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SCOT LEHIGH

Encouraging news on animal welfare

(Robert F. Bukaty/AP/File 2010)

Just a decade or two ago, this country seemed mired in a medieval mentality when it came to the treatment of animals. From tacit or outright toleration of animal-fight contests in some states; to the extreme confinement of chickens, sows, and veal calves on factory farms; to chimps being injected and infected for medical research; to testing cosmetic products by forcing them into the eyes of rabbits — appalling practices abounded.

But those times, they are a-changin’, and faster than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago. That’s the encouraging message from Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, and a pivotal player in the struggle for better treatment of animals.

Consider: With the 2014 addition of South Dakota, every state now has felony penalties for animal cruelty. Dogfighting is a felony in each state, while cockfighting is illegal everywhere and a felony in 41 states. In November, the federal government announced the end of government-led experiments on chimpanzees. Some 600 cosmetic companies have quit testing their products on animals.

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And now, factory farming is beginning to be transformed. Take the effort to free chickens from so-called battery cages, where each has space equal to about two-thirds of a letter-sized sheet of copying paper, a confinement so cramped that laying hens can’t spread their wings. Last summer, as part of that quest, the Humane Society launched a ballot question here to ban the production or sale of eggs taken from hens kept in those conditions, as well as of veal from calves raised in constricted stalls and pork from pigs confined in small crates or birthed by sows kept in such enclosures.

That measure, which would take effect in 2022, will likely be on the Massachusetts ballot in November. In the meantime, however, stunning progress has been made on the issue. In September, McDonald’s, buyer of two billion eggs annually, committed to a cage-free supply chain by 2025. Then came Taco Bell, with a promise to be cage-free within a year, and Costco, promising to be cage-free in three. This month, Walmart, the largest food seller in the United States, pledged to go cage-free by 2025. That means the nation’s top five food sellers, and 14 of the top 15 grocery chains, are all aboard, along with 130 or so other companies.

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“It’s all the fast food companies, all the grocery chains,” says Pacelle, during a sitdown about animal issues and his new book, “The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals.” Further, that broad commitment pretty much eviscerates the argument that ending battery cages will drive the price of eggs to a level that crimps family budgets. “Walmart and McDonald’s are not going to get out over their skis on this if they don’t either have the supply or if they aren’t competitive on cost,” he notes.

Meanwhile, some 75 companies, including those two behemoths, have promised to phase out extreme confinement of other farm animals, all within the next seven years. The veal industry has pledged to end close confinement of veal calves in 2017.

So what challenges lie ahead?

For one, Pacelle hopes to nudge major supermarkets to join Whole Foods in adopting the Global Animal Partnership meat-rating standards. That system starts with a basic level of decent treatment — no crates, cages, or crowding — and then has five progressively better levels of treatment.

But after years spent fighting to improve animal welfare, he believes that the country has now turned a corner of consciousness and conscience.

“Embracing the humane treatment of animals should no longer be considered a sacrifice for business,” Pacelle says. “Rather, it’s an opportunity — to do good in the world and to secure profits.”

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Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.