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“Animal Rights Come Before Religion,” according to Denmark

A few days after a Copenhagen zoo sparked outrage for killing a healthy, young giraffe in order to “prevent inbreeding,” Denmark has announced that they would no longer allow religious exemptions for slaughter of animals (warning: headline picture at link is of slaughtered animal corpses). This primarily affects Jewish and Muslim people in Denmark, because in order for meat to be considered Kosher or Halal, animals must be alive awake when they are slaughtered. Many Jewish and Muslim groups are calling this a restriction of freedom of religion.

While I disagree that this is a real restriction of freedom of religion, I also don’t think that this is the landmark animal rights victory so many people are claiming it is. To quote Peter Singer, “Neither Islam nor Judaism upholds a requirement to eat meat. And I am not calling upon Jews and Muslims to do any more than I have chosen to do myself, for ethical reasons, for more than 40 years.” Further, Denmark’s new law does not ban selling, purchasing, importing, or consuming of Kosher or Halal meat, it just prevents the slaughter from happening in Denmark.

Denmark also isn’t a champion nation for animal rights, either. Denmark is the world’s largest producer of mink pelts, where in order to obtain the pelts, they either gas minks to death or electrocute them by attaching electrodes to their anal glands. According to Humane Society International,

Mink and fox are carnivores, predators and highly inquisitive, active animals, with complex social lives. Unlike most other types of farm animals, who tend to be flock or herd species, mink are solitary by nature. Mink and fox are territorial and, in the wild, go to great lengths to defend their territories. These animals are unsuited to farming conditions and especially intensive breeding and rearing.

Kept in small, wire cages, animals on fur farms have been found to exhibit stereotypical behaviour (such as pacing along the cage wall, repetitive circling/nodding of the head, etc.) as well as self-mutilation (i.e. sucking or biting of the animal’s tail fur, or other parts of their pelts).

I know many atheists who still eat meat who criticize halal and kosher meat (or fur, or veal, etc.) as cruel. Perhaps they should watch Earthlings (available for free online), or Vegucated (available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus), or simply just read up on some factory farming facts. Many people I know who still eat meat claim that they buy “local,” as if “local” were synonymous with “ethical” (if you live in the US, odds are there is a factory farm within 50 miles of you).

Some happy cows living out their life at Wishing Well Sanctuary.
Some happy cows living out their life at Wishing Well Sanctuary.

Of course, there’s also “humane,” “cage free,” “free range,” and other labels, which are barely regulated by the USDA and essentially carry no meaning at all. I’ve mentioned this in talks on veganism that I’ve given previously, but remember that story in the Bible where God commands Abraham to slit his son’s throat to show his devotion to the lord? Would Abraham slitting his son’s throat be any more “humane” if he stunned Isaac first? No? Then why is it considered humane to stun an animal and then slit their throat when you don’t have to?*

I suggest that meat eaters who are celebrating this (or who criticize halal/kosher meat) take a long look at their own behaviors before criticizing others. If you’re interested in taking steps to reduce your harm of animals, check out vegankit.com.

*I’m including this asterisk to say yes, some people cannot be vegan, whether it’s due to cost, access, or health reasons. That’s why I said “when you don’t have to.”

Hat tip to my friend Vlad Chituc for providing some of the links. Photo credit from Jo-Anne McArthur, taken from One Green Planet.

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Sarah

Sarah is a feminist, atheist vegan with Crohn’s Disease, and she won’t shut up about any of those things. You really need to follow her on Twitter (and probably Google+, just to be safe).

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28 Comments

  1. Peter Singer promotes infanticide and the Ashley treatment. He is in no way qualified to discuss bioethics on those grounds alone.

    Animal rights groups have, err, a history with Indians. I’ve described it before in the comments to “PETA’s Sexualized Ads Don’t Work”, so I’ll direct anyone here to there for more details. In my experience, the best ones are derailers. (They’re even one of the things that led to the abandonment of alt.native.) The worst? I’ve already covered that, so I’ll spare you further details. The related links section links there anyway.

    (So wish Jason Spaulding and Michael Two Horses were still alive. They described this in better detail than I could.)

      1. Also Sea Shepherd, and a few others. I respect your personal decision, and I know a few good vegan recipes, but some things are a bit triggering, understand.

        Yeah, those USDA labels are…bad. I’ve even seen ‘vegetarian-fed’ chickens. Outside of the feedlots, chickens will eat worms in the ground. I’ve seen ‘natural’, which (as you know) means nothing.

    1. Peter Singer does not “promote” infanticide. That’s an inaccurate reading of his work (if you have actually read it at all). And even if he did, that would have no bearing on the efficacy of his arguments about the ethics of eating meat.

  2. Interesting topic. I always thought Kosher was a more human than average way of killing animals. That’s actually one of the purposes of “kosher,” i.e. to kill with the least pain and suffering to the animal.

    Can someone explain why Koshering is outlawed but standard factory killing would not be?

    In the summary above, the blurb says that in koshering the animal must be alive when it is slaughtered. Well, all animals are alive until they are slaughtered, even in non kosher ranching and farming. If the notion is that the animal must be alive when carved up for meat, like vivisected, then I have to take issue with that because I don’t think that kosher means that.

    What’s actually going on here? Do the Danes, like, sedate their cows or something so that they are killed in their sleep? How is kosher not as acceptable as regular animal killing?

      1. Blood is considered unclean (trayf) in Jewish law and all meat must be free of blood. Therefore, Kosher slaughter involves cutting the throat and letting as much blood flow out as fast as possible. The reason the animal must be conscious is because a bolt gun (such as the one used in No Country for Old Men) would leave a bruise, and because it’s basically a blood clot, bruised meat is not Kosher. Even if you don’t eat meat from the forehead, the act of intentionally bruising an animal renders the entire animal trayf. Therefore, no rendering them unconscious before slaughter. The “humane” slaughter part comes from regulations that the knife blade be smooth free of nicks, so it goes as smoothly as possible. At the time, it may very well have been the most humane method for slaughter (I’m unaware of other bronze age slaughtering practices). As somebody who’s cut themselves with very sharp and smooth knives and not so sharp nicked knives, I can tell you it makes a difference.

    1. Good questions…yet that is not the real problem. Jewish law is clear that animal cruelty is forbidden, it is also part of 7 Noahide laws.
      My question is more about the hypocrisy all around. Let’s take a look at the inhuman killing of fur animal, or even hunting.
      Let them ban that as well.

    2. I asked a Jewish friend about this once. Mostly kosher law struck me as some sort of sympathetic magic.

      The food pyramid uses a similar classification of food, only putting legumes and eggs in the fleischig category instead of pareve. (Not bothering with spellcheck today.)

  3. “Would Abraham slitting his son’s throat be any more “humane” if he stunned Isaac first? No?”

    Um, yes, actually. I’m surprised that there’s disagreement on this, especially given that you quote Peter Singer, who I’m pretty certain would agree with this given the past statements I’ve read from him. Then again, I also feel that infanticide and the Ashley treatment are ethically acceptable, so perhaps my bioethics compass is unusual.

    1. I came here to say something similar.

      There are two issues hidden in the example of Abraham sacrificing Isaac as an analogy for animal slaughter. The first is the ethics of whether or not Abraham *should* kill Isaac, the second is if he *is* going to kill him, what is the most humane way to do it.

      It’s a pretty easy argument that Abraham should not kill Isaac because he thinks god told him to. I won’t get anymore into it.

      But, if Abraham is going to kill Isaac, then the most human way is by rendering him unconscious first. In the same vein, whether or not you believe capital punishment is ethical, I think we can agree that making it as painless as medically possible is the most humane way to go about it while it’s a legal sentence.

    2. I guess what I thought was implied is that Isaac is a healthy, completely innocent child. Killing him is not sparing him suffering (well, except the basic suffering associated with being alive) or to punish him– it’s because “god said so” (i.e., no reason at all). Would you still consider that ethical then?

      1. The way it was explained to me was that at the time, human sacrifice was not unheard of. Therefore, god wasn’t making a very unusual request. By telling Abe he really didn’t have to do it, god was both letting him know he passed the test of obedience and that he wasn’t going to be asking for human sacrifices, which made him much more benevolent those other gods.

  4. Well, I would consider it unethical, since my ethical system thankfully doesn’t involve any supernatural authorities. But I would most definitely consider stunning him before slitting his throat to be *more* humane than merely slitting his throat. Harm reduction and all that.

  5. As a veterinary student I have been and worked on farms raising animals (lamb and beef) for meat (in the UK) and still have no qualms about eating them, though I try not to eat poultry anymore. Perhaps in America it is different in terms of how they farm their animals and the ethics of eating meat raised in the US is different to the UK.

    However on the subject of slaughter. Halal and kosher meat is inhumane. I have seen these animals slaughtered and they maintain conciousness for a long time. This is because much of a cow’s (and to a lesser extent sheep’s) brain is supplied by the vertebral arteries which are not cut during religious slaughter. It may not be painful for them if the knife is sharp but they lose conciousness slowly which I think is cruel and unecessary. Slaughtering animals should be done as quickly and as humanely as possible which means stunning first and then using a captive bolt to destroy the brain stem.

    I’m not sure the Danish government can go so far as to restrict the selling of Halal or Kosher meat as this would probably infringe religious practice but the fact that they don’t condone religious slaughter is a very positive step forward, in my opinion.

    1. “It may not be painful for them if the knife is sharp but they lose conciousness slowly which I think is cruel and unecessary. ”

      And I would argue that regardless of whether or not they are conscious, you’re killing them so that you can eat their flesh and use their skin as decoration, which I think is cruel and unnecessary. It’s no less inhumane if a murderer knocks out their victim beforehand. I don’t think using a drug cocktail to kill death-row inmates makes the death penalty any more humane. It’s not just about whether they feel pain or not.

      1. “It’s no less inhumane if a murderer knocks out their victim beforehand. I don’t think using a drug cocktail to kill death-row inmates makes the death penalty any more humane. It’s not just about whether they feel pain or not.”

        This rather unusual binary definition of “humane” doesn’t seem like it would have much practical application. Of course it’s “more humane”. Just like it’s “more humane” to not use chemical weapons, or to put down a pet when it’s suffering, or to not torture prisoners before executing them. There’s all kinds of shitty things that can be made less shitty — categorically dismissing harm reduction as “no less inhumane” doesn’t make a lot of sense, and in some positions and situations, would result in greater cruelty.

        Should we execute people? No, it’s inhumane. Should we make sure that if they *are* executed, while we’re working towards total abolition, we treat them as humanely as possible? Without question.

        Shifting the topic a bit, back to other animals — I’m assuming that you think the same “It’s not just about whether they feel pain or not” applies there as well. What is it about, then? I mean, the reason I don’t eat meat is because I don’t want to cause animals to suffer through a factory farming lifestyle. I’ve got no problem with the killing bit — from my readings, even Peter Singer doesn’t (not that he’s an ultimate authority, but most vegans do tend to agree with him, IME).

      2. @contemplative1: I understand that’s the logic, I’m saying it’s too simplistic. There are lots of other things to take into account than just whether or not pain plus death is given more weight than just death.

        @muletonic: operating from a definition of humane as “showing compassion,” I reject the notion that taking a life of a sentient being for the purpose of food and decoration when those things can be obtained through other means is in any way humane or showing compassion. It is not “more humane” to render the animals unconscious first because it is not humane in the first place.

        What it seems to me that you are arguing is not that it is more humane, but that it makes people feel less guilty about the things they do. They act as if they are being more humane, when in actuality I see it as an inhumane act whether the animal was conscious or not.

        You say: “Should we execute people? No, it’s inhumane. Should we make sure that if they *are* executed, while we’re working towards total abolition, we treat them as humanely as possible? Without question.” but this seems to be a fundamentally flawed way of thinking to me, as the way to “treat them as humanely as possible” would be to not execute them. Rather than arguing against the inhumanity of executing people, that line of thinking enables capital punishment so long as people continue to think it is being carried out in “humane” ways. There are no humane ways of taking a life in these situations–they are situations that by definition are inhumane.

        You ask what else is it about other than whether or not they feel pain, and my answer is to look into the ethics of veganism in more depth (in other words, outside of reading Peter Singer). You will find some convincing arguments from multiple ethical perspectives, including environmental issues, health issues, as well as the sorts of issues we are talking about here but beyond the concept of pain/suffering. I can recommend this text if you’re interested: http://www.amazon.com/Vegan-The-New-Ethics-Eating/dp/0935526870

        1. “but this seems to be a fundamentally flawed way of thinking to me, as the way to “treat them as humanely as possible” would be to not execute them”

          Then I’d amend that to include what I thought was implied, which was “humanely as possible under the circumstances”. Do you really think all methods of execution are equally bad? Does harm reduction have no ethical value? If so, we’re clearly operating off of very different conceptions of what “humane” means. I consider it to be a spectrum, whereas you appear to consider it a boolean property. I think that’s untenable, but I guess I can see how you come to your conclusion if that’s your starting point.

          So yeah, I may be a minority among vegans, but I consider reducing the suffering of humans and animals, even when being treated sub-optimally, to be a laudable pursuit. It seems like you’d rather keep the status quo in that regard, so that it provides further rhetorical ammunition to abolish killing of humans and animals altogether. Since that will never occur,* I’d consider that to be tilting at windmills.**

          I appreciate the book recommendation, and will put it on my list, though I would point out that Peter SInger is hardly the only source on food and ethics that I’ve read.

          * Except for capital punishment; that’s probably going to go away in the US at some point.
          ** Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I spend a fair time doing it myself.

  6. Animal welfare and “humane treatment” is a topic near and dear to me, as a vet tech, hunter, and director of a non-profit animal rescue. Some of the above comments are strange to me, in that they seem to be saying that it doesn’t matter how much animals suffer when we kill them. All death is not equal. And we all need protein from somewhere; if you get it from soy or beans, you’re implicit in the painful death of thousands of small birds and mammals during harvest. If you eat animal protein, you’re implicit in the way they’re cared for and how they’re slaughtered. Eating meat selectively is arguably better for the planet than straight veganism, so claiming that there’s somehow a way to live where one does not kill animals is rubbish. Religious slaughter has been controversial for a long time, for reasons outlined by the veterinarian above. This decision by Denmark did not come out of the blue.

    1. “Eating meat selectively is arguably better for the planet than straight veganism,”

      Uh, citation needed. Purely environmentally, being vegan is far, far, far better for the planet. http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2009/0803/opinions-energy-locavores-on-my-mind.html

      “so claiming that there’s somehow a way to live where one does not kill animals is rubbish.”

      I never said that? I said “If you’re interested in taking steps to reduce your harm of animals,” which veganism does. The argument that animals are killed during harvest seems to ignore the fact that livestock are the number one consumer of soybeans in the US (here’s a source on that: http://www.ncsoy.org/ABOUT-SOYBEANS/Uses-of-Soybeans.aspx). So if you eat animals, you’re killing animals during the harvest process & the animals you eat.

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