Fitting Them for Slaughter: the Work of Temple Grandin and Others

The planning application presently before Canterbury Town Council (in the UK) to set up a research business specializing in farmed animals is a reminder that modern livestock farming is continuously serviced and promoted by laboratory-style science. In fact sheep and chickens are two species whose numbers showed an increase in the most recent Home Office statistics (for 2016): 3% and 9% respectively, compared to the general decrease in numbers of 5%, though of course not all the procedures in these cases were for agricultural purposes. The Canterbury research business uses the go-ahead name ‘VetQuest’ – for yes, vets continue to play their especially treacherous part in streamlining the movement of farm animals from birth to plate.

Among the institutions playing their part is the British Society of Animal Science, with its journal Animal. That’s a very suitable title, equivocally ‘animal’ as an Goat meat boardindividual or ‘animal’ as collective matter like water or wood. Turning the individual ever more efficiently and profitably into matter is the Society’s aim, and it’s not squeamish about the process. The most recent of the BSAS conferences, ‘Bull Fertility: theory to practice’, makes that very clear, with its sessions on ‘Optimizing semen procedures’ and ‘Pathophysiology of bull sub-fertility’. After all, “the reproductive performance of cattle is critical to farm productivity.”

That very ugly word ‘performance’, astonishingly callous when applied to fertility and the mutilated sex-lives of animals on farms, is always the crucial term for the BSAS and its kindred. ‘Performance’ is their jargon word for profitability: the end-value of an animal, less all the trouble and expense involved in hustling it there. And “there” is not just the supermarket shelf, but right into the human chops. Thus a recent article in Animal, asking and answering the question ‘How does barley supplementation in lambs grazing alfalfa affect meat sensory quality and authentication?’ (note how the animals turn from life into food even in the space of the one title), studies the problem of “excessive odour/flavour in the meat” and the consequent “purchase resistance”. You’ll be interested to know that barley supplementation doesn’t solve this serious performance failure: something for VetQuest to look into, perhaps, if it gets planning permission.

The most famous example of animal science as applied to meat-producing is the work of Dr Temple Grandin (“the world knows her”, it says on her web-site). For many years she has been a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, specializing in the behaviour and management of farm animals. This is a remarkable woman, someone who evidently does have an understanding of non-human minds far beyond the strictly scientific. She attributes that to her autism, a subject on which she likewise lectures and writes with authority: as she says in her book Animals in Translation (2005) “Autistic people are closer to animals than normal people are.” [57] Specifically she believes that autistic people make much more use of the older “animal” parts of the brain, and therefore think as animals do, in pictures and details. The more lately developing neo-cortex of the brain has enabled most modern humans to think in concepts and generalisations, and indeed has strongly biased them toward doing that.

The insight which Dr Grandin claims to have gained in this way isn’t just a matter of understanding, or even of the highly-developed sympathy which she clearly does feel for animals, especially cows (“Cows are the animals I love best.” [307]). She argues, or believes she does, for animals to be more valued and more highly respected in our lives:

“I hope we’ll start to think more about what animals can do, and less about what they can’t. It’s important, because we’ve gotten too far away from the animals who should be our partners in life, not just pets or objects of study.” [303]

I say “believes she does” because although “partners in life” is a strong phrase, it’s attached here and more generally to claims about their concealed talents (concealed from us, that is). “Are animals as smart as people?” is one of the sub-headings in Animals in Translation [248]. The answer ought not simply to be “I can’t answer that question, and neither can anyone else”, which is the one she gives (and an excellent one as far as it goes), but rather ‘why should it matter?’ We need to respect animal lives as such, not just their capacities, still less the tricks we can get out of them, however intriguing these may be. This is something which Dr Grandin does not compass. In fact when she does speak deliberately about the value of “more primitive living organisms such as oysters or insects”, in her paper ‘Animals are not Things’ (2002), all her examples turn out to be value for human consumption: “bees pollinating flowers . . . a species that becomes extinct might have provided a cure for cancer . . . natural ecosystems are beautiful . . . ” and so on.

But of course a much more conspicuous instance of this compromised sympathy with animals is the use to which Temple Grandin’s knowledge of them has most profitably been put. Her fame and success in animal science arise mainly from the equipment and advice which she provides to slaughterhouses: “Half the cattle in the United States and Canada are handled in humane slaughter systems I’ve designed.” [7]

The main aim of these systems (a term which includes equipment, handling techniques, and monitoring methods) has been to reduce the fear felt by the animals. Dr Grandin writes extensively and very well about fear in animals: “The single worst thing you can do to an animal emotionally is to make it feel afraid. Fear is so bad for animals, I think it’s worse than pain.” [189] She is familiar with the research in the subject, of course. In fact she refers with surprising insouciance, even enthusiasm, to experiments which ought to arouse disgust and indignation (one “terrific study on fear and survival”, for instance, “put a bunch of guppies in with a piranha in a fish tank”, and showed how the more fearless ones got eaten first, the more nervous progressively later [196]). However, she also, again, uses personal experience to illuminate this subject: “I’m sure that’s why I relate to prey animals like cattle as strongly as I do: because my emotional make-up is similar. Fear is a horrible problem for people with autism.” [191]

For herself, the solution has been partly force of character, partly medication: “I take anti-depressants, and they’ve gotten rid of my fear.” I would guess that this success has been possible for her because her fears are mostly mind-created or at least mind-enhanced, and to that extent insubstantial. After all, Temple Grandin herself isn’t a prey animal. But cattle are, blatantly so in slaughterhouses. Their fear is wholly rational, for as she says on her web-site, “animals use their emotions . . . to predict the future” and the future in this case is quite properly terrifying. How, then, to get rid of their fear?

That Dr Grandin has indeed been able to relieve billions of animals in slaughterhouses of at least some portion of their fear is evident, and it’s surely been of real service to animal welfare. She has done nothing, of course, to relieve them of the grounds of fear. All her calming devices – the curving approach-passage which makes them feel that they’re returning “home”, the graduated lighting which makes each stage of the fatal journey turn smoothly into the next, the ‘double-rail’ conveyer giving them confidence in their uprightness – are ways of concealing the truth from the animals. In this sense they’re elaborate euphemisms, of a piece with the all-inclusive euphemism “humane slaughter” – which phrase Dr Grandin happily uses. And of course, as that phrase shows, the whole array of euphemisms works as unfounded reassurance for humans as well as for the animals. Indeed, Dr Grandin has the astonishing expression “stairway to heaven” for the ramp which cattle walk up towards the ‘slaughter hold’. It’s not a heartless joke: she means it. And the brief discussion of it on her web-site shows that even this fantastical euphemism works, for her and for others: works, that is, in reconciling otherwise decent people to their participation in the mass destruction of innocent youthful life.

Meanwhile, in making slaughter a smoother, less frenzied business, Temple Grandin has promoted its efficiency and success. For she too is in the ‘performance’ game, as her science publications clearly show. On ‘PSE’, for instance (PSE stands for “pale, soft, exudative pork”, another product which encounters “purchase resistance”), she advises slaughterhouses, “PSE increases if pigs are handled roughly at the plant, because excited pigs become over-heated . . . Rough handling, electric prods, and jamming raise lactate levels which damages meat quality.” A conference paper from 1994 advises how to prevent ‘bloodsplash’ (“a severe cosmetic defect that affects the appearance of the meat”). In fact she has produced a huge corpus of research work aimed at helping the meat industry satisfy what she calls “the needs of today’s customers”. She herself, of course, is among those customers.

Another woman who has spent long hours in slaughterhouses, the artist Sue Coe, speaks of Temple Grandin as “a sort of ‘fix-it’ person”, dealing with a fundamental wrong by putting right its symptoms. And that’s what animal science of the sort practised by the BSAS and by countless other scientists and science institutions characteristically does: for instance by devising more docile breeds of animal, finding new ways of keeping factory-farmed animals ‘healthy’ (one of VetQuest’s aims is a feed which makes antibiotics unnecessary), or demonstrating that farmers can stock pigs at higher densities with “no difference to animal welfare” and “without impacting on performance” (a recent BSAS conference highlight).

Apologists for animal research habitually argue that the animals they use are both far fewer in number and much better treated than farmed animals. But in fact modern farming methods would not exist without the constant aid and attention of laboratory-style research: the two are not separable. The campaigning organisation PETA quite rightly ran a petition against the Canterbury planning application. It’s a very small operation that’s being proposed there, but it’s one instance of a giant-scale misuse of science and of animals.

 

Notes and references:

Other treatments of this theme in the VERO blog can be found in the ‘category’ list under ‘Farming Connections’.

The BSAS bull fertility conference is reported here: https://bsas.org.uk/about-bsas/news/future-of-cattle-production-revealed-at-bsas-bull-fertility-event

The quoted article from Animal (abstract only) can be found here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/animal/article/how-does-barley-supplementation-in-lambs-grazing-alfalfa-affect-meat-sensory-quality-and-authentication/4F480D4F24ABB4AD4E747AD1198D9D48

Quotations from Animals in Translation are taken from the paperback edition (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006), page numbers in square brackets. The paper titled ‘Animals are not Things’ can be read here: http://www.grandin.com/welfare/animals.are.not.things.html

Other Temple Grandin quotations are taken from articles posted on her ‘Humane Slaughter’ web-site, http://www.grandin.com/

Sue Coe is quoted from an interview posted at https://responsibleeatingandliving.com/favorites/gary-steiner-and-sue-coe-the-vegan-imperative/ For more about Sue Coe in this blog, see https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/the-vegan-animals-manifesto-by-sue-coe/

The BSAS conference presentation on density of pigs is at https://bsas.org.uk/articles/animal-bytes/pig-performance-not-affected-by-higher-stocking-rates

The photograph above is of a noticeboard in Witney, Oxfordshire, a mile or so from the large Muchmeats Slaughterhouse. Oxfordshire Animal Save holds vigils on the access road to this animal save 1slaughterhouse from time to time, and the photo on the left is from one such occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Frosting the Glass (more on Euphemisms)

I ended the previous post (‘Public Labs’) with a quotation from the journal Comparative Medicine, chosen to show that ‘environmental enrichment’ – i.e. introducing natural or at least interesting features into the cages or boxes where laboratory animals are kept – has itself become a going animal-testing-equipmenttheme for research. But the quotation is also worth attention as a fascinating and instructive sample of animal-research prose. Here it is again:

However, animal wellbeing, as reflected by normal growth, development, and reproduction with low likelihood of injury, illness, distress, or maladaptive behavior, can exist even in housing situations in which the animal cannot perform its entire repertoire of species-appropriate behaviors, particularly if the animal will be maintained for a relatively short portion of its lifespan.

Let’s begin by appreciating that prize euphemism in the last clause, so rich in evasions that even now I don’t feel sure that I’m understanding it rightly. I take it to mean ‘particularly if you kill the animal unusually young’. If I’m right, this is something more sophisticated than the ordinary patch-words like ‘sacrifice’ or ‘euthanize’. A sort of smoke-screen has been laid down over the whole scene. The animal itself is, of course, made the victim of a passive verb (“will be maintained”): how often, in such journals, is a person ever seen doing anything to an animal in the active voice – assessing its ‘hot-plate latency’, for instance (see previous blog-post), by putting it on a hot plate? But, ingeniously, the verb in this case, though admittedly sharing in the general semantic fog, is detectably a beneficent rather than injurious one: ‘maintaining’ means looking after, doesn’t it? And it’s not even in the negative. In fact there’s no telling at what point in this clause the animal ceases to “be maintained”, a.k.a. is killed. The whole idea of time is helpfully obscured by converting it into space or quantity: ‘lifespan’ and ‘portion’. (For another instance of this same conversion technique, see the earlier post ‘Truths, Euphemisms, and Statistics’.) A hint seems to have been taken from the famous lines in the Victorian poet Arthur Clough’s ‘Latest Decalogue’:

Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive / Officiously to keep alive.

Clough’s poem is indeed largely concerned with what we allow others to see us doing. In that respect, the words of the article are the equivalent of well-frosted glass.

I don’t mean to pillory this text. It’s at least a more or less grammatical sentence, using unpretentious vocabulary. The trouble is that it’s so much in thrall to abstraction that the real and material subject – cages, and the animals inside them – is not so much illuminated as replaced by the words. Thus, instead of an animal being well, ‘animal wellbeing exists’; instead of a cage, a ‘housing situation’. In fact, instead of animals or an animal, that devitalized generic term “the animal”. And so on. The point is more simply made by translating the sentence back into real life:

However, an animal can remain in good health – that is, it can grow, mature, and reproduce, without injury, illness, distress, and neurotic behaviour – even in a cage where it cannot do all that it wants, particularly if it is not allowed to live long.

Has anything gone missing in this plain-spoken version? Perhaps the full sense of that phrase “low likelihood of injury …etc.”? But surely the sense is quite adequately expressed in the word ‘can’, meaning simply that it is possible, but not certain, that the animal will suffer none of these set-backs. The authors have presented this idea as a probability, implying that a known proportion of any collective of such animals will be free of illness. But in either version, the proposition only makes helpful sense if quantified, or linked to other studies which have quantified it, and this the authors do not do here. I would guess, therefore, that they have preferred “low likelihood” to “can” for the same reason that accounts for all the rest: it’s more abstract, further away from unscientifically particular animals suffering particular injuries – the equivalent in prose of cleaning up the cosmetic-testing-animal-remainsdisgusting mess on the work-bench before anyone else sees it.

The article in question is a review of other work rather than a report of original research, so there wasn’t any mess of its own to clear up; the sanitized style is really just professional habit. But it’s a thoroughly bad habit. No doubt we need euphemisms in our personal communications, for the sake of kindness and decency. And of course sciences all need their particular technical vocabularies, though probably not as much as their initiates like to suppose. But with the horrors of the 20th century laid out behind us, it hardly needs saying that – in public discourse – euphemism, and abstraction more generally, make life easier for every bad practice, from casual cruelty to mass slaughter. The more plainly we speak and write, the better we ourselves, as well as others, can see what we’re really doing, and whether we ought to be doing it at all.

I should briefly add that the article in question proposes that ‘enrichment’ is not the invariable good it might be supposed, for science or even for the animals. The study was connected, in some way not specified anywhere in the text, with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, at Natick, Massachusetts. That’s not an encouraging association (see the post ‘Remembering (some of) the Fallen’), but at least the article has been made freely available, and you can read it, if you wish, at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3155397/

 

The photographs are by Brian Gunn (www.iaapea.com).

Truths, Euphemisms, and Statistics

Thursday 22 October was publication day for the Home Office statistics of animal research conducted in the UK during 2014. BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme, broadcast on the same day, discussed the subject, and especially the inclusion in these statistics for the first time of information on the actual (as opposed to predicted) ‘severity’ of the experiments recorded. The presenter, Adam Rutherford, began by establishing the necessity of such research, its strict regulation in the UK, etc., so the programme’s point of view was made clear enough. Then he interviewed Dr Sarah Wells, Director of the MRC’s Mary Lyon Centre (mouse genetics) at Harwell. Dr Wells said that scientists themselves cat-animal-testing-pictureenthusiastically welcomed the innovation, and that the new statistics would be, for the general public, an “absolute true reflection” of the costs to animals of what happens in laboratories.

I’m sure she meant what she said about the enthusiasm, although as a matter of fact this kind of tonic response to public attention is what subscribers to the portentously named ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’ promise each other to make (see their Annual Report, September 2015). But in the event neither participant could quite live up to the ideal of the absolutely true. When Adam Rutherford was asking Dr Wells to give Radio 4’s listeners an idea of what the different categories of pain implied, he seemed to feel that her truths had better fall some way short of absolute: “without being too graphic”, he warned her. And certainly her answer was reassuringly obscure. Her preferred word for pain of all types was ‘discomfort’ – plainly a euphemism when applied to anything worse than indigestion. When she came to define the ‘severe’ category, she blurred that somewhat unpleasantly evocative term by attaching it to the duration rather than the intensity of the animals’ suffering: “quite a severe period of time where they’re under discomfort”. It’s a strangely oblique, almost tortured bit of English, evidently the outcome of a struggle between candour and its opposite.

At the beginning of 2014, the Home Office published its own guidance on these categories specifically for the scientists. These Advice notes on actual severity reporting of regulated procedures are necessarily free of euphemism: free, that is, except in so far as the scientific outlook and terminology, having to be accurate at the expense of personal engagement, are themselves a variety of euphemism (“altered gait”, “autotomy”, “challenge with an inflammatory agent”, “repeated vocalisation”: yes, these surely are euphemisms, though with a motive behind them different from Dr Wells’s). Anyway, the Home Office text is surprisingly plain-spoken. Words like ‘pain’, ‘suffering’, ‘distress’ are used just as any reasonable person might use them of his or her own experience. In fact a reference to what we humans know of pain is indeed made at one point, when ‘severe’ is said to include “any state that a person would find difficult to tolerate”. It’s a great pity that this human reference is not used more in such discussions, but of course it violates a long and convenient tradition in science of resisting any suggestion that human experience can guide us in our understanding of animals. That would be called anthropomorphism, and accordingly unscientific. The way in which a quite proper scepticism has been stretched so as to justify denying to animals the rights of ‘painience’ (Richard Ryder’s term), makes an especially dishonourable theme in the story of animal research.

Still, a matter-of-fact bureaucratic survey, such as the Advisory notes provide, of all the varieties of suffering in laboratories (no, not all: suffering not caused by experiments, but by confinement itself, or by transport, or unintended illness, or fighting, or non-procedural accidents, etc., are not part of these returns) is liable to sound pretty heartless, and this one often enough does. See, for instance, a note on the ‘moderate’ category: “Pain of any significant intensity is of no more than a few hours duration.” Only a few hours? That’s all right then. Or “generalised seizures (in excess of one hour) with recovery will generally be considered severe.” There’s a history and prospectus of casual cruelty implied even in that one word “generally”.

You’ll notice that, in this last quotation, “recovery” seems to be regarded as compounding the severity, as well it might. And indeed failure to recover, a.k.a. death, is not regarded, in official animal-research ethics, as an existential evil, though it may be a professional nuisance: again, there’s a grim wisdom in that. The actual business of killing – the Home Office advice sensibly does call it ‘killing’, only once using the more refined ‘euthanasia’ – is expected to belongcosmetic-testing-equipment to the ‘mild’ category. (Let’s try not to picture those occasions when it strays into ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’.) But killing does not by itself count as a procedure at all. In fact the grand euphemism at work in every Home Office report on the animal research scene is the making invisible of this killing, not just of all or very nearly all the animals that feature in the ‘procedures’, but also of all the animals never used – the ones bred in excess of need, or found in some way unsuitable, and therefore dispatched uncounted. Yet much, perhaps all, of the mental distress felt by these animals while alive must consist in the very well-founded fear, however imperfectly understood, of premature death. Oxford University’s web-site boldly addresses this situation with its own prize-winning euphemism: “At the end of its life, the animal is humanely killed.” If only the animals themselves could read those consolatory words, and realize that they won’t, despite all their fears, be killed until the end of their lives!

Euphemism or heartlessness: it’s evidently a hard subject for practitioners to speak or write about without offending in one direction or the other. That’s a very strong indication, I would suggest, that there’s something wrong with the practice.