The Humane League Interview

Do you want to stop newborn chicks from being ground up alive and discarded as trash; prevent pigs and cows from being trapped in cages so small they can’t turn around; spare chickens from having their bones broken before they are boiled alive during slaughter? Join us in this interview with The Humane League to find out how.

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How Do We End the Suffering of Animals Raised for Food?

In this episode Talk With… David Coman-Hidy, president of the global animal protection nonprofit The Humane League. Their mission is to end the abuse of animals raised for food.

If you smash a human head into a concrete wall, you will face legal consequences. If you remove another human’s testicals or butt cheek with involuntary surgery, you will face legal consequences. If you lock a human child into a very small cage for 12 months, you will face legal consequences. This is true for humans, but not for animals, because most animals have essentially no legal protection. 

In the global factory farming industry of 2020, billions of animals are still being born into inhumane cruelty. These animals live their lives in cruelty and then die in cruelty. Why is this? 

David Coman-Hidy says that it is hard to compare the suffering between a chicken and a human, but if you only look at the numbers of animals suffering in factory farms, there are many more animals in pain than humans in poverty.

A big problem with factory farming is that these businesses operate from a mindset of “How do we make the factory more efficient?”. Caged animals, like chickens in an egg factory or animals that have been raised to become meat, are seen as products rather than living beings. 

One of the cruelest answers the factory farming industry has found to make “meat production” more efficient is to use extra light to keep chickens from sleeping. When chickens sleep less they eat more and, the more they eat, the faster they grow.

Since there are so few laws protecting animals, The Humane League uses activist pressure tactics on the world’s largest food companies to urge them to commit to meaningful and ethical welfare standards. So far mega companies like Starbucks, Burger King, Walmart and many more have made commitments to improve conditions for animals, such as the Better Chicken Commitment. However, there is still a long way to go for the whole food system. 

If you want to learn more about these pressure tactics and the power you as an individual have to create change for animals, check out The Humane League’s Fast Action Network. The Fast Action Network identifies which key decision-makers to target and then provides you with an angle on how to write an email, make a phone call, or post on social media to confront the people upholding cruelty in the food industry.

Do you want to stop newborn chicks from being ground up alive and discarded as trash; prevent pigs and cows from being trapped in cages so small they can’t turn around; spare chickens from having their bones broken before they are boiled alive during slaughter? Make a donation to animals that need you.

Want to learn more about The Humane League? You can subscribe to their newsletter, checkout their discover section and follow them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Interview Transcript


Every day you and I get bombarded with negative news. Just like the body becomes what we eat, the mind becomes what we’re putting in. It is important to listen to stories that not only give you hope, but also inspire you and uplift  you. 


In this podcast, we’re interviewing experts who will break down the solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. And I promise you, if you listen to this podcast, you’ll not only stay informed but you will also feel more energy in your life. Welcome to Talks With. 


The topic of today is how do we end animal suffering? And to understand more about this topic, we have invited David Coleman, Heidi, who is the president of the Human Humane League, which is a top rated animal welfare organization. 


So I want to say, David, welcome to the podcast. 


Thanks so much for having me. Happy to be here. 


David, if we could, you help us understand how big is the problem about how animals are getting treated at the moment? 


Yeah, it’s unfortunately a pretty massive ethical moral issue that we find ourselves in, and I think most people probably have the general sense that animals in industrial agriculture aren’t treated incredibly well. But most people aren’t aware that virtually all farm animals are raised in enormous industrial facilities now commonly called factory farms. They have essentially no legal protections that are very meaningful around the world. Standard, totally. Legal practices include things like forcing animals to live in cages barely larger than their bodies, mutilations without painkillers, like having your tail cut off or testicles ripped off. Euthanasia by breaking animals necks or hitting their heads on concrete are all standard legal practices in most parts of the world. And not only is the degree of suffering quite high for each of these individuals, the number of individuals is just shockingly high. I mean, I work in the US. I focus a lot on US based issues much of the time. And that alone we’re talking about nearly 10 billion land animals each year, many of them chickens. When you add aquatic animals into the mix, I mean, the number just skyrockets into the tens, hundreds of billions when we think about the global size of the problem of factory farming. It’s hard to get specific numbers. But again, we’re talking about in the realm of tens or hundreds of billions of individuals suffering to a very high degree every day. 


So if you want to do good in the world, if you have the mindset of effective altruism, we talked about this a little bit before, then to you, then you could end much more suffering from helping animals than humans at the moment. It’s still such a gap for them. That’s what you’re saying. Yeah. 


You know, one way that I think about it, if we take the mindset of effective altruism, I think one of the most salient kind of lenses to use here is not you know, it’s very difficult to compare the suffering of chickens, let’s say, to perhaps humans living in extreme poverty or suffering from preventable diseases, because there’s a lot of philosophical questions that come into play about how you weight the size of a brain and capacity to suffer and so forth. But you’re definitely right in that the numbers are so large for animals that even if you greatly discount the capacity to suffer, that they’re so numerous and the suffering is so great that we think it’s a pretty safe bet to do a lot of good in the world. And you can have a really big impact. But but more important, perhaps, than just the

The number of animals is the ability to do good on the margins. So the reality is there’s lots and lots of people focused on ending human poverty, let’s say, but there’s very little going towards reducing animal suffering. There’s not that many organizations. They aren’t that well funded compared to human based charities. So in addition to the scale of the problem being so large, there’s just a huge capacity for growth to continue scaling up the good that is being done. 


And that’s an important aspect you’re adding to. 


It’s not also about the size of the culture, it’s where can my contribution make the biggest impact due to how much diminishing returns I get if I go into a certain culture. Tell us if just one idea that I actually thought that animal welfare would have come further than what I’m hearing that you’re saying is the regulations. So if I were to buy ecological eggs, is that completely non-effective for the chickens? 


So chicken eggs in particular, are one of the areas where the most progress has been one, although it’s still not very much, I imagine, compared to what most people think about progress. So you’re in Sweden and Europe is actually on the I guess, the cutting edge to some degree, that is for animal welfare. And in particular, about 15 years ago or so, the European Union banned what are called barend battery cages for egg laying hens and transition to either enriched cages. 


So these are still animals living in relatively small cages with a small place to just bathe and lay eggs and so forth. And many also switch to what are called cage free farms, which are essentially large barn systems where animals are still indoors. And I think that is probably what’s most typical in Sweden right now would be the barn going. There’s actually an amazing animal charity in Sweden called Gerrans that’s worked quite a bit on this issue. That said, the vast majority of chickens in the world are raised in what are called battery cage systems. So these are about the size of a filing cabinet drawer. So quite small for five to seven birds to live for their entire lives. So we’re talking 12 plus months gripping onto the wire. 


Just imagine that an entire year of your life with less space than a standard size iPad or a piece of paper to live in for an entire year holding onto a cage. And that’s the life for the vast majority of chickens. So while in some parts of Europe, in about twenty six percent of the market in the United States, birds have been moved to large barns systems. They still face many of the cruelties of factory farming. So to answer your original question, it’s not that it means nothing. I mean, it’s very meaningful for a bird not to have to live in a tiny cage for their entire life. So that’s why we work on this kind of progress, because it is meaningful. But I think it’s probably quite far from what’s in the customer’s mind when they’re buying ecological or organic eggs or something like this. And in fact, depending on the country, most of those regulations around, say organic are related to the feed that the animal is given, that they’re given organic feed rather than the welfare practices associated with the treatment of the animal and how they live their life. 


Um, so I guess empathy occurs when you put yourself into the perspective of the other person or animal here. So. Just understanding how the animals are actually still living. It’s almost like hearing animals are being born, chickens are being born into being slaves who are in Europe. Some parts they don’t might not have. Those cages were brutal slaves. It would just be a slave, and then your sole purpose would be to. They start to be killed and then or, well, what’s going to happen with in the good case, what what’s how does the good chicken’s life look like if in the best case scenario? 


Well, you know, there is I would say there’s a very small percentage of the market that would be probably close to what most people would think of as like a very happy life for a farm animal where they’re mostly going to live outdoors and they’re protected from predators and they have the ability to essentially live their life in the way they want to do, kind of walking around and enjoying themselves day to day. But this is a vanishingly small percentage of the market. And when it comes to buying food at a supermarket or going out to eat at a restaurant, there’s a near zero percent chance that that is where an egg would be coming from. And I think, again, we’re getting into the realm of philosophy here of like what makes a life worth living or what is a good life for a chicken? We have quite a bit of knowledge about what chickens don’t like, what causes them suffering, what they will pay costs and studies to avoid having happened to them. And again, the reality is for virtually all chickens, the baseline is so incredibly low that we can make some tweaks on the margin, getting them out of cages that can greatly reduce their suffering. So it’s less about what is like the ideal we’re so far from what is the ideal. And the reality is that we need to reduce consumption. There’s no way for the rate of animal product consumption to exist as it does today, where we’re also providing these animals with a great life. And the reality is the profit motive is antithetical to providing a good life for animals. And it’s like the direction we see year after year. This industry for these industries moving towards is how do we make the animals as a widget and a machine more and more efficient.


So how do we make the birds that we kill for meat, make their breasts larger and larger and larger and make them grow faster and faster and faster so we can cycle out the flocks more frequently? And that’s resulted in animals who just by the nature of what we’re asking of their bodies, die at a very young age from complications and even just being alive, even if a chicken and broiler chicken is what they’re called, has raised and killed for me, was allowed to live on Old MacDonald’s farm and a pasture within a few weeks would literally be unable to walk around because their body would be so grossly oversized and their organs would be failing because of the growth that we’ve selectively bred them to go through. So I guess for me, when I think about these questions of like what what would an ideal situation look like, the much more salient political issue is like, how do we raise the floor and the standards for those birds who are caught in the system or the pigs or the cows, and then also reduce consumption rather than going towards this ideal. And I don’t say this out of like a decent, logical rights based reasoning, but rather what seems like will actually be the most effective way to change the world for these animals basically were that far off that it’s just so we need to step it up. And I also I mean, I just I also just don’t think that reasonably we can get like there isn’t a political reality or even an ecological reality where we can consume what we consume at the same rate with this many tens of billions of animals and provide for them in a meaningful way. 


I read on the website The Humane League Dog, I’m right where you can follow a story on the chicken’s life, which really is touching. 


And I read that one thing that they’re doing towards the chickens would be to increase some kind of lightning when the chickens should sleep so that instead of sleeping, they’re going to continue eating so that they become bigger and just stuff. 


It becomes so twisted to hear that that’s how others the business is doing business. 


Yeah, yeah, that’s right. 


I mean, one of the so we in addition to our campaign against the cages that I brought up before the battery cages, one thing we’ve been fighting now for a few years is increasing the welfare or reducing the suffering of these broiler chickens were raised for me or the vast majority of the land animals that we’re eating. And one of the changes that we’re asking for is indeed addressing what you just brought up, that the birds are kind of kept in this constant zombie-like state of sleep deprivation by manipulating. They’re not ever given a solid period of time to sleep so that they’re just more I mean, from a company’s perspective, a broiler chicken instead of being a living feeling individual. And these are baby animals slaughtered about a month old. So these are essentially like a kitten or a puppy, right? It’s like a baby. Chicken is growing obese incredibly quickly and they’re a machine that processes chicken feed. You put the chicken feed into the machine and then you get a chicken breast out of it or legs or thighs or wings. So the only incentive for a company like Tyson is how do we make the conversion rate more efficient by any means necessary, even if we have to keep them up all night, even if we have to breed them so large that many of them die from us. One flip over syndrome where they literally their heart and lungs, their organs just give out because of the strain on their bodies. This is like an acceptable cost of doing business. You just need to optimize for the number who will die spontaneously because of the stress we put their body under. If the efficiencies gained by this overclocking of the metabolism is worth it, then that’s fine. That’s just the cost of doing business. And you clean up the dead birds each day. It’s hard to think of a more avaricious and cruel industry than the broiler chicken industry, to be honest with you. 


And that paints the picture. So then where does the organization and the Humane League, where do you guys fit into this puzzle? 


What is the work that you’re doing? 


Thanks for asking, so the Human League is a global nonprofit, we work a lot of places around the world and our mission is to end the abuse of animals raised for food. So we tackle this really massive issue we’ve been talking about in a number of ways. But in particular, we fight for a lot of institutional change to, like I was talking about, kind of raise the floor of standard treatment for animals. We also recruit and train volunteers who power all of our campaigns and just help build a movement and build political power and strategic power in the countries we are operating in, and especially internationally. We give a lot of grants and hold training seminars and run coalition campaigns with organizations doing this kind of work around the world. We run something called the Open Wing Alliance that actually demonstrated it in Sweden as a member of as well as many European groups. And in the US, we’ve even been involved in a number of ballot initiatives. And these are ways that citizens can vote to pass a law in a state as well to ban things like battery cages, gestation crates for mother pigs and that kind of thing.


Can you tell us more about the standards, give us what are the standards that you’re trying to raise throughout the animal, the chicken production? 


So the longest running effort that we’ve had has been this fight against battery cages. So those are those the wire cages I mentioned that egg laying hens live in. And when we started this work a little over a decade ago, as well as with the coalition of other groups working on it in the US, about two or three percent of the US flock was cage free and the other 98 percent or ninety seven percent were living in these wire cages. So there’s been a real coalition effort, both using these ballot initiatives to pass state laws, but especially pressuring companies to make commitments to say that they’re going to boycott the farms that use the cages. So this is using kind of like typical activist pressure tactics that you might imagine, like hosting demonstrations of some groups going out and capturing undercover footage on farms and so forth. And the humane league’s role in this is really to be an aggressive campaigning organization that’s waged hundreds of campaigns, gotten virtually all the major food companies to sign up to this boycott of battery cages. And that’s what we’ve been focused on in the US for the last 10 or 11 years as our major institutional campaign. And now we’re at a point where twenty six percent of the flock in the United States are cage free because of these commitments and these laws that have been passed. 


So we still have a ways to go and implementation. So about three quarters left, but just as an idea of scale to go back to what we were first talking about, the number of animals impacted these animals live for about a year roughly. So that means every year already because of this kind of corporate commitment work and the ballot initiatives, there’s about 70 or 80 million hens that don’t have to live in cages anymore every single year. And that just compounds year after year. And we see the percentage rising and we’re talking about every major company like Wal-Mart. McDonald’s had committed to go one hundred percent cage free, and now we’re starting to replicate that progress around the world. I’ll just quickly add the kind of the newer effort that we’ve been fighting for is on the broiler chickens that we were just talking about, the little birds, the baby birds that grow so large. We’ve been waging a similar corporate effort to get companies to sign on to a commitment to address some of the worst cruelties on these farms. 


So the conditions that these birds are living in, it’s like the issue of their breed, their body growing so large, so quickly at the suffering that entails. But also you mentioned the lighting, the enrichments, the lack of anything to do, essentially, and stocking density. So how closely they’re crammed together inside of the barns. We’re trying to address all of these issues. And then finally slaughter right now in the United States in particular, there is a system called live chacal slaughter that is just unbelievably cruel and terrible. Europe has made a lot of progress in switching away from the Swiss system to control the atmosphere of stunting or controlled atmosphere killing where the birds are essentially knocked unconscious by changing the atmosphere in the room. It’s a much more humane way to slaughter animals and is less cruel, I should say. And that’s something that we’ve already seen some progress on in the US thanks to this campaign. Tyson, in fact, just announced that they’re switching over a number of their slaughter facilities. Then that’s going to impact literally hundreds of millions of birds who aren’t going to have to face some of the worst cruelty you can imagine in the last moments of their life. 


Mm hmm. So the humane league has been onto this. This mission for over a decade, and you already kind of have a system now to actually produce campaigns, which is affecting the companies, and you’ve seen the effect now for over that decade. How so? If people just hear that gives me a lot of hope that things are changing. But you’re still saying that there’s so much more to do. So what would you want people to do? Or after they listen to you? What can people do? 


Yeah, I mean, I guess in one sense, it’s not always really helpful to be presented with a new huge problem to worry about, like on the scale of something like climate change or war or racism or whatever, like is this new kind of category of a major issue that seems larger than life. But one nice thing about this cause area or working on factory farming is that it really is a place where we’re starting to gain traction. Like you say, we’re starting to create change and where these changes are impacting countless millions and millions and eventually billions of animals. And it’s so easy for any individual to be part of the solution here in a way that isn’t always the case for some of these big issues that we really care about. So, for starters, one thing I would recommend everyone do is you can go to either the Humane League’s website, the Humane League, and if you’re going to get involved or you just go to Fast Action Network dot com, which is our online platform for people to do our digital volunteer action. So we’re just talking about a few minutes a week things like contacting decision makers or filling out review forms on company websites and so forth, the thousands, tens of thousands of people doing these actions consistently every week. 


That’s what powers our campaigns. So you just becoming a foot soldier in this digital army is so effective. It’s just a few minutes a day or a few minutes a week, and you can really be involved in some of these big victories. We

literally can’t do it without these folks. So that’s like the first step. I would ask everyone to take beyond that, though. I mean, we can all cut back on your legs. You can sign up as a monthly donor to an impactful charity that helps animals. The animal movement, like we talked about, is incredibly underfunded compared to many other issues. So your contribution on the margin can make a real difference. So there’s a lot of different ways that anyone can get involved. Check out our website and they’re all listed there. But yeah, the main thing is to start doing something, even if it’s a little bit, even if it’s just a few minutes a week. This is an issue where every new person really makes a big difference. 


If you would end this interview with anything that you want really more people to understand about animal welfare. 


Yeah, that’s a good question, I think. 


Like I said at the beginning of the interview, I think that most people are vaguely aware that probably life isn’t great for the cows that become McDonald’s burgers or whatever. So I think that the most important point to take away just in terms of, like knowledge of this issue is that when we talk about animal agriculture, when we talk about meat and eggs. You have to just keep in mind that virtually all animals are raised in these conditions and that they have almost no protections. I think people even in really progressive countries like Sweden, when I talk to my Swedish in-laws, they’re quite surprised by the lack of laws that protect animals, that it’s virtually impossible to do anything to animals on farms legally. So I think that’s probably the number one takeaway about the issue. And then the other thing is, I would just reiterate that we don’t have to throw up our hands and be helpless here like we can see already how we can effect real change. So this is something where if you feel like this is an issue that most of you if you’re serious about just reducing large amounts of suffering, it’s very easy to get involved. So those are the ultimate and get two items that are important to take away.