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Many meat eaters have a comforting fantasy to assuage any occasional twinge of discomfort over the knowledge that their dinner was once a living, feeling being. It’s called “humane slaughter”. There are laws to ensure that the animals destined for our plates are killed quickly and painlessly – right? And they’re just “farm animals”, without much intelligence, so they go placidly to their deaths never knowing what’s about to happen. Right?

"I estimate that 30 percent of the cows are not properly knocked and get to the first legger alive....To still be alive at the second legger the cows have gone alive from the knocker to the sticker to the belly ripper (he cuts the hide down the center of the cow's abdomen) to the tail ripper (he opens the [rectum]) to the first legger (he skins a back leg and then cuts off the foot) to the first butter (he skins from the breast to the belly and a little bit on the back) to the worker who cuts off both front feet. Those cows then go to a worker who sticks a hook into the joint where the first legger took off the foot and the cows are hung from the trolley hook. I can tell that these cows are alive because they're holding their heads up and they make noise." (Affidavit from an abattoir worker).

“They blink. They make noises, the head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around. Still [the worker] would cut. On bad days dozens of animals reach the station clearly alive and conscious. Some would survive as far as the tail cutter, the belly ripper, the hide puller. They die piece by piece.” (testimony from Raymond Moreno, slaughterhouse worker for over 20 years)

The UK animal activist organisation “Viva!” provides evidence that every year, tens of millions of animals suffer inadequate stunning and are fully conscious when their throats are cut and their life blood drains away. Many are still able to move, feel and cry out in agony when they enter a scalding tank to remove feathers or hair, when their bellies are slit to remove intestines, and when dismemberment begins. Video footage shows sheep and pigs struggling violently as they hang in shackles from the slaughter line.

And as for the animals not knowing they are about to die – an initially skeptical visitor to a slaughterhouse changed his mind within minutes:

“The first thing to hit my senses was the sound of cattle - not the pleasant bucolic mooing one might hear on a stroll down a country lane next to a small farm, but a rapid, frantic mooing. The cows were drooling and their noses were running so profusely they had difficulty breathing. Each one awaiting slaughter in the chute leading to the "killing stall" was suffering the same symptoms of terror. All four of the cows whose deaths I witnessed strained frantically, futilely, and pathetically towards the ceiling - the only direction that was not blocked by a steel door.”

In a cruel irony, the stunning methods used, the supposed “humane killers” may themselves be the cause of intense and lingering suffering. The captive bolt pistol is used to smash a metal piston through the skulls and into the brains of large animals such as cattle horses, supposedly rendering them instantly unconscious. But its effectiveness is subject to the skill of the operator and the pressure he must work under. It is estimated that 230,000 cattle every year in the UK will suffer the agony of being shot in the head without losing consciousness. The process must be repeated, or the animal goes conscious to the knife.

Sheep are usually stunned by electrocution. Metal tongs are placed on either side of their head and an electric current passed through their brain. But neurobiologist Dr Harold Hillman believes that when animals are electrically stunned, they suffer extreme pain which he describes as ‘torture’. They may remain aware, but unable to move or cry out because they are paralysed by the electricity. Can you imagine the terror?

Carbon dioxide gas is also growing in popularity as a stunning method, especially for pigs and chickens. This induces feelings of suffocation, making for a painful and frightening death. It takes pigs up to 30 seconds to lose consciousness and during that time they will squeal, hyperventilate and try to escape.

Why do these things happen? They happen primarily because slaughter is big business, and like all business, its aim is profit. Its employees on the killing floor are amongst the lowest paid and most exploited of any industry, and suffer the highest injury rate of any profession. A business that considers its human workers more or less expendable is hardly likely to spare much concern for the welfare of the animals who come there to be killed, or to engender any feelings of sympathy or compassion in those workers towards their victims. A 2004 investigation by PETA caught workers on video stomping on live chickens, kicking them and slamming them against walls, ripping off their beaks and spitting tobacco in their eyes. Author Gail Eisnitz who has conducted extensive interviews with slaughterhouse workers found that without exception they admit to deliberately beating, strangling, boiling, or dismembering animals alive, or of failing to report those who do.

With fewer abattoirs killing an ever growing number of animals, line speeds have increased to the point where workers may be unable to stun or bleed animals adequately or take the time to ensure that they are unconscious.:

"There's a problem for me with knocking the cows. The chain goes too fast, more than 300 cows an hour....If I can't get the animal knocked right, it keeps going....The chain doesn't stop. It keeps running. It never stops. The cows are getting hung alive or not alive” (abattoir employee).

Meat inspectors in the US go on record stating that, due to inspection policies developed in collusion with the meat industry, they are virtually powerless to enforce slaughterhouse laws. Stopping the production line for any reason results in lost revenue, and “whistle blowers” may discover that they no longer have a job.

Ultimately however, the responsibility for these atrocities lies with consumers – those of us who are willing to pay for the body parts of slaughtered animals in the supermarket, butcher’s shop or restaurant. There is no 'humane' way to kill the billions of animals required to supply meat to an ever growing human population, and it is naïve to suppose otherwise. While humans continue to demand meat, animals will die in horrific and agonizing ways, despite all the laws designed to protect them. Think about whether a taste is really worth such a steep price in animal suffering. Unlike war, poverty, starvation or the many other problems which afflict the world, this is something that ordinary people have the power to change just through the food choices they make. Don’t you think there must be gentler way to feed ourselves?

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