I’m a city girl. Raised in Birmingham, I live in London. Aside from fairly frequent trips to City Farms I don’t get to see farm animals all that often. So there is a lot about them, and what typically happens to them on farms and in slaughterhouses, that I wasn’t too familiar with until I started looking into it.
More than 900 million farm animals are killed for food each year in Britain. Here’s some information about how that happens and why you should care about it.
Why pigs are brilliant
Did you know that scientists have determined that not only are pigs smart, they are smarter than dogs, some primates and 3-year old children. They are ranked as the fourth most intelligent creature on earth.
They are able to play joystick-controlled video games, have abstract thought, recognize their own names, use tools, dream and follow commands.
Pigs are very social animals forming close bonds with people and other animals. They love contact and enjoy getting massages. They love belly-rubs. Pigs show affection by grooming each other and greet one another by rubbing noses.
They enjoy hanging out together, sunbathing, and listening to music: this sounds like me on my summer holidays! Pigs love to sleep together in nests, cuddled up nose-to-nose. Mother pigs sing to their babies.
Pigs have been reported to have saved humans and other animals from drowning, fires, and intruders. One pig flagged down a passing car to help her human companion who was having a heart attack.
What happens to pigs on farms and beyond
Growing pigs are often kept in barren, crowded conditions on slatted concrete floors without straw for bedding or rooting. These pigs have no access to outdoors and will never experience fresh air or daylight. They are unable to behave naturally and are likely to be bored and frustrated. They tend to fight and to bite each other, sometimes causing severe injury.
In addition to tooth cutting, most piglets have their tails docked to discourage tail biting. This is painful and may cause long-term pain.
Pigs travel badly and are easily stressed by transport and by pre-slaughter handling. They do not have sweat glands and are particularly susceptible to heat stress during transport.
The Food Standards Agency found, at the end of August 2016, that there were 4,000 major breaches of animal welfare laws at UK abattoirs in two years. Their investigation found pigs being lifted by their ears and tails. Failures in the slaughter process were also highlighted, with thousands of instances of animals not being stunned properly and in some cases not stunned at all. Inspectors recorded cases of chickens and pigs being immersed in tanks of scalding hot water – used to soften the skin and remove hair or feathers – while still alive.
Some cool facts about chickens
Scientists have shown that mother hens display signs of empathy for their baby chicks. They are able to remember and recognise over 100 individuals; and can also recognise humans. Chickens are able to comprehend that when an object is taken away and hidden from them, it still exists. Young human children are unable to understand this.
Like other birds and mammals, chickens experience REM sleep, which is associated with dreaming. Chickens perform complex communication where calls have specific meanings. They perform over 30 types of vocalisation that we are aware of with meanings varying from calling youngsters, alarm calls, and alerting others to the whereabouts of food.
And perhaps the coolest fact I could possibly imagine… the chicken is the closest living relative to the Tyrannosaurus-Rex.
What happens to chickens on farms and beyond
Worldwide over 50 billion chickens are slaughtered every year. In the UK, poultry accounts for about half of the meat we eat. It’s been argued by some animal welfare groups that chickens are the most abused animal in the world.
Because male chicks will not grow up to lay eggs and, as such, have little value to the egg industry, 260 million are killed each year upon hatching. Methods include being sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified “kill plate,” being ground up alive and fully conscious in a “macerator,” or being gassed.
Female laying chicks are “debeaked” at a young age, most commonly having a portion of their beaks seared off with a hot blade. Debeaking is meant to prevent the abnormal feather-pecking that can result from the stress of confinement in a battery cage. A chicken’s beak is filled with nerves, and debeaking can result in severe pain.
Battery cages commonly hold 5–10 birds, and each chicken may be given an amount of floor space equivalent to less than a sheet of letter-size paper. Constantly rubbing against and standing on wire cages, hens suffer severe feather loss, and their bodies become covered with bruises and abrasions.
In order to shock their bodies into another egg-laying cycle when production declines, hens are sometimes starved and denied any food for up to two weeks — a process known as “force molting.”
In the UK and mainland Europe, McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s, the Co-op, M&S and Waitrose have moved to cage-free production for the eggs they sell. Tesco eggs are now also around 70% cage-free, while Waitrose and M&S have applied the same standards to eggs used as ingredients in other products too. Around 47% of eggs sold in the UK are free range.
Chickens raised for meat are selectively bred to grow to “market weight” at an alarming pace. In the past 50 years, the amount a chicken used for meat grows each day has increased by more than 300%. Many birds are unable to walk or even stand up well, resulting in “hockburn” as they waddle around in the damp ammonia-soaked litter.
Chickens are often slaughtered at just 42 days old. They are still “peeping” – the sound of baby chicks when they are killed – even though their bodies have ballooned to the size of giant adult chickens in this short time due to industry practices.
This FSA report, from August 2016, found that there were almost 600 instances recorded of animals arriving at slaughterhouses already dead. In one case 574 chickens died after being left on a lorry in very hot conditions.
Reasons cows are wonderful
Cows form close friendships and choose to spend much of their time with 2-4 preferred individuals. They also hold grudges for years and may dislike particular individuals. If that’s not relatable then I don’t know what is!
Cows display emotions and have been shown to produce more milk when they are treated better and as individuals. Cows are devotional mothers and are known to walk for miles to find their calves.
Cattle get excited when they solve problems. When faced with a challenge of finding out how to open a door to reach food, their heartbeat went up, their brainwaves showed excitement, and some even jumped into the air.
Cows show their excitement when let out into a field after long periods confined indoors. Don’t we all?
What happens to cows on farms and beyond
Like all mammals, cows must give birth in order to make milk. Like human mothers, they carry their babies for nine months, then begin to lactate for the sole purpose of nourishing their young. I am ashamed to say I never made the connection between the white liquid in my tea and the fact that a cow – duh – has to give birth to a baby to make milk.
To keep them lactating at maximum yields, cows are artificially and forcibly inseminated year after year. Whether on factory farms or “family” farms male calves and surplus females are sold to be slaughtered for veal or cheap beef.
In the UK, the average working lifespan of a dairy cow is around four lactations (milk-producing periods) and so many dairy cows are culled when they are relatively young.
Over 90% of U.S. dairy cows are confined in primarily indoor operations, with more than 60% tethered by the neck inside barren stalls, they are unable to perform the most basic behaviors essential to their wellbeing. Many dairy cattle are housed during the winter period in the UK, when grass is not growing, and some herds may be housed all year-round.
In the slaughterhouse, the majority of cattle are stunned with the captive bolt pistol. Penetrative captive bolt stunners drive a bolt into the skull and cause unconsciousness both through physical brain damage and the concussive blow to the skull. If an animal is not accurately stunned or the correct cartridge strength is not used, the stun will not be effective. The EU Scientific Veterinary Committee estimate that around 5 to 10% of cattle are not stunned effectively with the captive bolt – or up to 230,000 animals a year. These animals experience the pain of being shot in the head and will either be stunned again (a difficult procedure) or continue on for knifing whilst conscious.
In an attempt to improve accuracy, legislation requires that cattle are either confined in a stunning pen or have their heads ‘securely fastened’. However, head restraint systems can cause great distress. It’s estimated that 17% of abattoirs either do not use a restraint or use an “inefficient” restraint which can result in the stun being delivered ineffectively.
In addition to the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment, the electric goad can legally be used on the hindquarters of cattle and pigs if they are refusing to move forwards. This cruel device is intentionally designed to cause pain.
Worn-out dairy cows may be subjected to a painful experience before they are killed. It is becoming increasingly common for novice artificial inseminators to ‘practice’ on cull cows in abattoirs.
An FSA report from August 2016 reported “a cow being “violently slammed” against a wall following an argument between two workers; an abattoir worker beating three bulls with a wooden stick and electric prod; and a haulier hitting and kicking cattle during unloading, an incident that was caught on CCTV.”
A few reasons why sheep are superb
They can remember at least 50 individual sheep and humans for years.
When they experience stress or isolation, sheep show signs of depression similar to those that humans show by hanging their heads and avoiding positive actions.
Sheep are known to self-medicate when they have some illnesses – they will eat specific plants when ill that can cure them.
What happens to sheep on farms on beyond
The majority of sheep are stunned with a head-only electrical stun. The operator places a pair of electric tongs on either side of the animal’s head and an electric current is passed through the brain – supposedly causing a temporary loss of consciousness.
The Meat Hygiene Service says that the interval between stunning and knifing can be as high as 70 seconds for sheep. Another study found that the average interval was 21 seconds. Sheep take an average of 14 seconds to lose brain responsiveness if both carotid arteries (the major arteries that supply blood to the head) are cut. UK law only requires one carotid artery to be cut and in this case sheep take an average of 70 seconds to lose brain responsiveness. Yet an electric head-only stun only lasts between 20 and 40 seconds.
The animal welfare group Viva! has estimated that 4 million may regain consciousness each year before they die and they have video footage showing sheep regaining consciousness as they bleed to death. If only one carotid artery is cut, sheep may not be dead after the required 20 second bleed-out time and they will therefore be skinned alive.
Researchers at Bristol University found that after an electric stun, sheep are not able to feel pain but they are have periods of being fully aware of their surroundings i.e. they can still feel fear and they are conscious whilst hanging upside down on the killing rail, bleeding to death. They could not prove whether the electricity has an immediate effect and Dr Harold Hillman, Director of the Unity Laboratory of Applied Neurobiology, says that when animals are stunned, they suffer extreme pain. They are unable to cry out or move because the massive electric current paralyses them. His evidence is based on reports from human torture victims.
What you can do about all of this
The total number of animals killed in British slaughterhouses in 2013 was over a billion. This included 9.8 million pigs, nearly 15 million sheep, 18 million turkeys, 14 million ducks, over 945 million chickens and 2.6 million cattle. Add to that 4.5 billion fish and 2.6 billion shellfish you have a total of over 8 billion animals killed in the UK each year.
If this number surprises or sickens you, then you can make a difference by skipping meat, eggs and dairy at as many meals as you wish. Going vegan or vegetarian – and buying animal-product free alternatives will have an effect in terms of supply-and-demand. Reports of the dairy industry being concerned that younger people are increasingly ditching dairy is a case in point.
You can write to your MP demanding that CCTV is installed in slaughterhouses to minimize the likelihood that animals will be abused.
If you have a social media channel, consider using it to show how farm animals are individuals – with unique characters, the ability to care for their children and experience joy as well as fear and pain. It’s so easy to disassociate meat from the living, breathing creatures that are grown for food. Reminding people that farm animals are fundamentally no different to the cats, dogs and other animals we have in our homes is powerful.
(Images not mine – top one found on Twitter via Simon N. Ricketts, the rest via Flickr).