An evolution of animal ethics


by Constance Breese


Carrie Mae Smith

Humane slaughter and processing is a difficult and conflicting topic. Insightful consideration, transparency and long-term planning help close the gaps.  

A giant buzzing winged insect circled me as I was waiting for a Boston city bus one day. At first glance, it looked like a wasp so when it landed on the sidewalk I stepped on it. Witnessing my bug smash, a bystander waiting for the bus beside me blurted out, “How could you kill that innocent creature?”

I kept my thoughts to myself. If he only knew that I had spent my afternoon in a research laboratory doing much more than killing bugs—that my days in the lab had been spent killing rats and removing their spleens. It is a moment remembered as my views on animal sacrifice and veterinary medicine were evolving.

I had worked as a teenager for a vet in my hometown, helping pets feel better. Sometimes, when a dog or cat was gravely ill or very old and failing, my kind mentor gently put them to sleep. As a high school student, I witnessed euthanasia, I witnessed someone taking an animal’s life. I remember feeling it was hard but learning that it was necessary. But in Boston, as a graduate student doing advanced medical research at the Joslin Diabetes Foundation, I was required to use laboratory animals for experiments and then kill them. I was both intrigued and repulsed simultaneously.

Taking healthy animals—mice, rats, and dogs—and intentionally making them sick and then killing them was not what I thought a veterinarian would or should be doing. But the incredible gains made in the science of diabetes in just the short time I worked at Joslin started a shift in my thinking. Animal models of disease and living tissues are required to investigate treatments for human illness. Again in veterinary school, along with everything else I had to learn, were lessons on the meaning and value of the sacrifice of living things. We had to practice medical and surgical procedures on live animals—dogs, ponies, etc.—and then euthanize them. This evolution of thought happened relatively quickly for me. If you are going to learn how to stop an artery from bleeding or suture an intestine back together, it has to be the real thing. A detailed model of a patient helps teach anatomy, but it doesn’t teach you how living tissue feels and responds.

By the time I graduated from Tufts Veterinary, I had come to an understanding about the role of live animals in experimentation and education. It is a necessity. I recognized that veterinarians specializing in laboratory animal medicine were exactly what research institutions needed to make sure animals were kept well, their pain minimized, and death humanely brought. I focused much of my time on research and scientific publication but knew with assurance that I wanted to be an animal doctor in the field and in the clinic.

Fast forward to the present day. I have treated and cared for large and small animals in a traditional veterinary clinical practice. The slaughterhouse topic arises on the Island. I love seeing and caring for the livestock grazing on Vineyard fields. I buy and eat meat regularly, but there has been a gap in my thinking. I haven’t spent any time thinking about what happens between pasture and freezer. Now I have to
think about it.

For meat eaters, meat is a fuel that feeds our bodies. Fuel is a necessity. Animals must be sacrificed to supply the need. Our geographically isolated Island presents unique opportunities. Can we provide our own fuel? Self-sufficiency is a good thing in this microsystem we live in. Raising farm animals here is ongoing, and numbers are on the rise. The slaughtering and processing are done off-Island at great cost in time and money to local farmers. It is very difficult to load animals, make the boat, and stay on schedule to get to a slaughterhouse hours away.

The cows, pigs, and lambs are subjected to stress, which could be minimized for them (stress on the livestock adversely affects meat quality). The farmers must make a second trip to go to get the meat, adding additional cost to production and sales.

A year-long collaborative effort between the MV Agricultural Society and the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) backed by the USDA has produced convincing economic statistics and plans for a manageable small slaughterhouse to be constructed on-Island.

Important improvements with a local facility are:
1. Less stress on the animals
2. Lower cost to the consumer
3. Food safety and handling oversight

The Agricultural Society owns the land where the proposed facility will be built. A capital fund-raising campaign will commence once the project receives approval and permitting. I looked closely at the slaughterhouse proposal beginning early last fall. The feelings were there, just as I had had at the research labs: intrigue and aversion but I kept going. I focused on my potential role in a small community that wants to build a slaughterhouse. I want to apply what I believe—that there can be a balance between caring about the animals and objectivity that will allow this project to succeed.

This past February, I was notified that I have qualified for the job of veterinary medical officer for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the USDA. If hired to work at the Martha’s Vineyard facility, I will take a training program dedicated to the specifics of humane handling, meat processing, and food safety. I have evolved again.