This entry is part 5 of 22 in the series Winter - 2017

Redesigning our thinking about animals

by Tony Phifer

Bernie Rollin was all of 6 years old and living in a Brooklyn apartment when he first became aware that animals don’t always get a fair shake in this world.

“I went to the ASPCA in Brooklyn, and there were hundreds of dogs there,” he recalled. “I asked one of the workers, ‘You have so many wonderful dogs here – what happens to all of them?’ He said the shelter puts them to sleep.”

Rollin had no idea what that meant. Finally, the worker gave him the cold facts: “We kill them.”

“That experience is emblazoned on my mind like a photograph,” said Rollin, now 73 and a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University.

Rollin, a University Distinguished Professor in the College of Liberal Arts, might be the most unlikely animal ethicist on the planet – more so than even his friend Temple Grandin, another renowned animal rights expert who calls CSU home. Rollin not only grew up in an apartment in the nation’s largest city, he rides a motorcycle, bench-presses 500 pounds, and didn’t set foot on a farm until he was in his 20s.

“I never, ever thought I would end up doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I was teaching the history of philosophy (at City College of New York), and the one thing I never found in any teachings was about our moral obligation to treat animals ethically.”

Rollin took a sight-unseen job at CSU in 1969 and never looked back. His groundbreaking work in medical ethics and ethical treatment of animals has made him an international expert and winner of numerous awards. He has given more than 1,500 lectures and published hundreds of papers and several books – all in an effort to get humans to change the way they think about animals and their treatment.

Ethical redesign

Along the way, food producers around the world have sought his advice in redesigning their systems to treat animals humanely. One of those relationships, with Colorado-based Chipotle, led to a meeting with executives from Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.

Smithfield, a $15 billion global company, had come under fire from animal rights groups for its use of sow gestation stalls. The stalls – measuring 2 feet wide by 7 feet long and 3 feet high – are so small the sows can’t even turn around. Sows were often injured, and interaction with other pigs – very social animals – was limited.

“The guys from Smithfield, who were facing a lot of criticism, asked me what I would do first to alter public opinion,” Rollin said. “I told them I would lose the gestation stalls yesterday. It’s no way to keep a pig. To put a 600-pound animal in one of those crates was just wrong.”

Smithfield took his suggestion to heart and in 2007 – four months after meeting with Rollin – announced that all gestation stalls at its company production facilities would be phased out by 2017 and replaced by group housing.

“Even though it was smart business on their part, I was really touched by their decision,” Rollin said. “Now they have name recognition for doing the right thing.”

Since that time, Smithfield has invested $360 million in the conversion process, with more than 81 percent of its company facilities already converted. Earlier this year, executives announced the company would also push for its independent pork producers to eliminate the stalls.

“At Smithfield Foods, we are committed to keeping animals safe, comfortable, and healthy,” said Ken Sullivan, Smithfield Foods president and chief executive officer. “As the world’s largest pork producer, we have a responsibility to be a leader in animal care, and we view our conversion of the pregnant sow housing system as a key component of our dedication to this goal.”

Rollin is pleased that Smithfield is following through on its promises and is hoping other pork producers will follow suit.

“When Smithfield announced their plan, gestation stalls were dead,” he said, emphasizing that his role in the process was small. “Smithfield is the world leader, and companies that don’t follow their lead will face criticism. I’m very pleased with what Smithfield has done.”

Bernie Rollins: The ethics of ritual slaughter in The Conversation