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A contract with animals

The animal-welfare movement is gaining ground, but what is its ultimate destination?

For example: Consumers who begin to focus on the life of farm animals may also begin questioning their deaths. Is farm-animal welfare simply the first step toward national vegetarianism?

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Vegetarian eating is on the rise. But less than 5 percent have given up meat completely and many vegetarians base their choice on health rather than ethics. Instead of going meatless, bioethicists say American society is heading back to the ancient ethic of husbandry.

The idea is simple: People and animals maintain a compact. Humanity can use animals for food and other purposes, but has a moral obligation to provide them with a good life.

When most people lived on a farm, that principle was a matter of survival.

"You did well only if the animal did well," says Bernard Rollin, director of bioethical planning at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. But in this century, especially since World War II as farmers embraced more scientific notions of production, agriculture has become obsessed with efficiency, he argues. And that, in turn, is fueling the farm-animal-welfare movement.

"It's people's half-conscious realization that we've broken the contract," professor Rollin adds. "By all means, we use animals. [But] by gosh we give them decent lives."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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