Open the Cages!

A young pig at J&D Farms, where the animals—raised for meat—roam in wooded lots and grassy paddocks, eating wild apples and foraging for tubers, Eaton, New York, June 2015
Brent Herrig Photography
A young pig at J&D Farms, where the animals—raised for meat—roam in wooded lots and grassy paddocks, eating wild apples and foraging for tubers, Eaton, New York, June 2015

When my article “Animal Liberation” appeared in these pages forty-three years ago, many people told me that we will not stop exploiting animals until we get rid of capitalism.1 Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the country’s largest animal protection organization, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), takes the opposite view. In The Humane Economy he describes how “capitalism at its best” is a force against animal suffering, “applying human creativity to answer the demands of a morally informed market.”

Is he right? On the side of those who see capitalism as the problem, it has to be granted that in the United States the pressures of unrestrained competition drove traditional small farmers out of business. Those who knew their animals as individuals and didn’t want to move them indoors and confine them in crates or cages found they could no longer make a living from farming. For every egg producer there is today, forty years ago there were twenty. Over the same period the numbers of pig and dairy farmers have declined by 91 and 88 percent, respectively. Meanwhile the farms—or as the industry now calls them, “concentrated animal feeding operations”—have grown so much that the number of animals produced has soared from about 1.5 billion animals in 1960 to 9 billion today.

All the same, capitalism is not to blame. These changes have occurred because consumers buy factory-farmed animal products, either despite knowing what factory farming is like for the animals they eat, or without even asking what it is like. Speciesism, which leaves so many of us indifferent to the interests of animals, predates capitalism. It survives revolutions that lead to alternative economic systems, whether they be the state communism of the former Soviet Union or the more idealistic socialism of the Israeli kibbutzim.2

In the United States, in contrast to the European Union, efforts to pass nationwide legislation to protect farmed animals have failed. Instead, advocates for animals have sought to educate consumers and then use the morally informed market to improve conditions for animals. The Humane Economy traces the economic impact of the public’s concern for animals across a wide range of animal abuses. As we would expect, the public is particularly concerned about dogs and cats, and Pacelle tells us how two pet store chains, PetSmart and Petco, have responded to this concern with a new economic model. Instead of selling dogs and cats, they now give animal rescue organizations space within their stores to offer animals in need of good homes. The stores lose revenue by…

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