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).

Seeing Is Important: Slaughterhouse Transparency Trending

The New York Times catches up with the Ag-Gag problem:

But a dozen or so state legislatures have had a different reaction: They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures to require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.

Critics call them “Ag-Gag” bills.

Some of the legislation appears inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business advocacy group with hundreds of state representatives from farm states as members. The group creates model bills, drafted by lobbyists and lawmakers, that in the past have included such things as “stand your ground” gun laws and tighter voter identification rules.

One of the group’s model bills, “The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act,” prohibits filming or taking pictures on livestock farms to “defame the facility or its owner.” Violators would be placed on a “terrorist registry.”

Officials from the group did not respond to a request for comment.

Mercy For Animals argues that this sort of exposure is an example of how the factory farm industry’s pursuit of ag-gag laws is an over-reach that is backfiring by drawing MORE attention to the conditions of slaughterhouses (one can hope, I guess):

In response to a spate of undercover investigations that have uncovered horrific animal abuse and shocking food safety problems in meat, dairy, and egg production, the factory farming industry has been furiously lobbying to pass “ag-gag” laws designed to keep its cruel and unsanitary practices hidden from public view. But that effort seems to be backfiring, as scores of media outlets nationwide are throwing back the curtain on Big Ag and shining a bright light on the industry’s sickening practices…[snip]

…Here is just a sample of the ag-gag news coverage in only the last few weeks:

Associated Press: Bills Seek End To Farm Animal Abuse Videos

Mother Jones: Flies, Maggots, Rats, and Lots of Poop: What Big Ag Doesn’t Want You To See

Nightline: ‘Ag Gag’ Bills Target Hidden Cameras

Raw Story: Business Lobby Moves to Criminalize Filming Animal Abuse on Factory Farms

Bakersfield Californian: Cattle Industry Must Rethink ‘Ag-Gag’ Bill

Food Safety News: “Ag-Gag” Bills Getting Hearings Today in Nebraska, Arkansas and Tennessee

Salon: States Seek “Ag-Gag” Laws to Silence Farm Whistleblowers

Vice: Beat Your Meat: Factory Farmers Want to Choke Their Chickens in Private

Huffington Post: Why Everyone Should Be Angry About Factory Farming

Lowell Sun: Agri-farm Bills Would Weaken Oversight

The Daily Aztec: Only We Can Stop Inhumane Factory Farming

Herald Times: Bill would shield farms, factories from cameras

Public Source: Bill would limit whistleblower activities on PA farms

Ironically, as the factory farming industry more desperately tries to hide its cruel practices, the more they are exposed.

You can see why a farm owner might prefer that this sort of imagery be criminalized (instead of the behavior it shows).

But if this op-ed contributor to the Times got his way, I think we could definitely conclude that the ag-gag initiative backfired. He calls for a Continue reading “Seeing Is Important: Slaughterhouse Transparency Trending”

Is The Taiji Dolphin Slaughter Cruel?

Not that there was much doubt, but a scientific paper categorizes and defines the level of extreme cruelty. The DotEarth blog digs in:

In a new peer-reviewed study, scientists assess the killing method employed by the dolphin hunters of Taiji, Japan, by watching video recorded surreptitiously in 2011 by a German dolphin-protection group, AtlanticBlue. The still image at right is from the video, which can be seen here (but be forewarned; this is not suitable for children — or many adults, for that matter).

Here’s the researchers’ not-so-surprising prime conclusion:

This killing method does not conform to the recognized requirement for “immediate insensibility” [some background is here] and would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world.

Here’s the abstract from the paper:

A Veterinary and Behavioral Analysis of Dolphin Killing Methods Currently Used in the ‘Drive Hunt’ in Taiji, Japan

Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, Volume 16Issue 2, 2013 (DOI: 10.1080/10888705.2013.768925)

Andrew ButterworthPhilippa BrakesCourtney S. Vail & Diana Reiss

Annually in Japanese waters, small cetaceans are killed in “drive hunts” with quotas set by the government of Japan. The Taiji Fishing Cooperative in Japan has published the details of a new killing method that involves cutting (transecting) the spinal cord and purports to reduce time to death. The method involves the repeated insertion of a metal rod followed by the plugging of the wound to prevent blood loss into the water. To date, a paucity of data exists regarding these methods utilized in the drive hunts. Our veterinary and behavioral analysis of video documentation of this method indicates that it does not immediately lead to death and that the time to death data provided in the description of the method, based on termination of breathing and movement, is not supported by the available video data. The method employed causes damage to the vertebral blood vessels and the vascular rete from insertion of the rod that will lead to significant hemorrhage, but this alone would not produce a rapid death in a large mammal of this type. The method induces paraplegia (paralysis of the body) and death through trauma and gradual blood loss. This killing method does not conform to the recognized requirement for “immediate insensibility” and would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world.

DotEarth also puts a few questions to co-author Diana Reiss, and includes a bunch of other useful links on the topics of Taiji, dolphins and intelligence.

Read the whole thing, but this exchange is particularly important, I think:

Q. One of the standard replies from Japan on this issue (whether with whales or dolphins) is that we, for example, cherish bison but eat bison burgers. Is there a distinction?

A. You cannot compare bison to dolphins in the cognitive domain. However, bison are not killed in this inhumane manner. Nor are lab rats. In cases in which animals are domesticated for food, most modern countries are striving for better animal welfare practices that minimize pain and suffering during the killing process with the goal to render an animal unconscious quickly before it is killed. This is not the case in the dolphin drive hunts. These are not domesticated animals; they are wild dolphins that are captured within their social groups, mother and young, and slaughtered using a technique that actually prolongs death, pain and suffering. The herding procedures themselves are inhumane and may include forced submersion as the dolphins are dragged by their tails to shore to be killed.

This is not to say that dolphins should be killed. They should not.

This is probably the best answer Reiss could give to the contradiction of supporting animal rights and welfare for certain species, but eating meat produced by practices that are also cruel and inhumane. And I agree that the dolphin slaughter should be stopped quite apart from livestock slaughter.

But it is not really a satisfactory or convincing answer. There is a moral contradiction in eating meat while expressing outrage at the abuse and cruelty involved in the slaughter of other species. You can try to defend one species but not another by creating different categories of animals based on intelligence. But while cows and pigs might not be as intelligent as dolphins, they are sentient beings. They know fear. They know loss. To die is painful and they resist that fate as ardently as any species, no matter how intelligent. In the end, the only position which truly avoids this moral contradiction is to oppose animal slaughter and cruelty for all species.

Update: Lori Marino of Emory University and the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, who has a long and complex history of disagreement on principle with Reiss, pushes back, hard, on another moral contradiction:

So what kind of killing WOULD be acceptable? It is absolutely offensive that anyone who works in the dolphin captivity industry would feel they have anything worthwhile to say about the Taiji dolphin drives. This is not about dolphin welfare any more than murdering humans is. This is about dolphin rights. But those in the captivity industry will continue to milk the welfare issue because it provides them a way to appear to be concerned about Taiji while still supporting the industry that drives the Taiji slaughters.

This video, which was used in the study (Warning: GRAPHIC) is horrific. But I could show you (and have) any number of videos of cows and pigs being slaughtered that you will find equally revolting and objectionable: