Do you know how many animals are killed by humans every day?

If an animal cries in a slaughterhouse and no-one hears them – would there be a sound?

Animals used for food are sentient and intelligent and have the capacity for enjoyment

The number of animals slaughtered for food is truly colossal. Excluding fish, it is now estimated at over 80 billion animals across the world a year. If fish were included, the numbers would likely be in the trillions. Over 200 million animals (other than fish) are killed every day; 150,000 are killed every minute. Every single one of these will have been a sentient individual, living in a world of meaning for them. For the overwhelming majority, the process will have been, at best, very distressing and frightening, but very often will also have involved severe (or extreme) pain and violence.

Yet how often does anyone think about this? About the experience leading, of course, to the killing and dismemberment of someone who was previously an individual. How often does anyone take time to think “what must the process of slaughter be like for the animal involved?”.

The biomass of livestock far exceeds that of all other animals

The casual acceptance of the slaughtering of animals underpins suffering that is on such a scale as to be incomprehensible. It also facilitates and enables the relentless harms to the environment resulting from livestock production, hunting and fishing, all predicated on the assumption that the slaughter of animals by humans – most often without real need – is something humans have a right to do.

The scale of suffering

The slaughter of animals occurs not only at an industrial scale of enormous proportions, but very often as an industrial process, with animals transported to and fed through slaughterhouses as units of production. In the U.K. alone about 270 slaughterhouses operate almost continuously, slaughtering, for example, three million chickens and 30,000 pigs a day. Whatever is true of the U.K. can be multiplied up by about 100 to give an estimate of the corresponding number of slaughterhouses worldwide.

Pig being transported to the slaughterhouse

The process of slaughter

Whatever the slaughter method used for a particular species, the entire process will inevitably be distressing for the animals involved. They will most often be transported to the slaughterhouse in crowded conditions on vehicles they never have had experience of. They will experience loading and unloading, often conducted with noise, threats and goading. At the slaughterhouse, timid animals such as pigs, cattle and sheep, will be moved through the entirely unfamiliar slaughterhouse environment, with sights and sounds and smells that are likely to be frightening and incomprehensible. The animals will have no control.

When it comes to the slaughter process itself, in many locations around the world there will be no restrictions or regulations as to how the slaughter occurs at all, and no monitoring of practices. In those countries where there are purported regulations regarding standards of slaughter, these nonetheless allow for methods of killing that will cause great distress. For example, in the U.K., 90% of pigs are now killed by immersing the pigs in concentrated carbon dioxide. This is highly aversive to them, and they often display panic and desperate attempts to escape. Chickens are most often either killed by being shackled upside-down on a line, followed by electric water bath stunning (and then cutting), or, increasingly in many countries, by so-called ‘controlled atmospheric killing’ where, in crates, they are exposed to high concentration carbon dioxide. All these methods, common practice in many countries throughout the world, cause great distress.

The distressing, frightening and often violent nature of slaughter is intrinsic to almost any form it takes. However, over and above this, at the point of cutting to kill the animal, significant additional suffering is caused where animals are not stunned, very often on the basis that this is consistent with religious precepts and the expectation of ritual slaughter. The veterinary and animal welfare science that cutting without stunning will cause major shock and pain is overwhelming, and this will affect many billions of animals around the world each year.

In countries where there are legal requirements regarding slaughter practice, the methods accepted overwhelmingly nonetheless cause significant harm. The harms are intrinsic to not only the overall slaughter process (including loading, unloading, lairage, movement through the slaughterhouse, handling and cutting), but also to the slaughter methods allowed themselves. Furthermore, the rapid and cost-focused processing of animals means that, in practice, even such regulations that exist will frequently be breached. In the U.K., for example, a series of undercover investigations found that in over 90% of slaughterhouses, welfare at slaughter regulations were systematically breached, with frequent failure to stun, inadequate stunning, aggressive handling of animals and many other harms.

The myth of humane slaughter

There is no such thing as humane slaughter. The intentional taking of the life of another individual in a necessarily violent manner can never be humane. Overwhelmingly, the animal slaughtered will be very young as the ‘producer’ will want the animal killed as soon as they reach adult weight. Chickens will be slaughtered for meat at around six weeks of age when they might naturally live for eight or nine years, pigs will be killed at five or six months when they might live for fifteen years or more. Cattle killed for meat will mostly be killed at less than two years of age when they might naturally live for over twenty years.

Cattle comforting each other shortly before slaughter

Every one of these animals will be a sentient individual. They will each have the capacity to see, hear, smell, taste and feel. They will have a sense of themselves and full awareness of their environment. They will be seeking to make sense of the situation in which they are placed at every step of the slaughter process. They will be frightened, disoriented, and fearful of what may be coming next. They will want to live.

Every single aspect of the process to which they are subjected would represent the worst things that we could imagine befalling ourselves and which we would seek to avoid at any cost. Yet not one call, not one sound of distress, not one terrified glance, not one desperate gasp or expression of pain will be responded to. Their cries unheeded. As if they didn’t exist.

We can each decide to listen and to have no part in this.