Humane Slaughter? 11 Key Reasons Why It’s Not

Rooster dying "humanely": alternative to "factory farm" death. Photo courtesy of United Poultry Concerns

Rooster dying “humanely” in the kill cone method of slaughter still widely used today and touted as humane and an alternative to “factory farm” death. Photo courtesy of United Poultry Concerns

What’s good about it?

The emergence of so-called “humane slaughter” indicates a growing awareness and concern for animal suffering — that society is finally acknowledging and taking seriously the fact that animals really do have the capacity to suffer. This in itself is quite a breakthrough in human understanding, considering that we have largely denied the reality of their suffering for centuries. This new awareness should also serve as a clear sign that people do care, contrary to the popular idea that “people just don’t care about animals so we should not expect them to change.” In fact, neurobiological research is finding that empathy is “hardwired” into our DNA. More specifically, heightened interest in humane slaughter indicates an awareness of how our food choices directly connect to animal suffering. And it raises the fundamental moral question: What is our moral obligation to animals? I see humane slaughter as an attempt to address and even fulfill our moral obligation to animals (which I would argue is long overdue). And yet humane slaughter falls very short of meeting that obligation for the following 11 reasons:

1. Humane slaughter relies on the myth that animals do not have an interest in staying alive.

In other words, the assumption is that animals are not conscious or intelligent enough to understand the value of their own lives. Therefore, to the proponents of humane slaughter, our moral obligation to animals is simply to minimize the pain and suffering associated with ending their lives. However, the best empirical research as well as simple observation clearly demonstrates that the opposite is true. Indeed, animals will fight for their lives and for the lives of their offspring, and even for the lives of members of their extended social group, as vociferously as we would fight for our own lives.

2. Humane slaughter uses the practices of factory farming and industrial slaughterhouses as a moral baseline, that is, the most egregious forms of animal exploitation imaginable.

By measuring against the “worst case scenario,” anything looks better. In this case better does not necessarily mean “humane.” Far from it. Why measure against the worst case scenario? If those in the business of humane animal agriculture had a genuine interest in understanding what is “humane,” they would be measuring the Webster dictionary definition of “humane” against what we know about animal consciousness as a means to better determine the circumstances that would truly constitute a humane animal-human relationship. But such an analysis would render the very commodification of animals itself as “inhumane” since commercial farming requires that even the most basic animal interests must be denied. (1)

3. The Intention Itself is not humane.

The intention of artificially breeding an animal into existence for the sole purpose of raising him to market weight to then slaughter him in his infancy or adolescence and profit from products procured from his flesh or bodily secretions (that we do not require for health) (2), in no way constitutes a humane intention, let alone a humane act.

4. From bad intentions to betrayal

It could be argued that humane slaughter and its advocates represent an even greater betrayal to animals than industrial animal agriculture. The former takes the time to develop a caring and trusting relationship with the animal, treating that animal with kindness and respect, sometimes even naming the animal (an acknowledgment of his individual identity). The animal often responds in kind, bonding with his human owner and even perhaps becoming affectionate. Subjecting that animal to a violent end for nothing more than a cheaply-priced commodity is the ultimate betrayal — a betrayal not just to the animal but also to our sense of fairness and respect for others.

5. The Orwellian oxymoron of humane slaughter

Humane slaughter is an oxymoron that can only be explained by the dominant culture’s belief in what social psychologist Melanie Joy calls carnism. Joy maintains that when we see the world through the lens of carnism, we view eating animals as a “given” and when confronted with a view critical of carnism, we seek to justify eating animals as normal, natural and necessary. (3) Humane slaughter therefore fails to question our most basic assumptions about animals and food — assumptions we inherited from previous generations rather than beliefs based on an evaluation of the true and current consequences of our food choices. Food choices based on these assumptions are not “free” According to Joy,”There is no free choice without awareness.” (3)

6. Humane slaughter also betrays certain widely held beliefs

Humane slaughter is inconsistent with the widely-accepted principle of “equal consideration of interests” introduced by bioethics philosopher Peter Singer in Practical Ethics, who asserts that one should include all affected interests when calculating the rightness of an action and weigh those interests equally. (4) While animals may think and behave quite differently in many ways than we do, the only relevant consideration in terms of humane slaughter is that we suffer as equals. Suffering, not human-like intelligence, is the criteria by which we should determine how we treat animals. Singer’s principle would therefore suggest that both humans and non human animals be treated equally with respect to end of life issues.

7. Humane slaughter relies on the necessity myth

Humane slaughter mistakenly invokes the entrenched belief that killing and eating animals is necessary for our health and survival, yet it is a well-established scientific fact that humans are not carnivorous and that only carnivores require flesh for health and survival. The vast majority of us consume animal products for reasons of pleasure, habit and tradition. Invoking tradition as a justification for eating animal products is problematic since all forms of exploitation have a historical precedence including slavery, cannibalism and torture. We categorically reject the argument for tradition when humans are the victims of exploitation and should therefore apply the same principle to animals who suffer as we do.

8. Humane slaughter relies on the myth of dominion

Humane slaughter implies that animals simply exist to be our resource, assuming an unquestioned belief in dominionism. Again, the best science we have reveals that animals have a complex set of interests that do not include a desire to be human property. Humane slaughter ignores the animal’s point of view and instead uses anthropomorphic claims to make conclusions about how animals suffer or do not suffer under certain conditions and then asserts them as “facts.” Humane slaughter is often based on a pseudo-scientific understanding of animal psychology and physiology specific to pain and suffering. Since the study of psychological and physical pain in humans is still in its infancy, it is even more erroneous to make absolute and simplistic claims about the minds of other animals — particularly those that we conveniently want to use as resources — with little or no empirical evidence to support those claims.

9. Humane slaughter is just as violent and cruel

The alleged humane forms of slaughter are no less violent and cruel. On the contrary, some are even more barbaric than those they seek to reform. For instance, the most humane way of killing a pig or calf is either a shot to the head or a jolt of electrocution typically administered through the rectum. For chickens, the kill cone method of slaughter, touted as humane in the documentary Food Inc., is considered a standard in humane poultry. In the kill cone method, the fully-conscious bird is stuffed down a long funnel. His neck is pulled through the narrow opening at the bottom. His throat is slit as he wriggles and screams in terror and bleeds to death. Birds have been known to remain conscious for up to 8 minutes after their necks are cut.

10. Humane slaughter has a hidden agenda

It is important to realize that humane slaughter is a profit-driven industry just like its conventional counterparts. Efficiently turning animals into commodities is the business model of animal agriculture, regardless of how they market their product. There is an inherent conflict of interest built into this business model that places profits over animal interests. The incentive to treat animals “humanely” is limited to the extent to which it is necessary to raise that animal to market weight (which is just a fraction of the animal’s natural lifespan). Any humane practice beyond this would be seen by farmers as a “waste,” that is, an unnecessary expense that cuts into profit.

11. Humane slaughter desensitizes workers to violence and killing

Slaughter, humane or not, has implications beyond the suffering of animals. Numerous studies of slaughterhouse workers have demonstrated striking links between animal and human violence. Yale University author Timothy Pachirat provides a compelling, in-depth analysis of the psychological dynamics of working in a slaughterhouse in his recent book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. Colleen Patrick Goudreau and professor / journalist James McWilliams provide a very thought-provoking analysis of the connections between violence against humans and other animals and the implications it has for workers and society at large. Based on such works, it may not be the high-profile, egregious acts of cruelty but the everyday, “normal” practices of slaughterhouses that are most disturbing.

(1) Ashley Capps, A Comprehensive Analysis of the Humane Farming Myth

(2) American Dietetic Association‘s official position on vegan and vegetarian diets

(3) Melanie Joy, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism

(4) Singer’s principle essentially states that where animals have an equal characteristic to humans—such as the ability to feel—one must provide for an equal consideration of interests, but in areas where a species does not have an equal characteristic to humans — such as the interest of some gay couples to legally marry — the principle does not apply.

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About Robert Grillo

Robert Grillo is the director of Free from Harm which he founded in 2009 to expose the food industry’s exploitation of animals and foster greater empathy for farmed animals. As an activist, author and speaker, Grillo focuses awareness on the animal’s experience and point of view, drawing on insights from sociology, psychology, popular culture, ethics and social justice to bridge the gap between humans and other animals. As a marketing communications professional for over 20 years, Grillo has worked on large food industry accounts where he acquired a behind-the-scenes perspective on food branding and marketing. His new book, Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal Consuming Culture, reveals how popular culture uses a variety of fictions that condition us to consume animal products and perpetuate fasle perceptions of animals that make us feel better about exploiting them


  1. Well-done, or should I say medium-rare, hahaha. No, but I couldn’t agree with you more. I just finished watching Earthlings and it was a real eye opener for me. It was made almost a decade ago so I hope some progress in the animal rights movement has happened. That being said, I love meat. I’ll never stop eating it. Predators eating prey happens every day in the wild. And just because us humans have the capacity for empathy doesn’t mean we have to stop eating delicious meat. However, I would like to see a drastic change in the way we get our food. For example, giving the animals more room to roam and putting them to sleep before we kill them would be viable options. I know it will probably cost those billionaires a few extra bucks and will most likely never happen, but it will be worth it to know that less suffering occurred because of it.


    • Dan, You sound like someone who, when faced with the choice not to cause harm and suffering to innocent animals, almost seems to gloat in the power of doing so and chooses harm and suffering even when he does not have to, just because he can. That’s a morally empty position. The predators you mention are carnivores. Humans are not carnivores and do not kill and eat animals out of necessity, so the comparison you make is not a just comparison, but you seem informed enough to already know that. If you don’t take the interests of animals seriously enough to make the choice not to harm them gratuitously for your palate fetishes, then on what basis would animals count morally? By the way, animals cannot be “put to sleep” and be marketable corpses for the meat industry. That will never happen. You may have watched Earthlings, but it doesn’t sound like it pulled you too far out of the culture of denial that so many of us are too stuck in to see things for what they are. Hopefully that will change for you over time.

      • Cool, I was waiting for a reply. And you seem rather intelligent so this could prove to be rewarding. You’d be incorrect to say that I gloat at all. Why would I encourage putting animals to sleep if I was too busy gloating around with the power to cause suffering? Those notions are in opposition of each other. Pain is terrible, it is a plague on mankind and a consequential side effect of our vices (power, greed, lust, etc.) It seems we are doomed to suffer. If I sound despondent it’s because I am. How do we go about labeling humans these days anyways? What constitutes an omnivore or herbivore? It’s a paradox isn’t it. If man has the ability to reason then we can’t be labeled. I think a more realistic and PROGRESSIVE solution to your dilemma would be putting animals to sleep before slaughter. Yes, it’s definitely not marketable but it still puts a foot in the right direction. Wouldn’t you agree? I can’t give up meat. It’s just too delicious. Did you ever enjoy meat growing up? Or were you indoctrinated into being a vegan, assuming that’s what you are. I’m just curious is all, I’m not trying to gain leverage on you in any way. And I’m not in this culture of denial. I know that by eating meat i’m consequentially functioning as a cog in the animal slaughtering machine. If you are just realistic about it, you will realize that we will never stop eating meat, ever.

        • Dan, I ate meat all my life though to my forties, then I saw films like Earthlings and went vegan because of them. I refused to support the system that institutionalizes suffering for innocent beings any longer. We all have the same choice to make, What we do when we know better, like you and I, is very revealing about our character. Do we act on what we know and reduce the suffering we alone are causing or do we try to justify why we can’t make that simple change? If you choose the latter, then you choose violence and death over compassion and life, each time you sit down to eat any animal product (meat, dairy and eggs included). Just as you would never find it acceptable to visit a friend and kick their dog for no good reason, it is equally immoral for us to pay someone else to violently harm and kill an animal just because we like the taste of her thigh, for no good reason. If our values mean anything, then they are applied consistently in all cases. This is how we apply justice for ourselves. We live in a society of rules whereby rape and murder are wrong, all the time, except perhaps in cases of self defense. So, the fact that society accepts a totally different treatment for animals who feel emotions and suffering as intensely as we do makes no sense. A movie like Earthlings proves how utterly absurd this disconnection is. You can “opt out” of this lie at any time. Or you can keep rationalizing why your love for meat is more important than life itself.

          • I’m not trying to rationalize it. It is wrong but I can’t stop. Call it immaturity or self-interest. I just want to see to it that the animals enjoy their time while they have it. This may seem like an oxymoron but the options I have stated are clearly better than the current treatment of animals. And that is what I think it is going to take to reach your goal of a meat-free society. You could try food reforms at the local level and build your way up but that is going to take some serious hard work and dedication. People try to rationalize slaughter by either consciously or unconsciously thinking that hey since animals cant stick up for themselves and pose no threat we’ll do what we want with them.

  2. Excellent Article! Thank you Robert. It is fascinating the evolution we are undergoing in our relationship to farmed animals. You are right to point out that this is a positive direction in that we are acknowledging that animals killed for food suffer. Yet the concern usually lies in the treatment of that animal during his life, and we, as a society, have yet to make that connective leap that if an animal can suffer, and fights to live, then we should not take their life. But I believe the trend of “humane” meat is guiding us to that truly compassionate future. I think you will enjoy my book coming out in June, The Ultimate Betrayal: Is There Happy Meat? ( were I delve deeper into these concepts. Would love to know what you think about the book.

  3. Pingback: “12 Reasons Why I Don’t Believe in Humane Slaughter” ~ Robert Grillo, Free From Harm | GiRRL_Earth

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