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On Being Upset by Carnage That Comes Too Soon


It never ceases to amaze me that people will get upset about the death of an animal whose killing was their job.

This time, and thanks to a tweet from CaptainGraviton, it's "beef farmer" Jim McDougal in Scotland. In "Cows Killed by Lightning Strike," by Angie Brown of the BBC Scotland, which today was updated to "Lightning Strike Kills Bullocks," we learn that Mr. McDougal was "very upset," numb and shocked by "the carnage he saw." That carnage wasn't observed after the animals were slaughtered, but before he could get to slaughter them. The evildoer responsible for the carnage . . . was lightning.

What I don't understand is why this moment was so upsetting to Mr. McDougal. Perhaps he can no longer profit from the animals. But if he can still carve them up or have them carved up, it would seem to me that nature merely helped him do his job, no? They were going to die anyway, as that's why they were brought into this world–to be slaughtered. Why the phony concern over the death of animals?

And finally, wherever the animals were to be slaughtered and whether or not it was scheduled to be at the hand of Mr. McDougal, in that place, at that moment, would Mr. McDougal use the word "carnage" and would he be "very upset" or numbed by what he saw?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. It's a crazy crazy insane world full of hypocrisy and blind people. I bet no one who read that news item joined any dots in their tiny minds whatsoever.

    June 16, 2009
  2. Hi Mary,

    First, please excuse a long contribution – delete if necessary.
    There is lots that can be said about this issue. I was reminded of the British FMD outbreak that occurred while I was writing my Ph.D. I have included a section which echoes much of what you say and provides some sociological analysis…

    Foot and Mouth Disease.

    During the writing of this thesis, Britain witnessed a serious and widespread outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Like influenza in humans, foot and mouth disease (FMD) is a highly contagious viral disease which spreads very rapidly through herds of hoofed animals such as cows, pigs and deer. Although the aphthovirus that causes FMD is transmitted quickly from animal to animal, the symptoms it causes are generally – but not always – nonfatal. Lameness caused by foot blisters is a common and very painful symptom, as is the common blistering of the lips, nose and tongue. Some animals’ tongues fall out and most experience some degree of pain, which can be severe.

    However, about 95% of diseased animals apparently recover after a period of about one to two weeks (Gellatley 2001). The British government’s official policy to ‘contain’ FMD is a slaughter policy, based on the intention of ‘killing-out’ the disease. This strategy was used in this latest outbreak. Thus, all animals found with the disease are immediately killed along with the contiguous killing of the animals on neighbouring farms, small holdings (sometimes rather disparagingly labelled as ‘hobby farms’ by ‘real’ farmers) and animal sanctuaries. As if to entirely contradict and refute Adrian Franklin’s (1999) thesis that there has been a ‘dramatic transformation’ in human-nonhuman relations within the shift from modernity to ‘postmodernity’, the FMD experience in Britain appeared to violently slam the door shut on the notion that the human subject has been ‘decentred’ in present times, or that the ‘postmodern condition’ has somehow resulted in a ‘celebration’ of the differences between humans and other animals. Franklin even talks of what he calls ‘the demise of meat’ in postmodernism, despite numbers of animals killed for food increasing.

    The fact is, from the beginning of the foot and mouth disease outbreak, in numerous newspaper articles and countless radio and television programmes, ‘farmers’ leaders’ from the National Farmers Union and politicians of all colours let it be known that the FMD crisis was overwhelmingly ‘a human issue’ – indeed, they claimed that it may be regarded as a very severe ‘human tragedy’. Of course, nonhumans were involved as well, but in true welfarist fashion, their most important interests (their very lives) were systematically ‘sacrificed’ due to the economic imperatives of human beings, and political expediency related to ‘export market considerations’. Even so, for several weeks, and for several times every day, the British public were unusually exposed to a brutal reality for ‘farming animals’ used as if they were food: they are killed and they get burnt.

    On the surface at least, these facts were evidently a shocking, horrific, and something of a complete surprise to the public. Moreover, just as shocked were a large number of weeping ‘livestock’ farmers (who might be expected to know the basic realities of ‘animal agriculture’) who appeared in the media during the outbreak. However, rather than being a product of ignorance of ‘farming outcomes’, food animal enslavers’ apparently genuine distress came largely to be understood as a result of uncommonly witnessing their animal property being killed; a rare event for many farmers used to routinely leaving nonhumans virtually at the gates of abattoirs. Nonhuman animal deaths at such execution centres are not often seen by many ‘outsiders’, and especially not the public, as active steps are made to keep this unpleasant reality well beyond view (see Thomas [1983] for a historical account of ‘hiding’ slaughterhouses).

    More instrumentally, talking about their losses due to FMD, many enslavers noted the upsetting loss of ‘bloodlines’ and valuable ‘breeding stock’ as the cause of many of their tears. As said, the whole issue – and particularly this part of it – was largely characterised as an event effecting the lives and economic viability of human beings, rather than being principally about the deaths of (eventually) millions of nonhuman animals. However, perhaps due to the very visibility of the slaughter, outraged public voices were raised about the treatment of the animals being killed. On April 13, 2001, the Welsh Mirror carried a detailed report (all of p. 1; pp. 4-5; and editorial on p. 6) of a white-suited council slaughterer in an open field taking what were described as ‘pot-shots’ at sheep with a rifle. The accompanying front-page picture features a reproduced still from a video recording of the ‘sickening scene’ made by a ‘shocked’ member of the public.

    The inside pages contain further images from the same video, complete with a dramatic narrative explaining the sequence of events. ‘Doomed’, says the first caption as the sheep ‘mingle in fear’; followed by ‘Taking Aim’; ‘Target’; ‘Cornered’; ‘Last Breath’; and finally, ‘It’s Over’. A Ms. Irene Smith, who took the video with her husband from a window in their house, explained her outrage: ‘We could hear the gun going off and the sheep crying out. I can’t get the haunting noise and the awful picture out of my mind. Three of our grandchildren arrived minutes after it ended. I’m just so relieved they missed it’ (p. 5).

    Concern for the welfare of the sheep and the potential distress of human witnesses informs this piece throughout. For example, another observer of the killing said it was ‘pure horror’, presumably for the sheep themselves, but for herself also in having seen it; while she also expressed her sympathy for the ‘poor people’ who have to carry out the ‘cull’. The editorial comment, ‘The voice of the Mirror’ (p. 6), spoke of the newspaper’s support for the government’s slaughter policy, again exclusively expressed within an orthodox animal welfarist framework, while the earlier piece acknowledges the endorsement for the killing of Britain’s largest animal welfare organisation, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The sheep ‘have to die’, the leader comment states, adding a standard welfarist rejoinder ‘but not to die in such an appalling way’.

    The outrage expressed in all of these pages appears to be firmly predicated on the palpable contravention of the fundamental welfarist assumption and indeed promise that animal exploitation can usually be carried out in ways that cause no ‘unnecessary’ animal suffering. It is only too clear that this phrase, ‘unnecessary suffering’, is welfarist through and through, since it unconditionally accepts the notion that humans are morally permitted to ‘sacrifice’ the greatest interests of other animals if theirs are deemed important enough, therefore allowing for some suffering – but only the ‘necessary’ sort – to be legally sanctioned. The ideological welfarist message comes over loud and clear in this press report: even at the height of the extraordinary circumstances of a serious nationwide foot and mouth epidemic, there is nevertheless no excuse for ‘unnecessary’ cruelty.

    When in June 2001 (reported in BBC Radio 4’s Today programme) further members of the public witnessed part of the FMD ‘cull’ in Skipton, Yorkshire, the pattern of response repeated itself. In this case, slaughterers chased cows, shooting them with rifles from ‘quad bikes’. One cow was apparently left partially paralysed. Another was still alive after three attempts to kill her. She eventually died but only after being throttled by being hung from a JCB tractor by a neck chain. According to the radio report, members of the public were again said to be very upset and once more a great deal of that can be explained by the highly unusual visibility of the killing. One eye-witness noted, as in the Welsh case, that children were playing close to the spot only minutes before the killing commenced (slaughtering lasted for nine hours in the Skipton incident) and they may have seen what was happening. Others observers noted that they understood that the ‘‘cull’ had to continue’ to maintain the decrease in FMD incidence but, again, there was simply no excuse for causing this amount of cruelty to these animals.

    The FMD outbreak of 2001 in Britain may be characterised as an out-of-the-ordinary public event – and therefore particularly distressing for that reason alone. Members of the public as well as journalists sought to make sense of events which, many concluded, must have involved the regrettable but, presumably, ‘necessary’ deaths of animals. The dominant interpretative framework through which the majority of people attempted to come to understandings of the ‘cull’ was unmistakably welfarist in origin. That said, a limited number of people, journalist and former Member of Parliament Matthew Parris being one, suggested that maybe this outbreak, following as it did cases of BSE/CJD and swine sever, placed a serious question mark on the whole idea of using non-human animals as food. However, these were minority voices, and most discourse on the FMD crisis failed to get beyond its characterisation as a human tragedy; moreover, British nonhuman advocacy groups such as Animal Aid and Viva! claim that they were regularly refused access to media coverage through-out the outbreak.

    Of significance are the suggestions that the events witnessed by the public amounted to incidents which ‘failed to live up’ to the usual high standards of animal slaughter thought to be routinely practised in Britain. In relation to the FMD ‘cull’, much was made of the fact that the requirements of speed of slaughter, and slaughtering on farms, resulted in ‘the usually high animal welfare standards’ being compromised. However, although this is perfectly likely to have been the case, the point tends to obscure standard slaughtering practices in ‘normal’ British abattoirs in ‘normal’ times. Animal advocates claim that the notion of ‘humane slaughter’ a virtual impossibility in standard procedures as much as those put in place to deal with an industry crisis (Singer 1983: 161; Penman 1996: 53; Gellatley 2000: 156).

    In terms of the ‘normal’ practice of animal slaughter, perhaps an attitude that ‘ignorance is bliss’ is quite understandable. As Juliet Gellatley (2000: 155) puts it: ‘Most people don’t work in a slaughterhouse, have never set foot in one and refuse to listen when you try to tell them about it’. All of which makes the unusual visibility of slaughter during the FMD outbreak especially distressing to a public generally shielded from such scenes. Animal welfare ideology states that, by and large, British slaughter standards are relatively high and largely unproblematic. However, journalist Jan Walsh, whose book about ‘the meat machine’ (Walsh 1986) is especially designed not to put people off eating meat, and is not an animal advocate, states that:

    Most people are probably aware that there are problems with the way we slaughter our food animals. Undoubtedly some arrive at the slaughterhouse bruised and suffering from a long journey; some are fearful when they approach their end; and some fail to be knocked unconscious before the slaughterman’s knife does its job (ibid.: 43-44).

    Welfarist ideology says that these problems are relatively small. They are far from the norm and a whole raft of legislation exists to ‘ensure’ non-cruel slaughter. Walsh goes on:

    If the slaughterhouse staff mistreat an animal when it is unloaded, or ~waiting its turn,~ they are committing an offence. If they allow a creature to see one of its fellows being killed, that again is an offence. And if the system is not good enough to make sure that every animal is either killed instantaneously, or stunned into unconscious oblivion before its life is ended, then again the slaughterhouse can be prosecuted. It is the duty of the local authority inspectors, and the vets in attendance, to make sure that these laws are kept (ibid.: 44, emphasis added).

    June 16, 2009
  3. No, it doesn't make sense why this man would be upset today… but not in a week or two – except that at a future date there's money in his hands.

    What gets me though… is this photo. With the other cows all looking with great concern at their fallen friends and family members. I sympathize with them much more than I ever would their "owner".

    June 16, 2009

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