A Good Death: the inclusion and exclusion of other animals.
On March 27th footage was aired on ABC’s 7:30, which showed in graphic detail the process of stunning inflicted on pigs farmed for their flesh. Modified atmospheric stunning (MAS) utilises concentrated amounts of carbon dioxide as a means to render pigs confined to a gondola unconscious, prior to their throats being cut and their bodies dismembered.
That this was the method used was not new information some people. Chris Delforce had already shown us the reality of what happens in those dark chambers, back in 2014. But it had remained mostly unknown or unacknowedged by the broader community and media until last night. And certainly, the lengths to which Delforce and the team at Farm Transparency Project (FTP) went in order to offer a new angle were little short of remarkable. The process of MAS was broadcast on prime time television in vivid colour, with horrifying proximity and sound.
In the interests of balanced journalism 7:30 offered a platform not only for Delforce and FTP to air the footage and their commentary but also for members of industry and welfare bodies to offer their opinions.
John Bourke: President of the Victorian Farming Federation Pig Group, delegate to Australian Pork Limited (APL), and operator of the intensive scale Bourke Piggery based in Stanhope. Matthews Evans: Tasmanian chef and food commentator, operator of small scale Fat Pig Farm. Dr. Ellen Jongman: Senior research fellow in veterinary sciences at the University of Melbourne, and author of a paper into MAS funded by Australian Pork Limited. Dr. Bidda Jones: formerly chief scientist at the RSPCA, and currently working for the Australian Alliance for Animals.
Throughout the program these people made direct and indirect references to the notion of a “good death.” That is, the idea that animals who are slaughtered for their flesh should experience no avoidable suffering in the process. The repetition of this phrase throughout the report sparked my curiousity. Previously, I have heard reference to slaughter being the “one bad day” in a farmed animal’s life (which is a provably false view of the farming process). I have heard slaughter referred to as “ethical” or “humane” (again, a provable falsehood). But never a “good death.”
A “good death” is a specific philosophy that has changed in many ways throughout the ages, but throughout has retained a focus on autonomy in death.
Aristotle (384–322BCE) wrote that a good death was integrally connected to a good life, that is a life lived with reason and in abundance, and that was whole and complete (Kripalani, 2018). A good death was a process in which the dying person was assisted by family and community, whether in end of life care or in the rituals held afterwards (Kripalani, 2018). A truly noble death was, however, viewed by Aristotle as that which was attained in battle: “Now the noblest form of death is death in battle, for it is encountered in the midst of the greatest and most noble of dangers.” (Nichomachaen Ethics, 3.9). This was a common thought in ancient Greek thought, with a good death being that which is willingly pursued by the hero in defence of the homeland and community (Montagutie et. al., 2016). Funeral rites again feature as a key aspect of the good death, with respect and honour for the hero’s body fundamental to the process (Montagutie et. al., 2016). Consider how in Homer’s Illiad the elderly King Priam risks his life and the safety of his people to beg the hero Achilles for his son’s body, the hero Hector whom Achilles slaughtered in battle (Illiad, 24). The completion of the hero’s life occurred in defence of the community; the completion of his death must come from his funeral rites lest Hector be denied a good death.
The concept of a good death is commonly referred to as euthanasia in the modern concept, derived from the Greek eu: “good” and thanatos: “death.” However the word euthanasia itself was not recorded in ancient Greek texts. The first use of the word dates to the era of the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626 CE), who described euthanasia as the mitigation of suffering for patients whose conditions were incurable, and as such should be part of the physicians remit (Biotti-Mache, 2016). Bacon also described the concepts of internal and external euthanasia, with the former being the processes by which the patient prepares for death (including religious rites, and the presence of family and community), and the latter being the processes of death itself (Montagutie et.al., 2016).
Contemporary conceptualisations of the good death follow similar lines. A review of geriatric psychiatry research papers identified eleven key components typically associated with a good death (Meier et.al., 2016). These included the presence of family and community, emotional and spiritual well-being, knowledge of the processes of death, and a full completion of life (Meier et. al., 2016). The Cancer Council of NSW has also identified aspects of a good death (CCNSW, 2021). These include control over the processes, places, and times of death, the reconciling of damaged relationships, and the chance to say goodbye (CCNSW, 2021).
At the heart of all philosophies seeking to define what a good death is lies the notions of autonomy and community. The Greek hero chooses to pursue a good death in battle, in defence of the community, and the community is integral in caring for a dying individual and in completing their life through funeral rituals. Bacon’s concepts of internal and external euthanasia afforded the patient the autonomy to be prepared for death, and to approach their death with dignity and without suffering. Modern applications of a good death, as voluntary euthanasia becomes more prevalent across society, likewise give the patient the autonomy to decide when and how they die, the choice to be surrounded by community including family, and the completion of important life processes.
To a certain extent, other animals are included in this idea of a good death. Euthanasia is an important facet of the human-animal relationship, as we seek to alleviate the pain and suffering of incurably injured, diseased, or elderly animals. It is often a loving process, as we gently hold a beloved family member in our arms, and say our final goodbyes. According to many veterinarians with whom I have spoken, a good death occurs a day early but never a day too late. It is often said that the animals with whom we share our lives will tell us when it is their time. We see in them the ability to act with autonomy at the end of life, irrespective of whether this is founded in scientific fact or not. And we also perform our own rituals of life completion, through the last walk on the beach, the last meal of whatever food they desire, as we prepare them and ourselves for the coming death. This is followed by burials, cremations, and the eulogies we create as a process of mourning, which are then communicated to our communities.
For the pigs whose deaths we bore witness to on last night’s program, none of this applies.
Whether they are born into a farrowing crate or an outdoor eco-shelter, piglets are mutilated without anesthesia, through ear notching and tagging, de-tusking, and castration. They may be removed from their mother as young as three weeks old, and placed into group housing for weaning. Weaning in pigs naturally occurs at up to 17 weeks old (Bottaya, 2022). Early life adversity through maternal deprivation has been shown to stress piglets (and their mothers), to alter behaviour, and to alter stress regulation systems (Gimsa et. al., 2022). The piglets remain in weaner housing until 10 weeks of age, when they are moved and regrouped in the grower pens, causing a disruption of the bonds formed and potentially separating siblings (APL, 2023). At 16 weeks old the piglets are moved into smaller groups to accommodate for a lack of space, once again disrupting group bonds and separating communities (APL, 2023). The housing systems may vary, but the basic processes remain the same across all facets of the industry.
At 5 to 6 months of age, the pigs are loaded into transport trucks. For many, this will be the first time they see open sky, and the last. Whilst there are regulations in place ostensibly to decrease the stress of pigs in transport, and whilst the industry tells consumers the transport is low stress, those who have witnessed these trucks on the road or entering the slaughterhouses can attest to the inaccuracy of these claims. “These 5–6 month old young pigs are headed into the slaughterhouse. It’s likely the first time they have ever seen sunlight. They are hungry and thirsty, scared, and many are injured or trampled.” (Melbourne Pig Save, 2022). Depending on the season, the pigs may experience extreme heat or cold en route to slaughter.
Offloading is similarly high stress. A video released by Animal Liberation Queensland showed the stress and confusion of pigs as they were offloaded from a truck to a slaughterhouse, with electric prods and paddles used to force the animals down the ramp. One injured sow who was unable to move was repeatedly beaten, kicked, and finally killed whilst still on the ramp.
From here, the pigs are herded into the lairage. According to the APL, the lairage is where pigs are “allowed” to rest and relax from two to twenty-four hours (APL, 2023). Pictured below is the lairage at the Benalla abattoir; the pens are dirty and barren, the pigs crowding onto one another to seek warmth and comfort. Other images taken on this evening show pigs chewing at the pen bars, foaming at the mouth, and exhibiting other signs of stress.
From lairage, the pigs are loaded in small groups into gondolas, which are dropped into a concrete pit. There they are subjected to carbon dioxide (Co2) gassing. RSPCA Australia states that concentrations of Co2 over 30% are highly aversive to pigs, causing significant pain and discomfort (RSPCA, 2023). In slaughterhouses using Co2 for MAS, the concentration is over 80%, causing serious pain and distress to the animals. The images aired on 7:30 showed pigs thrashing, foaming at the mouth, seeking to escape. And we heard them scream, the desperate panicked cries of animals in acute distress. 85% of pigs slaughtered for their flesh in Australia are subjected to MAS, while nearly 15% are electrocuted (APL, 2023). A small percentage may be stunned using a captive bolt gun, or in some rare circumstances shot point blank in the face with a .22, as was exposed at Gretna Meatworks in Tasmania.
If we assess the birth to slaughter process of pigs (or any other animal exploited by humans) through the lens of historical and contemporary conceptualisations of a good death, what we find is that none of the shared themes are remotely applicable. A pig’s life is one of community disturbance, of familial deprivation, and denial of autonomy. The completion of life occurs at a fraction of that which is natural. Death itself involves distress and suffering. And the animal’s body is not afforded respect after death through the observance of funeral rites connecting the community to the deceased individual; rather it is desecrated through butchering.
Obviously the people who have explored the meaning of a good death over millenia did not intend for their considerations to be applied to other animals. And yet, as discussed above, humans do apply them to those animals we hold as having moral consideration, namely our companions.
Furthermore, the industry representatives themselves referenced the idea of a good death repeatedly throughout the program aired last night. Matthew Evans in particular went to great lengths to declare a farmed pig’s right to a good life and a good death. Whilst the pigs he exploits may have more room to wander, they are still deprived of the autonomy and completion of life that is necessary to qualify as a good death. Dr. Jongman suggested breeding down genetic lines less prone to stress, literally altering the individual’s body to make them more amenable to slaughter, ever the story of the animal industrial complex. John Bourke denied there was a problem at all, that his pigs simply go from the friendly cute piglets he was proud to show off to butchered slabs of meat with only a gentle nap in between. “There’s something wrong with that footage. Rubbish.” The APL simply refused to comment.
What this exploration reveals is that those involved in the industry simultaneously promote other animals as having a right to a good death, whilst completely ignoring what a good death actually is, in both historical and contemporary contexts. Their idea of a good death is devoid of any real meaning, and rather becomes a two word slogan used to cover the most horrific acts perpetrated against animals. The industry view of a good death bears no relation to the animals themselves. It is instead intended to assuage the guilt of the consumer, and conceal the truth of their activities behind closed doors. It is consumerist and capitalist in its gaze.
As the right to voluntary assisted dying, a good death, becomes more available across our societies, surely it is time that we collectively begin to assess our personal roles in denying a good life and death to others. As we strive for autonomy, for the right to complete our lives according to our own terms, does it not become entirely hypocritical that we subject such severe distress and suffering upon others for a moment of sensory pleasure?
In our philosophising, campaigning, and legislating to provide a good death to members of society, it is incumbent upon us to take those who are hidden in the darkness of the slaughterhouses into our consideration.