"The task of animal rights organisations is to show ordinary people that there are alternatives to the animal products industry."

"The task of animal rights organisations is to show ordinary people that there are alternatives to the animal products industry."

Something has gone badly wrong in relations between human beings and other animals, and it is not just animal welfare and animal rights organisations that say so. Large swathes of the public are troubled too.

Even people who take their lead from Genesis, from its assurance that God has granted us dominion over the beasts in order to feed ourselves, suffer nagging doubts whether factory farming and a food industry operating on an industrial scale to turn living animals into what are euphemistically called ''animal products'', are quite what God had in mind.

So it is not unreasonable that animal rights organisations are increasingly seeking to give voice to the (by definition) voiceless victims of the food industry, targeting factory farming, while not ignoring other practices - the use of animals in laboratory experiments, for example, or the trade in wild animals, or the fur trade - that might equally be condemned as cruel and inhuman.

The transformation of animals into production units dates back to the late 19th century.

Since that time we have already had one warning, loud and clear, that there is something deeply, even cosmically wrong, about using industrial methods to kill fellow creatures on an industrial scale.

In the middle of the 20th century a group of Germans had the idea of adapting the methods of the industrial stockyard, as pioneered and perfected in Chicago, to the slaughter - or what they preferred to call the processing - of human beings.

When, belatedly, we found out what the Nazis had been up to, we cried out in horror. ''What a terrible crime, to treat human beings like cattle.'' we cried out. ''If we had only known beforehand.''

But our cry should more accurately have been: ''What a terrible crime, to treat living human beings like units in an industrial process.''

And our cry might have had a postscript: ''What a terrible crime, come to think of it, to treat any living being like a unit in an industrial process.''

Animal protection groups work for the amelioration of the conditions under which animals spend their lives. In a longer time frame, some work towards the elimination of factory farming.

In the case of Voiceless, the animal protection group founded by the Sherman family in 2004, this is done not by direct action but by persuasion. Its persuasive efforts are directed at the vast majority of the public who know and don't know that there is something bad going on, something that stinks to high heaven. It offers such people practical options for what to do next after they have been revolted by a glimpse of the lives factory animals live and the deaths they die.

Factory farming is a new phenomenon, very new indeed in the history of animal husbandry. The good news is that, after decades of untrammelled expansion, the industry has been forced on to the defensive. The activities of organisations such as Voiceless have shifted the onus on to the industry to justify its practices; and because its practices are indefensible and unjustifiable except on narrow economic grounds, the industry is battening down its hatches and hoping the storm will blow itself out. Thus, in so far as there was a public relations war, the industry has already lost the war.

The task of animal rights organisations is to show ordinary people that there are alternatives to the animal-products industry, that these alternatives need not involve sacrifices in health and nutrition, that there is no reason why these alternatives need be costly, and furthermore that the sacrifices they are being called on to make are not really sacrifices at all - that the only sacrifices in the whole scenario are being made by non-human animals.

In this regard, children provide the brightest hope. Given half a chance, children see through the lies with which advertisers bombard them (the happy chooks that are magically transformed into succulent nuggets). It takes but one glance into a slaughterhouse to turn a child into a lifelong vegetarian.

The 2003 Nobel Laureate for Literature J. M. Coetzee is patron of Voiceless and chairman of the judging panel of the Voiceless Writing Prize sponsored by Australian Ethical Investment. The Herald is media partner of the prize, which seeks to advance public understanding of the relationship between humans and animals. voiceless.org.au

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