Amy Robertson, Monash Journalism
FEW people stop to consider the previously rich and complex lives of the animals that end up on their plates. Fewer still invest much thought into the lived experience of factory farmed animals in Australia. Pam Ahern is not one of those people. As the founder of Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary in Lancefield, Victoria, she is committed to educating the public on factory farming, and devotes her life to the rescued animals in her care.
“Coming to know farm animals, as opposed to cats and dogs, I realised their differences are limited to the outside and certainly don’t justify the way we treat them,” Ms Ahern says.
“They’re simply animals, we just put ‘farm’ in front of it, and that justifies our thinking and our treatment of them… But the animal doesn’t know it’s being bred for pork. It just wants to live.
“We incarcerate pigs and chickens, these incredibly intelligent animals who are really curious about their world, who desperately want to live. Factory farming denies them the most fundamental freedoms.”
Farm animals, unlike other domesticated animals in Australia, are currently exempt from animal protection laws due to industry ‘Codes of Practice’. For Ms Ahern, Edgar’s Mission is one of the few places where farm animals are protected from cruelty and valued for who they are, not what they produce.
Pam smiles nostalgically, as she recalls her time with a factory farmed sow named Alice.
Alice played the mother of Wilbur in the movie ‘Charlotte’s Web’. At the end of filming, she was to be sent to slaughter, until Edgar’s Mission stepped in. It took Pam nine months to earn Alice’s trust – it was only then she could touch her.
“In the end she would come up for pats and belly rubs, she loved making messes, and collecting branches. I think of all the animals Alice comes close to being the most inspirational – because she forgave. Cruelty was all she’d ever known. But she trusted us in the end. And that’s incredible,” Ms Ahern says.
Ms Ahern says the public are not sufficiently informed on the issue of factory farming. We cannot understand factory farming, let alone combat it, if we do not have the full picture.
“I remember when I was finding these things out, about factory farming, I was actually really angry. I was angry because the public don’t know about these things. Why wasn’t I told?”, she says.
Relationship manager for Animals Australia, Jodie Jankevics, agrees the public are not fully aware of the practices involved and the prolific nature of factory farming in Australia.
“The industry don’t want people to know because if people knew what was going on behind closed doors, they wouldn’t stand for it… People are shocked they don’t know these things. They feel betrayed,” Ms Jankevics says.
Statistics on factory farming in Australia are scant. Estimates from the Australian Chicken Meat Federation suggest free range chicken production sits at 15%.
Rather than rally governments to change or update laws, groups like Animals Australia work with corporations to inspire greater corporate social responsibility. Under public pressure, McDonald’s and Subway have committed to phasing out the use of cage eggs. Whilst the public are becoming more informed on factory farming, and free range egg sales are increasing, factory farming is still common practice in Australia.
Professor of Economics at Monash University, Jeffrey LaFrance, says an entirely free range system of farming is unlikely due to the increased cost passed onto the consumer.
“When California mandated all eggs sold in California had to come from hens confined to larger pens – doubling the size of the pen – it doubled the cost of the egg. Eggs are a low cost, high-protein source of food – that taxes low income people the most,” he says.
“It would be hard to imagine 100% free range or pasture based. People like their food cheap; one way to keep food costs low is to concentrate production activities.”
Ms Jankevics disagrees, stating free range doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive. She says most people, regardless of their income level, do not want to fund animal suffering.
“Just because you’re on a lower income, doesn’t mean you stop caring,” she says.
Ms Ahern says although factory farming produces cheap produce, it comes at great cost to the animals, who suffer routine abuses that would be illegal in any other circumstance.
“We’ve taken these animals and forced them to grow three times faster than nature intended. They suffer respiratory problems, musculoskeletal problems, mobility problems, because their muscle mass is so much…and that’s legal,” she says.
Battery hens in Australia are confined to a space equivalent to an A4 sheet of paper, and sows are kept in metal crates so small they cannot turn around or extend their limbs. Groups like Animals Australia appeal to the purchasing power of consumers to incite change.
“For a long time I didn’t know what happened to these animals – Edgar’s Mission is my way of saying sorry to these animals who I never thought about. I thought I was this wonderful animal loving person, yet how many animals lived terrible lives, shortened lives because of choices I made” Ms Ahern says.
“I can’t change the past but I can shape the future. Hopefully through the work we do we can open people’s eyes to the incredible, rich, emotional world of farm animals, and see an end to factory farming.”