Tag Archives: slaughter

Why Don’t We Ship Meat Animals Comfortably?

Cages of living cats smuggled from China are loaded off a truck in Hanoi on January 27, 2015. Photo credit: Kien Thuc

Cages of living cats smuggled from China are loaded off a truck in Hanoi on January 27, 2015. Photo credit: Kien Thuc

On January 27, 2015, Police in Hanoi seized a truck carrying more than three tons of live cats, shipped from China to restaurants in Vietnam.  For those of you counting, that’s approximately 600-700 cats, at 8-10 pounds apiece.  In one truck.

The trade in dog meat pops up on my dash from time to time, along with photos of similarly crammed cages, but the concept of cat meat has generally appeared primarily in “humorous” references to Asian restaurants in America.  I am not surprised, but am saddened, to find the issue is quite real.

Deciding if there is some fundamental difference (hint: there isn’t) between the animals we keep as pets and the ones we keep as food is a long and hairy road.  Walking along it for a little ways: I think it is interesting (terrifying) that I usually see pet animals transported humanely if not luxuriously, but I never see meat animals shipped in reasonably-sized containers.  A million years ago I noticed an article which casually mentioned that a truck transporting sheep had fallen over, and 400 sheep were lost.  It occurred to me to wonder how crammed into the truck the animals were, if the truck was carrying 400 of them, and ended up figuring the sheep each had slightly less than three square feet in which to stand (provided they were standing at all).

There’s just something about how, once we have taken the mental step which allows us to think, “This animal is to be used for human consumption,” we lose all concept of “We should respect this animal as a living being in need of food, water, shelter, and personal space.”  Maybe it’s only for a “short time”, from the farm to the slaughterhouse; maybe “they don’t mind”, because you either cannot read, or deliberately misread, their behavior; but we never seem to ship food animals in comfortable crates.

Pet animals go in style; United Airlines, for example, requires that “each kennel should contain no more than one adult dog or cat, or no more than two puppies or kittens younger than size months, of comparable size, and under 20 pounds (9kg) each”, and “The kennel must be large enough for your pet to freely sit and stand with its head erect, turn around and lie down in a normal position.”  Delta requires that “[t]he kennel must provide enough room for your pet to stand and sit erect — without the head touching the top of the container — and to turn around and lie down in a natural position.”  Here is how meat dogs travel.  (Terrible, awful, graphic photo, accompanying terrible, awful, graphic article.)

Here’s how show chickens travel; here’s how meat chickens travel (from a page advertising this poultry/rabbit transport cage, which allows you to load “10-12 of live chicken” in a space 91.5cm x 51cm x 30.5cm, or about 36″ x 20″ x 12″ high).  (As an aside, here’s a frankly horrifying notice about how hatcheries use unwanted male chicks as packing material for female chicks.)

Show cattle; meat cattleShow pigs; meat pigsShow horses; meat horses.  (Please note that I tried to look for “neutral” photos here instead of “shocking”, we-don’t-normally-do-things-that-way photos.)

What switch flips in our brains that makes us make that shift?  How can we stop it flipping?  How can we unflip it?

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Charlie Chaplin on Tragedy and Comedy

Chaplin, Charlie (A Dog's Life)_01“At the end of our street was a slaughterhouse, and sheep would pass our house on their way to be butchered. I remember one escaped and ran down the street, to the amusement of onlookers. Some tried to grab it and others tripped over themselves. I giggled with delight at its lambent capering and panic, it seemed so comic. But when it was caught and carried back into the slaughterhouse, the reality of the tragedy came over me and I ran indoors, screaming and weeping to Mother, “They’re going to kill it! They’re going to kill it!” That stark, spring afternoon and that comedy chase stayed with me for days; and I wonder if that episode did not establish the premise of my future films – the combination of the tragic and the comic.” 

— Charlie Chaplin (My Autobiography, p. 41)

From Pasture To Plate In 0.06 Seconds

Popeye Explodes a Bull

I found this little gif interesting.  Is this humane slaughter?  It’s certainly extremely efficient.

Research to find the cartoon’s title tells me that this animation comes from an episode called “I Eats My Spinach”, which involves Popeye briefly engaging in a bullfight, with the ending pictured above.  However, the same research also leads to a synopsis of an episode called “Bulldozing the Bull” where Popeye refuses to attend a bullfight on ethical grounds — “It’s cruelty to aminals” — and later befriends the bull.

Nothing profound here, just a little glimpse of something.  Also, the one cut of kosher meat intrigues me.

Can’t Get Away From Factory Farming

I still don’t think of myself as truly vegetarian — just mostly vegetarian, and  I’m sure many vegetarians would consider me not entirely committed, for my viewpoint that it is possible to keep an animal kindly, and at the end of a happy and food-filled life to slaughter it humanely and eat it.  I believe this can be done with respect.  The animal benefits from health care, provisioned food/water/shelter and companionship; the human gets a wealth of supplies (leather, wool, etc) and food.  Everyone benefits.

Unfortunately, somewhere between this red-barn-and-picket-fence idyll and the high-speed modern slaughterhouse, the “mutual respect” thing turned into something where animals are not even afforded the basic respect we give to useful furniture, and I can’t buy into that system.  Thus, mostly vegetarian — enjoying meat but not the hell that animals went through in order to get it to me, I decided I would only eat meat from small, local, family farms, where compassionate farmers could spend enough time with the animals they slaughtered to ensure the process was as quick, painless and humane as possible, and the animals had as wonderful a life as it was possible to provide.  This makes me essentially vegetarian — certainly no restaurant or normal grocery store serves such meat, which must be found at specialty stores or obtained directly from the farms themselves.

I am now rethinking even this limited meat option.  It had been sitting in the back of my mind that even meat raised at the kindest of farms likely goes through USDA-“overseen” slaughterhouses, with their 3-chickens-a-second conveyor belts, and an episode of “Dirty Jobs” — in which Mike Rowe shadows Earl’s Meats, a mobile butchering operation which travels to clients’ farms, slaughters their stock, and butchers the carcass, producing wrapped meats ready for the kitchen — implied that it is actually required that this happen.  The episode pointed out to me that the meat butchered in this way was unsuitable for sale to the public because it had not been slaughtered in a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.

This means that any meat to which I have easy, retail access, short of something I have slaughtered personally, has been processed through a USDA slaughter operation and has therefore been in the tender “care” of a high speed slaughter plant, or one of the new USDA-inspected mobile units, which can potentially process 30 head of cattle a day.  This means that it’s time to drop the “small farm” meat and become officially vegetarian, because there is currently no such thing as “humane” meat.

As a side note, here’s the Mobile Slaughter Unit Compliance Guide from the USDA.

Book Review: Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money

Meat Market: Animals Ethics and MoneyMeat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money, by Erik Marcus, is an interesting, if brief, read, and a good answer to the question “What are these hippie freaks whining about, anyway?”  It’s not a perfect introduction — I’m still looking for the best way to suggest to, say, my parents that they not eat factory-farmed animal products — but it’s a good explanation of where one is coming from which doesn’t involve showing one’s audience graphic video of a slaughter plant.

The book begins with a glimpse of how and why small-farm practices become factory farm practices, follows up with an excellent, reasonably impartial, description of common factory farming practices for chickens, pigs, and cattle, and describes some options for what could be done to alter the status quo, along with what is currently being done.  It examines the three facets of the current what-the-hell-is-going-on-here movement (animal welfarists, animal rightists, and vegetarians), describes their goals, actions, and methods, looks at what is working and what isn’t, and suggests an alternative option (complete dismantlement of the system).

The book ends in a flurry of interesting essays and appendices, with subjects ranging from Starting a Local Vegetarian Society to The Ethics of Hunting.  It’s a lot of different viewpoints (although, toward the end, the vegan viewpoint grabs center stage and holds it), and, more, it’s thought-provoking material.

For example, it thoughtfully compares the relative quality of life — inasmuch as we can measure “quality of life” for another species — of various factory-farmed animals.  If you only give up one thing to make farmed animals just a little happier, Marcus says, give up eggs: the hens producing them are confined in ludicrously tiny cages their entire lives, debeaked, crippled, repeatedly force starved, and then slaughtered at the end.  The animal with the “best” relative life is the beef calf, which has a pretty good time of it (out at pasture, with mom) until about six months of age (after which it all goes to hell, but briefly compared to the two years’ close imprisonment of the laying hen).

The other thing that hit me was the reminder that, even though I am carefully purchasing milk from “certified pasture-kept” (and, theoretically, happy) cows, by purchasing milk at all I am contributing to the veal industry.  I am ashamed it didn’t occur to me before — of course!  What are they doing with all the male calves? — but now that I know I am trying to figure out how to get milk out of my diet, or at least minimize it.  Alas, soy milk tastes like liquid Lucky Charms, and unsweetened soy milk has the texture of Elmer’s glue — I am working on it.  In the meantime, I do my best to minimize consumption of milk and cheese….

If you are just starting to look at vegetarianism or veganism or know someone who is, Meat Market isn’t a bad start.  It is not overly preachy and does not use “We can’t kill animals because they are so CUTE!” faux logic — it produces rational, empirical examples which make it difficult not to listen.  I kind of wish it hadn’t ruined milk for me, but I can’t honestly blame the messenger.

Online Learning Tool: Animal Ethics Dilemma

While searching Amazon for more books to eat, I found a mention of a free “online learning tool” called Animal Ethics Dilemma.  It presents five case studies (focusing on the use of genetically modified animals, specifically monkeys, in research; the welfare of farmed chickens; euthanasia of aggressive pets; rehabilitation of wildlife; and slaughter plants) and provides various ways to explore the issues presented by these situations.  It encourages the user to  consider various response options to potentially real-world situations.

Overall, it’s well put together.  It does a decent job of introducing five broad areas of animal welfare.  The exploratory answer options tend to be a little fixed — the tool is trying to introduce the user to five (debatable) points of view (“contractarian“, “utilitarian“, “relational“, “animal rights” and “respect for nature“) and, instead of allowing freeform answers, the tool forces you to choose between five fixed answers, each representing one of the categories.  I don’t honestly believe that any one of these viewpoints is entirely right in all situations, but the division helps to simplify the problems a bit for initial interpretation.

You do have to create a username and password to use the thing, but it’s free, and it never asks for any personal information.  It’s designed to let you create a profile of yourself before experiencing the tool, and compare it to a profile of yourself after working with the tool.  It’s interesting, and it’s not preachy.

For what it’s worth, I personally figure as highly “utilitarian” and “animal rights”.

One Step Forward, One Step Back: Gassing Chickens

via Cheetah100, Flickr Creative Commons

As described in many, many, many books and videos (but especially accessibly by this book, in case you’re interested), large slaughterhouses can process so many animals per hour that workers on the assembly line can have to deal with as many as one animal every five seconds (depending on species).  This causes “sloppy workmanship” on the part of the workers, manifesting itself in animals “stunned” badly or not at all, injuries to animals and workers as conscious animals are “stuck”, “legged”, or dunked in tanks of scalding water…um, anyway, high speeds in large slaughterhouses are bad, primarily because handling so many animals, so quickly, makes it possible for humane killing methods to “miss”, and for animals to go through the butchering process not only alive, but conscious.

There seems to be a movement afoot that at first looks like a great idea: some factories here and there have picked up on the idea of “sedating”/”stunning”/”gassing” the animals with carbon dioxide to make sure they are unconscious before being killed.  On the one hand, this is a great step forward.  A slaughterhouse is actually considering the needs of the animals it is processing and trying to make the experience less stressful for them.  Yes, the slaughterhouse will benefit from this: the birds will be less damaged on packaging (less wasted meat) and of course they will be able to put “humanely slaughtered” on all their packaging, so it’s not as though it’s all altruistic, but still: baby steps.

On the other hand — speaking as someone who has personally “euthanized” hundreds of mice via carbon dioxide and seen others do so — this is not a foolproof answer.  CO2 euthanasia is only a quiet, peaceful death if it is performed very slowly, very carefully, on one animal at a time.  (Even that’s debatable — there’s still a happy section of science cheerfully turning out papers on whether or not CO2 euthanasia is “euthanasia” at all.)  I strongly suspect that the fast-paced world of the high-volume slaughterhouse is not going to combine well with the slow and careful process of humane CO2 euthanasia.  Captive-bolt stunning, which is already used by the factories, is, in itself, a humane procedure.  However, the speed at which a large slaughterhouse operates renders captive-bolt stunning inhumane because proper procedures are unable to be followed and the animals are not properly stunned.  I think the same issues will affect CO2 euthanasia if it is used in high-volume slaughterhouse operations.

First, the size of the operation itself is going to induce pressure to make the process of filling the gas chamber, which should be a carefully monitored, slow procedure, a quick-and-dirty one.  The chicken factory mentioned in the link above, at least, appears to be talking about processing hundreds of birds at a time — according to the article, the containers in which the birds are shipped to the plant will go into a huge CO2 chamber, which will need to be room sized at least.  How to fill such a room?  Recommendations vary, but the average is something like 10% of room air replaced with CO2 per minute — that’s at least ten minutes to fill the chamber with gas.  (There are arguments for and against pre-filling the chamber with gas, or using faster filling speeds, but that discussion must be saved for a different article.)  The chamber will then need to be cleared of gas before workers enter and remove the birds (or the workers will need breathing apparatus).  This is all going to take time, which high-speed workers do not have.

Second, the size of the room is going to affect the facility’s ability to deliver gas properly to every animal.  Birds further from the gas vents will be affected at different rates than birds next to the vents.  Also, since CO2 is heavier than air, the birds at the top of the room will be affected differently than birds at the bottom.  What will assure that every animal: a) is rendered completely unconscious, b) remains unconscious for butchering?  In a room of sufficient size it is possible for the outermost birds at the bottom of the room to be dead while the birds in the center on the top are still conscious.  If workers are filling and emptying the room at high speeds, this problem is actually quite likely.  (There are already documented reports of dogs surviving similar gas chambers at humane shelters.)

Third, many laboratory euthanasia standards recommend euthanizing animals by CO2 one at a time (or in small familiar groups in their home cages).  (However, it should be noted that the official AVMA line on this is that the gas “chambers should not be overcrowded”, and indeed, some facilities routinely toss a bunch of animals all into one cage for euthanasia to save time.)  This is because animals can detect the intrusion of CO2.  They often become alarmed and disoriented before they go down, running, kicking, squealing, and generally acting agitated.  This does not promote quiet, calm, peaceful behavior — this promotes a room full of shrieking, flapping, alarmed and disoriented birds.

Apparently they’ve been trying CO2 euthanasia on pigs tooThis article suggests that all the agitation takes place after loss of consciousness and that the pigs are completely out cold while “convulsions, vocalization, reflex struggling, breath holding, and tachypnea” occur.  I’ll admit I’ve never seen a pig euthanized by CO2, but I must say I have some reservations about how “unconscious” the mice and rats I euthanized were while they underwent “Guedel’s second stage of anesthesia“.

I applaud these factories for trying to make the treatment of the animals with whom they are working more humane.  (I am an animal trainer at heart, and I know to reward “baby steps”, no matter how small.)  However, I believe these factories are not treating the correct problem (which is generally that the facility is trying to process too many animals for its capacity, and using pressured, underpaid, and under-trained workers).

Horse Slaughter in the US May Have Hidden Up Side

from morguefile.comThis past holiday weekend, I listened to someone announce that they had “euthanized” their problem horse (who really did need to be put down — it had a vet-diagnosed neurological condition and was aggressively dangerous).  I was thinking of commending them for taking responsibility for the animal and not just selling the problem along to an unsuspecting buyer when they said they had “euthanized” the horse by selling him for slaughter.  (“Bam!” they said.  “Bolt to the head.”)

Clearly they missed out on the part where horse slaughter was not, at that time, legal in the US — before their horse was “euthanized”, it rode many hours in an open air cargo van — perhaps one designed for horses, perhaps one designed for pigs or cattle — with no food or water, to reach a slaughter plant in Canada.  The horse may not have even reached the killing box and its captive bolt gun — it may have died along the way, kicked at the feedlot, crushed or trampled in the truck, or suffering from exposure or dehydration.

There is hope that things may be changing.  Recently, Congress has, without fanfare, quietly lifted a five-year-old ban on funding for inspection of horse meat, which indirectly paves the way for re-opening of domestic horse slaughter plants by providing for the inspection of meat produced at those plants.  There isn’t currently a budget for horse meat inspection, so the process might be slow, but people who have been witness to the issues surrounding the lack of appropriate facilities in the US are scrambling to get one going, to prevent trips like the one my acquaintance’s horse took.

The closure of domestic slaughter plants in 2007 has not resulted in a reduction of the amount of US horses being slaughtered.  They are simply being trucked over the border to be slaughtered in Canada and Mexico, doing nothing but adding a 24 to 72 hour trip in a packed cargo truck — here’s animal behaviorist and slaughter reformist Temple Grandin describing one version of that experience — to the doomed horses’ woes.

We certainly do need to alter a lot of things about the process that is allowing companion horses to be slaughtered for food — including providing education for horse owners, finding help for families who, through no fault of their own, can no longer support their animals, and initiating improvements in slaughter practices and how all slaughter plants (not just ones for horses) are run.  There are a lot of problems with this industry, in all countries (graphic link).  However, sending horses off to Mexico and Canada is not the answer.  Providing a good support network for distressed owners, increasing public education, and bringing the slaughter plants under USDA control won’t fix the problem, but would be a huge step in the right direction.

So Much To Write and So Few Pages

One thing learned from the initiation of video auditing on a large scale is that some people should not be handling livestock. — Temple Grandin

I recently picked up a book about slaughterhouses, and have had my hair standing on end reading it, realizing how much that process is like the processing of laboratory animals that I experienced.  I want to say more about that — I have a lot to say about that book — but in the meantime, I was doing some background research on the book itself and ended up on the web site of Temple Grandin, a PhD who has dedicated herself to improving the welfare of animals in slaughter plants, with some hopeful results.

Since the book I am reading was written in 1997, I skimmed Dr. Grandin’s web site, which had some up to date slaughterhouse audits (as recent as 2010), to see how things might be going nowadays.  Apparently they are now employing video monitoring in slaughter plants, which, depending on how exactly that is achieved, and who exactly is doing the monitoring, is a huge step forward for the conditions of both animals and humans there.  However, if the quote above is anything to go by, conditions haven’t really changed all that much since the book was written.