We treat non-human animals in different ways: some we love and others we have for dinner. The animals we love are highly visible and part of our lives or they live far away, are endangered and need 'saving'. The animals used for food are mostly hidden from the public view, although that wasn't so until some fifty years ago when factory farming began.
An ABC Four Corners exposé in May 2011 showed the brutal treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesian abattoirs. The public expressed its outrage in letters, phone calls, emails and petitions to politicians, on Twitter and Facebook, and at rallies in all major Australian cities. It compelled the Australian Government to ban all live transport to Indonesia until appropriate animal welfare safeguards were in place. The trade has since restarted.
While some of the conditions in Indonesian slaughterhouses would be illegal in Australia, watching an animal being killed is something most people would not want to witness. The difference between the cruelty of the Indonesian abattoirs and some practices here in Australia is one of degree, not of kind. Animals raised in factory farms and killed in our abattoirs suffer greatly, too. Cattle suffer painful surgical procedures without pain relief: branding, disbudding (where their sensitive horn tissue is scraped out of their skulls with a knife or scooping implement), dehorning and tail docking. Similarly, sheep have their tails cut off and part of the skin on their backsides removed (mulesing). Piglets' teeth are clipped and their tails cut off. Male cattle, sheep and pigs are castrated without analgesics or anaesthetics. The cramped conditions in piggeries and poultry farms lead to permanently stressed animals.
The advocacy organisation Animals Australia has recently drawn the public's attention to the treatment of young dairy bulls who are taken away from their mothers when only several days old and during transport to the abattoir may not be given food or milk for over a day.
We might have heard or read about some of these procedures that we would never inflict on our pets. Mostly, we don't want to know. And yet, most people would say they like animals and don't want them to suffer.
We don't want to know about the suffering close by, particularly not if we could change it. Many meat eaters happily donate money to rescue animals far away, such as bears in China or elephants in Thailand, while our food animals are raised, killed and butchered in anonymity, then packed in plastic and sold on supermarket shelves. We do not hear the screams or see the fear as the animals approach death. The meat we buy conceals its violent history.
We eat animals without questioning why we do this. We have grown up to believe that we need to eat meat to stay healthy and strong. Meat is part of human social interaction when sharing meals. It is part of our culture. The Aussie BBQ wouldn't be quite the same with mushrooms and eggplant.
The use of language is another way through which we distance ourselves from animals. The language used in the meat producing industry masks the pain and suffering of intensely farmed animals. More than 35 years ago, the meat industry made attempts to distance the consumer from the bloody reality of the slaughterhouse by changing the language. Thus, the slaughterhouse became the meat plant .
Language conveys values and norms. The words we use for the meat on our plates often do not invoke the animal that gave its life: pork, beef, veal, mutton, sea food. Visually, the association between the meat on the plate and the animal is not obvious, unless we're eating a whole fish or small bird. By disconnecting the meal we eat from the animal that gave its life, it is easier mentally and emotionally to cope with the violence inherent in eating meat.
Examples of other innocuous terms that are masking the reality of the cruel practices inherent in the meat industry include 'individual gestation accommodations' (farrowing crates, sow stalls), 'blunt force trauma' (killing of piglets by slamming their heads against floors or walls ), 'controlled animal feeding operations' (CAFOs), the meat industry's euphemism for factory farms, and 'harvesting' poultry or other animals.
As products or units, rather than sentient beings, animals are portrayed as inanimate objects that cannot suffer and therefore do not require our concern or compassion.
Recent research found that people deny minds to the animals they eat. This makes eating meat easier for them.
Social psychologist Dr Melanie Joy argued that eating meat is a choice, because it is not necessary for survival. Our choices are based on deep-seated beliefs and assumptions that are largely invisible. We eat the flesh of animals without further thought; this is just the way it is and always has been. Joy called this invisible belief system carnism. In contrast, vegetarianism and veganism are considered a conscious choice.
The Four Corners report on Indonesian slaughterhouses was a wakeup call for many Australians. No longer can we pretend we do not know. By shining the spotlight on Indonesia, the practises of the meat industry in Australia have to be examined as well if we don't want to be accused of hypocrisy.
Should we show animal slaughter on national TV? Maybe not, or only late at night when children are safely tucked away in bed. Should we fit abattoirs with closed circuit television cameras, as Animals Australia demands ? Maybe yes. Should journalists report about the conditions in piggeries and chicken farms? Independent reportage like that of Jonathan Saffran Foer in the US and the documentary Food Inc. would be a great start. After all, most people have empathy with living animals and wish them no harm. Making public the facts about all practices in the meat producing industries would return some visibility to food animals. It would also provide consumers with the knowledge to make informed food choices.