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How to be kind to animals

This is a guest post by Paul M

On Thursday, Harry’s Place reported on the British Veterinary Association’s entry into the kosher/halal slaughter debate by way of a statement to the Times from John Blackwell, the BVA president-elect. As a vet (and a—non-practicing, non-kosher—Jew) I have more to say on that subject than would fit comfortably in a BTL comment. I can’t talk about halal practices as I’ve no experience of them. What follows is about kosher slaughter, and the conventional kind.

First, I see no particular reason to doubt Mr. Blackwell’s sincerity, though if the BBC quoted him correctly he doesn’t exactly help his own case. Per the Beeb, Blackwell claimed he “respected the beliefs of religious sects.” In that case, he might have used a less loaded term for minority religions than “sects”, but that’s not enough reason to hang him. The purpose of the BVA is to represent the interests and views of British vets, and the primary objective of vets, according to the oath we all take, is to work for the welfare of the animals under our care. Notwithstanding, Blackwell seems to me to be at best rather naïve & lacking in self-awareness.

If Mr. Blackwell’s pursuit of animal welfare is paramount, it is also rather narrowly focussed. On the specifics of slaughter I can speak with a little personal experience. Like many young UK vets in the 1980s, I did a share of (cattle) slaughterhouse supervision. (It’s easy money for veterinary practices, but not the sort of work the principal wants to do.) Unlike many of my colleagues, along with conventional slaughter I also saw the kosher variety. In every case I witnessed I was struck by the way the animals appeared to pass out instantly: complete muscle relaxation accompanying the massive blood loss from the severing of both carotid arteries and both jugular veins. That’s not a guarantee of unconsciousness, and there is some research evidence that it can persist a while longer, but it strongly suggests to me that in the great majority of cases at least, coherent brain activity stops very quickly. Conventional stunning, when it goes well, does just as good a job. The catch is right where you think it is: When it goes well. Stunning involves either firing a steel bolt through the skull and into the brain, or hitting the skull with what is essentially a pneumatic hammer to cause concussion. The brain of a cow is not a particularly large target, and it’s not that easy to immobilise the head. Mis-strikes—and therefore repeated strikes on a conscious animal—are not that rare.

There’s more to a slaughterhouse than the moment of killing. In the kosher slaughter I saw in the 1980s, the cattle were restrained in a rotating cage: Fixed within the metal framework they were spun upside-down so that the shochet could do his job. This always struck me as far more stressful to the animal than the knife itself. There ought to be a more humane way of restraining cattle for kosher slaughter and perhaps, since the last time I set foot inside an abattoir, there is. Regardless, that’s not what the argument about kosher slaughter revolves around (no pun intended) and there is in any event no shortage of stress or fear for the cattle pushed, prodded and shouted at on their way to the conventional killing floor.

The work of conventional slaughter is done by young men in their teens and twenties—not a famously empathetic demographic. They are early school leavers, low paid, lightly trained and marking time in a dead-end job (again, no pun…). They watch or cause death all day, every day, and sensitivity to the animals is not much in evidence. Kosher slaughter has this one, big advantage: it’s done by a man who had other job options, a man whose day’s focus is not killing and a paycheck but obedience to his god. In this case, a god who has commanded a very sharp knife and attention to rules that hope to minimise suffering and maintain the dignity of both the animal and the man. Yes, abuses occur, but if I’m forced to bet, my money will be on the prayerful man rather than the time-serving boy.

For kosher & non-kosher animals alike, the trip to the slaughterhouse is just the last step in an artificial and rather short journey and if John Blackwell is what the Telegraph calls a “farm vet”, he knows this (whether or not he still remembers it, or has ever given it thought). The lives of our domesticated food animals are not the lives nature designed them for. Their very physical forms are manipulated to suit our interests, not their own. What’s the natural life span of a cow? Around 20 years—I looked it up. I had to, because I was never taught it in veterinary school. Presumably it wasn’t worth teaching because it’s pointless knowledge. I’ve never seen a 20 year old cow and I bet you haven’t either: Dairy cows are culled around 6 years of age, beef cattle don’t make it past about 18 months. Mr. Blackwell may strive for the welfare of the animals he sees, but he does so within pretty narrow constraints. Consciously or otherwise he has accepted those limits, as have all of us who choose to eat meat. We have struck a balance: We’ll raise them in fences and walls, and we’ll kill them and cook them around the time they finish growing, but we’d like them to be well and comfortable until then, as much as is compatible with keeping the industry profitable. But that’s just us. If the vegetarians ever rule the world they will have no trouble in outlawing all kinds of slaughter. It’s much easier to assert the absolute primacy of welfare when it’s not your ox that gets gored (pun certainly intended) and that’s really the point. For any given proponent, the push to ban kosher & halal slaughter may or may not be antisemitic or Islamophobic, but it always involves a good measure of hypocrisy & intolerance. If that weren’t the case, the debate would be informed by an understanding that we justify how we farm and how we slaughter solely because we want to eat meat. In order to grant ourselves the freedom to make that choice we knowingly compromise how much we’ll care for animals. Jews & Muslims who want the right to that same choice have to set the limit slightly differently, but it’s a difference of (small) degree, not the absolute watershed that the anti-kosher, anti-halal crowd want to present.