Ritual Slaughter and Animal Welfare

Quite a few people thought I should talk about the Independent’s story: Denmark banning kosher and halal meat. 

One of the people who thought I should talk about it was my cousin who’s currently doing a PhD in philosophy. Understanding somebody else’s PhD topic is always tricky, but to my knowledge, she’s investigating the rights of minority groups, e.g. religions, in liberal societies. There’s a fundamental conflict in a society which likes to believe everyone has the right to practice their beliefs when those beliefs might compromise the rights of others in the society. Whose rights should be most protected?

Now I am neither Muslim nor Jewish, I’m a staunch atheist. I’ll talk about this as objectively I can, and it’s not my intent to insult anyone.

Firstly – Halal meat is meat killed in accordance with Islamic laws. The animal is slaughtered in the Dhabīḥah  method which involved the animal’s carotid artery being slit and the aim of this is to kill the animal as quickly as possible to reduce suffering. It’s important to note this – for years halal was considered good welfare. The law is there to promote good welfare as traditionally, Allah wants us to look after the animals.

Jewish dietary law is called kashrut, and foods which obey these laws are kosher. Only clean animals may be eaten and clean animals are cloven hoofed cud-chewers (ruminants), but not animals which digest in the hind gut or do not have a cloven hoof. There’s a list of flying animals that it is not okay to eat, such as birds of prey, bats, fish-eating birds, and you can only eat sea-dwelling animals that have both fins and scales. Incidentally, and in the light of my last post, I do have a Jewish friend who likes to point out that giraffes are kosher. Poor Marius never stood a chance in Denmark. The ritual slaughter of kosher animals is similar to halal, a precise cut to the throat severing the carotid, jugulars, vagus nerves, trachea and oesophagus. The shochet, the man who kills the animals, traditionally should be a good Jewish man with great respect for the religion, and therefore a respect for the suffering of the animals.

Both of these methods promote good care of the animals, respect for the animal being slaughtered, and – and I think this is really important – traceability of meat. They both tick a lot of my boxes. They protect human interest by showing due care and attention to the food chain and food hygiene, and they protect the animal’s interest by showing them respect and killing them in what is perceived to be the best way of avoiding suffering.

So why do Denmark have concerns over halal and kosher meat?

I expect it’s to do with the lack of stunning. Gregory et al (2009) compared three forms of killing beef cattle by investigating the blood found in the trachea. They compared shechita (no bolt stunning beforehand), halal (no bolt stunning beforehand) and bolt stunning plus ‘sticking’ (the method of slaughter is mechanically the same but because it is stunned beforehand and there’s no prayer it the religious terms are not accurate). Now note first off that this study does have a flaw in that it’s not the same person killing all these animals, because then it would not be true shechita/halal, so some of the variation here cannot be attributed to the method but the slaughterer. All three methods found animals which had blood in the trachea (the shechita slaughtered animals had the least amount of blood in the trachea with only 19% of animals showing blood there, with the 21% of the stuck animals showing blood and 58% of the halal animals). The blood reached down as far as the upper bronchi (indicating quite a lot of aspiration of the blood, e.g. the animal was sucking down a breath of blood) in 36% of the shechita animals, 69% of the halal and 31% of the stuck animals. There was a bright bloody foam in the in the trachea of some of the animals (indicating air being forced through the blood) in 10% of the shechita, 19% of the halal and 0% of the stunned animals. The authors concluded that the animals killed without stunning could suffer a welfare challenge from the inhalation of blood before they lose consciousness.

In 2010, Gregory et al looked at how quickly halal slaughtered cattle collapsed after the cut was made. 14% of the animals studied stood again after collapsing. This demonstrates that consciousness is not lost, and so the method, wonderful though its intent may be, does not work as it should.

Another interesting religious dietary law is that Sikhs cannot eat either halal or kosher meat. Sikhs believe that ritual slaughter which involves prayer and a protracted death is an unnecessary level of ritualism and isn’t appropriate. Instead they slaughter their meat animals using the jhatka method which should completely sever the head from the body of the animal in one blow, minimising suffering. (Incidentally, I haven’t been able to find out if Denmark still allows jhakta meat, please let me know if you have info on this).

The EU has a directive on animal slaughter which requires stunning unless the member state wants to exempt a religious group from the directives rules. Denmark has decided no longer to allow this exemption for religious groups. Some papers have looked at what it would take to have Islam accept stunning as part of halal slaughter (Nakyinsige et al, 2013, spoilers – there are ways to have halal meat with stunning)

But! I just want to point out one last thing. When we’re assessing welfare in slaughterhouses, we use ‘success of stunning’ as a welfare measure (Grandin, 2001, Grandin, 2010). Stunning is not the end to all slaughter related welfare problems. Who has the right to tell religious groups what they can and cannot do? Well I have a personal opinion about that, but I think that science’s role in this debate is to investigate welfare indicators, to find reliable and safe methods of slaughter, and not to forget that many of these dietary rules come from a desire to protect welfare. And it is my job as a member of my society to say I’m worried about animal welfare at slaughter.

One last thing. While I’m concerned about halal, kosher and even jhakta meat, I have eaten the first two and would eat the third. I’m considering making a goat curry and the local butcher who does goat is a halal butcher. But I rarely ever buy Danish bacon. In part because I want to support the British pork industry, but in part because I have welfare concerns about the farming of Danish bacon. Rightly or wrongly, I have more concern over the policy differences between my country and Denmark, than I do over ritually slaughtered meat. I wonder how right I am about that.

Edited to Add – An acquaintance of mine with more experience on the slaughter side of animal welfare had a few good points to make about this article, which I will share here.

  • There’s a difference between small ruminants and large ruminants in using cut-throat slaughter. Smaller animals tend to lose consciousness within 8 seconds and so the worries about consciousness and suffering that Gregory et al raise are less of a concern for my goat curry (I am making that goat curry soon – I can taste it already . . .)
  • And two – the animal’s life before slaughter is such an important component of animal welfare that my last point may be misleading for the layperson. We need lots of research on slaughter, all forms of it, but how we care for food-production animals in their lives is one of the biggest welfare challenges facing our society.

A Surplus of Giraffes

As a welfare scientist, it’s remiss of me not to discuss the fate of Marius the giraffe.

Copenhagen zoo killed one of their giraffes, dissected it in public, then fed it to their lions.

Or, if you prefer a second interpretation: Copenhagen zoo, who believe that they should keep their animals as naturally as possible, and allow them to fulfil their natural behaviours such as mating, getting pregnant, giving birth, etc. decided to control their breeding population by removing an animal with replicated genes, killing him humanely, furthering the education of the public, and then provide the lions a little bit of enrichment to ensure the death wasn’t needless.

It is undoubtedly a complicated and emotive issue.

I was recently directed towards the Animal Ethics Matrix which, once registered, gives you a short test to determine your philosophy with regards to animals. I am strongly utilitarian in my view of animal welfare, as I am in my view of human welfare, politics, life and everything else. I was raised a Trekkie, after all, and the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few. With this caveat, I would like to dissect this ethical dilemma from my utilitarian, animal behaviour scientist viewpoint. You need not agree with me, because our own ethics are all different, but let me know if you think I’m obviously wrong in some respects…

Continue reading “A Surplus of Giraffes”

Knowledge Is Free . . .

. . . But Teaching is Priceless

Have you heard of a MOOC? It’s the latest buzzword in the further education sector and stands for Massive Open Online Course.

As part of my work I’m helping out with a few bits and pieces on one the University of Edinburgh’s MOOCs, Animal Behaviour and Welfare. (Well, you didn’t think I’d be helping on the astrophysics one, did you?)

I’m aware that I’m failing at getting a fortnightly blog out there and considering I spent the last two days sorting students, lecturing, writing KT presentations and listening to discussions about MOOCs, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to talk about some of the ways we can exchange knowledge with a wide audience.

The University of Edinburgh have chosen Coursera as their platform for delivering MOOCs. Each MOOC is 4-7 weeks long, is aimed at a general audience, but delivered remotely by university staff. You can take a MOOC because you’re interested in the subject, because you want to know if a subject is something you might like to study in the future, because you want to demonstrate interest in Continued Professional Development to your employer, and in some cases even to get a few university credits.

The numbers of users on these courses is staggering, with thousands of people actually finishing the course. But, like many new ideas, there is some resistance to them within the academic community.

One of the issues is: who are we really aiming these at? The user base is so huge and so diverse that trying to pitch a course can be difficult. There’s some hope that we can use these as taster sessions for our Masters courses, but if they’re interesting for someone who has the pre-requisite knowledge for a Masters course, will they be accessible enough for the layperson?

The Equine Nutrition MOOC which ran last year did end up recruiting some future Masters students, but it was also hugely successful with the horse owning populace. It is possible to strike that balance, at least for an audience with enough interest and motivation to complete the course. It’s something to be aware of – the old saying is more true than ever: Know your audience.

Another issue is the level of work involved. While they’re intended to be short courses, videos, quizzes, resources amalgamations, I’ve heard the tutors say its hard to walk away from people who want extra support. As someone who schedules ten minutes ‘I’m here to be talked to’ time at the end of every lecture, I get that. Students like to talk. They like support. And I think they deserve support. Anyone who wants to learn deserves a little attention, but when so many people want to learn, how do you split your attention? I’d be interested in knowing how internet literate these users tend to be. After establishing a user base, would it become possible to initiate users who had completed the course as forum mods? As we say on the IRC channels, half ops to our ops?

I think this might be part of the problem. Academia may have been where the internet was invented, but not all of us are wonderfully computer literate ourselves. In my experience, internet communities can be great places, but they work best when they have a strong, recognised leader (Shout out to any of my Bungie.Org friends who followed the advertising links! We all know who our fearless leader is). I could imagine MOOCs becoming great places for people to congregate, to find out information from good, recognisable sources, and to help each other learn.

But I can also see MOOCs falling victim to academia’s other big problem: where’s the money? The courses cost money to make, and the revenue path is not clear. I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days and I’ve come down on the idea that we have to put MOOCs under the umbrella of ‘knowledge transfer’. It’s a way of communicating structured information to a large audience, cheaply. My personal opinion (and do remember that all opinions expressed on this blog are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employers and colleagues) is that you can’t look at a MOOC as a money making exercise. But does that mean that the students can’t expect to be treated like customers?

What I can say is that the next couple of years are going to be fascinating for further education.

If Everybody Thought the Same

As a researcher with an interest in personality, I have been accused of anthropomorphising animals in the past. I argue that personality is an outcome of predictable behaviour patterns and statistical distributions. To me this is a perfectly formed argument that has emerged from years of PhD work, but PhDs never made anyone sane. That being said, there’s something in these warnings of anthropomorphism, particularly when we’re interacting with animals.

First off ‘anthropomorphism’ is when you assign human characteristics to non-human objects or animals. (Now, I’ll point out that the traditional definition of this doesn’t specify that it has to be a unique property of humans. For example, having eyes is a characteristic of humans. Is it anthropomorphic to say dogs have eyes? The rant about the definition is for another time). Sometimes, when we interact with animals, we assume they are interpreting the interaction in the same way we are. In essence – that we all think in the same way.

This week a few different posts crossed my virtual desk, all on the subject of different ways of thinking, and it got me thinking (I think).

Firstly: a friend shared this interesting blog post from dog trainer and blogger Michael Blough. It talks about how ‘hugging’ can be unpleasant for dogs and it reminded me about the press surrounding this paper, which came out as ‘stroking is stressful for cats’ and greatly worried my mother.

The advice I gave my mum, and the advice Blough gives his followers, is the same: listen to what your animal is saying. But of course there’s an inherent contradiction in this! How can you listen to your animal when I’m also telling you it doesn’t think like you? How are you supposed to interpret what your pet is saying to you when it’s fundamentally speaking a different language?

I will be the first to say it’s hard and I don’t interpret my animals’ behaviour correctly 100% of the time. I’d argue that anyone who says they’ve never gotten it wrong with an animal is fooling themselves (let me know in the comments if you’re sure you’re a regular Dolittle). However, I’d say I’m right a good 95% of the time and hey, I’m blogging on the internet right? Listen to me, and I’ll give you some tips.

Blough starts with a pic of him hugging his dog. The dog is looking away, eye white is just visible, and you can clearly see the dog is about to leap from his arms. In this case it’s obvious the dog wants to end this form of physical contact.

Now have a pic of me and my dad’s dog receiving a hug.

Me and Rosa
Me and Rosa

This is Rosa and me a few years ago. We’re sitting at the kitchen table and Rosa (the size of a border collie) is sitting upright on my lap while my younger sister is sitting opposite us talking animatedly about her impending departure to uni. I happen to remember this because this pose would be classed a ‘nervous’ hug for Rosa. My sister’s animation worried her so she sat upright. Normally she’d be lying on her back like a baby, tongue lolling out one side of her face, a small glob of drool descending onto my t-shirt.

Rosa is not a typical dog. The difference between this photo and Bough’s is pretty clear, Rosa doesn’t look like she’s about to leap from my arms, her eye whites are hidden (even from this angle). She’s not leaning in any particular direction.

If we were being very critical we could say my arm is clearly restraining her and it is – it’s restraining her from falling off my lap as she’s a little too big. I’d hold a child in the same way.

So these are all the visual cues I’m using to assess this situation and come to the conclusion Rosa is happy in this situation. And Rosa frequently requests hugs (sometimes a little too eagerly – she’ll be half on my lap before I’ve sat down and has cracked my chin with her thick skull). If a pet requests something, it’s a safe bet that it likes it. Now occasionally owners will say the infamous line “Oh they like it!” of their clearly unimpressed pet, the pictures of cats with hats on the internet are proof enough of that. In this case I’m saying Rosa has a particular, unique set of behaviours which are unambiguous and precede her attempting to sit on my lap. It involves eye contact, gaze direction towards my lap, and pawing. Sometimes I will sit and invite her up with a similarly unambiguous signal where I’ll pat my knee repeatedly and call her name. If she chooses not to come up, there’s no penalty. So here when I’m saying Rosa ‘requests’ a hug, I’m saying she initiates the contact with signals that have developed over the course of our relationship.

But what is Rosa thinking here? This is a fascinating question for me. And coincidentally I came across a blogpost on PopSci about this video. In essence it appears that the baby is reacting to the emotional content of the song the mum is singing. I like the expert PopSci have consulted who says:

…the baby’s facial expressions are more consistent with a conflict between sociality and fear – perhaps a positive social response to her mother’s face, and fear in response to her mother’s low and loud singing voice, which is not like her speaking voice. Babies at this age often react negatively to unfamiliar things, including new people, and familiar people with something out of whack (e.g., wearing a hat)

Which I think is a great interpretation of what’s happening in that baby’s mind. It takes into account the baby’s behaviours, its expressions, and prior knowledge of how babies process things. I wonder, can I interpret Rosa’s thought processes?

I really enjoyed reading John Bradshaws ‘In Defence of Dogs’ and the companion book ‘Cat Sense’ which gives a brief natural history of our most common pets and talks about their behaviour. In it, Bradshaw points out the common fallacy of believing dogs are simply wolves – they’re not. They’re the wolves who chose to associate with humans, who’ve been with us for 20,000 years (Sablin & Khlopachev, 2002), and who are capable of understanding us and interacting with us in ways that even hand-reared wolves can’t comprehend (Gacsi et al 13, Viranyi et al 2008). And yet we don’t know if our dogs love us. In fact there is a paper out there which suggests that the closeness between dog and owner, as perceived by the owner, has no relationship with how attached the dog appears to be to the owner (Rehn et al, 2014). In essence, you may like your dog, but your dog might not like you.

But before you get too depressed about this – I have hope. And it doesn’t come from the fact we use the same social separation test to judge attachment in dogs as we do in babies (Rehn et al 2013) or that individual personalities in dogs and humans changes the attachment (Zilcha-Mano et al 2011) in the same way unique human friendships have different levels of attachment. It’s not even that, as the PopSci article shows, we’re just as good at misunderstanding our own babies as we are dogs (and babies aren’t hugely scarred by that).

So I’m going to give some interpretation a shot, just as an exercise. Rosa, like the baby, isn’t verbal. She doesn’t think in language (and while she might understand words like ‘walk’, ‘out’, ‘dinner’, ‘dad’, I doubt she’s capable of putting these things into sentences). What is Rosa thinking when she asks for a hug?

I don’t believe she’s thinking about ‘love’ or abstract concepts like that. I think her thought processes run more along the lines of “It’s she-who-is-sometimes-here-and-smells-like-and-talks-like-my-daddy-and-who-gives-me-food-lots [Jill, for short]. She lets me sit on her, which is comfortable and maybe she will scratch my ears or rub my belly”. And then I think she initiates the interaction she wants, she approaches me, she gets to sit on my lap, and usually I will arrange her so she can lie back and observe everybody else in the room because I know she likes to keep an eye on what they’re doing. Now I think her mind is going along the lines of “there is my pack, here it is comfortable, I can smell food, my ears are being nicely scratched, my daddy is happy”. I’m sure much of her contentedness relies on the fact she adores my dad and when I visit my dad we’re usually laughing and talking and enjoying ourselves.

In essence I think dogs, cat, other animals, babies and even drunk people live in the moment for the most part, with only a vague understanding of consequence at the very best. As the only sober ones at the party, the onus is on us to make sure they’re all okay, and not to take advantage of them by hugging them when they don’t want it.

Put like that, it seems simple enough to me!

Conferences and Questions

Wednesday was the International Society for Applied Ethology‘s UK regional conference. We tend to do these every other year and it was my second regional conference.

I absolutely love this society. It’s incredibly friendly and supportive. In fact the worst questions at this conference were asked by me, as one of my friends pointed out the next morning. I may have been a little harsh in some respects, so I went and apologised to one speaker the next morning.

Regional conferences are often popular with student presenters who have finished a masters project, or are starting their PhDs, and want to present results to a friendly audience. There’s a ranking of published results: papers, obviously, are best. They are peer reviewed and, in theory, tell a complete story. Next comes international conferences. Most of these are peer reviewed, but you only present a short abstract so tell a less complete story. Regional conferences can be reviewed but sometimes aren’t and are generally more accepting of non-significant results and short projects.

I tend to use the ISAE regional conference as a sounding board. This year I spoke about an analysis I tried but had ultimately gone nowhere, and the conference before I reviewed the personality terminology in the literature. The really interesting thing about conferences is the negative results you hear. For example, one student presented a small study that found chronically ill dogs had no associated cortisol rise compared to healthy dogs. It could be an issue of statistical power, or that cortisol is not a biomarker of stress in the case of well-cared for and health-managed dogs. Either way, it sparked some discussion. Another talk which stuck out in my mind was one looking at the activity budget of captive elephants. I had no idea elephants were capable of ventral lying, but apparently so!

The only real complaint I have is that I was still nursing my terrible manflu, which has slowed my posting on this blog, my work, and had me coughing like a smoker for two weeks now.

Normal service shall resume . . .

Orcas at the Olympics

The Sochi Winter Olympics have been troubling me for some time now. They begin on the 7th February and continue through to the 23rd of February. I haven’t decided if I will watch them or not. I usually very much enjoy the Winter Olympics (figure skating and the ski jump are my particular favourites), but I’m not sure if I feel comfortable watching when the hosting country has behaved in a way so contrary to my personal beliefs.

What does this have to do with animal welfare? Well there are reports that Russia have captured two Orcas specifically to display them at Sochi. That link makes the point that the IOC insists that the hosts and the Olympic event ‘respect the environment’.

I don’t know about you, but I have never heard of the Sochi Dolphinarium. I have not heard about their contributions to conservation, how they enrich pens, the massive pools they use to house their animals. After googling I’ve discovered its the largest in Russia, and that they train their animals to do the kind of tricks we criticise SeaWorld for. Apparently their performance pool is a whole 20m long. My goodness, such luxury.

This is of course the action of a private company, not the host city. But that it’s being allowed just adds another layer to my great and growing discomfort about the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Will I really boycott it in my own small way? I guess I’ll let you know.


Personalities – Part One

One of my all time favourite topics is that of animal personality. In fact my PhD was centred around animal personality, using some nifty new technology to explore the phenomenon. Most of my papers are about how personality affects the lives of cows.

Don’t laugh. That’s genuinely what my PhD is in.

There are actually plenty of production and welfare reasons to study this in cattle, but today I want to talk to you about one of the basic concepts of personality.

Let’s Talk Science

You’ve heard people talk about personality traits or dimensions (I’ll use traits for the rest of this article), but what do you know about personality traits? I’m going to give you a very complicated sciency sounding sentence here, and by the end of this article, I think you’ll understand it.

Are you ready?

Are you sure?

Personality traits are a statistical construct based on the behavioural variation displayed number of individuals sampled.

Let me explain . . .

Continue reading “Personalities – Part One”

Old People Make Culture

Human culture fascinates me. I’d like to do more in anthropology, I always enjoy the little snippets I find out as part of my research. Culture amazes me so much because we’re so similar to animals in so many ways, and yet we do things like build skyscrapers, write epic novels, judge each other on how we cook . . .

Some anthropologists think that human culture happened pretty late in our timeline. I came across an article by Laura Helmuth on Slate.com today about how growing old helped us grow a culture. It’s fascinating and well worth a read. I particularly laughed at this excerpt

As Barbara Tuchman points out in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, one of the reasons the Hundred Years War lasted a hundred years is that repeated plagues killed off anyone, including kings and other established leaders. Again and again, teenagers or very young people inherited the throne and promptly did stupid, aggressive, frontal-lobe-deficient teenage nonsense like invading neighboring countries.

Read the rest here