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FOOT AND MOUTH - Animals are the victims
Posted 1 June 2002
This article, written by Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler, appeared in ECOS (Vol 22, Issue 2), the journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists.
The public has been persuaded that farmers are the victims of the foot and mouth epidemic, rather than the millions of animals who have been at the sharp end of the killing gangs. How has it been for the cattle, sheep and pigs?
How does it feel?
We've had weeping farmers, endless recriminations and scapegoating of innocent parties. We've even had media sob stories about the awful burden befalling slaughter gangs as they chase down and exterminate, with terrible ineptitude, fields of sheep and cattle - and, unmonitored by media crews, sheds of pigs.
What we haven't had are accounts of the foot and mouth (F&M) mass slayings from the perspective of the animal victims. Is this because animal advocates such as my own organisation, Animal Aid, have been mute and indolent throughout this affair? No it isn't!
Animal Aid, in common with other animal rights groups, has sent out a ceaseless flow of press statements and letters to editors putting the animals' point of view.
With the help of our network of supporters, we've staged demos and distributed vast quantities of explanatory literature in towns across the UK. Regional newspapers have been reasonably responsive but national media have not only largely ignored our message, several papers have run pieces taunting animal activists for their 'telling silence' - a 'silence', some writers have said, that proves we are fakers and hypocrites who care less for farmed animals than the average carnivorous member of the public.
Why the vitriol. Why the lies?
Farming's vicious reality
The answer can be found in what this epidemic has revealed to the public about the essential nature of animal farming. While most editors see foot and mouth as a story of victim farmers at the mercy of bungling, hard-faced MAFF officials, a little bit of truth has seeped out by virtue of the unambiguous television images.
The story those images tell is of the vicious, bloody and ruthless nature of livestock production. The public has now seen animals, helpless with confusion and fear, being roughed up and killed before their eyes. They have seen newborn lambs dying in rain and mud. They have seen animals shovelled into pits and hoisted onto funeral pyres. Were all these animals dead before being buried or burnt? The evidence says 'no'.
Abetted by the media
While the industry line - abetted by key sections of the media - has been that these events are an unrepeatable horror; that farming is not ordinarily like this; not everyone is convinced. In witnessing animals being so ruthlessly trashed, the public has been forced to ponder the everyday hidden reality of animal production and slaughter.
Faced with intimations of their own complicity, people have responded in a variety of ways.
How to cope - option 1
Many have pledged to give up meat. It so happens that March was Veggie Month - Animal Aid's annual celebration of the animal-free diet. As a result of foot and mouth claiming front page headlines throughout that month, we received an unprecedented number of requests for information packs.
How to cope - option 2
Other people took their cue from the media and registered the 'cull', not as a lethal assault against millions of animals but as a blow against farmers. It is as though this group of people felt compelled to conceal from their conscious selves the fact that the animals were bred in the first place to be exploited and butchered - and that the 'victim farmers' were actually receiving full value for each animal 'culled'.
As well as the hundreds of millions of pounds in taxpayers' money, all kinds of lucrative ad hoc aid schemes have sprung up for farmers. These have involved banks, orchestras, pop stars, newspapers, members of the royal family, even Michael Eavis, the Somerset cattle man on whose land is staged the very hip Glastonbury Festival.
By twisting this whole affair so out of shape that the 'producers' become the sorry losers, rather than their animal victims, feelings of guilt and complicity can be dissipated. Put a coin in the collection box - or easier still, curse the government - and all uncomfortable feelings are banished.
How to cope - option 3
The third typical reaction to the killing scenes is that people start looking for targets on which to expend feelings of guilt and distress. MAFF, as we've seen, is a solid option, as are Brussels bureaucrats, and supermarket bosses. More exotically, there are Middle East terrorists, bogus asylum seekers with their contaminated meat sandwiches and funny dried meat products from funny foreign places like China and South America.
Animal rights takes the rap
Animal rights 'fanatics' are another target. One scenario has us spreading the virus in an act of bio-terrorism whose purpose is to bring the farming industry to its knees (as though it needed any help.) In addition, and as already noted, we are accused by newspaper columnists of remaining indifferent to the fate of the 'culled' animals.
What the writers are really saying is:
Why should we have to witness all this killing and animal suffering? We don't want to be reminded that animals die so that we can eat meat. Why don't animal rights 'fanatics' do something to stop the visible cruelty and stop me feeling guilty?
To which we say, animal farming can never be a smiley cottage industry - least of all in a country that every year slaughters nearly 900 million poultry, sheep, cattle and pigs. We say also, why don't you do something yourselves? Stop being complicit in a brutal, oppressive, polluting agribusiness. Go Veggie.
This brings us to a consideration of the horrors of everyday animal production that are usually concealed behind farm and slaughterhouse gates. It is a story of forced conception, rapid fattening, long-distance transportation and industrialised killing - all conducted on an increasingly large scale and at an increasingly frantic pace.
- 40,000 broiler chickens in one stinking shed with no windows is typical. No wonder Poultry World magazine, in its annual 'Disease Directory', lists around 100 ailments that afflict commercial birds.
- Ewes are now manipulated - by way of a special diet, hormones and selective breeding - into producing two and three lambs (rather than the normal one) in the dead of winter rather than in the spring. No wonder around 15 per cent of all lambs perish within days of birth, mostly from disease, malnutrition and exposure.
- The early mortality rate within pig sheds - typically airless, stone and metal breeding factories - is 10 per cent.
- Amongst hard pressed dairy cows - who must produce freakishly large quantities of milk for the human consumer and whose calves are stolen from them within a day or two of birth - mastitis, crippling leg ailments and reproductive failure are endemic. While their natural lifespan is about 30 years, farmed cows are spent by the time they are four or five, at which point they are despatched to an incinerator. BSE means they are deemed too dangerous to eat.
- And what do we know of the killing factories, with their doctrine of 'humane slaughter'. I have personally seen it done many times - the chaos, incompetence and callousness. I've seen pigs, with blood gushing from throat wounds, falling from overhead metal shackles and thrashing on the ground. I've seen animals beaten and kicked from lorries to the stunning area... and lots more.
Disease is the product
Is it any wonder that animals who are subjected to these processes are typically enfeebled and diseased? Foot and mouth is not a freak occurrence but a product of this very system - a system that has arisen out of the demand for more and cheaper meat and dairy products by the majority of Britain's 60 million population.
And let's not forget that foot and mouth comes on the heels of serious outbreaks of salmonella, campylobacter, E.coli, swine fever, bovine TB, BSE, as well as conditions the public never reads about. One is orf - a viral disease that also causes mouth lesions and lameness and which is currently ripping through the UK lamb population.
Another is a new pig wasting disease - for the moment, at a low level here, but which in Italy is causing up to 25 to 30 per cent mortality in young animals.
It is because these problems are endemic that our message throughout the F&M crisis has been: animal farming is irredeemable. Go Veggie. Animal Aid will support you with free information and recipe packs.
Nightmare of the cull
Does that mean we have a complaint only about animal farming in general, with no concerns specific to the F&M mass slaughter? Far from it. Every animal rights person I know is in a state of deep anguish over the conduct of the 'cull', even though we recognise animal farming is, by its nature, a killing business.
Here is a partial list of what depresses us:
- There is evidence that animals, having been shot with captive bolt guns, are recovering consciousness and experiencing their own slow deaths piled up with their fellows. While still alive, according to reports, the victims are being drenched with disinfectant. They are recovering consciousness because the guns - which fire retractable bolts - are stunning rather than killing devices. In abattoirs they are used to render animals insensible before they are killed by having their throats cut or by having a (recently prohibited) pithing rod driven deep into their brains via the hole made by the bolt gun. A great many sheep and cattle, under the F&M slaughter programme, are merely shot with this stunning device.
- The army's involvement in the ultra-rapid disposal of hundreds of thousands of sheep has raised the real and horrifying prospect of animals being buried alive.
- There is the near certainty that many animals awaiting destruction have been deprived of food. The farming press routinely has stories about the bottom falling out of one market sector or another (cull ewes, spent sows, baby calves) and there not being enough money around to feed them properly. Given that farmers get compensation for the culled animals, whether or not they are fed prior to destruction, we worry about animals going un-fed between the time of their slaughter being ordered and the actual killing. This could be seven or eight days.
While others watch
- Animals are being killed in the sight of their fellows - a practice prohibited in slaughterhouses because of the distress it causes (even though, in slaughterhouses, pigs are typically electrically stunned in groups). Farmers Weekly reports (May 18) on a group of cattle in North Devon who took flight when they saw their fellows being shot and were finally corned in a neighbouring field. The trade journal describes how they were "huddling terrified under the hedge in full view from the village while marksmen tried to shoot them. Some escaped again."
Into the heart
- Young pigs, lambs and calves, whose skulls are too soft for the captive bolt, are being killed by being injected directly into their hearts (intra-cardiac). This is a painful and traumatic procedure that the American Veterinary Medical Association outlaws, except where animals are heavily-sedated, unconscious or anaesthetised. (1) There are kinder ways of despatching these young animals, including the use of pre-sedation followed by shooting with a small bore free bullet, or the administration of a lethal injection. But these methods are considered less convenient for the killing gangs.
What say the vets?
Incredibly, the president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons - the body that sets and maintains standards for the profession - has defended intra-cardiac injection as well as killing animals in the sight of their fellows in the context of the F&M slaughter. He claimed, in correspondence with me, that the former wasn't painful. And he argued that sheep and cattle are quite untroubled while watching the killing of members of their own family and social groups - even though there is a legal prohibition on subjecting animals to such an experience in slaughterhouses.
Animal Aid regards the president's views as an outrage, not only because they are voiced by a man sworn upon oath to protect animals, but also because these views are likely to be communicated to new generations of veterinary surgeons. Animal Aid, as a consequence, has called for his resignation.
Recipe for life
For all the suffering and terror that has befallen millions of farmed animals as a result of the foot and mouth catastrophe, the episode has also served to alert many people to the realities of animal farming and, in so doing, has reinforced the trend towards vegetarianism. It is a trend based on a growing recognition of the cruelties, inefficiencies and financial and public health penalties that are implicit in farm animal production.
That these failings are today clearly manifest can be seen in the bureaucratic manoeuvrings of the newly mandated government. Following on from its creation of the Food Standards Agency, we now have the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rising out of the rubble of MAFF. If these changes are to amount to very much more than new logos and letterheads, it is vital that the Blair government confronts the power vested in the moneyed, landed clique that controls the National Farmers' Union. This leadership has dictated what government policy was to be from the very outset of the epidemic. Ben Gill and chums wanted a cull, no vaccination and hundreds of millions of additional featherbedding money - and that's precisely what they got.
The murder of men
Twenty years ago, I was routinely mocked, even by friends and family, who regarded vegetarianism (let alone veganism which I adopted two years later) as a perversion of the natural order.
In 2001, even the vegan argument is increasingly seen as having merit and people are now often quick to tell me that they eat less meat and consume only 'free-range' eggs.
I look forward to the prophecy of Leonardo da Vinci coming to pass. The great artist proclaimed:
'The day will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as we now look upon the murder of men.'
- 2000 Report of the American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Euthanasia. JAVMA, Vol. 218. No.5, March 1, 2001, p680.