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Firefighters battle a blaze in a barn on a farm near Bowmanville, Ontario early Thursday March 22, 2007. (CP PHOTO/Doug Ives) CANADA

Doug Ives/The Canadian Press

The mass conflagration of farm animals in a recent series of Canadian barn fires should be a cause for alarm – and prompt deep self-examination by those who have a duty to protect and advocate for these captive beings.

In the first month of 2016, some 53,000 ducks, pigs, goats, cows and horses suffered a terrifying and excruciating death by fire across the country. Sadly, such tragedies are neither unexpected nor sufficiently shocking to alter the low standards of care permitted for the sentient, intelligent creatures who serve human needs and desires.

When it comes to animal rights, our actions have failed to keep up with our noblest sentiments. It's not sufficient to express love for household pets, demand free-range eggs at the supermarket, share thought-provoking articles on the complexity of the avian brain and compare ourselves favourably to past generations that treated their creatures more callously.

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The inadequate housing of farm animals – or the workplace conditions, if you prefer – is an issue that's easy to overlook because of the isolation of so many farm operations, and worrying to confront simply because of the discrepancy between our fine ideals and their harsher reality.

It's true that when a barn full of expensive race-horses goes up in flames, the immediate sense of grief is powerful – an anthropomorphic bond is forged, even if the emotion that has been summoned rarely translates into long-term improvements for animals too valuable to be treated like a disposable commodity. But when 2,000 confined pigs or 50,000 ducks perish, the lack of proportionate outrage is palpable. It's easier not to think about an unforgivable situation we tacitly accept than to face the fact that our agricultural system is based on the statistical inevitability of caged incineration.

Too many farms, at least from the animals' perspective, are like the deathtrap factories of the 19th-century industrial world, a horrific accident waiting to happen simply because the working inhabitants are undervalued. Farm animals are the cheapest of cheap labour, and easily replaced – their deaths don't generate expensive lawsuits or public boycotts or union-led agitation for safer working conditions.

This is all the more reason why others must speak on their behalf. Canada needs better, stricter standards for the housing of farm animals, so we can put an end to the inhuman suffering of being burned alive.

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