Animal Welfare Fails Many Millions of Sentient Individuals
An editorial in the LA Times about the horrific lives of turkeys shows why
Posted Nov 27, 2017
"It is indisputable that poultry are capable of feeling pain. All poultry species are sentient vertebrates and all the available evidence shows that they have a very similar range of feelings as mammalian species. Poultry can suffer by feeling pain, fear and stress." (Dr. Ian Duncan, poultry behavior expert)
This past weekend a few people sent me the link for an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled "There's a grim reality behind your Thanksgiving turkey," and a letter to the editor by Valerie Belt called "Your Thanksgiving turkey was once a sentient animal that suffered great cruelty." Both pieces call attention to a blatant fact, namely that the science of animal welfare fails millions upon millions of nonhuman animals (animals) "in the name of humans." I was thrilled to see a major news outlet publish their editorial and this letter and here I want to lay out just why this is so.
Every year around Thanksgiving, millions upon millions of turkeys are killed for human consumption. The number is estimated to be around 46 million. I also received a few emails commenting on how the President of the United States usually pardons a single turkey each year, but how this ignores how many millions of others are brutally killed behind the scenes. This year, two turkeys named Drumstick and Wishbone were pardoned and will spend the rest of their lives caged on the campus of Viriginia Tech University.
For now, both pieces are available online, but it's not clear how long they will be accessible for free. What caught my eye in the Times editorial were a number of statements repeated here.
"No animals raised on factory farms are kept and killed under worse conditions than turkeys and chickens, which make up most of the animals raised for food in the U.S. Nearly 9 billion chickens are slaughtered each year for food. And because poultry is exempt from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture enforces, there are not even minimum federal standards governing how they live or die."
Poultry are bred to grow fast and they suffer from various skeletal deformities. They also suffer emotionally from being caged so they can't move around, and turkey beaks are painfully trimmed so they don't peck one another.
We also read:
When it’s time to slaughter them, the live birds are shackled upside down on a conveyor belt, paralyzed by electrified water and then dragged over mechanical throat-cutting blades. The birds are supposed to be stunned unconscious by the electrified water, but that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the birds miss the blades and end up tumbling into the tanks of scalding water, where they drown. These methods are so cruel that they would be prohibited by federal welfare laws — if the animals in question were cows or pigs.
There is no doubt that these sentient beings experience deep and enduring suffering before they're mercilessly killed, a point that Ms. Belt notes when she writes, "Each of these animals is an individual who wants to live freely and doesn’t want to die in order to end up on someone’s plate. As pointed out in 'An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation' by Jeremy Bentham, 'The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?'”
A detailed review of the rich cognitive and deep emotional lives of chickens by Dr. Lori Marino, which also applies to turkeys and other birds, is provided in an excellent essay published in the journal Animal Cognition titled "Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken." Also recall Dr. Ian Dunbar's quote with which I began this essay and please click here for more details.
Temple Grandin's so-called "improvements" aren't really all that good
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), other animal welfare societies, and iconic animal welfarist, Dr. Temple Grandin, have asked poultry producers to treat the animals better. How could they not, given the realities of what these sentient beings experience? They all want less bloated birds, more space for them to move, more sunlight, and "perhaps most important, to render the birds unconscious before they're shackled and slaughtered."
Along these lines, Dr. Grandin would like controlled atmosphere stunning to be implemented. The gases that are used (typically argon, nitrogen, or carbon dioxide) cause the animals to lose consciousness before they get shackled for slaughter. But, what about the lives of the birds before they're getting ready to be killed? They don't have anything that resembles a "good life" when they're crammed into tiny cages where they can't really move, and they surely don't have a "good life" as they're gassed. All of these so-called welfare improvements during their final breaths are "feel good" scams. They're like putting a band-aid on a festering sore.
276 million turkeys later, there may be some changes in how turkeys live before being killed
Many companies have agreed to make positive changes by 2024. The Los Angeles Times editorial concludes, "That’s not too much to ask for the sake of the bird you’ll be carving up on Thanksgiving." Amen. But, that still means that at least 276 million turkeys will suffer and die before there are some changes, and these "improvements' are not mandated by law.
Many animal welfare societies along with Dr. Grandin set a very low bar for how these animals should be treated. Of course, even with these so-called improvements for giving these birds a "better life," their "better life" will hardly be a "good life." I'm sure very few if any people would ever allow their companion dog or other companion animals to be treated in this way. And, turkeys are no less sentient than these other beings.
Why the science of animal welfare fails billions of individual sentient nonhuman animals
The reasoning behind animal welfare "improvements" lie in the way in which welfarism works. In an interview Jessica Pierce and I did about our book The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, we noted that animals need more freedom, not merely bigger cages. The book was our attempt to figure out why science is failing animals. The answer, in brief, is that the study of animal emotion and cognition has not really been channeled into animal welfare science. There's what we call a "knowledge translation gap" and what we know and have known for decades is not used on behalf of the animals (for more discussion on this point please see "Animals Aren't Sentient and Can't Feel Pain, Tories Claim").
Furthermore, "animal welfare science” is not science in the service of animals, but rather science in the service of industry and profits. Indeed, as we delved into our research for the book, it became pretty clear that the word “welfare” is a dirty little lie: Whenever you see the word “welfare” in the literature, you can be pretty sure something unpleasant is being done to animals. (The word “humane” is equally troublesome.)
We concluded that good animal welfare just isn’t good enough for the billions of non-human animals who are used in a wide variety of human-controlled venues, ranging from so-called factory farms, to laboratories, zoos and circuses, to pets, to wild animals and conservation efforts both in captivity and in more natural settings. Animal welfare is not much concerned with the plight of individual animals, and in numerous instances the welfarist approach patronizes animals. Business as usual for welfarists basically boils down to trumping the interests of animals in favor of humans, while trying to give animals a better life as they’re being ruthlessly exploited and abused and often killed in the venues mentioned above.
The science of animal well-being: Giving individuals Freedom with a capital F
The science of animal well-being that we develop in The Animals’ Agenda focuses on individual animals and would not allow animals to be used and abused in the way that welfarism allows. Welfarism puts human needs first, and tries to accommodate animals within the “human needs first” framework. Well-being broadens the question of “what do animals want and need” beyond the welfare box, and tries to understand animal preferences from the animals’ point of view. For example, welfarism asks whether mink on a fur farm would prefer taller or shorter cages; well-being challenges the idea mink should be in battery cages on a fur farm in the first place, because they cannot have true well-being or “good lives” under such conditions—no matter how many welfare modifications we make. In trying to improve the “freedom” of animals, welfare science might ask: Would a chicken rather have 68 square inches of living space, or 72 square inches? In our view, this isn’t much of a choice and has nothing to do with Freedom with capital F.
In our view, this isn’t much of a choice and has nothing to do with Freedom. Among the classic examples we consider in our attempts to highlight the loss of freedoms is the work of Dr. Grandin, on whom we focus on Chapter 3. Grandin is the iconic welfarist in that she tries to make the life of factory farmed animals “better” on their way to the killing floor of slaughterhouses and various types of killing floors. For example, she feels comfortable calling the chute on which they stumble to their brutal death a “stairway to heaven,” when actually it is a stairway filled with horror until the cows are killed.
She refuses to call for an end to this practice, while maintaining that she’s giving these animals a “better life” than they would have without having the stairway on which to trod as they hear, see, and smell other cows being killed. Welfarism of this sort allows us to maintain the status quo, as if we’ve done our due diligence, morally speaking. Of course, a “better life” for these cows is not a good life.1
Along these lines, Dr. Grandin's asking for “'controlled atmosphere stunning,'” a process of using gas to make the birds unconscious before they get shackled for slaughter," really is a cover-up that doesn't get to the root of the problem, and that is, choosing to eat sentient beings when there are numerous non-animal alternatives. Dr. Grandin is okay with continuing to process sentient beings for food despite the horrific lives these individuals endure from birth to death.
It's time to change: "Humane killing" is a painful and deadly oxymoron
Thanks to the Los Angeles Times and Ms. Belt for calling attention to horrific practices that really need to be shut down. If you wouldn't treat a dog in the ways that the food industry treats birds, mammals, and fishes who are used for food, then why allow these sentient beings to be treated in ways that cause horrific pain, suffering, and death on the way to human plates?
Dr. Grandin's call for "controlled atmosphere stunning" is an example of humane-washing, and clearly shows that many millions of birds are not unconscious when they're shackled and slaughtered. And, it doesn't take into account the horrific pain-filled lives they live before they're shackled and slaughtered. Of course, the same can be said for mammalian "food animals" as well.
As Melissa Pierson notes, Dr. Grandin "only stands at the edge, addressing the riddle of her love for cows giving rise to a career of facilitating their deaths.” The same can be said of turkeys. She really loves them and knows they suffer, so let's try to kill them with kindness. A lot hangs on the word "try." And, there is no way that there won't be reprehensible suffering for many of the approximately 246 million a year who are killed.
Enough's enough. We need to give all of these sentient individuals the Freedom they need and deserve. The life of every single individual matters to them, and it should matter to us as well. It's time to end the mass production of "food animals" once and for all. There's just too much needless suffering and death. As long as prominent people are spokespersons and apologists for the animal-industrial complex in which billions of animals are killed each year for food, the brutal slaughter will continue.
While some of people feel that so-called food animals are killed “softly,” of course, they’re not. They’re justifying what they’re doing or allowing to be done for all sorts of pretty questionable reasons that make them feel good at the animals’ expense. I hope that as people plan their meals for Thanksgiving and other occasions, they will pay closer attention to who they are eating, not what they are eating, and begin to phase out animals and animal products from their diets. For many people it would be pretty easy to do. And, it would be a win-win for all.
1For more discussion of related topics, please see:
The Social Life of Chickens (Dr. Karen Davis' direct, intimate, and informed look at chickens)
Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behavior in the domestic chicken (this is a detailed peer-reviewed summary of what we know about these topics by Dr. Lori Marino)
Poultry Sentience and Intelligence (an interview with Dr. Ian Duncan, Professor of Poultry Ethology, University of Guelph, Canada)