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Harambe the gorilla reveals Americans' hypocrisy about animal suffering

Harambe the gorilla.
Harambe the gorilla.
Cincinnati Zoo
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The Cincinnati Zoo's shooting of Harambe the gorilla appears to have been tragic but necessary. In the judgment of the zoo's experts, the gorilla was threatening a 4-year-old human child, a tranquilizer dart would startle him and put the child in more danger, and killing the ape was the only way to save a human life.

All the same, people are deeply upset and angry. And they should be. It's awful to see an animal suffer and die early as Harambe did, no matter how necessary or morally sound the decision that led to his death was. Mourning is a proper response. Animals are conscious beings capable of feeling pleasure and pain, and it is good to empathize with them and their needs.

But this kind of anger is lacking in other cases of animal suffering, cases where there isn't a real trade-off between the animal's life and a greater good. In a given year, the typical American will cause the death of 30 land animals and 28 chickens by eating meat. And these animals aren’t just killed; they effectively live lives of constant torture and suffering — not directly at the hands of the people who eat them, but at the hands of the meat producers who sell them.

If you're a meat eater mourning Harambe's death, it's worth taking a second to ponder your involvement in the torture and death of other animals that pose no threat to anybody.

What we do to chickens

Think about chickens, for example. A little more than 8.5 billion broiler chickens — the kind raised for their meat — were killed in 2013, according to the US Department of Agriculture, accounting for the vast majority of the 11 billion animals killed for meat, poultry, eggs, and milk every year. For context, that's about 1 million chickens killed every hour.

Broiler chickens have been bred to ridiculous sizes:

The chicken on the left is a breed from 1957. The middle chicken is a breed from 1978. The one on the right is a breed from 2005. They were all raised in the same manner for this paper and were photographed at the same age. Vox added the dates to this image.
Zuidhof, MJ, et al. 2014 Poultry Science 93 :1–13/Numbers added by Vox

This extreme weight pushes the chickens' bodies to a structural breaking point, and impaired walking ability is common as a result. "Broilers are the only livestock that are in chronic pain for the last 20 percent of their lives," University of Bristol veterinary researcher John Webster once said. "They don’t move around, not because they are overstocked, but because it hurts their joints so much."

But they're also overstocked. "It’s common for 20,000 chickens to live crammed in one shed that provides less than one square foot of space for each animal," the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says. "Another common practice is to keep these sheds dimly lit for 20 hours each day to keep the birds awake and eating constantly."

Broiler chickens are also forced to live in their own shit for the mercifully few weeks they're alive. Here's how the New Yorker's Michael Specter describes entering a broiler chicken farm: "I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe. … There must have been thirty thousand chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn’t move, didn’t cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way."

It's not just meat eaters

If anything, the treatment of chickens used for egg production is even worse. About 97 percent of egg-laying hens in the United States are confined to what are known as "battery cages." These cages typically hold five to 10 birds each, and United Egg Producers' minimum standards state that each bird be given 67 square inches — a smaller space than a standard 8.5-by-11-inch piece of paper. And that's for farms that comply to the voluntary standards; UEP estimates that about 15 percent of hens are raised by farmers that don't, and offer more like 45 to 50 square inches per bird.

One of the worst aspects of battery cages is that because their residents are hens, they disrupt the egg-laying process, causing substantial pain to the birds. "The worst torture to which a battery hen is exposed is the inability to retire somewhere for the laying act," the Nobel laureate ethologist Konrad Lorenz once said. "For the person who knows something about animals it is truly heart-rending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cagemates to search there in vain for cover."

You can take action to stop this

Don't buy this.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The best way to end this cruelty would be to pass legislation restricting the overbreeding of chickens and requiring them to be raised free-range with plenty of space. The Humane Society has been doing exceptional work getting states to ban battery cages and otherwise improve conditions for farm animals. The Humane League has done great work on corporate campaigns to similar effect. But you, individually, can also take actions that reduce chicken suffering.

Suppose a supermarket stocks chickens in units of 1,000. If you buy two or three chickens every month, and then stop, you probably won't cause them to stock 1,000 less. But you might if the supermarket is just at the threshold between order sizes. That will likely only happen about one in 1,000 times you buy chicken — but when you do, you save 1,000 chickens. The expected chickens saved by you not buying a single chicken is 1/1,000 times 1,000 chickens: one chicken. That then affects the chicken wholesaler's purchasing decisions, which affect farms' decisions about how many chickens to produce.

This isn't purely theoretical. Estimating the elasticity for chicken — that is, the amount less produced for every chicken that stops being demanded because a buyer became a vegetarian — is tricky, but economists have studied this, and numbers range from 0.06 to 0.7 for chicken. That means that by giving up chicken, a given person will keep 1.68 to 19.6 chickens from existing, per year. They will be spared a truly horrendous plight. The elasticity for eggs is even higher: 0.91 fewer eggs are produced for every egg not consumed, per the book Compassion, by the Pound by researchers F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson L. Lusk. And the fewer eggs that are produced, the fewer hens are necessary, and the fewer have to live in horrific conditions.

What you and the Cincinnati Zoo have in common

Let's say you eat chicken. You thus cause massive suffering to anywhere from one to 20 chickens any given year. How does that compare with the Cincinnati Zoo's killing of Harambe?

Well, shooting Harambe appears to have been the correct call, morally speaking. The zoo shot the 17-year-old ape because he grabbed and dragged a 4-year-old boy who had managed to get inside Harambe's enclosure. Accounts differ as to how big a threat Harambe posed to the child. The zoo has stated that the child was in "imminent danger," and the Cincinnati fire department reported that Harambe was "violently dragging and throwing the child."

Tranquilizer darts weren't an option, as they could've temporarily increased the gorilla's aggression and threatened the child. And outside experts like the respected zookeeper Jack Hanna have defended the zoo. As my colleague Alex Abad-Santos put it, "It's hard to argue with the zoo's decision."

But even if you don't think the shooting was necessary to save the child's life, weighing the wrongness of killing him against the wrongness of eating chicken suggests that the latter is significantly worse. Gorillas live for 35 to 40 years, sometimes more in zoos. Let's be optimistic and say Harambe would've lived to 50, and shooting him denied him 33 years of happy life.

That's truly awful. But compare his brief death and denied future pleasant life to the weeks of excruciating agony that broiler chickens endure toward the end of their lives — and then consider that by buying those chickens, you're very likely inflicting that exact agony on dozens of birds. 28 tortured birds, versus one gorilla dying young: You could certainly try to make the argument that the latter's worse, but it would require weighing the interests of apes vastly above those of poultry, in a pretty implausible way.

Of course, there's the intangible factor that western lowland gorillas are a critically endangered species and the zoo made their continued survival marginally less likely by shooting Harambe. But the contribution of a single killing toward the extinction of gorillas as a whole is minimal.

This is a subjective comparison, of course. But I think it's almost certainly the case that eating chicken, as raised in the US, is a greater moral wrong than killing Harambe the gorilla. That's doubly true if Harambe's killing was necessary to save a human child's life, but likely true even without that.

People feel an emotional connection to Harambe, and there are many complicated layers to the outrage over his passing involving accusations of parental irresponsibility that Abad-Santos covers well here. It is good and appropriate to mourn his loss.

But his death should also serve as a reminder about the ways in which humans cause pain to less charismatic fauna, and lead to reflection and, ideally, behavioral changes so that fewer animals are subject to human cruelty, regardless of their species.

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