When Slaughter Makes Sense
Peter Singer & Karen Dawn
Newsday, February 8, 2004

For the past month, the nightly television news has been showing us animals being slaughtered. Governments in 10 Asian countries have killed more than 25 million ducks and chickens to stem the spread of avian flu. China has drowned thousands of civet cats suspected of spreading Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the often-lethal disease usually abbreviated to SARS. Here in the United States, more than 700 dairy cows, so far, have been killed in order to contain any possible spread of mad cow disease.

Many people are disturbed by the slaughters. They are upset by footage of civet cats being carried off in cages about to be drowned. Perhaps because we keep cats as companion animals, we are likely to object more strongly to the killing of animals called cats than we are to the killing of, say, pigs. And, though not really cats at all, civets are furry and rather cute. But then so are millions of similar animals killed for fur coats every year.

It appears that the species of animal is not what causes the emotional effect: Most people eat beef, yet during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom television footage of piles of dead cows being burned caused public outrage. Are people more disturbed by the slaughter of animals to prevent the spread of diseases than about the daily slaughter of animals for food? Seeing any animals being carried off to slaughter, even for food, might evoke a similar response - think of the twinge of sadness many people have at the sight of a packed cattle truck on a highway. But we don't usually see such images on the evening news.

Perhaps the reason for the public's particular concern during the current mass slaughters is that it seems that the lives of these animals are being wasted. When we kill cows, pigs or chickens for food, most people would say something positive comes from their deaths. The millions of animals being killed in the current slaughter are just being thrown away like garbage. Probably very few, if any, of the civet cats are carrying SARS, and no one really knows whether killing all these animals will stop or reduce the spread of the disease. Many of the chickens certainly do have avian flu, but millions of healthy birds are being killed as well, just in case.

Any concern that many of the killings are without purpose, however, is misplaced. If you've passed through an airport in the last two years, you will have been searched. We presume you were not intending to hijack a plane. Was the search, therefore, a waste of your time and of the resources required to pay the employees who searched you? Not really. If searching passengers prevents hijackings, and there is no reliable and ethical way of zeroing in on just those people likely to be planning a hijack, then none of the searching is a waste of time, even if in 99,999,999 cases out of every 100 million, no hijack was intended.

The same principle governs killing animals to prevent a disease. Even though most of the animals are healthy, if one diseased animal could cause a catastrophic disease to spread through both human and animal populations, and there is no practicable way to distinguish the healthy animals from those carrying disease, it is not a waste to kill them all.

Killing the animals "only" to prevent the possible spread of disease is certainly no worse for the individual animals. All of these animals - civet cats, chickens and cows - were destined for dinner tables. Since virtually all of them are intensively farmed and spend their lives confined and crowded in miserable conditions, it is probably kinder to kill them sooner rather than later. Other animals won't necessarily replace them. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the advocacy organization, tells us it could not keep up with the requests for vegetarian starter kits when foot- and-mouth disease spread through the United Kingdom. And the Times of India reports that the bird flu scare has led to a 75- to 90 percent drop in chicken sales.

So what is there to object to about the current large-scale slaughters to prevent disease? Since we are both actively involved with the animal- rights movement, most people would expect us to think of them as atrocities. We are saddened, of course, by the mass killings, but at least there is a valid purpose to them, as they are designed to stop the spread of diseases that could cause many more other deaths.

People generally feel that something positive comes from the deaths of the animals we kill for food. But we can nourish ourselves well, many doctors would say far better, without killing animals. The numbers involved in the slaughters to prevent disease, and even the suffering involved, is a small fraction of the approximately 40 billion annually who suffer to supply people with meat, poultry and other animal products. So while the current slaughter to prevent disease is a shame, the mass slaughter for food, generally unpublicized and considered acceptable, is in our view, the real atrocity.

Ironically, it is not only the animals that suffer because of our taste for meat. So far, at least, the number of human deaths from SARS, avian flu and mad cow disease combined is minuscule when compared to premature deaths caused by the modern American diet - a diet spreading, with its deadly diseases, throughout the world. The World Health Organization has recently drafted a "global strategy on diet, physical activity and health" that calls for a reduction in fats and an increase in fresh fruit, whole grains, legumes and nuts. In other words, less meat, dairy and eggs - more plant foods.

Yet thanks to the strength of the meat and dairy lobbies, the U.S. government has continuously promoted the consumption of animal products, via subsidies, tax breaks, nutrition charts and school lunch programs, as if protein deficiency and malnutrition, rather than obesity and heart disease, were the real dangers to its people.

Just how bad the rearing and slaughtering of animals for food really is became a little clearer to the American public over the last few weeks, precisely because of the threat to human health posed by mad cow disease. For years, animal advocates have been pushing legislative bills that would ban the slaughter of downed animals. A downed animal is one so sick she cannot walk into the slaughterhouse. She is dragged, often in agony, along the ground, to her death. The agricultural lobby defeated a downed animal bill just months before an animal with mad cow disease entered the American food supply. While there is some question about whether that particular cow was downed, we know that downed cows are particularly likely to be diseased. So the mercenary calculation that has led to slaughtering sick animals, rather than humanely killing them where they lie, puts the people at risk.

Perhaps the footage that most people have now seen of animals stumbling to slaughterhouses so sick that they can hardly walk will prompt people to call for an end to the cruel slaughter of downed animals for any purpose. But our reputation as a humane nation would have stood higher if we had stopped it before we discovered that it is a health risk.

Can we also dare to hope that pictures on television and in the press of animals being slaughtered en masse will lead people to re- examine their eating habits? If so, the animals, even the healthy animals, killed in the current slaughter to prevent disease will clearly not have died for nothing.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'When Slaughter Makes Sense'