Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine someone taking your family pet and shooting a bolt into her skull. Now further envision that this shot didn’t entirely incapacitate your beloved family member, but instead just made her woozy. While she attempts to regain clarity, her hind leg is shackled and she’s hoisted into the air upside-down. She’s scared and confused, and while panic and adrenaline course through her body, she thrashes violently to escape this horrific nightmare. Gradually she fights less, and as her strength and will to live subside, her throat is ‘mercifully’ cut.
As her eyes dim, and the pool of blood spreads beneath her, the one question that echoes the strongest is simply…”Why? ” As horrific a picture as the above might paint, such a scenario cruelly plays out in slaughterhouses around the world. Instances of animal cruelty and inhumane treatment are commonplace, yet society for the most part has turned a blind-eye to these misdeeds. Seemingly a dichotomy exists, whereby livestock and animals raised for human consumption (Hereinafter “food animals”) are allowed to be treated in ways that would be unthinkable for family pets and other creatures.
By examining the morality and misconceptions behind this mindset, the financial realities of the industry, and the inherent health concerns associated with these activities, it will become evident that food animals clearly deserve to be treated more humanely. As hopefully the preceding paragraph has highlighted, most individuals would consider it deplorable for a beloved family pet to be treated in the aforementioned manner. Why then has society seemingly deemed it acceptable for farm animals to be handled as such?
The most oft-argued rationalization for this mistreatment rests with the notion that these animals are basic creatures that simply do not feel pain and suffering. The idea that animals might not experience these feelings as humans do traces back at least to the 17th-century French philosopher, Rene Descartes, who argued that animals lack consciousness (Carbone, 149). As is the case with many 400 year-old theories, however, this belief if not fully discounted has at minimum become quite contentious.
In contrast to the teachings of Descartes, it has now become widely accepted that almost all animals feel some form of pain (Grandin, “Assessment of Stress” 249). Animals and humans share similar mechanisms of pain detection, have similar areas of the brain involved in processing pain and show similar pain behaviors (Sneddon, 339). What is still widely debated, however, is whether animals have higher levels of consciousness, and in turn experience emotional suffering.
Whereas critics remain plentiful, numerous advocates are coming forward with scientific studies that at minimum offer a ray of hope for animal activists. These studies highlight the effects that fear have on the nervous systems and brains of various animals, and show the possibility of a higher level of consciousness (Grandin, “Distress in Animals” 2). Currently, although it is impossible to definitively prove whether animals are capable of emotional pain, it is more importantly impossible to disprove it.
Consequently, today’s stakeholders in the animal food industry should no longer be allowed to blindly hide behind the archaic beliefs of Descartes and his would-be followers. Mindful of changing public sentiment, the debate regarding the treatment of food animals often boils down to one of morality and personal perspectives with regards to animal intelligence. As one cannot get into the minds of animals, or meaningfully measure their emotional pain, perhaps it should simply be accepted that animal pain is different from human pain.
Further, this pain and possible suffering is something we will likely never be able to describe fully. Nevertheless, even if animal pain may be distinct from human pain, is that a reason to consider it less important either biologically or ethically? If it is accepted that animals suffer by virtue of feeling pain, isn’t that enough for them to be legitimate objects of our moral concern? Regardless of the answers, critics will still point to animals and their comparable lack of intelligence as justification for any perceived mistreatment.
As alluded to above, however, the thought of a family pet enduing similar handling is horrific. Yet, is there always a discernible difference between the intelligence of pets and food animals? To take the comparison to an extreme example, what about the intelligence of a newborn human child, or that of an adult with a severe mental disability? Surely even the simplest of food animals possesses higher cognitive ability than these two groups, yet society would be appalled if either was shot with a stun-gun or hung upside-down.
Accordingly, an animal’s perceived lack of intelligence cannot form the basis for justifying such mistreatment. Regardless of the above arguments, most stakeholders in the food animal industry will steadfastly hold to their most important maxim, that of profit maximization. As a result, they will argue that it is generally more profitable to treat animals inhumanely. Fields for free-range grazing, larger pens/cages, and more humane killing methods all cost money and cut into valuable profit margins, and these costs are then passed on to the consumer.
Whereas it is true that large factory farms are highly efficient in the short term, creating lots of meat quickly and cheaply, the long-term costs of agribusiness are staggering. Concentrated animal feeding operations and other factory farms have been called “a frontal assault on the environment, with massive groundwater and air pollution problems” by Dr. Peter Cheeke, professor emeritus of animal sciences at Oregon State University (Blackshaw 753). This profit maximization versus environment trade-off is not the only major economic concern facing factory farmers.
Whereas producers have long held to the above economic beliefs, changing public sentiment is causing them to revisit their business model. This movement towards a more animal-friendly approach has definite financial ramifications, as consumers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for food they know was produced humanely. The effects of this phenomenon stretch well beyond mere price increases, however. For example, in February of 2008, the Humane Society unveiled video footage of downed cattle being mistreated at a Southern California slaughter plant. As a result, the U.
S. Department of Agriculture initiated the nation’s largest recall of beef, including some that was delivered to local public school systems (Associated Press). Following the publication of this video, an investigation and lengthy civil suit followed. As a result, a landmark $500 million settlement was awarded against the owners of Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. , in what is currently the largest-ever penalty for an animal abuse case (Associated Press). This court ruling further evidences the shift in public sentiment towards the more humane treatment of animals.
It also serves as a strong financial deterrent for other companies whose operations are considered inhumane. In addition to the more commonly discussed arguments above, a strong justification for better animal treatment is increased health benefits for humans. For example, downed cattle like the one in the Humane Society video discussed above are often still killed and processed. Animals mistreated in this manner pose a higher risk of contamination from E. coli, salmonella or mad cow disease (Urban 8). An additional concern lies with the industry’s rampant use of antibiotics to help livestock grow faster.
Antibiotic use has jumped 50 percent since 1985, and in June of 2010, the FDA called on the American government to impose limits on the reckless use of livestock antibiotics to prevent the spread of “superbugs” that have antibiotic resistance (Blackshaw 753). Consequently, better animal treatment will ultimately lead to a higher standard of living, for humans and animals alike. The life of a food animal is a thankless one. From the moment of birth, they’re raised with a singular purpose, that of one day becoming food for another living creature. While the life missions of these animals remain simple, obligations towards them remain.
Treating them as mere commodities for human consumption and gratification, beating as much utility out of them as possible with minimum care requirements is unacceptable behaviour. There no longer exist any valid rationalizations for further inhumane treatment. Instead, these animals occupying arguably the noblest of roles should be treated as kindly and humanely as possible. If society were to make a concerted effort to move in this direction, then maybe the hypothetical onlooker in this essay’s opening wouldn’t have to ask that question…for as of today there is no satisfying answer.
Associated Press. “Symbolic $500M Settlement Reached in U.S. Slaughterhouse Abuse Case”. CTV News. Web. 16 November 2012.
Blackshaw,J.K., Blackshaw,A.W. & Kusano,T. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 27 (1997).
Carbone, Larry. What Animals Want: Expertise and Advocacy in Laboratory Animal Welfare Policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Web. 11 November 2012.
Grandin, Temple. “1997 Assessment of Stress During Handling and Transport.” Journal of Animal Sciences. 75: 249-257. Web. 11 November 2012.
—. 2002. Distress in Animals: Is it Fear, Pain or Physical Stress? Special Session: Pain Stress and Fear, American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, May 17, 2002, Manhattan Beach, CA. Web. 11 November 2012.
Sneddon, Lynne. “Can Animals Feel Pain?” Institute for Library Animal Research Journal. 50 (4): 338-342. Web. 11 November 2012.
Urban, Peter. “Safeguards Sought for Livestock Abuse.” Connecticut Post 7 May 2008 A8. Web. 11 November 2012.