Brute Ethics





Animal Ethics Encyclopedia

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Henry Salt (1851 - 1939)

Henry Stephens Salt wrote the first book on animal rights: Animals' Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1892) (reprinted 1980). In it he sought to impress people not to kill or eat animals and that this is the distinction of a civilised society:
" is ourselves, our own vital instincts, that we wrong, when we trample on the rights of the fellow-beings, human or animal, over whom we chance to hold jurisdiction."
Salt was a British social campaigner, writer, naturalist, prominent anti-vivisectionist and vegetarian. He was born in India and educated in England. After attending Cambridge University he taught classics at Eton preparatory school but left to adopt a vegetarian life-style growing vegetables at a remote country cottage while writing for a living.

Salt believed animals should be free to live their own lives and that humanity has a responsibility to treat them compassionately and justly. His animal rights book influenced Gandhi (1869 - 1948), the political and spiritual leader of India, advocate of vegetarianism and of non-violent protest.

Salt's social reform interests included schools, prisons, criminal law, flogging in the Royal Navy, vivisection and food animal slaughter. In 1891 he founded and was general secretary of the Humanitarian League, opposed on the grounds of ethics and good social science to the infliction of avoidable suffering on any sentient being whether man or beast. Among the League's aims was abolition of the death penalty and corporal punishment, better protection for wild and domesticated animals, and opposition to vivisection, to hunting for sport (such as Fox Hunting With Hounds) and to the fur and feather trade.

Among his books are A Plea For Vegetarianism (1886), The New Charter, A Discussion of the Rights of Men and the Rights of Animals (1896), The Logic of Vegetarianism (1899) and Our Vanishing Wildflowers (1928).

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  Broadly, sentience is the capacity to perceive and feel things. Someone in a coma is not sentient. More specifically, sentience is the capacity to have mental states and feelings and be able to suffer. The latter definition excludes plants, as they do not have brains or nervous systems. Sentience is rather close in meaning to consciousness in that a sentient creature and a conscious creature are both aware of their body sensations and surroundings. The term sentience suffers from onerous spelling. It is pronounced sen-shnts; and sentient is pronounced sen-shnt.

Sentience is a particularly important concept in animal ethics and is a philosophical bastion of the animal liberation movement, for if animals are sentient then a case can be made for giving them moral status, that is for treating them morally. A sentient animal cut open can feel pain and suffer but a crushed rock feels no sensation; therefore the animal deserves our moral consideration whereas the rock does not. Furthermore, some philosophers argue that if animals and humans are both sentient and deserve moral status, then this is cause for considering the moral interests of animals and humans equally.

Until the 19th century many people, such as Rene Descartes, claimed that animals could not feel pain and are akin to mechanical robots (as fishermen today still claim for fish, see Fishing - Angling). But since the elucidation of natural selection by Charles Darwin we can see that animals are almost certainly likely to feel pain because it has adaptive value. However, the degree to which animals (as well as robots and aliens from outerspace) may be sentient is still unresolved in philosophical and scientific circles. Even so, sentience need not be the sole criterion for moral consideration. Animals could also qualify for moral consideration on the grounds of Intrinsic Value and on respect for living beings (see Environmental Ethics).

The European Union in 1997 officially recognised animals as sentient beings - that they can feel pain and suffer - and requires that EU countries "pay full regard" to animal welfare. However, although conceding to sensibility, this directive is not adequately rendered into practice - and may never be so in face of economic pressures and a massive humanity of animal users.

For & Against: argue your case

  • Claim: We need firm scientific evidence before you can say that animals are sentient. Until then you cannot know if they suffer and therefore should not give them moral consideration.

  • Claim: We need not know with scientific accuracy how animals feel in order to realise they can suffer. We must rely on our sense of reason and give animals the benefit of the doubt.

  • Anthropomorphism
  • Claim: Animals do not have human qualities; they are too different from us. So you should not be anthropomorphic.

  • Claim: Animals can be very different from humans yet still be sentient. Humans are unique in some ways but this should not blind you to sentience in others.

  • Trivialising Animals
  • Claim: Animals do not feel pleasures and pains like humans do. If animals are sentient at all, their sentience is a far lower order than human sentience and you can ignore it.

  • Claim: It is arrogant and wrong to regard our own pleasures and pains as important and those of animals as trivial. It is no excuse to treat animals badly.

  • Also see Moral Autonomy

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This is a method of training an animal to do something. You reward an animal every time he does a relatively simple act that is progressively closer to the complete behaviour you want him to do, thus you 'shape' his behaviour.

With time, patience and care, you can reshape your animal's behaviour from doing something 'bad' (doing what he wants to do) to being 'good' (doing what you want him to do). When done well, shaping is a gentle and effective method for altering an animal's behaviour and can be fun and interesting. It is more potent and longer lasting than trying to change an animal's ways by reprimanding or punishing him, or just by shouting pointlessly and hoping for the best.

Shaping is so effective that professional animal trainers have used it to teach animals elaborate tasks, like bears to ride bicycles, seals to balance on balls, and dolphins to leap through hoops. A good trainer can shape an animal to do almost anything an animal is capable of learning and doing.

This example demonstrates the general idea of shaping.

Example 1.  Train your cat or dog to let himself out by pressing down on a door handle to open a door that swings outward.

  1. Reward your animal by throwing him a titbit when he happens to go towards the door. Ignore him when he goes elsewhere. He will soon learn to remain near the door to get a titbit.

  2. When he has learned this well, throw him a reward for going right up to the door and phase out rewarding him when he is further away.

  3. After he has learned he must be next to the door to get a titbit, reward him only when he faces the door.

  4. When he has learned he will only get a reward when facing the door, wait for him to jump up a little on his forepaws and reward him only when he does it.

  5. After this has sunk in, reward him for placing his forepaws on the door, then for lifting his paws progressively higher towards the handle.

  6. Gradually make your criterion for rewarding him more like the desired behaviour, so that eventually he puts a paw or paws on the door handle.

  7. Finally, reward him only for pressing down the door handle.
The essential feature of shaping, as this example shows, is that a behaviour is learned by rewarding a succession of small steps which lead to the complete behaviour. You only reward the responses which meet your criterion (such as moving towards the door, facing the door) and ignore all other responses (like moving away from the door, yawning or grooming). The reward increases the likelihood that your companion will repeat each step until in the end he learns the complete behaviour.

Appetite: Train him when he is a bit hungry, not when he is starving or he will not be able to concentrate, and give him appetising titbits. Then he will be interested in the food reward and concentrate on getting more. Use a very small titbit, otherwise he will soon be sated and lose interest.

Timing: Your timing for rewarding him is crucial. Give him the reward immediately he makes the required response. Delay by even two or three seconds and he will not connect the reward with his action.

Wrong Footing: Be careful not to reward the wrong behaviour. If the titbit is a few seconds slow getting to him he may be doing something different and it is this action you will be rewarding. For instance, do not let him come to you for the reward, otherwise you will be training him to come to you.

Reward Sound: Pair giving the reward with a sound you can make rapidly, like a tongue click or finger snap. Make the sound the instant he does the correct act so that even if you are a little bit late dispensing the reward or he is looking away from you it will not matter. The sound will become a reward for him as he will lean to associate it with the coming of the food reward. Make the sound a special one you use only when rewarding him for desired behaviour.

Rushing: Do not rush. Let him spend time mastering each stage before passing on to the next one. Your progress will be quicker letting him set the pace. If he gets confused and does something inappropriate, you are going too fast; return to an earlier stage and continue more slowly.

Difficulties: Break any step into smaller ones if your animal finds it difficult. Say he is facing the door and the next step is getting him to put a paw on the handle. Break the step into more manageable bits: lift a paw, lift it higher, lean the paw against the door, place the paw closer to the handle, place the paw on handle. Or you could try: stand on hind legs, stand on hind legs leaning against the door, lean closer to the handle, lean on the handle. There is no one way to do anything. Do what comes naturally to him and use your judgement.

Unresponsive: What do you do if your animal is not interested? Perhaps he is not hungry or has other things on his mind. Be patient and do not rush him. Catch him another time when he is in the mood.

Example 2.  Train your dog to sit quietly in his basket and remain there while you are in another room.

  1. Make your special sound and throw him a reward for gong toward the basket.

  2. Make your special sound and throw him a reward for getting into the basket.

  3. Gradually increase the time he must stay in the basket. When he has been there a while, make your reward-sound and throw him a reward.

  4. Gradually increase your distance from him before you reward him.

  5. Leave the room and immediately return. Make your special sound and throw him a reward for not leaving the basket.

  6. Leave the room for increasingly longer periods before you return to reward him for staying in the basket.

Once your animal has completely mastered his new behaviour you can begin to substitute other rewards for the titbit. For a dog this could be praise and a stroke on the head - anything he really likes. For a cat, being able to get out when the door opens may be the reward he wants (but be careful, cats do not close doors after them and he may forever be leaving it open when you want it shut!).

Finally, do not reward your animal every time he performs the complete behaviour. Reward him every second time instead for a while, then reward him irregularly. Occasional random rewards will maintain and reinforce his new behaviour better than rewarding him every time he does it. (It is like gambling. An occasional win excites and motivates; a constant win is soon a bore.)

Expert shapers can teach an animal quickly. You are likely to take longer depending on your skill, time and perseverance. The effort, however, is worthwhile when you see the animal you love behaving well and enjoying himself.

Also see Dog Controlling.

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Singer, Peter (1946 - )

 Australian ethicist and professor of philosophy. Peter Albert David Singer first took part in a public demonstration for animals in his twenties while at Oxford University; he protested in the street against factory farming with caged paper-maché hens and a stuffed calf in an imitation stall.

Singer is widely credited with kindling the modern animal rights movement. His book, Animal Liberation (1975), questions the human treatment of animals. It is the book for which he is most well know to the public - its second edition was translated into over 17 languages, including Hebrew, Korean and Chinese. The book gave the animal rights movement a philosophical basis and, along with Singer's status as a reputable philosopher, awoke interest in academic circles rousing a snow-balling of thought and publications about animal ethics.

Singer believes our treatment of animals is one of the foremost ethical issues of today. He says toleration for the mistreatment of animals is a prejudice that, like sexism or racism, does not have a rational basis, and failure to take into account animal suffering is to be guilty of speciesism.

Singer's ethical philosophy is practical, following Utilitarian principles: the best solution to a moral problem is the one with the best likely consequences for the majority concerned. Hence, you may be morally justified if you cause relatively little harm to a few beings to minimise a greater harm to more beings. Thus, you might experiment on (but not kill) some humans or animals to save the lives of many more humans or animals; but it would be wrong to kill or cause severe pain to the many to save a little distress to the few.

Although Singer argues in Animal Liberation that we should not give greater preference to the interests of humans over animals, he also argues that some individuals are more valuable than others and deserve higher priority in moral disputes. In Singer's view, a sentient animal, a subject of a life, like a rat, has a higher priority to life as he has more to lose than a non-sentient being, like a worm. Similarly, a being who is more sentient, like a chimpanzee, has more to lose than a being who is less sentient, like a rat.

Among his many activities, Singer is a founder member of the Great Ape Project that is trying to influence people to confer on the great apes the same basic rights as humans. And Singer sets an example to us all; he does not just lecture about ethics, he gives away a fifth of his income to good causes.

Singer's many books include: Practical Ethics (1979 ); Animal Factories, with James Mason (1980); The Expanding Circle (1981); In Defence of Animals, editor (1985); Applied Ethics, editor (1986); Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement (1998); One World: Ethics and Globalization (22002); In Defense of Animals: the second wave, editor (2005); The Way We Eat: why our food choices matter with Jim Mason (2006); and over 300 articles on ethics in books, magazines and newspapers.

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A moral theory which holds that each moral situation is different and should be considered against its unique set of circumstances. Thus the only rule to help you reach a moral decision is to judge each case on its own merit. Situationism is also called Situation Ethics.

For example, you are walking through the bush and a rhino charges you. Perhaps you are morally right to shoot the rhino to save your life. On the other hand, if your intruding presence deliberately provoked him to charge you, then you are morally wrong to shoot and should suffer the consequences. Again, you would not shoot animals for sport on moral grounds; however, you would shoot a dying animal in pain to put him out of his misery.


Conflicts arise when people assess the same situation differently and reach opposite moral decisions about how best to act. Humans have upset the balance of nature and an endangered small population of apes is being preyed on by an equally small and endangered population of leopards. Should you kill the predators to save the apes or take no action? Situationism cannot help you with such a dilemma.

Slightly variant situations can lead to very different courses of moral action. Situation ethics might then seem arbitrary and confusing. For example, when does a strict training regime for an animal change from being benign to cruel?

Contrast with Absolutism.

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The intangible, immortal part of a human that survives after death, according to some religions. The idea of a soul has a bearing on animal ethics in that you may claim humans have souls and are therefore superior to animals, who do not have souls.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam teach that each soul will be judged at the end of the world and will go to heaven or hell. Hinduism says that a soul undergoes cycles of birth and death until it attains enlightenment. Humanists and atheists believe the soul does not exist.

How did the idea of the soul come about? Philosophers acclaim Plato (428 - 347 BC) as one of the few greatest thinkers of all time. Even though he lived in Ancient Greece 2,500 years ago his views are still influential today. Plato says there is the ordinary every day world existing in space and time; you live in it, experience it through your senses and interact with it. In this ordinary world everything is imperfect, perishable and ephemeral, changing from one second to the next. But there is another world, Plato says, outside space and time, perfect, unchanging and permanent. To Plato this latter world is the ultimate reality. You can apprehend it intellectually and might glance into it briefly and unsatisfactorily, but otherwise you cannot perceive it. Everything in the ordinary world also exists in the perfect world, as one is a copy of the other. Also in the perfect world is a counterpart of your body and like all things in the perfect world it is ageless. This counterpart of your body in the perfect world is what we today call the soul.

People commonly held Plato's philosophy in the eastern Mediterranean when the early Christian Church developed. Christian thinkers merged what they regarded as the most important parts of Plato's ideas (including the soul) with what they saw as the divine manifestations of their religion. The mixture was absorbed into orthodox Christianity and inherited by Western society. The idea of the soul has thrived ever since.

Not everyone today believes in the soul. The big question is, how can souls, which are not made of matter, influence bodies, which are made of matter? Only matter - whatever form it comes in - be it light, magnetism or whatever - can influence matter. So do only humans and not animals have souls? It is easy to claim rationally that neither does.

Also see Thomas Aquinas.

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Speciesism is human discrimination against other species based on prejudice or on the assumption of human superiority.

Opinions such as 'only human life is sacred', 'only humans have souls' or 'experimenting on animals is tolerable but experimenting on humans is not', are examples of speciesism. Speciesism is similar to racism, sexism, homophobia and ageism in that it excludes another group of beings from our moral consideration (see Equal Consideration of Interests). The expression speciesism focuses attention on animal rights in the same way as racism, sexism, homophobia and ageism do for ethnic rights, women's rights, gay rights and old people's rights.

People may deny they are speciesist, and even say that speciesism is wrong, but nevertheless admit that they discriminate against animals on grounds such as moral autonomy, intelligence, rationality, consciousness or possession of a soul, thus confirming they really are speciesist.

A pro-speciesism argument is moral status depends on relationships; your kin have priority on your benevolence, then your friends, then strangers. Those with least moral priority are beings from other species. In other words, individuals from your own species are morally closer to you than individuals from other species. A counter to this argument is that we might prioritise our relationships but this cannot justify the complete moral disregard and harm humans do to animals. Another common counter to speciesism is to consider super beings coming to Earth. Should they be able to experiment on you because you are a lesser being?

The term speciesism was coined in the 1970's by the British psychologist and ethicist Richard D Ryder, applied in his book Victims of Science (1975), and further popularised by Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation (1975). It entered the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1980's.

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Specious Reasoning

Plausible but misleading reasoning is specious reasoning. Beware the specious argument. It often crops up in animal ethics.

The following is a rearranged example of a specious argument by an author (in Encyclopedia of Animal Welfare and Animal Rights, 1998) who wants to justify the use of experimental animals.

Author's Argument Comment
"All species have adaptations they use in the struggle for survival." There is a lot of evidence for this and biologists generally accept it.
"The main adaptation of humans is their intelligence." No evidence supports this. Humans do not possess an adaptation greatly more important than any other adaptation.
"Our intelligence drives us to understand the world." Humans have survived for over 100,000 without having to understand the world more convincingly than by coming up with superficial stories for its major features. Understanding the world in a methodical, rational, objective and measurable sense is very recent and began in Ancient Greece only 2,500 years ago.
"The knowledge gained by understanding the world is used to assure survival of humans as a species." The knowledge gained by understanding the world is used by people for gaining money and power, even at the expense of destroying other people and life on Earth.
"One way to acquire knowledge is to experiment on animals." Animal experimentation can provide knowledge but is only one relatively small way of doing so.
"Therefore animal experimentation is justifiable." None of the preceding premises justify this conclusion. This is a case of specious reasoning.

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Spira, Henry (1927 - 1998)

 His friend and colleague, Peter Singer, said of him, "Henry Spira was the most effective activist of the modern animal rights movement" and wrote a biography of him, Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the animal rights movement (1998), as a tribute to Spira and to show people how to action animal liberation.

Henry Spira is celebrated for his animal liberation campaigns and winning strategies. He was born in Belgium and his family settled in New York City when he was 13 to escape Nazi persecution of Jews. He served in the American army, worked on a car assembly line, and taught at a New York college. But his main occupation was seafaring, from age 16, in the American merchant marine. As a seaman he fought for human rights against the then crooked and ruthless American maritime union and was thrown out of the navy for his troubles. While active in civil rights he even crossed the FBI, who put him under surveillance.

Only when Spira reached his forties did he become animal-oriented. Someone gave him a cat to look after, which prompted him to ask himself why people take care of some animals and stick a fork in others. Just then, in 1973, he happened on an article, Animal Liberation, in the New York Review of Books. It was written by Peter Singer, a philosopher and animal rights writer Spira had never heard of, and inspired Spira to attend his lectures. As Spira later wrote, "Singer made an enormous impression on me because his concern for other animals was rational and defensible in public debate. It did not depend on sentimentality..." (Fighting to Win, In In Defense of Animals, ed Peter Singer, 1985, 194 - 208).


Their suffering is intense, widespread, expanding, systematic and socially sanctioned. And the victims are unable to organize in defence of their own interests. (Henry Spira in In Defense of Animals, editor Peter Singer, 1985.)

Spira was more pragmatic than philosophical, so getting things done came foremost. His tactics were to set a relatively small feasible goal, assemble activists with diverse contributing expertise, study the problem from all angles, especially from his opponent's point of view, and enter into constructive discussion with his adversary whenever possible. Then, when he was prepared, he submitted his target to a sustained campaign until he won.

Spira was a highly effective animal liberation activist yet personally modest. He did not seek status or money for himself and worked for animals from his cluttered New York City flat. He elected to go without the staffing and finances of the big regular animal protection organisations. Although honoured by prestigious organisations he shut away all his awards in a cupboard.

Spira's first big battle for animals started in 1976 with New York City's Museum of Natural History. The Museum's laboratory was experimenting on cats, apparently to learn about sexual behaviour, but according to Spira it was simply mutilating them. His group kept up a campaign of pressure on the Museum to stop the research. Finally, a year later and after much publicity, the laboratory closed. The campaign was acclaimed as the first American victory for animals against vivisection.

Building on that experience he took on Revlon, the cosmetic industry's giant, and their Draize Test. The test supposedly evaluates the safety of commercial preparations for humans by pipetting drops of the substances onto the eyes of rabbits held down in racks. A highlight of the campaign was a full-page newspaper advert, one of many in Spira's animal liberation career, placed in the New York Times exclaiming "How Many Rabbits Does Revlon Blind for Beauty's Sake?" Eventually Revlon admitted their error and opened a fund of hundreds of thousands of dollars to explore alternatives to the Draze test. Other cosmetics companies chipped so as to look good. Thanks to Spira, the better cosmetics companies now print "not tested on animals" on their products.

Spira took on other seemingly inflexible corporations, including Avon, Procter & Gamble, the poultry and the fast food industries. He also attacked the United States Department of Agriculture, exposing their branding of cattle's' faces with red hot irons; the Department dropped its branding soon afterwards. And he took on the slaughter houses, ending the practice of hoisting conscious cattle into the air by a leg to await slaughter.

Spira's campaigns put cosmetic testing and cruelty to food-animals on the political agenda. His victories were the first big successes of the American animal rights movement to reduce the suffering humans inflict on animals.

Further reading: Peter Singer (1998): Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement. Rowman and Littlefield.

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Philosophical theory that morality depends on the attitude of each individual. Furthermore, moral judgements are simply statements about the thoughts and feelings of the person saying them. When people disagree about what moral behaviour is, they are not engaging in rational debate, but are voicing differences of attitude. Attitudes are neither right nor wrong but merely statements about how you feel. Subjectivism opposes the belief in the objectivity and totality of moral truth that is Absolutism.

Subjectivism declares that when you say animals are worthy, you only mean you like animals; and that when you say killing animals is wrong, you only mean you are against killing them. Subjectivism says that when people's attitudes differ they are simply disagreeing and that is all. Someone claims hunting animals for sport is good. You maintain hunting animals for sport is bad. Your statements are true only in that they are about what you believe, otherwise they are neither true nor false, neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad.

Subjectivism is agreeable in that it acknowledges people have different moral opinions, encourages personal feelings and dispenses with any need for moral facts which may confuse matters. Subjectivism allows everyone to develop their own position without being forced to agree with views they may find objectionable.

The downside of Subjectivism is that moral disputes cannot be resolved if everyone is simply talking about their personal opinions. Someone's beliefs are as valid as anyone else's. So there is no way of saying whether an act is moral or not. Nobody is ever wrong in the subjectivist view.


  • Many moral judgements people make appear to be based on sound rational decisions. Therefore not all moral judgements are necessarily non-rational subjectivist. There may be a core of values shared by everyone.

  • Compare with Emotivism and Relativism.

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Subject of a Life

The phrase subject of a life was popularised by the American philosopher Tom Regen (1938 - ). What Regan means by subject of a life is that each animal is a unique life story, just as the story of your life is peculiar to you and no one else, and in this sense animals are just like us. The expression subject of a life helps convey to us a feeling for how individuals of other species are similar to us; we are all individuals in our own right going through the process of life.

Regan says we need to change our perception of animals from things, objects we use, to see individual animals as lives of their own, independent of us and our use of them. An animal who is a subject of a life is a singular individual, has interests, learns from experience, has expectations that certain things will happen, has emotions like fear and pleasure, has painful and pleasurable experiences and has a good or bad life. As Regan says, "All animals are somebody - someone with a life of their own." He says that even if subjects of a life cannot make moral choices or talk like humans, what happens to them matters to them, so they should have moral rights.


"Surely every sentient being is capable of leading a life that is happier or less miserable than some alternative life, and hence has a claim to be taken into account."

Peter Singer (1986): Applied Ethics. p227.

Although Regan has mammals in mind, you could extend the idea of being a subject of a life to all sentient creatures, like birds. The list of features that constitute a subject of a life is arbitrary. You can add or subtract features to include or exclude species to suite your bias. Therefore, although the idea of a subject of a life is a sympathetic and descriptive expression it is somewhat vague.

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Supermarkets are the public face of factory farming. Their neat, clean shelves are open to public perusal, but they are not open about the mass cruelty and suffering they support and perpetuate behind the scenes at factory farms. The jolly packaging, bright lights and cleanliness of supermarkets hide the agony. Few people think of looking beyond the supermarket or want to know the reality of their factory farm foundation.

© 2004 Roger Panaman All rights reserved