Friday, August 15, 2014

The abbatoir, the lab, and pre-medieval behavior

It's a lazy August day and one wonders what to write about.  So I took a walk with my constant companions--sadly, not a dog, but my iPod.  I was listening to one of the BBC Radio4 program podcasts that we like, and I thought it would be worth putting down some thoughts, hoping to make them relevant.

Abbatoirs, or slaughterhouses, are among the most sensitive kinds of industrial plants.  This post was stimulated by the  BBC story I was listening to (File on 4: Inside the Abbatoir, June 17, 2014).  A standard protocol for killing mammals is to stun them with an electric shock to the brain, knocking them out to they'll feel no pain or terror, and then quickly killing them by, for example, stringing them up, slitting their throat, and letting the blood drain. Then they are butchered. The treatment of food birds is something like this, as I understand it, but the birds are first hung up by their feet, so they probably feel more terror before the deed is done.  Of course, all of this may be more gruesomely done on the farm, for both birds and mammals, though there are certainly farmers who work hard to ensure that their animals are calm until their sudden end.  But an abbatoir does it to numbers that would match a WWI battlefield--every day.

A properly run abbatoir, gruesomely, uses the same idea we have with human execution: a nice last meal, and a blindfold or for those to be done in with chemicals, a tranquilizer first.  Similar considerations are given to pets who are put 'to sleep' by a vet when they are old and suffering.

In the slaughterhouse, Lovis Corinth, 1893; Wikipedia

The BBC story described how this killing is done when done right.  It's properly supervised, sanitary, and the like.  If an animal has to go, well, it's better than how most wild animals have had to make their exit, being torn apart by a predator while alive or suffering an injury or disease without medical care or even (with some exceptions) sympathy from friends or relatives.

But the BBC story also describes how some Jews and Muslims are excused from this humaneness, and allowed to engage in pre-medieval slaughtering techniques (i.e., no stunning first), because, apparently, God (the loving one, that is) apparently said we have to torment animals to please Him.  That doesn't seem very different from Aztecs cutting out the hearts of their living victims (although, I vaguely recall their victims were at least intoxicated on something first).  I only pick these examples because I am too ignorant to have any idea how much other savagery we humans allow today in the name of other Gods or for what rationales.

If stunning is humane and if we are to eat meat, the killing is probably not exceptionable.  However, the BBC story reports various lapses in the system, disturbing instances of lax inspection, and cheating for sport, anger, or for convenience. Even in this sensitive context, are the insensitive among us.

What about fish?  We are generally quite happy with dragging them up from hearth and home, by the net-full, only to suffocate en masse, not so different from, say, the gas chambers, I guess.  Or, when undertaking mere individual slaughter, by hooking them (for sport) in the mouth before asphyxiating them.  Fortunately, thanks to research in part by faculty here at Penn State that shows that fish are not just automatons, there are growing numbers of human fish abbatoirs, that use altered water or stunning to lull the animals to their doom, as humanely at least as the fate we dole out to mammals.

Our concern for doing our killing gently is clearly inconsistent even when applied to other humans. Just look at the latest news. Bombing of children and hospitals, beheading or crucifying captured people because our God (the loving one, that is) says it's the thing to do and (we say) doesn't like their God. He must be a blood-sport fan.  In that regard, it is interesting to read, as perchance I've been doing, Milton's Paradise Lost, in which there's a Hollywood-like tale of wars among the 'angels' in that Heaven we so aspire to attend.

We justify at least instant killing on the grounds that we have to eat and that, given those conditions, instant killing is at least terror and pain-free.  But one reason vegetarians believe as they do is that killing sentient animals (some would, properly, include all animals) is in itself cruel no matter how kindly done, and since we can live perfectly well, and more economically sustainably, on plants, that's what we should do (though, personally, I question the plant exceptionalism since plants clearly respond to environmental trauma and threats).

Experimental abbatoirs
But MT is generally a science blog.  So let's talk about what goes on in the animal research lab.  IRBs (Institutional Rationalizing Boards) generally approve research procedures as being useful to human knowledge, and good for the research business, so long as they don't outright torture the animals. There are at least some limits.  But speaking of things pre-medieval, the reality is closer to saying that, as God (the loving one, that is) pronounced, the rest of animals and plants are just here for us to exploit, and we countenance a lot of things being done to animals, effectively under such an implicit assumption.

For example, what about, say, flies?  Here, the rationalizing gets even more contorted, or perhaps less. Insects and such simple creatures are said either not to feel pain or experience terror.  The way they're sometimes treated flies must absolutely like to have their body segments altered, or electrodes stuck into their brains.  Observations of insects in nature suggests they do sense and recoil from danger, and experience distress.

The arguments justifying research-based experimenting with animals is that that's how we learn about the world (and there's the widespread treatment of science as a largely unquestioned good), or that making countless animals experience a nasty disease or experimental 'procedure', often the only life they'll know, will eventually prevent humans from having to suffer in the same manner we make the mice suffer. We at least claim to try to minimize the trauma, but many in science know the more grim reality.  It's human exceptionalism, but since we're the ones in charge it's no surprise that we behave that way.

Just as we give life and then taketh it away from cows and chickens, so do we for lab mice.  They have their day (in the artificial light of the mouse room), at least, existence they'd not experience were it not for our NIH grant.  Some even get to have a rather active sex life (though, if female, usually they are killed while pregnant, so we can study their not-yet-offspring).

If we accept the reality and inevitability of mortality, then one can accept the killing for food as well as research. But need we accept the torment?  Could we at least have more stringent limits? Animal rights lobbyists, descendants of anti-vivisectionists, are irritating to those running research labs, but perhaps at least help keep things somewhat tempered.  After all, this is nothing new:  The great Roman physician Galen was famous for doing dissections on live unanethesized animals--in the name of science, and indeed somewhat theatrically.  We're not as savage as that!

We can always make up a rationale about human good or basic knowledge, or that the animals don't really suffer; but the fraction of lab animals who shed much light on scientific knowledge is small, and what we're allowed to do to them not so small, even though certainly many lab animals do 'contribute' to ultimate human good.  These are not easy issues (and I say this not in an accusatory way: I worked on developmental genetics of mice for many years).

We all have to die, humans as well as other animals.  The pre-scientific belief systems promise something better afterwards, and if you believe that kind of thing, then lucky you!  But we can at least do our best to make the exit of those enslaved by us a painless one......I had intended again to say a 'humane' one, but that now somehow seems an inappropriate word.  Thinking about the abbatoir, and other aspects of human behavior, puts these issues in stark perspective.

1 comment:

Tom519 said...

A great resource about the meat industry is Vacliv Smil's "Should We Eat Meat".
Bill Gates listed Smil as one of his favorite authors. He has written many books on environment policy and scientific interest in general.