Central Iowa  |  August, 06, 2011 at 09:09 AM

Many good points are included in the interview, but many points left out. More laws protect animals than people. A higher percentage of the world population are living in worse condition than "confined" animals. More efforts are made to provide "comfort" for livestock than humans. $19 to St Judes Children Hospital vs $19 to Humane Society indicates values are misplaced. Humans are tortured daily in the world, worse than ANY ANIMAL! Work on getting priorities straight.

Rob Wakeman    
Baltimore  |  August, 06, 2011 at 11:23 AM

What? More laws protect animals than people?

Kathy Daily, RVT    
El Dorado, Ks  |  August, 06, 2011 at 04:10 PM

My issue with HSUS & PETA concering livestock welfare is their total ignorance about how the majority of livestock producers raise their animals, and the difference between the types of the industry(Dairy vs Beef Cattle, for example). They not only do not know the difference, they chose not to learn. As a RVT in a mixed animal practice in the heart of the midwest, I am familiar with the true compassion and care the majority of our producers give their livestock. I am also familiar with why we, as producers, have certain practices,such as hog confinement, and understand the reasoning and care before these practices. However, in trying to educate people involved with HSUS, you run into a brick wall. They "know" these practices are wrong, and refuse to at listen to why they are used. How can you help educate those who chose to remain ignorant? In my world, I call those people stupid...but that is not the politically correct way to get thru to them.

Rob Wakeman    
Baltimore  |  August, 07, 2011 at 10:06 AM

I'm ready to get educated. Educate me. What am I being stupid about?

Rob Wakeman    
Baltimore  |  August, 07, 2011 at 03:51 PM

Kathy, I don't see a "reply" button on your post, so I'm responding up here. First off, can you provide links for the "on the HSUS site" comments you're making? It's hard for me to respond to without knowing what exactly you're talking about. A search for "cow" or "heifer" and "rape" on the HSUS site turns up nothing. I also can't find the thing about biting fences out of frustration. HSUS and other groups have put up many videos showing how gestation crates can be cruel (and I think you'll agree that there are certainly sows living in deplorable conditions) but nowhere have I seen any major groups say that all sows are treated this way. About the weaning calves and sending them to feedlots, I think that's in response to a June 1, 2011 report, and your point seems like a fair criticism. But overall the argue is calling for exactly what you're describing: strategies for treating animals well prior to sending them to feedlots. But overall, I don't really see where you and HSUS disagree. I can see why you might take issue with vegan evangelist organizations like PETA, but from what you're saying it sounds like your animals are lucky to have you. PS sorry to hear about your chickens

Kathy Daily, RVT    
El Dorado, Ks  |  August, 07, 2011 at 05:08 PM

http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/ : pigs in severe confinement bite the metal bars of their crates. Here is one link. And Rob, thank you..and thank the sponsers of this site for allowing this discussion to continue. If we need to take it to private email, my email address is wecsheep@aol.com. (yes, that is We "C" sheep...because that is our main stock) More links will follow, as I find them, Rob. The HSUS site changes their site quickly, as people complain. BUT...the first page on their site is asking for money. "$19.99" saves an animal...but I am currently dealing with an animal hoarder situation, that HSUS expects the local community to deal with...and trust me, the local community doesn't have the funds.

Rob Wakeman    
Baltimore  |  August, 07, 2011 at 05:01 PM

Also, can you provide any evidence for this statement: "Remember that the HSUS puts more money into their retirement funds than they spend on animals"

Kathy Daily, RVT    
El Dorado, Ks  |  August, 07, 2011 at 05:24 PM

For the finacial reports on HSUS, those are public knowledge, you should be able to find them on line. Ok...beef cattle:http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/welfare_calves.pdf; "Cattle brought to feedlots are usually six months to a year in age". As a cattleman, our calves are weaned at roughly 6 months, and sold, where they go to pasture. Only in times of severe drought are calves placed in a feedlot situation at 6 months...they may be confined to finish the weaning processing, but then they are placed on grass. And the "abrupt" weaning process is not only common in livestock, but in dogs, cats, and even humans! Its a natural and normal way to wean. In this discussion about weaning, there is mention of a "device" that will keep a calf from nursing. That "device" is a halter, with basically nails in it, that poke the cow in the udder when the calf attempts to nurse. The cow kicks the calf, the calf learns that mommy doesn't like him anymore. And the HSUS calls that "natural".

Rob Wakeman    
Baltimore  |  August, 09, 2011 at 01:14 PM

Why was my response to Kathy deleted? Surely there was nothing inflammatory in it.


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