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Animal welfare bill sparks debate: anti-cruelty or farm foolishness?

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BOSTON (MyFoxBoston.com)--Animal welfare activists say a bill that would force farmers to use cages big enough to let farm animals to turn around is a simple act of anti-cruelty, but farmers say the bill is simply a tool further a national legislative agenda because the problem doesn't exist in Massachusetts.

The Humane Society of the United States is backing the bill, even organizing protests around the state to try and drum up support for the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. It would ban veal pens for calves, gestation crates for pigs and enclosures for egg-laying hens known as battery cages.

“They have nothing, they can do nothing except stand on wire, metal mesh in a barren cage that's so narrow she can't spread her wings,” said Alexis Fox, Massachusetts state director for the Humane Society.

“Is this cruelty?” FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet asked her.

“Yes,” Fox replied. “Absolutely.”

But Anne Diemand Bucci, one of the owners at Diemand Farm in the western Mass. town of Wendell, sees it otherwise. Diemand Farm, which has been in the family since 1936, is the only place in the state using any of the cages that would be banned under the law as it was originally proposed.

“Yes, they are in a cage and they are well cared for,” said Diemand Bucci.

Whoever is right, it’s clear Massachusetts has turned into the latest battleground in a national fight. Even though the bill would only impact one farm, the stakes are high, which is why the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation, is pressuring lawmakers not to pass the bill.

“We believe if this is passed it will be the predecessor for other types of bills like this,” said David Brownell, a past president of Bristol County Farm Bureau. He spoke at a rally in Dartmouth held by the Humane Society to try and rally support for the bill.

“They can go to other states and say they passed it in Massachusetts and nothing happened so why isn't it good for Missouri or something like that,” he said.

Also at the rally was one of the supporters of the ban – state Sen. Mark Montigny, D-New Bedford, who said legislators are feeling the heat from the powerful state farmer lobby.

“My sense is because many states have begun to do this maybe that's where the pressure comes from,” he said.

The bill has many sponsors in the Legislature, including Montigny, but it has failed to pass twice before.

“I can tell you this after serving for years on Beacon Hill: animal protection legislation doesn't go far enough and it usually doesn't go anywhere,” Montigny said.

But away from the battle on Beacon Hill, Diemand Bucci reluctantly agreed to let FOX Undercover’s camera into her farm. She showed FOX Undercover rows of stacked cages, each one containing an egg-laying hen. The farm has 3,000 hens in all, far less than the 15,000 they once had. She admits everything doesn’t look perfect, like how the neck feathers on the older birds are worn away from reaching out to get the feed.

 “I don’t  think it looks pretty and I don't think it's harmful to them,” she said. “I think they're cared for.”

“The birds can't turn around in their cages -- is that an accurate assessment?” Beaudet asked her.

“Well I'm looking at these birds and it seems like they can turn around if they want to,” she said.

To get rid of the battery cages and convert to a free-range operation would cost about $250,000, money she said the farm can’t afford. It would lead to higher egg prices, in any case.

But to the Humane Society, that’s a weak argument.

“Hens, just like our cats and dogs that live with us in our homes, are capable of feeling pleasure, are capable of feeling all kinds of good things but then they are very capable of suffering and the way they are treated currently in battery cages deprives them of all natural behaviors,” said the Humane Society’s Fox.

But standing between rows of her farm’s egg-laying hens, Diemand Bucci doesn’t see cruelty – or hear unhappy chickens.

“When I come in here I hear contentment from there, the sounds that they're making. They don’t sound upset to me. They sound content,” she said.
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