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Can a conscious death be humane? September 18, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
Tags: , , , , , ,

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be unconscious when I kick the bucket. No last-minute grasping at the final shreds of life for me. Let me go in peace, preferably without even knowing it.

That’s what humane slaughter requires for many food animals, too. Cows and pigs must be “rendered insensible” before slaughter, so that they don’t know what’s going on and can’t feel any pain. Now, that’s not to say that such idyllic circumstances actually obtain at slaughterhouses, as a recent article in The Atlantic makes clear. In A Call for USDA Vigilance in Humane Treatment of Food Animals, former Humane Society undercover investigator Cody Carlson discusses the recent closure (and reopening) of Central Valley Meat, a dairy cow slaughterhouse, for violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Commenting on the article, I noted that while I agreed with Carlson that the USDA’s multiple mandates make it impossible for the agency to truly protect animal welfare, it was still possible to eat meat and dairy ethically by choosing products vetted by strong animal welfare certifications. Responding to my comment, a person identified as Janet Weeks flounced “You do realize that birds and rabbits are NOT protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act …there is not even an attempt to make them ‘insensible’ to pain. They are slaughtered while fully conscious.” End of discussion, I suppose, for Ms. Weeks.

Well, just to get one thing out of the way: strong animal welfare certification programs like Animal Welfare Approved do require that chickens, rabbits, and any animals covered by the program are stunned to the point of unconsciousness before slaughter. So if you eat meat certified by one of these programs, it doesn’t matter whether the USDA follows suit or not.

But Ms. Weeks’ comments gave me pause, because they made me realize that most of probably assume reflexively that unconsciousness is a prerequisite for a humane death. But is it? Let’s get personal again. I’d like to be unconscious when I die, but I know that lots of people aren’t and that it’s quite likely I won’t be. Does that make my probable death inhumane? I don’t think so. If it’s pretty quick and not terribly painful, that’s all I can reasonably hope for. Ideally I’d like unconsciousness, but I can live with the alternative (so to speak) if it’s not too bad.

I think the same is true for animals. It doesn’t really bother me that the USDA doesn’t require chickens to be insensible when they’re killed. As long as they are killed quickly and effectively, I’d say that’s good enough. And by the by, that’s the way a lot of small farmers do it. They don’t have the big mechanized stun baths used by conventional industrial players. So when you are being all virtuous buying your chicken at the farmers market, realize that it may have been conscious when it was killed. Having seen firsthand what that looks like (at chicken supplier Kadejan in Glenwood, Minnesota) I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty much a non-event. The chickens, when held securely upside-down, seem quite calm and not remotely aware of what’s coming, and a quick slit to the throat bleeds them right out.

What do you think? Can a conscious death be humane?



1. Suzie Harris Newcome - September 19, 2012

Hey Angelique,

I really like this article – very thought provoking!  I also think it’s neat you’ve been out visiting these farms – I can just see you, surrounded by chickens, watching this process. 🙂

In my mind, I think there is a difference between “natural” death and “killing”.  In the case of “killing” it seems most humane to do it when the animal “isn’t looking” so to speak, either stunned or relaxed (as in your example with the chickens). I believe there are advantages in the meat as well, aren’t they? as stress hormones can flood the body before death?

From my point of view, a conscious natural death is very humane, provided there isn’t a great deal of pain. Nature has a way of alleviating pain at the end, and I am personally very curious about the transition at that last point. I have seen both of my parents go naturally and it seemed very powerful. I would prefer a conscious, natural death over an unconscious slipping away or worse, a sudden wiping away of life without any time for reflection.

I guess this is something we don’t really get to choose (generally), but you have my two cents.  🙂

Keep up the great work – I love your articles!  Give my love to George & Scarlett!



Angelique - September 19, 2012

Suzie, so wonderful to hear from you and your perspective gives food for thought. Indeed, we don’t generally get to choose these things but I can’t help but reflect on them. I hope you and Wayne are having a lovely transition into fall!

2. No Hope For Humans' Soul Nor Sanity - July 9, 2013

Oh yeah… Killing someone who wants to live, at a fraction of the life she/he could live, when you have no good reason to do it… Killing a child while she/he is sleeping, for your only pleasure… That’s so ethical…

3. morvif - July 9, 2013

Oh yeah… Killing someone who wants to live, at a fraction of the life she/he could live, when you have no good reason to do it… Killing an healthy and happy child while she/he’s sleeping, for your only pleasure… That’s so ethical….

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