When Slaughter Makes Sense
February 8, 2004 Sunday
NEWSDAY -- NASSAU AND SUFFOLK EDITION
SECTION: CURRENTS; Pg. A30
BYLINE: By Peter Singer and Karen Dawn.
Peter Singer, a bioethicist at Princeton University, is
the author of "Animal Liberation." Karen Dawn runs DawnWatch.com,
an animal advocacy Web site, and is the host of "Watchdog"
on KPFK radio in Los Angeles.
For the past month, the nightly television news has been showing
us animals being slaughtered. Governments in 10 Asian countries
have killed more than 25 million ducks and chickens to stem the
spread of avian flu. China has drowned thousands of civet cats suspected
of spreading Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the often-lethal
disease usually abbreviated to SARS. Here in the United States,
more than 700 dairy cows, so far, have been killed in order to contain
any possible spread of mad cow disease.
Many people are disturbed by the slaughters. They are upset by
footage of civet cats being carried off in cages about to be drowned.
Perhaps because we keep cats as companion animals, we are likely
to object more strongly to the killing of animals called cats than
we are to the killing of, say, pigs. And, though not really cats
at all, civets are furry and rather cute. But then so are millions
of similar animals killed for fur coats every year.
It appears that the species of animal is not what causes the emotional
effect: Most people eat beef, yet during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth
disease in the United Kingdom television footage of piles of dead
cows being burned caused public outrage. Are people more disturbed
by the slaughter of animals to prevent the spread of diseases than
about the daily slaughter of animals for food? Seeing any animals
being carried off to slaughter, even for food, might evoke a similar
response - think of the twinge of sadness many people have at the
sight of a packed cattle truck on a highway. But we don't usually
see such images on the evening news.
Perhaps the reason for the public's particular concern during the
current mass slaughters is that it seems that the lives of these
animals are being wasted. When we kill cows, pigs or chickens for
food, most people would say something positive comes from their
deaths. The millions of animals being killed in the current slaughter
are just being thrown away like garbage. Probably very few, if any,
of the civet cats are carrying SARS, and no one really knows whether
killing all these animals will stop or reduce the spread of the
disease. Many of the chickens certainly do have avian flu, but millions
of healthy birds are being killed as well, just in case.
Any concern that many of the killings are without purpose, however,
is misplaced. If you've passed through an airport in the last two
years, you will have been searched. We presume you were not intending
to hijack a plane. Was the search, therefore, a waste of your time
and of the resources required to pay the employees who searched
you? Not really. If searching passengers prevents hijackings, and
there is no reliable and ethical way of zeroing in on just those
people likely to be planning a hijack, then none of the searching
is a waste of time, even if in 99,999,999 cases out of every 100
million, no hijack was intended.
The same principle governs killing animals to prevent a disease.
Even though most of the animals are healthy, if one diseased animal
could cause a catastrophic disease to spread through both human
and animal populations, and there is no practicable way to distinguish
the healthy animals from those carrying disease, it is not a waste
to kill them all.
Killing the animals "only" to prevent the possible spread
of disease is certainly no worse for the individual animals. All
of these animals - civet cats, chickens and cows - were destined
for dinner tables. Since virtually all of them are intensively farmed
and spend their lives confined and crowded in miserable conditions,
it is probably kinder to kill them sooner rather than later. Other
animals won't necessarily replace them. People for the Ethical Treatment
of Animals, the advocacy organization, tells us it could not keep
up with the requests for vegetarian starter kits when foot-and-mouth
disease spread through the United Kingdom. And the Times of India
reports that the bird flu scare has led to a 75- to 90 percent drop
in chicken sales.
So what is there to object to about the current large-scale slaughters
to prevent disease? Since we are both actively involved with the
animal- rights movement, most people would expect us to think of
them as atrocities. We are saddened, of course, by the mass killings,
but at least there is a valid purpose to them, as they are designed
to stop the spread of diseases that could cause many more other
People generally feel that something positive comes from the deaths
of the animals we kill for food. But we can nourish ourselves well,
many doctors would say far better, without killing animals. The
numbers involved in the slaughters to prevent disease, and even
the suffering involved, is a small fraction of the approximately
40 billion annually who suffer to supply people with meat, poultry
and other animal products. So while the current slaughter to prevent
disease is a shame, the mass slaughter for food, generally unpublicized
and considered acceptable, is in our view, the real atrocity.
Ironically, it is not only the animals that suffer because of our
taste for meat. So far, at least, the number of human deaths from
SARS, avian flu and mad cow disease combined is minuscule when compared
to premature deaths caused by the modern American diet - a diet
spreading, with its deadly diseases, throughout the world. The World
Health Organization has recently drafted a "global strategy
on diet, physical activity and health" that calls for a reduction
in fats and an increase in fresh fruit, whole grains, legumes and
nuts. In other words, less meat, dairy and eggs - more plant foods.
Yet thanks to the strength of the meat and dairy lobbies, the U.S.
government has continuously promoted the consumption of animal products,
via subsidies, tax breaks, nutrition charts and school lunch programs,
as if protein deficiency and malnutrition, rather than obesity and
heart disease, were the real dangers to its people.
Just how bad the rearing and slaughtering of animals for food really
is became a little clearer to the American public over the last
few weeks, precisely because of the threat to human health posed
by mad cow disease. For years, animal advocates have been pushing
legislative bills that would ban the slaughter of downed animals.
A downed animal is one so sick she cannot walk into the slaughterhouse.
She is dragged, often in agony, along the ground, to her death.
The agricultural lobby defeated a downed animal bill just months
before an animal with mad cow disease entered the American food
supply. While there is some question about whether that particular
cow was downed, we know that downed cows are particularly likely
to be diseased. So the mercenary calculation that has led to slaughtering
sick animals, rather than humanely killing them where they lie,
puts the people at risk.
Perhaps the footage that most people have now seen of animals stumbling
to slaughterhouses so sick that they can hardly walk will prompt
people to call for an end to the cruel slaughter of downed animals
for any purpose. But our reputation as a humane nation would have
stood higher if we had stopped it before we discovered that it is
a health risk.
Can we also dare to hope that pictures on television and in the
press of animals being slaughtered en masse will lead people to
re-examine their eating habits? If so, the animals, even the healthy
animals, killed in the current slaughter to prevent disease will
clearly not have died for nothing.