Every day in the Netherlands thousands of animal go to their deaths. It just seems like an unquestioned part of the scheme of things. But it isn’t, says Professor of Animals and Society Elsbeth Stassen. Killing animals always raises questions. Questions that are not easy to answer. A new book offers some help.
Photo: Dick Middendorp
Together with her Utrecht colleague Franck Meijboom, Stassen compiled a book about the moral aspects of slaughtering animals. The book, due out soon, is called The end of animal life: a start for ethical debate. It is about the widely varying perspectives people have on animals, welfare and slaughter. Resource talked to Stassen.
In the introduction to the book you say there is no standard advice on the moral status of animals. What do you mean by that?
‘People look at animals in very different ways. Most people put humans above animals because we are self-aware and animals are not. But there is also quite a big group who think animals – vertebrates at least – are equal to humans because they can experience pleasure and pain, and are part of our ecosystem. What is more, there are animals with a certain degree of self-awareness. It is not a black-and-white issue: people rarely have just one image of animals. Add to that the fact that society is dynamic. The position of animals is always changing. The status of animals has changed enormously in the last 40 years. Pets have become much more important. Farm animals increasingly became hobby animals as well. And people relate to them differently then. This has changed the way people think about animals.’
You say that animals are part of our moral community. What does that mean?
‘In the Netherlands we have widely shared moral ideas about how you should treat animals. It is laid down in the law that how we treat animals matters. An animal does not exist purely for the benefit of humans. An animal has its own worth, an intrinsic worth that is separate from its worth to humans.’
Lifespan is part of that intrinsic worth. But production animals have very short lives. Is that a moral problem?
‘Yes. Lifespan is described in this book as a morally relevant aspect of animal welfare. It is important that we acknowledge that there is more to animal welfare than health and functioning biologically. For animal welfare the animal’s natural behaviour is important too, the species-specific behaviour and the way the animal experiences its life. This broader concept encompasses lifespan too. Animals have the potential to live much longer than their productive lives.’
What does this mean for the livestock industry?
‘If you line up all the arguments you come to the conclusion that in this day and age, given our current ideas on what animals are, what they mean to us and how we should treat them, lifespan matters. Lifespan is a relevant moral argument. Lifespan will play an increasingly important role in considerations in a livestock farming system.’
Is it possible to make a longer lifespan fit into intensive livestock farming?
‘The lifespan of our farm animals can and should be longer. But then the sector would have to make some different choices. You can see dairy farmers responding to that discussion. They have been including lifespan in the selection criteria for bulls for some years. Our aim in this book is to get people thinking about the killing of animals. The way we reason about animals in our country is very utilitarian. There are lots of young animals ready so older animals are carted off. But you could change your breeding policy. If lifespan becomes an integral part of animal welfare I hope and expect that there will be more focus on preventive measures to prevent diseases and distress.’
What are the implications of the concept of lifespan for pets?
‘That is a very interesting topic. The law on animals specifies how domesticated farm animals may be killed, and by whom. The law has much less to say about household pets. Strangely enough in most cases it is permissible for pet owners to put their own animals down. That is not stated explicitly in the law but it is implicit, with the proviso that the animal be killed as quickly and painlessly as possible with a minimum of stress. Pets are largely out of public view.’
Do we make our household pets live too long?
‘Sometimes their lives are too long and sometimes they are too short. Seriously ill pets with which the owners have bonded so strongly that they can’t bear to part with them, often live too long. On the other hand, many pets are put down prematurely. These include dogs or cats which become a nuisance, exhibit undesirable behaviour or do not live up to an ideal image. Imagine the following case. Someone who is on social security has a Labrador of one and a half years old with a broken leg. Treatment by the vet costs 250 euros. The owner cannot pay that. Is it acceptable to put the dog down? To our amazement, half of the panel said it was. Why is that morally defensible and is it a problem if a livestock farmer who needs to earn a living culls an animal? Our book is about these kinds of moral dilemmas and the moral considerations and theories underlying them.
The end of animal life
The book The end of animal life: a start for ethical debate is to be published by Wageningen Academic Publishers. The paper version of the book is due out this month; the e-book is already available. Many writers from various countries contributed to the book. Besides Elsbeth Stassen (the editor), contributors from Wageningen University were personal professor Bart Gremmen and assistant professor Bernice Bovenkerk. Two former PhD students of Stassen’s, Nina Cohen and Mariëlle Bruijnis, both contributed a chapter too.