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Debate over cattle slaughter

The proposed ban on cattle slaughter by the Prime Minister has little ethical merit in it. The only purpose it serves, if at all, is that a majority of Sri Lankans will ‘feel good’ of having moved their abattoirs overseas; out of sight, out of mind. But the demerits of the proposal are many. This proposal will pump ammunition to the cynics who see politics in a poor light. Saving unproductive cattle only adds to the dwindling pastureland to feed the bovines, and as Dr. Waidyanatha has pointed out in a recent article ‘total banning of cattle slaughter would with time drag the country into a serious dilemma of increased competition between productive cattle such as cows and draft bulls and unproductive ones, bulls and old cattle, for limited pasture and fodder’. Furthermore, we are bound to see many of the unproductive cattle slaughtered in the illegal meat market. Nicely packaged imported beef can also increase the number of beefeaters.

However, the Prime Minister must be thanked for opening up public debate over the much more important issue of the welfare of animals. The practice of eating meat or not eating it is a different issue and the moral protest is a salutary signal to highlight cruelty to other species in this world, for we humans owe it to those who cannot protest. As a civilized nation, we have to control the tyranny of humans over non-human animals. The suffering that we cause to the voiceless animals is abominable and to call ourselves civilized by the same breath is laughable.

The debate is also sidetracked by numerous animal lovers because ‘they also have two cats and a dog’. Then there are the Buddhists (monks included) who preach that consuming the flesh of animals is blameworthy only if the animals were killed specially for you. That kind of defense not only trivializes the issue but also irritates reasonable minds. Those Buddhists refuse to understand the laws of supply and demand and are quite happy to pass over the moral responsibility to breeders and slaughterers. That is a disservice to a mostly rational doctrine.

What may have prompted the PM maybe his sympathetic emotions to the plight of cattle that are killed in so many cruel ways? Australia once had to ban the live export of cattle and sheep due to public protests, after the Australian TV channels aired the inhuman killing of these animals in foreign lands. Australian inspectors were flown to many of these foreign lands to educate the abattoir workers on humane methods less stressful to the animals. Whether the countries changed the cruel practices is another matter. Unfortunately, many cultural and religious proclivities stand in the way of science and ethics.

The issue has to be disabused by taking out the emotional, sentimental arguments of animal lovers. Sri Lankans only know of a few horror stories about the treatment of animals but even in this country, hot-iron branding, castration, dehorning are carried out under most barbaric conditions, when science is at hand to prevent such unnecessary cruelty. An Animal Welfare bill is a welcome consequence of the Prime Minister’s interest if such eventuate from this public debate. Legal monitoring of large-scale production of animals, breeding centers, and abattoirs, by compassionate honest officers of the crown, and occasional boycotts of those who contravene good practices are morally justified for the sake of animals.

The environmentalist has better arguments for the culpability of the meat industry in the world for the damage that it does to the planet earth. Cattle ranching in Brazil has contributed to the reduction of rain forest cover with dire climate change consequences. A single kilo of meat requires nine kilos of grain, and given that the US alone slaughters in excess of 10 billion cattle in one year, this shows what a luxury diet meat is on this crowded planet. The lives of billions of people and other species are threatened for the insatiable taste of a hamburger. It is a huge cost that should stir the conscience of the world.

To be rational and pragmatic, it is well nigh impossible to stop humans eating beef, pork, chicken, and rabbits and, for that matter, any that walks, flies, and slithers. All that well-meaning civilized people can and should do is to stop the cruelty, avoidable cruelty, to animals killed either for consumption or other benefits.

In Sri Lanka, the manner in which animals are usually handled, transported, and slaughtered is often very cruel and disgusting. It would be a great relief if there are at least humane methods of slaughter in place as in developed countries, and laws regulating slaughter technology are of extreme importance. We, as consumers, are indirectly responsible for the existence of cruel practices involved in producing meat of many kinds.

The question we need to address is the welfare of animals in general and the prevention of unnecessary cruelty and stress of any kind. To assist, appease or please any community or economic interest group is miniaturizing our civility. In this modern era, science and rationality must dictate how we treat members of species other than ours.

-Dr. D. Chandraratna-
The Island