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 12 reasons:
- Humane slaughter assumes that animals do not possess 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. The best empirical research as well as simple observation, however, attests 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 socially-sanctioned violence 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.