Cruelty Laws Apply to Livestock, Lawsuit Says
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Seattle Post-Intelligencer
March 2009

In an attempt to expand animal cruelty criminal laws to cover the treatment of livestock, a Seattle-based animal rights group has filed a lawsuit arguing that existing laws give industry undue control over how animals are housed and slaughtered.

In the suit filed earlier this month by the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN), the activists aim, at a minimum, to limit the manner in which meat and dairy producers treat their livestock, said Adam Karp, a Bellingham attorney representing NARN.

Under state law, animal cruelty can be charged as a felony. But the law exempts livestock handlers from prosecution so long as their actions are in line with "customary animal husbandry practices."

That standard, Karp argued, gives the industry far too great a role in determining what is and isn't humane treatment. Karp alleged that many practices considered "customary" by meat, milk and egg producers are unduly and unnecessarily cruel.

"You look at a little chick having its beak burned off without anesthesia, and I don't think anyone would argue that that's not cruel," he said. "If we were to do it with a dog or cat, we'd have an uproar."

Meat and dairy production accounted for about one third of the Washington's agricultural output in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That year, animals and their products contributed $2 billion to the state economy, nearly half of which came from milk sales.

While she could not respond to specific allegations in the recent lawsuit as she'd not reviewed it, Washington State Farm Bureau spokeswoman Mollie Hammer defended the practices of Washington farmers.

"Washington farmers are very concerned about following safe slaughtering practices, because they eat the same food they produce for the rest of us," Hammer said.

State Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Kristin Alexander declined to comment on the suit, which names the state and King County as defendants. Alexander said the state received the case Feb. 17 and had not yet prepared a response.

If successful, the lawsuit filed by NARN in King County Superior Court would change the way many of those farms operate.

While the suit doesn't specify changes, Karp said it would, at the very least, require that the Legislature explicitly dictate what animal husbandry practices qualify as customary. That would mean increased public debate of the issue, which Karp said he welcomes.

NARN has recently drawn attention through weekly demonstrations at a Capitol Hill restaurant, Lark, which includes foie gras on its menu. Animal rights activists object to the duck liver dish, asserting that the forced feeding often used to fatten birds is cruel.

More broadly, Karp said, the efforts are aimed at pushing the public to expand the compassion most people show for pets to include all animals.

"People have to realize how much is being taken from those animals that produce those products," he said. "Do they not deserve the same treatment that we give the cat and dog that are sitting next to us on a couch?"

Karp said he'll likely ask for an immediate hearing after the state responds to the lawsuit. No date has yet been set.

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