Our feet, our selves: sentient animals and our feet


Feet…feet are on my mind. In a moment we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty, but for now, let’s just think about what our feet mean to us Homo sapiens.

We love ’em. They carry us through life, take us to amazing places, enable us to dance. We adorn them, tattoo them, encase them in the ridiculous, the sublime, the magical. Even when we have nothing else, we find a way to protect them. When all you have are plastic bottles, everything looks like a sandal.

We hate ’em. They ache, they blister. Plantar warts, fallen arches, bunions, corns, Morton’s toe, pigeon toes. There’s a world of hurt in those 26 bones, 33 joints, and 100 ligaments–times two. Aye, there’s the rub: these relatively small platforms support up to two times our (sometimes considerable) weight on a leisurely stroll and up to five times our weight when we break into a run. The agony of de feet is more than clever wordplay. “My feet are killing me”–have you ever said that?!?

Four legs good, two legs bad” I remind my canine companion as she bounds across the icy driveway or down a steep slope–while here’s me, creeping and tottering, visions of casts and crutches just one misstep away. Feets, don’t fail me now! From foot-washing in the Bible (19 mentions) to foot-binding in China, feet are a human obsession.It’s a safe bet that animals don’t obsess about or even think about their feet the way human animals do. But their feet carry them through life, too–however natural and satisfying or short and tormented those lives might be.

Forty-some Days

Google images

It was a photo–a pile of chicken feet in a slaughterhouse–that prompted an instantaneous, automatic association–the piles of shoes at Nazi death camps. It created an agitation that has lasted for days. Chicken feet–$400/U.S. per metric ton, “no broken bones, no bad smell.”

No bad smell. I think about the accounts I’ve read of conditions in factory farms where “broiler” chicks are raised for meat.


For the 42-45 days they are required to live and suffer before they end up in buckets, nuggets, Buffalo sauce and franks, broiler chicks stand in their own waste. Blinded by fumes and suffering respiratory ailments, they are also scalded by ammonia on body and feet. Oh yes, and those feet? Snacks and delicacies in China–a major U.S. trade partner.

Yankee ingenuity being what it is, though, burns on feet don’t need to cut into profits: “By removing blemishes on the paws caused by ammonia buildup, this new, value-enhancing trimming application creates an important opportunity for optimizing profits on an otherwise basic, low-margin product.”

Despair–I feel despair. Not for the chicks whose suffering has ended, not even so much for the hundreds of millions already taking their place, but for my own species. Despair that a species whose precious feet carry us through life and into the sun can’t conceive, won’t acknowledge, or (the horror!) simply don’t care that our fellow sentient animals, given the choice, would also choose walking in the sun over standing immobile in caustic ammonia for 40-some days, the entire span of their painful, unnatural lives. Rather than tearing down the factory farms and removing the suffering, we find a way to remove the “blemishes” and optimize profits. Where, oh where is our humanity?

Go ahead, view the 49-second video, then tell me you don’t feel like you’ve peered into the heart of darkness.

This post also appears at animal law blog, Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.

Circuses: Quit clowning with animals’ lives!

In Defense of Animals photo

Running away to join the circus! What a call to liberation–beckoning kids for generations. An escape to freedom from nagging parents, onerous chores, meaningless homework. Restless adults still hear that siren song—now merely an escape fantasy—and imagine leaving the past behind and starting over as someone new.

While the human version is all about free will and freedom, for other species—whether captured from the wild or bred into captivity—the circus means bondage. Captured animals are abducted away from everything good and natural—family, home, accustomed diet, comfortable routine. Chained or caged (some once roamed 30 and more miles a day!), they’re transported a world away, forced to start life anew in slavery. Captive-bred animals, never having experienced the life nature intended, know only the exploitation: abuse, crushing boredom, perpetual confinement. One wonders if they aren’t the “luckier” of the two.

They face abusive handlers and onerous (sometimes brutal) training regimens learning to do demeaning, meaningless stunts. Rather than long rambles, leisurely dust baths, and companionship at the watering hole, their days now feature sharp bullhooks, stinging whips, binding muzzles, electric prods. Even elephant calves are not spared this treatment; photo documentation shows babies in chains, in ropes, forced to the ground, shocked with prods, controlled with bullhooks. (Contrary to common perception, elephant skin is sensitive enough to feel the landing of a fly!) Hurting and confused, spirits broken, they give over to despair. They learn to do handstands, pirouettes, to jump through hoops and ride bicycles for their 10-minute performance.

Bolivia has banned circus animal acts; Britain and Greece are poised to do so. Former game show host and animal activist Bob Barker, who aided in the rescue of circus lions from Bolivia, said this: “Circuses are no place for animals, and lions and tigers should not be forced to live in small cages on the backs of trucks, or elephants forced to live in chains in the name of entertainment. I commend the Bolivian Government for taking this progressive step and hope that other South American countries, and indeed the USA, will follow suit.” Ending the cruelty doesn’t mean ending the circus tradition. Cirque du Soleil is the most famous—but only one of many—animal-free circuses. But we have to demand them as the compassionate alternative.

The circus is coming to town! If we choose to go, let’s remember the heavy and tragic price paid by animals for brief moments of amusement. Children who attend won’t learn anything educational about animals, but perceptive kids might come to some unhappy conclusions about the human species. Remember that painful, behind-the-scenes training had to occur to force intelligent, self-willed individuals to perform unnatural stunts. Remember that, when the circus is over and we return to our comfortable homes, circus animals return to chains, cages, and transport trailers.

And remember that the worthy cause of raising money for disabled and injured children need not rely on animal exploitation and abuse, and never, ever should. I have no doubt that kids—even those who stand to benefit from a charity circus—would say “this is wrong” upon witnessing what happens to animals just beyond the Big Top. More adults should find the courage and compassion to do the same.

This post first appeared on animal law blog Animal Blawg.