Animal rights vs. a good hamburger

YAMHILL, Ore. — In a world in which animal rights are gaining ground, barbecue season should make me feel guilty. My hunch is that in a century or two, our descendants will look back on our factory farms with uncomprehending revulsion. But in the meantime, I love a good burger.

This comes up because the most important election this November that you've never heard of is a referendum on animal rights in California, the vanguard state for social movements. Proposition 2 would ban factory farms from raising chickens, calves or hogs in small pens or cages.

Livestock rights are already enshrined in the law in Florida, Arizona, Colorado and here in Oregon, but California's referendum would be a major gain for the animal rights movement. And it's part of a broader trend. Burger King announced last year that it would give preference to suppliers that treat animals better. Public attitudes are changing.

Harvard Law School offers a course on animal rights. Spain's Parliament has taken a first step in granting rights to apes, and Austrian activists are campaigning to have a chimpanzee declared a person. Among philosophers, a sophisticated literature of animals' rights has emerged.

Farm animals I have known

I'm a farm boy who grew up here in the hills outside Yamhill, Ore., raising sheep for my FFA and 4-H projects. At various times, my family also raised modest numbers of pigs, cattle, goats, chickens and geese, although they were never tightly confined.

Our cattle, sheep, chickens and goats certainly had individual personalities, but not such interesting ones that it bothered me that they might end up in a stew. Pigs were more troubling because of their unforgettable characters and obvious intelligence. To this day, when tucking into a pork chop, I always feel as if it is my intellectual equal.

Then there were the geese, the most admirable creatures I've ever met. They have distinctive personalities. They mate for life and adhere to family values that would shame most of those who dine on them.

Once a month or so, we would slaughter the geese. When I was 10 years old, my job was to lock the geese in the barn and then rush and grab one. Then I'd take it out and hold it by its wings on the chopping block while Dad or someone else swung the ax.

The 150 geese knew something dreadful was happening and would cower in a far corner of the barn, and run away in terror as I approached. Then I'd grab one and carry it away as it screeched and struggled.

Often, one goose would bravely step away from the panicked flock and walk toward me. It would be the mate of the one I had caught, and it would step right up to me, protesting pitifully. It would be frightened out of its wits, but still determined to stand with and comfort its lover.

We eventually grew so impressed with our geese — they had virtually become family friends — that we gave the remaining ones to a local park. (Unfortunately, some entrepreneurial thief took advantage of their friendliness by kidnapping them all — just before the next Thanksgiving.)

Vegetarianism future norm

Yes, I eat meat (even, hesitantly, goose). But I draw the line at animals being raised in cruel conditions. The law punishes teenage boys who tie up and abuse a stray cat. Why allow industrialists to run factory farms that keep pigs almost all their lives in tiny pens barely bigger than they are?

The tide of history is moving toward protection of animal rights. The brutal conditions in which some are now raised will eventually be banned. Vegetarianism may someday be the norm.

Perhaps it seems like soggy sentimentality as well as hypocrisy to stand up for animal rights when I enjoy dining on these animals. But my view was shaped by those days in the barn as a kid, scrambling after geese I gradually came to admire.