Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine someone taking your family pet and shooting a bolt into her skull. Now further envision that this shot didn’t entirely incapacitate your beloved family member, but instead just made her woozy. While she attempts to regain clarity, her hind leg is shackled and she’s hoisted into the air upside-down. She’s scared and confused, and while panic and adrenaline course through her body, she thrashes violently to escape this horrific nightmare. Gradually she fights less, and as her strength and will to live subside, her throat is ‘mercifully’ cut. As her eyes dim, and the pool of blood spreads beneath her, the one question that echoes the strongest is simply…”Why?” As horrific a picture as the above might paint, such a scenario cruelly plays out in slaughterhouses around the world. Instances of animal cruelty and inhumane treatment are commonplace, yet society for the most part has turned a blind-eye to these misdeeds. Seemingly a dichotomy exists, whereby livestock and animals raised for human consumption (Hereinafter “food animals”) are allowed to be treated in ways that would be unthinkable for family pets and other creatures. By examining the morality and misconceptions behind this mindset, the financial realities of the industry, and the inherent health concerns associated with these activities, it will become evident that food animals clearly deserve to be treated more humanely.
As hopefully the preceding paragraph has highlighted, most individuals would consider it deplorable for a beloved family pet to be treated in the aforementioned manner. Why then has society seemingly deemed it acceptable for farm animals to be handled as such? The most oft-argued rationalization for this mistreatment rests with the notion that these animals are basic creatures that simply do not feel pain and suffering. The idea that animals might not experience these feelings as humans do traces back at least to the 17th-century French philosopher, René Descartes, who argued that animals lack consciousness (Carbone, 149). As is the case with many 400 year-old theories, however, this belief if not fully discounted has at minimum become quite contentious.
In contrast to the teachings of Descartes, it has now become widely accepted that almost all animals feel some form of pain (Grandin, “Assessment of Stress” 249). Animals and humans share similar mechanisms of pain detection, have similar areas of the brain involved in processing pain and show similar pain behaviors (Sneddon, 339). What is still widely debated, however, is whether animals have higher levels of consciousness, and in turn experience emotional suffering. Whereas critics remain plentiful, numerous advocates are coming forward with scientific studies that at minimum offer a ray of hope for animal activists. These studies highlight the effects that fear have on the nervous systems and brains of various animals, and show the possibility of a higher level of consciousness (Grandin, “Distress in Animals” 2). Currently, although it is impossible to definitively prove whether animals are capable of emotional pain, it is more importantly impossible to disprove it. Consequently, today’s stakeholders in the animal food industry should no longer be allowed to blindly hide behind the archaic beliefs of Descartes and his would-be followers.
Mindful of changing public sentiment, the debate regarding the treatment of food animals often boils down to one of morality and personal perspectives with regards to animal intelligence. As one cannot get into the minds of animals, or meaningfully measure their emotional pain, perhaps it should simply be accepted that animal pain is different from human pain. Further, this pain and possible suffering is something we will likely never be able to describe fully. Nevertheless, even if animal pain may be distinct from human pain, is that a reason to consider it less...