Is Humane Slaughter Humane?

This has always been a question I have puzzled over. I don’t have any doubt that the lives and deaths of livestock at factory farms involve suffering and cruelty.

But meat-eating friends argue that if they buy meat from organic, humane, farmers who allow livestock to lead natural lives and slaughter the animals with care, then they are addressing the moral issues around meat-eating (note: it doesn’t deal with the environmental impact).

So, if an animal leads a reasonable farm life, and is slaughtered with care, is that cruel? Or is it humane? Writer Mac McClelland set out to answer exactly that question by witnessing the slaughter of cows at the Prather Ranch Meat Company, which produces some of the most humanely raised and slaughtered beef in the country:

Technically, humane slaughter became law in the United States with the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act, intended to prevent the “needless suffering” of livestock during slaughter. Compliance, though, historically has been hit-or-miss, and in the intervening decades, after sensational undercover investigations and Internet animal cruelty videos and activist PR campaigns, eaters have begun to demand information about the way meat meets its maker.

If Prather Ranch’s callers are any indication, that concern is growing into its own movement. And while it’s one thing to understand slaughter practices on a theoretical level, it’s another to be in the same room when a cow dies.

To that end, I wanted to find out about slaughter from the most progressive part of the meat industry. Are big slaughterhouses as bad as we imagine? Should we be paying as much attention to how animals die as to how they live? Even under the best circumstances, just how humane can slaughter ever be?

Here’s McClelland’s description of the key moment:

Early the next snowy morning, we enter a compact room in the Prather slaughterhouse. All the available space is taken up by one hanging cow being sliced, another hanging cow being skinned and a third, just-stunned cow hanging and being cut open while 5 gallons of blood gush from its body a few feet away from me. Moments ago, we heard this very cow mooing from the knock box on the other side of the wall.

Mary had warned us that “vocalization is not necessarily a good thing,” yet there are low, deep, booming bellows echoing off the walls. Grandin—whom the Rickerts have met, and who sits on the Scientific Committee behind the nonprofit Certified Humane label—considers this a sign of distress. Mary says that Grandin once told her Prather cows might moo because they smell blood and get hip to the scheme.

The next cow, the cow I watch die, is quiet. It is black. It comes casually down a walkway. It steps into a squeeze chute, the metal hugging cage that closes in on the cows’ sides to calm them. Scott Towne, the guy in charge of the killing, hits it with a CASH Knocker, a blank shell shooting from a metal apparatus at the end of the long, wooden-handled device and into the front of the head above the eyes, denting the skull but not penetrating its brain, rendering the animal insensible. Instantly the cow’s eyes close. Its neck is lax and its mouth open, easy as a child asleep at the dinner table, or a businessman asleep on a plane.

So, is this humane, moral, acceptable? McClelland decides that he can live with it (though I seriously doubt that all the meat he eats comes from Prather). And, certainly, it would be a revolution, and greatly reduce the inhumanity and cruelty of meat-eating is all meat was raised and slaughtered to the Prather standard (as unrealistic as that possibility might be).

For me, though, the scene McClelland describes remains too brutal, too raw. I have reached the point that I can’t be comfortable with the idea of food that involves hanging a live animal from a chain and slicing its throat open, even if it is insensible.

And even if slaughter didn’t involve any pain or suffering whatsoever (which I don’t believe it can), what about the social and emotional connections between the slaughtered cow and the rest of the herd? There are too many alternatives that don’t even raise a question of cruelty (in addition to the health and environmental reasons to shun meat, even if slaughter were perfectly humane).

Regardless of where you come down on the question of whether slaughter can be “humane,” McClelland has asked, and tried to answer, a very important question for all of us. (Interestingly, the photo editor and photographer Michael Friberg seem to have reached a different conclusion than McClelland, at least judging from the photos they chose to publish with the article, some of which I have included here).

3 thoughts on “Is Humane Slaughter Humane?”

  1. Here’s a comment posted about the original story: “I find it humorous – and sad – that with all the articles and protestations of “humane slaughter,” no photos or videos are ever posted that show the actual stunning, sticking and bleeding out of the animal. Why is that, do you suppose? In an era when we can watch on a daily basis depictions of humans dying – being shot and blown apart – why are we unable to watch innocent animals being killed to become our food? Is it perhaps because we know deep down and would recognize just how wrong it is?”

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