11 June 2011
The Australian government has decided to suspend the live export of Australian cattle to Indonesia for up to six months. This has come about after there was widespread public outrage at the horrific scenes of animal cruelty in Indonesian slaughterhouses shown on a recent episode of the documentary program Four Corners.
Like many Australians, I found it difficult to watch these scenes. However, I believe many of us would find footage from any Australian slaughterhouse similarly upsetting.
Four Corners host Kerry O’Brien was right to describe the conditions in the Indonesian slaughterhouses as ‘horrible’ and ‘shocking.’ Footage from the animal advocacy organisation Animals Australia revealed cows being whipped and kicked, having their throats slit while still conscious and running around, being forced to watch while other animals were killed and cut up in front of them, falling over and sometimes bashing their heads on the concrete, and letting out desperate screams as they tried to avoid their awful fate.
While these terrible and upsetting conditions were correctly condemned, the slaughter of animals in Australia was at times glorified as ‘humane.’ This idea of humane slaughter in Australia has rarely been challenged in the media in the subsequent reporting on the issue.
One of the only examples I have seen where this idea has been challenged is by comedian Dave Hughes on the current affairs show The 7pm Project. In a recent episode that covered the live export issue, Hughes, who used to work in a slaughterhouse right here in Australia, was not shocked by the footage.
He explained his experiences of working in an Australian slaughterhouse and seeing the fear the animals had in their eyes, that they were merely electrocuted before they had their throats slit, and that it was ‘horrible’ (you can hear Dave Hughes make these points at 9 minutes, 50 seconds into the clip ‘More solider deaths; live animal exports’).
In an interview I conducted with someone who, like Hughes, had worked in an Australian slaughterhouse, the conditions they described were also anything but humane. The animals at this slaughterhouse suffered from overcrowding, being whipped and beaten – including with chains and crowbars, and having their throats slit while still fully conscious and kicking and twitching.
As with the Indonesian slaughterhouses, the animals were terrified and let out haunting screams.
Of course the conditions in these Australian slaughterhouses could be put down to being “isolated cases” in an otherwise humane industry. But while conditions obviously vary from slaughterhouse to slaughterhouse, no matter where the slaughterhouse is, violence is being inflicted on vulnerable animals.
This is the case even when the slaughtering is done “properly” or “skilfully.” Slaughterhouses are just that – houses of slaughter – and are always horrible places for animals.
“Humane slaughter” is an oxymoron – the two words simply do not go together. The word “humane” is associated with compassion – surely being compassionate towards someone would at the very least rule out killing them for profit.
While other animals obviously differ from humans in a number of ways, one characteristic that they share with us is the desire to carry on living and to avoid death. The fact that other animals also desperately want to live and will struggle to avoid death was made clear in the Four Corners episode and is also demonstrated in the work of animal behaviour scientist Jonathan Balcombe (for example, he explains this from 34.52-36.44 of this interview).
I believe that we recognise this harm caused through the killing of other animals. While viewers of Four Corners would have been upset by the “additional” abuse on top of the slaughter, it is clear that the killing in itself is distressing.
For example, when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver showed chickens being killed on the show ‘Jamie’s Fowl Dinners,’ people were visibly upset, shaking their heads and crying, despite the animals being killed in what is widely accepted as being the least harmful manner possible and there being no “additional” abuse beyond the killing.
As with those watching the killing in ‘Jamie’s Fowl Dinners,’ many people watching the slaughterhouse footage in the Four Corners story were understandably upset by it and expressed a desire to take action.
In the Four Corners story, Rohan Sullivan, President of the NT Cattleman’s Association, saw the move towards the stunning of the animals in Indonesia as the ‘ultimate goal.’ Greg Pankhurst, Director of Juang Jaya feedlot in Indonesia, argued that what we need to reach this goal is for some Islamic people in Indonesia who oppose this stunning for religious reasons to change their traditions and buying habits, to meat from animals that have been stunned before being slaughtered.
But to make positive changes on behalf of animals who are just as capable of feeling and perception as the cows featured on Four Corners, we don’t have to wait for anyone else. We can change our own buying habits right now if we want to take action on behalf of animals slaughtered.
A common theme in the work of animal rights lawyer Gary Francione , author of The Animal Rights Debate, is that rather than industries who currently slaughter animals for food and other uses particularly wanting to harm animals, they do this simply to meet a demand created by those who consume the products of slaughter.
Unless we reduce the demand for these products, the same number of animals will continue to be killed in slaughterhouses around the world, regardless of whether live export to Indonesia is resumed or not.
In other words, supply always exists where there is demand. It’s basic economics.
When we actually stop and think about the meat we eat, it is quite obvious that we are contributing to the demand for the slaughtering of animals – we are after all eating the flesh of a slaughtered animal.
On The 7pm Project episode referred to earlier, Hughes encouraged anyone who was upset by the footage from Indonesia to visit an Australian slaughterhouse and try to eat veal again. However, the veal and dairy industries are inseparable, since male (bobby) calves are removed from their mothers to become veal.
Animals Australia and many mainstream media outlets have recently exposed the fact that dairy products also involve the slaughtering of animals, as the male calves have no use to this industry and are killed for veal soon after birth.
The same thing happens in the egg industry, where the males are also unable to produce the product they are bred for, so are killed shortly after birth. Peter Singer and Jim Mason, in their book The Ethics of What We Eat, explain that in both of these industries, the female animals are also slaughtered once they are no longer producing enough of the desired product.
As a result of these realities of the egg and dairy industries (whether free-range, organic or whatever other “humane” label), veganism, avoiding animal exploitation for food and other uses such as clothing, is necessary to reject all the products of slaughter, including not only meat, eggs and dairy, but also other animal products such as leather.
Whether or not we had some necessity to consume animal products in the past, it is clear that we do not need these products now.
There is evidence of this in the growing number of vegans from all “walks of life” who are easily getting all of their required nutrients without animal products. Mainstream health organisations such as the American Dietetic Association also recognise that we can easily be healthy without these products:
It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases…[such diets are also] appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.
In 2011 when we have no need to consume the products of slaughter, I think we can go beyond only questioning whether or not the treatment of animals in Indonesian slaughterhouses is acceptable and also ask whether it is acceptable to be contributing to the slaughtering of animals at all.
Nick Pendergrast is PhD candidate in Sociology at Curtin University in Western Australia. His research focuses on the animal advocacy movement, primarily in Australia and the US.