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After Ringling’s Announcement, What’s the Next Elephant in the Room?

'Our rampant mistreatment of animals—whether in circuses or for food—is among our greatest failings when it comes to such an awesome responsibility.' (Photo: Rafael Alvarez/flickr/cc)

Ringling Bros.’ recent announcement that it will eliminate elephants from its acts was a potent illustration of just how far our society has moved toward recognizing and valuing the interests of animals. After more than 130 years of Ringling carting elephants from city to city and making them perform unnatural acts through abusive training techniques, it seems the pachyderms will finally come off the road.

For too long, we’ve ignored the consequences of our actions against the animals with whom we share our planet, and the results have been profoundly regrettable for both them and us. Abusing creatures of course is a disservice to them, yet it also debases us and devalues our own humanity.

But we’d be wise to look beyond the big top. Take food production, for example. Almost all of the nine billion animals we raise for food live on factory farms are subjected to deprivation so severe, we wouldn’t wish it on the most heinous criminal, let alone an animal who’s committed no crime.

Just as we might recoil at the sight of electric prods and bullhooks used on elephants, who among us wouldn’t feel the stirrings of our conscience if we were to walk into a typical egg factory where birds are reduced to mere assembly line production units, locked in cages so small they can’t even spread their wings for their entire lives? Where day-old male chicks—of no use to the egg industry—are casually killed on the first day of their lives, thrown alive into industrial grinders? Or if we were to witness pigs in the pork industry locked in cages barely larger than their own bodies, unable to even turn around for years on end, driven insane by the depraved conditions?

Such callous treatment of farm animals—animals who’ve done nothing to deserve such punishment—is the norm, not the exception in the meat and egg industries. And it’s time that we stop allowing such abuse.

We stand alone as the most powerful species on the planet. Yet our rampant mistreatment of animals—whether in circuses or for food—is among our greatest failings when it comes to such an awesome responsibility.

As a society, we’re beginning to take our responsibility to our fellow creatures more seriously. We’re starting to recognize that simply because we can subjugate animals in the most extreme ways doesn’t mean that we should.

Gandhi said that a nation’s moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals—the most powerless group in society. The historic and precedent-setting announcement about elephants this past week indeed serves as a true marker of our social progress, and it should encourage us to continue moving toward a more humane society. When examined in the light of how we treat the animals we raise for food, we’ve still got a very long way to go.

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Paul Shapiro

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him at @pshapiro.

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