A better way to die?
Warning: This post is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. If you qualify, stop reading and go rummage through the archives.
Since the incident I’ll describe below happened, I’ve had this post rattling around in my brain. All it took to make me backburner the other one I’ve been working on was a vegan I overheard today prattling on about the cruelty of slaughtering animals for food. These people are clueless. They somehow believe the natural world is a kind, safe place where animals lie about enjoying nature and drift off to sleep when it’s time for them to die.
Early last summer I was on the tee of the 8th hole of a golf course I play often with ball teed up and driver in hand. As I addressed the ball and started into my mind-clearing routine a hellacious cacophony broke out all around me. I stepped back from the ball and looked up to see a cloud of crows cawing at the tops of their crowy lungs while dive bombing the tree right next to the tee box. I peered into the branches of the beautiful Jacaranda to see if I could see what set all these crows off because whatever it was, was in that tree.
Walking up closer and searching between the branches, I finally saw the cause. Sitting on a branch deep within the tree was a big hawk. He was gripping a limb with one talon and had the other clamped onto a small crow. The crow – probably a juvenile – was much the worse for wear. From my long ER experience, I could tell that it had obviously had at least one lung , if not both, pierced by the hawks talon’s. It’s chest was heaving as it struggled to breath in the characteristic and pitiful way chests do without working lungs. It’s not a pleasant way to die. In the ER you would put a chest tube in a patient in this condition, an option not available to the dying crow. This scenario with the screeching crows diving impotently at the tree while the hawk perched impassively, squeezing the last bits of life from the dying bird, impressed upon me once again the cruelty of life in the wild. Tennyson had it right, “Nature, [is indeed] red in tooth and claw.” As I watched, it dawned on me that each diving crow was destined for a similar gruesome fate. Even the hawk itself would ultimately come to a bad end when it either got injured or got too old to hunt.
There are few easy deaths in the natural world. I hearkened back to my days as a young engineer when I worked for a company that designed and built waste-water, pollution-control systems for various industrial concerns. A number of the company’s clients were slaughterhouses located primarily in central Arkansas. My job was to get the overview of the facility, learn where the waste water was generated, find where it was discharged, and look for a space to put a mini treatment plant. Our company would design the treatment plant, then I would oversee its installation. In the course of my time on the job, I spent a fair amount of time in a number of slaughterhouses. I didn’t know what to expect the first time I went to one. I had visions of its being some kind of nightmarish charnel house from an Hieronymus Bosch painting with squealing animals trying to escape and blood running knee deep. The reality was anything but.
The slaughter process was orderly and the animals being led in – actually they walked in without being led – calmly trudged to their ends in single file through the narrow chutes. They didn’t wail or bellow; they didn’t try to escape; no one was standing above them driving them with cattle prods. It was…orderly. That’s the best word to describe it.
Once the animals were stunned, they dropped instantly. Workers attached the unconscious beasts to a hoist that lifted them and started them on their way to becoming the meat we buy in the supermarket. I spent countless hours in these facilities, and never saw the cruel treatment of any animals. About the worst that would happen would be that a steer would get turned around in the entry area and cause a little momentary chaos until it got straightened back around. From what I’ve read, some slaughterhouses have problems with animals slipping and falling, which creates havoc, but I never saw it happen in the ones I was involved with. And, remember, this was back in the days before Temple Grandin and her methods – now in widespread use – for making slaughterhouses even more humane. And it was before people learned that meat from unfrightened animals is better and worth more than that from frightened ones, which now provides packing house operators with a financial incentive to keep the animals calm. I haven’t been in a slaughterhouse for over 30 years, so I can’t attest to how they operate now. But what I witnessed back then wasn’t all that bad.
For those of you who don’t know, Temple Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, Colorado who has achieved international fame for her designs of slaughterhouses and animal holding facilities that ensure humane ends for the animals that provide us food. Dr. Grandin is autistic with a highly developed visual sense. She is able to see things as cows and other animals see them, which she often does by getting on her hands and knees and crawling along the same pathways the animals do. She realized long ago that items that would cause no concern to a human – say, a discarded can or paper cup or light shimmering off a puddle- could put a cow into a blind panic. By taking these visual cues from the animals’ perspective, Dr. Grandin’s designs – now in use the world over – keep animals as serene as possible all the way through the leading-to-slaughter process.
How serene is that? About as serene as an animal can be in the presence of humans. When animals (ourselves included) are stressed, they release cortisol, a hormone that looms large in the fight or flight response. This cortisol can be measured and used as an indicator of stress. Cattle are minimally tamed animals. They are by nature skittish. They don’t take well to being handled and, in fact, don’t really like to have people around. Dr. Grandin has taken cortisol samples from animals just standing around the farm with people within view and discovered that they have a slightly elevated cortisol levels. When she tests animals in properly designed slaughterhouses right as they reach the final station, she finds that they have similar cortisol levels as animals standing in the barnyard with humans present. In other words, a little stress, but not a lot.
I can pretty much assure anyone that these animals meet their deaths in today’s slaughterhouses with orders of magnitude less stress than they would were they living in the wild and being preyed upon by large carnivores. In fact, had they been living in the wild, they wouldn’t exist today. They would have been relegated to the long list of animals that have become extinct.
Let’s consider cattle. Cows are large, fairly placid, relatively slow, and exceptionally stupid. They are also uncommonly good to eat. All these facts taken together make it clear why cattle are still with us. (It also reminds me of a great and very true statement I heard once but can’t remember where: ‘If you want to preserve the American bald eagle, all you’ve got to do is make ’em good to eat, and before long, you’ll be overrun with them.’) And not just a few specimens in zoos, but by the millions roaming pastures the world over. Cattle, unlike other wild animals, allowed themselves to be domesticated. Humans complied and domesticated them. A covenant arose between humans and cattle in which we provided for them and they for us. We kept them safe and allowed them to breed and survive as a species; they provided us with meat in return. It’s been a great bargain for all sides. Although any individual steer trudging off to slaughter may not see it this way, the covenant has been a godsend for the breed, which has grown and prospered. There is a wonderful book titled The Covenant of the Wild detailing this animal-man symbiotic relationship that should be on everyone’s bookshelf, especially anyone’s who doesn’t feel right about eating meat or who is being relentlessly hounded by vegetarian friends or family. Although it’s never pleasant to think of animals being put to death so that we can eat them, it is reassuring to know that it is done as stresslessly as possible. If done right, with almost no stress at all. If, however, the PETA folks had their way, these animals would be turned away from the slaughterhouse doors and sent to live out their days peacefully on lush pastures somewhere.
If this vegan fantasy came to pass, what would happen to these cattle? Would their deaths be more or less stressful than at the hands of their human handlers? You probably know the answer, but let’s take a look. And, remember, not for the squeamish.
Photographer, polymath and former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold wrote a piece for Edge about a photographic safari he took in Africa. He tells of several lions attacking a Cape Buffalo
In order to catch a buffalo a lion must jump on the buffalo’s back, and to do that they need to get past the horns. Once on the back, the lion hangs on for dear life, a bit like a cowboy riding a bull. The goal is to get the buffalo to stumble. If there is more than one lion hunting this is the point when they will start to pile on. Often the buffalo just shrugs the lions off, and that is that. However if the buffalo falls down, things get much more serious. Some cats kill instantly with a bite that dislocates cervical vertebrae, severing the spinal cord – for example, cougars in the US. This is not the case for lions, they are stranglers or suffocators. They either bite the underside of the neck to collapse the trachea. Or they put their entire mouth over the prey animal’s nose. Either way it is a relatively slow suffocation that kills the animal. This can take 30 minutes, or even an hour for a buffalo because they can’t get enough pressure on the huge buffalo neck to close it all the way, or can’t get a good seal on the nose. This is not the quick merciful picture that one sees in nature documentaries.
Lions don’t wait to kill the animal before starting the process of eating it – as soon as the buffalo stops thrashing, lions start to eat. This is much harder than it sounds however, because the hide is very thick.
Were cattle to be roaming the wild, this is the fate that would ultimately befall each one. I wonder what the cortisol levels were in the buffalo pictured?
A couple of years ago The Times did a piece on the growing number of elephants killed by lions. The BBC sent a film crew to video an attack, and a writer from the paper tagged along. His report makes for gruesome reading.
But as a mother and an adolescent, aged between 8 and 10 years old, come through, slightly detached from the rest of a herd, two of the lionesses are instantly awake, on their feet and moving in. Pandemonium ensues. The elephants trumpet with panic as they crash through the undergrowth. One of the lionesses jumps on the young elephant’s back and another grabs its haunches. The hind-leg tendons are severed and the animal crashes to the ground. The rest of the lions pile in. The mother thunders off into the bush, apparently realising that there is nothing she can do to protect her child from this onslaught. The hunt, from the moment the lionesses spotted their victim until they felled it, lasted just 30 seconds.
The elephant takes a further 30 minutes to expire. The death agony is not pretty. The lions chew through tough hide and clamp their jaws round the elephant’s trunk in an attempt to stop it breathing. The sound of the animal’s gargling, wheezing and hissing is sickening and the lions provide a chilling accompaniment of low, contented growling. It is a hellish scene… There are scuffles as members of the pride jostle for position on the carcass. When they eventually can feast no more they pull away, their faces covered in blood, gore-stained up to their haunches. Panting with the exertion of gorging themselves, they lick each other’s faces and flop down, exhausted.
Any guesses as to the cortisol level of this elephant as it gargled, wheezed and hissed it’s life away?
My overall sense of this piece is that the author somehow feels that this is a freakish incident. It’s not. This type of killing goes on moment by moment, repeated countless times per day, all over the world. It makes better press when lions kill elephants, but it is no more gruesome than a hawk killing a squirrel or a weasel nailing a mouse. Predators prey on prey. Every cute little fox you may see from your car window has hundreds of kills to its credit, everyone of them as unpleasant for the victim as the above scene was for the elephant. It’s just the way nature operates.
If the above word pictures aren’t enough to show how brutal a typical meal can be for those on the menu, take a look at this YouTube of a few lions sharing a wart hog for lunch. And remember, this isn’t a freak happenstance, it’s a second by second occurrence the world over. This same fate has befallen millions of animals in just the time it has taken you to read this far in this post. The true nature of Nature isn’t what you see on Sesame Street.
Do you think this warthog might be releasing some cortisol during it’s last moments?
Now, let’s switch back to domestic animals. Take a look at the final seconds in the lives of some cattle.
This video – though admittedly an ad for a stun gun – squares with my own experience in slaughterhouses.
I ask you, now, given the choice, which fate would you prefer were you destined to be on the menu? That of the wart hog in the video above or that of these cattle?
You can’t pick None of the above. At least not if you are an animal destined for the table of either us or lions. If cattle are to continue as cattle as we know them, then they get the easy death by stun gun. If they are released into the wild, they would suffer a much, much worse fate.
Death is almost never pleasant in nature. We can and do make it as painless as possible for the animals that provide us our sustenance.
Please don’t send me videos of animals being mistreated in slaughterhouses because I’ve probably seen them all. Based on my own experiences, these videos are not the norm. And, although the animals in them are indeed suffering, their suffering doesn’t compare to that of the warthog being eaten alive. And the warthog’s being eaten alive isn’t a freak occurrence or a contrived occurrence to make political points – it is a part of the everyday ebb and flow of the natural world.
Those of us who eat meat owe it to the animals we consume to do everything in our power to make their lives pleasant and their deaths painless. Thanks to the efforts of Temple Grandin and others – not to mention the financial incentives to provide better quality meat – we can do this. Given the choice, I think domestic animals would quickly throw their lot in with us rather than be left to the tender mercies of nature, which would be the choice made for them if vegan activists were in charge.