Caring about Animals in the Era of Foot and Mouth

On British television recently, a tearful farmer spoke of the fact that his sheep were being shot to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease: "We’re so sorry to see our lambs die – they should be the symbol of spring, of new life. But now they die due to this awful disease.” Total hypocrisy.

Before you start weeping in sympathy with the farmer, ask yourself one question: what would have been the fate of the lambs if there had been no outbreak of foot and mouth disease? The farmer would have taken these little symbols of spring away from their mothers, packed them into trucks, and sent them to slaughter. The symbol of new life would become dead meat. Then the farmer would have happily banked the cheque he was paid for doing this. (He'll still get a cheque, since farmers are compensated by government for animals shot to contain the outbreak.)

The lambs may have lost out on a few weeks of life, but they were also spared the distress of separation from their mothers, the misery of transportation, possibly for hundreds of kilometres, and the crowding and terror of the slaughterhouse.

When intensively reared pigs are shot as a disease control measure, they lose even less. Kept indoors all their lives, on bare concrete without straw for bedding – pigs love straw, but it costs money and makes the floors harder to keep clean – with nothing to do all day except for the short time they are eating, it is hard to see that longer existence brings them any benefits at all. It's a matter of judgment, and others might disagree, but in my view the lucky factory farmed pigs are those shot on the farm. The unlucky ones have to live longer.

I've been reading newspaper columns in which writers say how dreadful it is, this mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of animals. They question its necessity, noting that the disease poses zero risk to humans, and even in animals, 95% will recover within a week or two – or would, if they were not shot first. There is even a vaccine for it.

Columnists point out that the real reason for the slaughter is economic. The disease causes a temporary loss of production, and once foot and mouth disease is established in a country, other countries will prohibit the importation of its meat and dairy products because they don't want the disease to spread it to their animals.

Vaccination, however, doesn't solve the export problem, because it produces false positives on blood tests of animals suspected of having the disease, so the importing countries don't know if they have found an animal with the disease, or an animal that has been vaccinated against it. To do further tests distinguishing the infected animals from the vaccinated ones is expensive, and not yet proven to be reliable. To be on the safe side, countries ban the import of vaccinated animals anyway.

So, having demonstrated that the slaughter is unnecessary, it is then said that the slaughter should stop, that it shows the wrong attitude to animals, that we must show them more respect, and not just treat them as a means to our ends. While they are not vegetarian, some of these columnists say, they are so disgusted with what they have been seeing on television that they have been thinking of giving up meat.

Oh please! Where have the people been all these years? You must have known that all these animals were going to get slaughtered anyway? If you can read, and didn't deliberately turn away from anything that might disturb your comfort, you should also know that the entire animal industry is unnecessary, that we would be healthier, and do less damage to our environment, without it?

These animals are just means to our ends, that is their sole reason for existing. How can farmers treat them with respect when consumers want cheaper meat and supermarkets are using their immense bargaining power to force producers to use every possible means to cut costs?

Yes, do give up meat. It's the right decision to make, and better late than never. But don't give it up because you pity the animals being shot, and don't like the attitude to animals that is conveyed by the fact that all this killing is taking place for mere economic gain. Give it up because all of this slaughter has at last brought home to you the real truth about the nature of the animal industry today.