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Outlaw routine hot-iron branding of live, conscious farm animals

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The Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture,

There is no comfort in the thought of being apprehended and restrained so that your captors can hold a red hot iron, no less than three inches in diameter, against your bare flesh, perhaps even your face, for a duration long enough to leave you with a third-degree burn you will bear for the rest of your life. There is even less comfort with the knowledge that you will endure this process in full consciousness without any relief, bellowing in excruciating agony and trying your hardest and unsuccessfully to resist and escape the horror that is being inflicted upon you. For the helpless beings victim to the American farming industry, it is an outstanding one of the many cruel procedures considered to be a permissible routine industry practice by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Many studies have measured the pain that is regularly inflicted upon animals who have the misfortune of being branded with a scalding iron. This is a procedure that takes place while the animal is fully conscious and provided with no pain relief. First of all, “catching and restraining calves for branding is itself extremely stressful, as shown by sharp increases in the stress hormone cortisol” . During the branding process, elevated levels of epinephrine (adrenaline) in the blood and intense escape behaviors and vocalization all provide evidence of the torment being endured. Reports dictate that “hot iron branded calves immediately lurched away from the iron repeatedly, occasionally falling to their knees.”1

Those who believe they are doing animals a favor by switching to freeze-branding as an alternative should look to similar studies. This process involves liquid nitrogen or dry ice and alcohol and the iron brand is applied to the conscious animal’s body or face for up to 60 seconds . While animals that undergo freeze-branding do not react as quickly as those forced to endure hot branding, studies show that after about 8 seconds, the calves react similarly to their fire-branded counterparts1. In fact, after about 15.5 minutes, calves that were freeze-branded tended to have even higher heart rates than those that were branded with a hot iron . Yet when animals are branded in either fashion, behavioral, heart rate, and cortisol responses indicate that the pain can persist for as long as an hour4. Again, no pain relief is administered and animals undergo this procedure in full consciousness. The Certified Humane Program, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, and the Global Animal Partnership are all animal welfare programs that prohibit branding and regard it as an inhumane method of identification .

The barbaric process of branding the flesh of conscious beings is not only morally wrong but also completely unnecessary in today’s world. The branding of live animals did not become a common practice in the United States until after the Civil War in 1865 . Settlers would form trail herds and lead them in the direction of their destination. Their journeys encompassed open fields and trails and paths were crossed with other trail herds along the way. An animal bearing its owner’s unique permanent brand design made simplified identification and made it less likely for animals to become mixed up or stolen.

Today however, things are very different. Animals doomed for slaughter endure most of their lives in confinement . Whether in a cage, crate, or stall, or hooked up to a milking machine, these creatures are rarely presented with the ability to move about. And when the opportunity arises, it typically takes the form of an overcrowded pen, feedlot , or when ultimately the animals are loaded onto a confined truck to be taken to the slaughterhouse. While farming operations with higher concerns for animal welfare offer more freedom of mobility than other farming operations, the animals are still physically surrounded and thus confined to the property and are unable to wander away and become lost, mixed up, or stolen. Historic reasons to brand animals no longer apply in today’s farming world and thus there is no need to brand.

Branding animals is so unnecessary and cruel that the majority of American farming operations do not put it into practice. Therefore, outlawing this painful and inessential procedure should not present a difficult challenge. According to a study by the National Animal Health Monitoring System, only 12.2% of United States beef cow/calf producers brand their calves, yet this accounts for 36.7% of all calves born in the United States . So while many animals are made to suffer through this cruel procedure, almost 90% of our country’s farming operations manage without it.

The most popular method of identification is ear-tagging and animal welfare certification programs all approve of this practice4. Attaching a tag to an animal’s ear is a much easier and much more humane procedure and it is no wonder that it is the most common method used. Using this form of identification in place of branding not only benefits the animals but also the workers in charge of carrying out this task. The worse the procedure is for the animals, the more resistance the animal will exhibit and this will increase the likelihood for serious worker injury.

Those who advocate the iron-branding of conscious animals tend to overlook the ideas of animal welfare and worker safety and argue that alternative options, such as using ear tags or neck chains, are easier to remove than brand scars. However, although these scars are permanent, they can become covered by large hair growth or covered up by another brand scar. Ear tags and neck chains allow owners the opportunity to integrate the use of electronics and possess the ability to track the animal’s location and set off a notification or alarm if the tag is tampered with or removed. These alternative methods of identification offer a clear advantage over branding, especially with today’s technological capabilities, and should incontrovertibly become the industry’s new standard.

As the Secretary of Agriculture, you possess the power and the responsibility to provide a safe environment for the workers in the agriculture industry. You also hold the power and moral responsibility to hold our industry practices to the highest ethical standards and to end the needless suffering of the animals whose lives are affected. Allowing living, conscious beings to endure unnecessary suffering, causing them to cry aloud in agony, especially when effective and widely-used alternatives exist, is a poor reflection on our country’s moral values. I urge you to use your power to make the branding of any living being an outlawed practice for the welfare of animals, safety of workers, and the good of our country.

Thanks in advance for your compassion and consideration.

Most sincerely, Petitioners


1 Animal Liberation
2 L&H Freeze Branders
3 Wildlife Information Network
4 Farm Sanctuary
5 Livestock Identification Services Ltd.
6 Visser, Margaret. “Much Depends On Dinner”.
7 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
8 United States Department of Agriculture
9 G. M. Gregory
10 F. A. Thrift & C. W. Absher

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