Ethics of Humane Slaughter with Bernie Rollin

We met with the philosopher, Dr. Bernard Rollin, an internationally respected animal ethicist, to discuss the treatment of animals at the time of slaughter.

Dr. Bernard E. Rollin is Colorado State University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and University Bioethicist. He has dedicated his life to improving animal welfare in veterinary schools, medical schools, research laboratories, and agriculture. He is the author of more than five hundred articles and seventeen books. His latest book, an autobiography about his work on animal ethics, was just published in 2011: Putting the Horse before Descartes: My Life’s Work on Behalf of Animals.

We met with Bernie at his friend’s farm on Tuesday, September 11th, outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. Since we have been filming a lot of slaughter over the past two years, we knew it was important to get his philosophical perspectives on methods of stunning. The science involved in determining insensibility is critical, of course, but not worth practical consideration without coming at it from an ethical position. The person best equipped to answer our questions was Bernie.

He is the quintessential animal magnet, which humorously made it a bit difficult to get our interview off the ground.

It took us some time to realize that we should conduct the interview standing up with the horses inside of a corral.

We gained some valuable perspectives on pain and sentience from speaking to Bernie at length about his thoughts on stunning practices (captive bolt gun, gas and electrocution). First of all, we learned that he does not like electrocution because he believes that the animal feels it for a while. He also is opposed to CO2 gas stunning. He argues that the animals experience suffocation and that it can take up to 40 seconds to lose consciousness. With a captive bolt gun, he said that there might be a microsecond of pain on impact, but then consciousness is ablated immediately.

We also knew it was important to get Bernie’s perspectives on kosher and halal slaughter, which do not permit stunning the animal prior to bleed out. He is very clear about his position, as he says, “There is no question in my mind – zero – that it’s gonna hurt more than being stunned ideally with a captive bolt.”

Before Bernie headed home, we asked him what he thought about the public’s role in advocating for humane slaughter.  He said, “The only way we’re going to get the sorts of improvements that we’ve been talking about is for the public to demand it.”  I responded by saying that consumers don’t want to think about slaughter. With the kind of wisdom I would expect from him, he replied, “In my experience, it’s not that consumers don’t care. It’s that consumers don’t know.”  Yet another reason for slaughterhouses to have glass walls. . .

Bison Processing with Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin teaches us about the humane slaughter of bison

On Monday, September 10th, we were honored to have Temple Grandin give us a lesson on the humane slaughter of bison at Double J Meatpacking in Pierce, Colorado. She explained to us that bison almost became extinct, but fortunately now people are raising bison and they’ve really made a comeback. People are especially interested in preserving the wild type bison. The bison that we saw slaughtered came off the range.

As Dr. Grandin explained, “The only way we can preserve species — we’ve got to make them economically valuable enough so that people are going to want to take care of them.” It was a beautiful fall day as we stood outside of the holding pens and listened to her tell us about these amazing creatures.

Since bison are very majestic animals with a sad history in this country, I was ambivalent about how I would feel seeing them slaughtered. But Dr. Grandin went with us each step of the way and told us about all of the precautions that are taken to assure that they are treated and slaughtered humanely.

In this particular plant, since bison have a very heavy skull,  they stunned the animals using a 357 magnum rifle prior to bleed out. The captive bolt gun, which is used on cattle, would not be effective with bison.

Although it was very dramatic and startling to see the bison being shot at such close range, we knew that they would be insensible to pain instantaneously. It was impressive to see the skill level of the workers at the Double J plant.  They were obviously well-trained and serious about humanely transitioning these animals to meat. Even though these scenes are an every day routine for them, they are not desensitized to the animals’ sentience. I’m sure it isn’t easy firing a rifle point blank at an animal looking right at you, but it’s important to retain the perspective that if people are going to eat meat, this needs to be done, and done as humanely as possible.

Dr. Grandin took the time to explain the details of how to determine if an animal is being slaughtered humanely. First, she had me feel the eyeball to see that it is unresponsive – an indicator of insensibility. As I moved in to touch this bison’s eye, I could immediately tell that she was unconscious.

Dr. Grandin also showed us the location of the shot in the skull. It was in the exact place it was supposed to be to assure that the bison lost consciousness immediately.

All of these details, although emotionally difficult to consider, are essential for the humane slaughter of animals for meat. I realize that many people would prefer not to get this close to meat processing, but I truly feel that the transparency is important. We owe it to these animals to know how they become our food.

After we were finished watching the process on the kill floor, Dr. Grandin took extra time to go over some footage with us to explain more about the skills involved in humane slaughter.