How can I help stop the slaughter of animals?

Can battles be humane?

Before I see them, I hear them. Hooves click on concrete, then metal. Now the cow enters the stunning box. The stainless steel walls tower high above her body. The cow did not fight back when she was taken from the adjacent barn. Due to the special architecture of the building, it does not seem to have seen any danger.

I watch through a large window as the animal obediently pushes its head through a rectangular opening at the front end of the box. His fur shimmers black, as do his large eyes.

The employee will soon press his neck down with a piece of metal, then lift his chin and jaw with a second piece. As if it were at the dentist, the animal will tilt its head back. It won't be able to move him with the bolt pistol pressed against his forehead.

It's a cool Friday morning in Springfield, Vermont, nearly four hundred miles north of New York. On the outskirts of the small town, in a former Ben & Jerry’s factory, is the Vermont Packinghouse slaughterhouse. I walk around the site with the operator, Arion Thiboumery. “When people hear the word slaughterhouse, they have a nightmare on their mind,” he says. "You don't see it here."

Thiboumery guides visitors, often school or student groups, through the company almost every week. Six windows provide a view of the interior, in which the animals are slaughtered, cut up and processed. The principle: total transparency. Only crimes take place in the dark, behind high walls. So if you have nothing to hide, you can't do anything wrong? Of course, says Thiboumery, animals are killed here. "But we do it in a way that is respectful of them."

He made the decision to open a slaughterhouse at the end of his studies in agricultural sociology and sustainable agriculture. The 37-year-old with a blonde mustache and a down vest, easily imaginable in a hip hiking shop, speaks determinedly. What he is about is an alternative agriculture in which each region produces its food independently and sustainably. So far, however, not only has the proportion of organic farms been minimal. There is also a lack of places where they can slaughter their often few animals.

Instead, most of the meat comes from factory farming and slaughtering. As in Germany, there are a few companies in the USA that dominate the market. "You're too small for them when you have 100 or 200 pigs," says Thiboumery. “Their processes are made for 1,000 pigs.” In the USA, just one of these large farms slaughtered over 20,000 pigs per day. At the end of a year there are over four million.

In comparison, Thiboumery's business is tiny - small enough, as the boss points out, to take care of the animals. He and his staff slaughtered a maximum of 100 pigs or 50 cattle in one day, depending on the day of the week. “We don't have any assembly line work here,” he says. Instead, the team can take its time. And so are the animals. That is the most important thing for a humane slaughter. To treat the animals calmly, to show consideration when they get nervous and not to put them under pressure. The architecture of the courtyard should also contribute to calming down. There are no sharp corners, dark corridors or loud noises that could cause stress. "We do everything possible," says Thiboumery, "to provide you with a safe, comfortable environment."

No wonder that such requests are attracting attention. In surveys by the German Federal Ministry of Agriculture, 85 percent of those questioned say that the welfare of animals is important to them. At the same time, around 96 percent of the population in Germany eat meat; In 2017 it was an average of 87.8 kilos. In the USA, the average per capita consumption in the same year was 98.4 kilos. Motto: I love animals. But I still want to eat some of them.

On paper, killing is already regulated in both countries - in the USA since 1958 by the “Law on humane slaughtering methods” and in Germany by the national and European animal welfare slaughter regulations. These formulate requirements for handling and equipment as well as for stunning and killing procedures in the slaughterhouses. Animals should be put into a state of "insensitivity to pain" by a "fast and effective" stunning method, as is stated in US law, and their discomfort prior to stunning should be reduced to "a minimum".

However, these regulations are often disregarded. For example, when animals are transported despite being injured or when they are consciously cut. The rules also fall short in many places, criticize animal welfare organizations. Not only because they allow painful procedures such as high-dose CO2 anesthesia, but also because many demands are kept vague and hardly controlled - the label of Agriculture Minister Julia Klöckner is also criticized as a voluntary "Wischi-Waschi" seal. In 2014, Schrot & Korn magazine complained that organic associations in particular had to place higher demands on animal welfare during slaughter.

When is killing justifiable?

With recourse to terms such as “humane”, “stress-free” or “gentle” slaughter, new initiatives promise that the killing of animals does not have to be a painful act. Despite all the differences, they are united by the belief that animal welfare and consumption can be combined.

Gentle slaughter is also attractive for another, very pragmatic reason: the meat quality is simply better. It is true that the stress factor is far less important than posture and food. But too much of it can ruin a good piece of meat. Humane slaughter is therefore also a form of optimal added value.

However, none of this changes the fact that the animals are stolen from their lives. For critics, such initiatives do not serve animal welfare, but calm down one's own conscience. Clever marketing is intended to normalize a violent act for a society that places high moral standards on itself but does not want to forego meat.

And so the discussion about humane slaughter raises fundamental, philosophical questions: Are there conditions under which the killing of animals is ethically justifiable? Or is it fundamentally wrong to kill animals? And if we answer this question, do other ethical criteria apply than those for killing people?

"No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that his suffering is just as valid as the similar suffering (...) of another being," writes Peter Singer in "Animal Liberation". The book, first published in 1975, is considered a founding text of the animal movement. At that time, the Australian philosopher took up the civil rights and gay movement. After the arbitrary boundaries between the sexes and "races" were abolished, he declared that it was time to include animals in morality as well.

I reach the 72-year-old in Princeton, hometown of the American university of the same name, where he has taught for a long time. “What really interests me is what an animal can feel,” he emphasizes. “What does it feel?” Morally relevant is first and foremost the ability to suffer. Regardless of the species. We also respect our fellow human beings not only when they are intelligent or self-aware, but simply because they feel. For the utilitarian, doing right first and foremost means promoting happiness and avoiding suffering. "99 percent of the animals that are eaten in this country vegetate under terrible conditions," says Singer. Such treatment completely violates the principle of avoiding suffering. But what if the keeping and slaughtering conditions were better? That, says Singer, is a difficult question. "If animals have had a good life and the killing happens instantly and without suffering," he says, "it may be justifiable to kill them."

The German philosopher Hilal Sezgin finds such an argument absurd. “Killing an animal doesn't get right by reducing its suffering in life,” she tells me. Sezgin is not only concerned with the rights of animals in theory. The freelance author houses a herd of sheep, chickens and other animals on her farm in the Lüneburg Heath - without any purpose. In her texts, including the book “Only freedom is appropriate to the species”, she argues against any use of animals and for a vegan way of life.

The principle of avoiding suffering that Singer advocates falls short of, says Sezgin. “The good life is not only about preventing fear and pain,” she interjects, “but fundamentally it is also about experiencing the world.” An animal not only wants to be full, it also wants to look for food; not only to be intact, but also to be in the company of fellow dogs. Sezgin says that we should not simply sacrifice these needs to our human interests.

But would killing not be justifiable if all these needs were taken into account by keeping them appropriately? No, insists Sezgin. "It's still a killing of someone who wants to live." As soon as you admit that someone can be happy, she says, it implies that that someone values ​​their life. “We stop thinking too soon.” The question must be whether or not life is of value to the animal itself. "And it's worth it."

Ursula Wolf, professor of philosophy at the University of Mannheim, shares neither Sezgin nor Singer's point of view. “I am suspicious of talking about values,” she tells me. “The being itself has no concept of the value of its life.” And what we humans mean by that is often controversial and difficult to prove.

Like Singer, Wolf advocates focusing on the ability to suffer. This would mean an ethic based on observable needs. However, she emphasizes, suffering should not be understood as pain or fear alone, as is customary in utilitarianism. That is shortened. It is also about emotional and social needs, such as that of the mother cow to care for her calf.

But what follows from this position? Is Animal Killing Legitimate for Wolf?

"I would speak against it for mammals," replies Wolf. After all, they are not simply “creatures of the present”. Mammals are so highly developed that they have wishes and plans for the future - a squirrel can bury nuts for the winter, a dog can wait for its master, a pig develops tricks to find food. The animals do not refer explicitly, but in fact, to their future, signaling a desire to experience it. If you want to respect a being in its wishes for the future, then you shouldn't actually kill “higher animals”.

Another weighty argument against killing does not apply to animals, Wolf points out. If killing among humans were allowed, we would live in constant fear. With animals, however, the problem is eliminated. "You have no idea that humans will shoot you afterwards."

Ultimately, neither Singer nor Wolf formulate a strict ban on killing, but emphasize the need to avoid suffering as a necessary criterion. This is followed by the very practical question: Is it even possible to slaughter animals without suffering? I enter the stable with Thiboumery. The animals spend their last night here. The white barn with a semicircular roof is open on two sides, it itself runs through a U-shaped alley, from which several large boxes lead off. Animals from a herd are housed there before they are led through a narrow passage at the end of the alley into the adjoining slaughterhouse the next day.

What does an animal feel?

The Thiboumery slaughterhouse was designed by Temple Grandin, an animal scientist, autistic person and kind of guru of the animal industry. Grandin emphasizes in her books that her autism helps her understand animals. Much like animals, she thinks in pictures rather than words.

The height of the walls, the non-slip floor, the division of the boxes, the winding of the corridors - all of this is tailored to the instincts of the animals in order to avoid stress. For example, because their eyes are on the sides of their heads, cows have difficulty seeing depth. So there are curves, no sharp corners. Because they feel insecure about going into dark rooms, the barn is illuminated by daylight and additional lamps. The design also makes use of the inclinations of the animals. The arched corridor suggests that they return to the entrance of the barn instead of the adjoining slaughter room.

No wonder that over half of all slaughterhouses in the United States now use Grandin designs. Do most of them, like Thiboumery, care about animal welfare? Unlikely. After all, Grandin also expressly advertises that their designs optimize processes.

Thiboumery and I stand next to the corridor where four animals are waiting to be transferred to the slaughter room. Suddenly it gets louder. A cow is strained to turn her head and try to push it past her shoulder to the right and back towards the barn. She wants to turn back. Isn't Grandin's architecture reliably calming down after all? The cow pushes, pushes, the metal walls thump with a dull thud. The default 30-inch width offers enough space to stand comfortably, but not enough to turn. She can't go back and forth either, because a gate separates her from the animal in front of and behind her. “This one is a bit excited, she doesn't like the box.” Thiboumery points to the cow behind it: “But the other one doesn't care. The box is fine. "

I agree with him inwardly. Most animals actually seem very relaxed. But hardly an hour goes by when it happens a second time. An animal panics in the stunning box. It tries to climb the high walls and in the process slips one leg into the opening into which it is supposed to shove its head. Two employees try to free the animal. Without success. Finally, they lean over the high walls into the box and shoot the animal with a bolt.

Do you call that excitement or already suffering? And anyway: How do we rate what animals feel?

Best not at all, skeptics would say. After all, the pain of another is never directly accessible to us - and certainly not that of other species who cannot put into words what is going on within them. And even more subjective, one could add, is fear. An equally important cause of suffering.

To dismiss every evaluation as a humanizing, distorting projection, however, is not convincing on closer inspection. Animal scientists describe very precisely how anxiety and stress can be measured according to at least two criteria. On the one hand there are physiological indicators such as increased levels of cortisol, beta endorphin, body temperature or a racing heart. Animals also communicate their suffering through behavior: limping when in pain. Loud utterances, fidgeting, or flinching when fearful. Because you don't need any special empathy to recognize these signals, several of them are part of common animal welfare reviews. In order to recognize severe suffering, one does not have to be an animal or a Temple Grandin.

However, these criteria are used to capture extremes. But up to what point is suffering reasonable? Ursula Wolf suggests in her texts to draw the line between individual moments of discomfort and systematic, i.e. ongoing, suffering. For the philosopher, as she explains when asked, slaughterhouses are an example of systematically created suffering - albeit, as in the case of Vermont, on a lower level. Smaller businesses and shorter transport routes are undoubtedly an improvement. Nevertheless, a certain amount of stress persists. "Ultimately," she says, "it's the same only in small ways."

Thiboumery naturally takes a different view. He mentions studies showing that animals locked up for vaccination had similar levels of stress hormones. And the animals here are used to vaccinations. So putting them in that little box, he says, is as stressful as getting veterinary treatment.

But is it even possible to speak of animals in general? Aren't they, too, basically individuals with different traits? One cow panics, another doesn't. The stress of slaughter is higher, especially for animals from extensive grazing that have little contact with humans.

Use as a reason for existence

I ask Steve Schubart. His cattle spend all summer and fall outdoors before he drives them to Springfield for slaughter.“At the end of the year, they're basically wild cattle,” he says on the phone. “I can maybe pet 20 percent of them.” Isn't a transport too much for his animals? Certainly, he says, the loading, the two-hour drive and the unfamiliar surroundings are stress factors. But he thinks that water, hay and rest minimize this stress.

But stress or not: Proponents of animal use emphasize that opponents overlook a crucial point. Many animals would not even exist without humans. Their reason for being is their use. If you take into account the gain in living at all, argues the essayist and star author Michael Pollan, then utilitarianism à la Singer allows only one conclusion: it is morally imperative not to renounce meat, but to eat it. "For domesticated beings," writes Pollan, "the good life (...) cannot be realized without our farms and thus our meat consumption." Accordingly, Pollan considers it legitimate to subordinate the interests of individual animals to the "survival interests" of their species. Focusing on the individual animal may correspond to our culture of individualism, he writes, but not to nature.

I ask Peter Singer what he thinks of this argument. He does object that in truth there is no agreement between animals and humans - because no pig has the opportunity to decide against its breeding. In the matter, however, he agrees with Pollan. If animals only existed and lived well through humans, says Singer, then he considers their subsequent killing "possibly" justifiable. Can utilitarian balancing go so far that it offsets birth against the future? Hilal Sezgin thinks that there is a bizarre idea of ​​ownership inherent in this logic. "Just because I brought someone into being through an act of fertilization," she says, "doesn't mean they are mine."

Kacey Knight has strong upper arms, knee-high rubber boots, a long apron, and earplugs since the ear plugs were buzzed a few weeks ago. Knight works on Thiboumery's farm. If the cows do not move as they should, she takes a plastic paddle that looks like an oversized fly swatter, swings it or touches the animals on the buttocks with it. "If you start screaming, it just makes her more nervous," she tells me. "You just go slowly, and sometimes you have to wait for them because they don't want to move."

The 32-year-old walks over to the slaughter room. She is standing next to the stunning box and is about to fix the head of a cow for the bolt shot when her colleague asks her to wait. There is still no chain free to hang up the animal and bleed to death. The carotid artery must be severed immediately after the bolt shot; only then is the animal considered irrevocably dead. She releases the holder again and turns to the animal. She gently runs her hand over his nasal bone. Several times. Finally she gets the signal that she can continue.

Efficiency is often more humane

I want to know how Knight sees the killing of the animals. Does she find what she does humane? “I do it as well as I can,” she says. “There is no good way to kill an animal.” She adds, “But someone has to do it. And at least I do it calmly and with care. ”That may sound silly. But compared to what the political scientist Timothy Pachirat describes in his book "Every twelve seconds", the process does indeed seem humane. Pachirat himself worked in a large slaughterhouse for six months. Every twelve seconds - that is the speed that the automated conveyor belt sets there for the killing of 300 animals per hour.

He impressively describes the alienating effect of piecework. “With liver number 2394 or foot number 9576, it doesn't really matter what is cut, sheared or shredded.” Once efficiency becomes a priority, it will become normal to ignore animals as living beings. They are transformed into what the French philosopher René Descartes saw in them in the 17th century: machines, senseless objects of daily use. The fact that killing is the focus at work, writes Pachirat, gets lost in the fast-paced routine and puts the workers in an "almost hallucinatory" state.

But deceleration alone does not guarantee gentle slaughter, I find out during my research. At the end of 2016 and 2017, the Vermont slaughterhouse was mistakenly stunned several times: captive bolts are not fired correctly, the animals remain conscious, and several "re-stunning" operations have to be carried out. It goes without saying that it must be incredibly painful to remain conscious for several minutes with a bolt in your head.

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), an influential animal welfare organization based in Washington D.C., records such violations. Your listing amazes me. I hardly find any large slaughterhouses on it, but a lot of small ones.

"It is much more likely that an animal will be treated inhumanely on a small farm," confirms Dena Jones, an employee of the AWI. "There is a big gap." The reason is that they often have poorer equipment, they wait less often and their processes are not standardized. That was also the case in Vermont, she says. Now the company has a new, very expensive stunning box that also fixes the animals' heads.

So you think large, efficient companies are more humane? I ask. “The most efficient farms tend to do best when it comes to handling animals,” she says. “And large farms are the most efficient.” In this way, efficiency and profit thinking serve to improve the treatment of animals. At least since the Ministry of Agriculture began to impose stricter sanctions in recent years. “Nothing slows down or stops production more than inhuman use.” A large company could lose up to half a million US dollars a day because of blatant violations.

Protection or deception?

I would like to know whether their recommendation is to buy from large slaughterhouses. No. If people already ate meat, then please from animals from species-appropriate, sustainable agriculture. And thus inevitably from small slaughterhouses. They really have to work on themselves. But it would be better, she says, if the animals didn't have to leave the farm to be killed.

This is also what a small but growing number of farmers say. They want the killing to take place on their home farm or pasture. Because the animals would not be transported and brought into a strange environment, most of the causes of stress are eliminated. In the USA, however, such approaches are hardly widespread, although they are repeatedly discussed. Too many rules. Too expensive. 14 state-controlled, mobile slaughterhouses - trailers in which animals are killed on site - are currently operating across the country, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

It looks different in Germany. In 2016, an estimated 150 to 300 farmers slaughtered using a so-called “bullet shot” method. While the animals are on the pasture, they are shot by a hunter, often from a high seat, with a rifle or, more precisely, stunned. A north German farmer proudly declares on his website: "It is a process in which the animal is taken out of life in seconds without stress."

If one uses the avoidance of suffering as a criterion for ethical action, then there is little to criticize in such a procedure. "If you kill animals," confirms Ursula Wolf, "slaughtering the pasture is definitely the best method." After all, the animals do not notice that the end is approaching. The philosopher adds that she is absolutely convinced that a shot extinguishes consciousness immediately and painlessly. She would rather be given an injection and it would fall asleep peacefully.

Hilal Sezgin cannot understand such an argument. If you don't torture someone before you kill them, she says, there won't be a human rights award. More than that, the attempt to kill as suddenly as possible is actually perfidious. "Fear is not just an uncomfortable state that I have to avoid," interjects the animal rights activist. "Fear is an indicator that the animal wants to live." A surprising killing does not only take away negative feelings from the animal. It also deprives him of the opportunity to express his preferences.

Seen in this light, the pasture killing is the perfected delusion. Not a laudable pardon, but an intrigue. In doing so, she achieves what the sophisticated slaughterhouse designs at Grandin try, but never quite succeed: duping the animals in order to thwart any resistance.

What we want to see

Three hours later, I watch Knight one last time as she carefully opens and closes the gate of the stunning box. When the cow pushes her head forward, her final movements follow. Neck down, chin up, head back. The cow opens its eyes.

"Many visitors," says Thiboumery, "comment on what they see with the sentence: 'Oh, that's not that bad." "But what does' not that bad" mean? Good enough to eat animals? Our answer does not depend on whether we are convinced that the slaughter - from transport to killing - was gentle enough. What is decisive is what we want to see in the slaughter: an animal whose life we ​​are allowed to take because it would not even exist without humans? A being whose death is less tragic as it has no mature plans for the future? Or are we looking at someone who is being violently torn from his only life? I see the latter. And you? •