The images of Texas residents affected by Hurricane Harvey are heartbreaking: senior citizens trapped in flooded nursing homes, Houstonians picking through the wreckage of what was once their homes, and rows of injured and grief-stricken survivors recovering on makeshift beds. Similarly, countless news outlets have shared videos and pictures of Houstonians fleeing to safety with their companion animals—cats, dogs, and even rabbits—in tow. But there are millions of forgotten victims of Hurricane Harvey: farmed animals.
According to the USDA, the 54 counties declared a disaster area due to the recent storm are home to over 1.2 million cows, about 27 percent of the state’s cattle. Dubbed “cattle country,” Texas has the most cows raised to be slaughtered for beef in the United States.
While it’s too early to know the number of farmed animals killed during the storm, numerous videos show stranded cows seeking higher ground to avoid rushing floodwaters.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time a natural disaster has claimed the lives of farmed animals. In 1999, during Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina, devastating images of pigs trapped on factory farm roofs, desperate to reach dry land, exposed the disturbing reality of society’s most vulnerable creatures: the animals we raise and slaughter for food. Treated as mere property and left behind to die, countless pigs drowned. Two million chickens, turkeys, and other farmed animals also died.
In 2016 more than 35,000 cows froze to death at a Texas dairy during a blizzard. And just last year, thousands of chickens and pigs drowned in floods after Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina.
Unlike dogs and cats, who by law must be included in government evacuation plans during natural disasters, farmed animals are afforded no legal protection. In fact, many animals are left to drown in cages, a reminder of the dangers farmed animals face when cruelly confined and unable to escape floods, fires, or other disasters. And even if they are saved, it’s not for altruistic reasons—it’s because they’ll eventually be slaughtered for money.
It’s not just natural disasters that threaten farmed animals; man-made disasters are equally devastating. For example, hundreds of thousands of chickens, turkeys, and pigs burn to death each year when factory farms catch fire, since these facilities aren’t required by law to install fire or smoke control systems. Disturbingly, trade groups representing the pork, egg, and poultry industries have fought proposals to require factory farms to have sprinklers and smoke detectors.
Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey and man-made disasters like barn fires are indeed tragic, but for animals raised in factory farms, everyday life is tragic. Undercover investigations have revealed that the vast majority of farmed animals spend their lives in filthy, unnatural conditions. Most egg-laying hens and mother pigs are crammed into cages so small they can barely move. Chickens, who make up nearly 90 percent of all land animals slaughtered for food, are bred to grow so fast they often collapse under their own unnatural weight. At the slaughterhouse, they’re violently shackled upside down and painfully shocked with electricity before having their throats slit, often while fully conscious.
The images of Texans rescuing cats and dogs in the midst of chaos is proof that we cherish the animals with whom we share our homes. But we must expand our circle of compassion to all animals—including those raised and slaughtered for food. Farmed animals feel pleasure, pain, and joy just as we do, and just as our companion animals do. The only differences between a dog and a pig, or a cat and a chicken, are the arbitrary labels we place on them.
The good news is that we don’t need to drive or fly to Texas to rescue farmed animals. While we ought to include them in our government evacuation plans during natural disasters and prescribe fire-safety standards for factory farms, we can all start helping farmed animals today by simply reducing or eliminating our consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy. Fortunately, it’s never been easier to do just that, especially in Los Angeles County, which is home to more than 120 vegetarian restaurants and hundreds of veg-friendly eateries.
Don’t like dining out? Visit ChooseVeg.com for free meal plans, recipes, and one-on-one support.
While we may despair at the sight of individual animals harmed during natural disasters, remember that the animals harmed in factory farms and slaughterhouses are also individuals. And together, we can help end their horrific suffering each time we eat.
Nathan Runkle is the founder and president of Mercy For Animals, an international animal protection organization dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies. His new book, ‘Mercy For Animals,’ chronicles his journey from coming out as a gay teen in rural Ohio to becoming an international animal protection leader.