Those of us working to advance animal welfare in America currently find ourselves in an exciting -- and unusual -- moment. The most mainstream of audiences are seriously considering stances that just a few years ago might have seemed extreme.
Just look at the carriage horse debate currently swirling in New York City, which reached its apogee during last year's mayoral elections; voters prompted candidates to voice their position on the treatment of the city's horses. Meanwhile, leading media outlets are devoting increased air time and column inches to animal issues: Influential columnists Frank Bruni and Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, for example, have both devoted pieces this year to animal sentience and welfare. And SeaWorld continues to endure an ongoing firestorm of criticism following last summer's smash documentary Blackfish, which changed viewers' perceptions -- seemingly overnight -- about the keeping of marine mammals in captivity. These examples might seem disparate, but taken in sum, they show a shift in perceptions of animal welfare by thought leaders, governments and businesses, and consumers. And make no mistake: This has never been the norm.
While animal-related causes are a priority to some devoted philanthropists, such as the Animal Grantmakers Association, they have traditionally been underrated by thought leaders and in policy priorities. It's hard to imagine, say, President Obama bringing up the treatment of animals in American factory farming systems -- abhorrent by any measure -- during a State of the Union address. Our society frequently writes off donations to animal charities as knee-jerk or emotional impulses -- well meaning, but hardly a serious attempt to tackle urgent global concerns.
But animals are far from a fringe concern. They are integral to pressing international problems: global poverty, environmental sustainability, public health, and disaster recovery. Almost one billion of the world's poorest people rely on animals for transportation, food, and income; working to ensure adequate protection of these animals before and following disasters is critical to preserving livelihoods in the developing world. In North America, the number of animals currently suffering in the confines of factory farming is in the multibillions, and we have the potential to significantly better their lives and our food quality by enforcing higher standards for them.
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