Student - April 16, 2009


Is it OK to slaughter animals to prevent diseases from spreading? People who see human beings as higher than animals usually say yes. People who see human beings and animals as equal more often say no. A relatively high proportion of young people fall into the latter category, it appears from Nina Cohen’s PhD research.

Among the Dutch people who see themselves as higher than animals there is a fairly high proportion of older people and men. Those who think they are on a par with animals are more often women or young people. ‘Moral convictions develop’, explains Cohen, who is attached to the Human-animal interaction chair group. ‘What was acceptable ten years ago, in terms of how we treat animals, is no longer acceptable now. Young people have grown up with a different perspective on nature. You could say there is a liberation movement for animals’. Cohen questioned an internet panel of two thousand Dutch people about their moral convictions in relation to animals. The survey was prompted by recent outbreaks of swine fever, foot and mouth disease and bird flu during which a total of fifty million pigs, cows and chickens were killed as a result of European policy not to vaccinate. In the process, many healthy animals were also slaughtered, which led to protests at the end of the nineteen nineties.

Fifty percent of the respondents placed human beings above animals, based on the idea the animals cannot think as well and cannot distinguish between good and evil. This group could, on the whole, accept the slaughtering of animals to prevent an animal disease from spreading. In the case of an outbreak of disease, animal welfare weighed less heavily for this group than it did for the respondents for whom humans and animals were equal.

The 28 percent of the panel who saw humans and animals as equal emphasized what they have in common: both are living creatures capable of feelings. What is striking, says Cohen, is that this second group gives more weight to its moral convictions when making practical decisions. Veterinary priorities – preventing the disease from spreading – are dismissed out of hand by 15 percent of this group, while 58 percent reject them partially. Eighty seven percent of this group also object to the killing of animals to protect the export market – one of the reasons for introducing the non-vaccination policy. Of the group that placed itself above the animals, there were just as many people in favour of the policy as there were against it. A majority of both groups agreed with the killing of animals in order not to endanger human lives.

Cohen also questioned farmers and vets. Most of them put humans above animals, but a much bigger percentage of both groups were against killing animals during an epidemic. ‘Both groups have a bond with animals through their work’, says Cohen. ‘What really upset farmers was the pointlessness of the killing. Killing animals for food is something they consider justified, but not this.’