Asked in Cows and Cattle
Are cows happy to be killed?
November 22, 2011 8:08PM
In simple terms, the answer to this question is neither right nor wrong, nor is it a definite "yes" or "no." The reason being is this: If a person answered "yes," they are being ignorant about the fact that all animals want to and have a need to live. However, if a person answered "no," then they are blamed for being ignorant about the fact that animals, unlike humans, do not fear nor have any comprehension of death or what is beyond life.
It is without doubt that the concept of killing animals for meat is a highly controversial subject. People can argue until they are blue in the face about why slaughter is right or wrong and what their morals are for slaughtering cattle; but the true answer to this question is not about personal opinions: it is about the science and realities of how animals, like cows, think and act that determines whether or not they are happy to be killed.
How animals view death, prey-predator interactions, and the human-cow interaction in terms of humane handling and slaughter are the main factors that determine what answer this question deserves.
However, in the context of bovine psychology and prey-animal behaviour, this statement is really only a half-truth. Cows, or any other animal within the Animal Kingdom--with the exception of Homo sapiens--really and quite honestly do not care whether they are about to die tomorrow or in the next two seconds. Cattle live in the moment: they react according to what is happening around them right now, not what will happen in the future or what happened in the past. Because of this, the fear of what will happen when their time comes or even when they will die is non-existent. They do not have any comprehension nor understanding of Death, nor do they desire to know what Death is all about; they don't even consider whether Life after Death is fact or fiction. All they know--if "know" is the proper word to use here--about Death is that it is a very long and peaceful sleep.
Cattle are literally born to be preyed upon--being chased, caught, killed and eaten--by all apex predators, including humans. Admittedly humans do not have the physiological means of chasing, catching and killing prey like a tiger or a wolf is capable of, but we are still instinctually--and somewhat biologically, though psychology plays a much bigger role here--able and willing to kill prey animals like cattle (though in a much different and more compassionate means) in order to eat them.
In the natural world, it is quite obvious from observing and analyzing the interactions between predators and prey that prey animals will not go to their end willingly. However predators need to hunt prey to eat, and prey need to fear predators to ensure the survival of their species. Thus it is the fear of animals that are built as predators, the chase, of pain and pressure that drives them to want to survive, not die.
Prey animals also fear the predator that is stalking or chasing them. Deer will run away from a dog or coyote that chases them; cattle will stand with their heads up and ears pricked when they see an unfamiliar person or object coming towards them, then move away when it comes into their comfort zone. It is for this reason that prey animals choose flight over fight in any situation that threatens their security. Pressure, pain and being restrained will also initiate flight-or-fight response.
The feeling of pain, pressure (psychological or physical) or restraint are additional, highly influential fears that all wild and domesticated prey animals possess. All prey animals will struggle against the forceful grip of restraint: from the jaws of the wolf or lion to the grip a headgate has on the head and neck of a cow or ewe. They will move away if pressure is applied by a predator moving into their flight or comfort zone, or if physical pressure is felt on a part of their body. A horse will react violently to a cowboy that is riding it for the first time (out of instinctual fear and lack of trust), or to a cougar that has leaped onto its back. A dairy heifer will kick out if her udder is being touched for the first time by a farmer in attempt to train her to be milked, or when a blue heeler dog nips her hind legs in attempt to herd her. Animals will also react without warning to something that is causing them pain, by kicking out or shying away, be it from a bloodthirsty mosquito, the bite from a wolf, or a needle suddenly stabbed in the neck or rump. Reaction, of course, all depends on the severity of the action that is put upon them. For instance, an animal will react much more violently to something very painful than something that only causes mild discomfort.
Combine all three of these factors together and you are seeing that what makes the act of being killed, from the prey animal's point of view, is clearly not a very enjoyable thing at all! This is particularly true for those animals that live in the wild, where moose, deer and bison are hunted by wolves and bears, or gazelles, zebras and wildebeest are chased and taken down by lions and hyenas.
However, in the context of the human-cattle bond, we must take a step back from predator-prey interactions of the wilderness and analyze how bovine psychology and behaviour is used in the humane handling and slaughter of cattle to find a further answer to this thought-provoking question.
It should be noted, though, that physical man-made tools cannot replace the ability for us to judge how to handle or even slaughter cattle in the best way possible; using calm, quiet techniques that require only ourselves and no man-made tool, or using tools in the most effective and proper means possible. To achieve that, studying bovine psychology, behaviour and physiology is imperative to be able to accomplish getting a herd of cattle moving to and reaching where we want them to go without any train-wrecks, or to killing a cow with just one well-aimed shot to the forehead. Fortunately such studies have been done, more in today's world than 200 years ago, to achieve such goals and to take livestock handling and slaughter to a whole new level. One such person who has made vast improvements and contributions to this field must be mentioned on this particular answer: Dr. Temple Grandin.
Dr. Temple Grandin, an animal behaviorist expert and professor from Colorado State University and inventor of humane livestock handling equipment and methods has made such great contributions and improvements to this part of the animal agricultural sector. In continuation with the predator-prey, human-cow relationships section of this answer, she says on her website, in research papers and television interviews that animals like cattle who are subject to negative stimuli (i.e., being chased, feeling pain, loud noises, quick movement, being restricted when they do not wish to be restricted, etc.) are apt to be more fearful and anxious than those who are exposed to positive stimuli (calm environment, no loud noises nor quick movement, no pain, etc.). To see this, we have to first look at how cattle react to negative experiences versus positive experiences.
Positive versus Negative Stimuli
As prey animals, cattle will react negatively to not only pain, restraint/pressure, and being chased, but also loud, high-pitched noises, contrasting colours or shades of light and dark, or unfamiliar sights and smells. Anything that is out of place, sounds unfamiliar or smells very odd that will cause them concern, and they will react accordingly, some more violently than others. Some cattle will stop in their tracks and simply stare; some will shy away and avoid the object or area completely. Others will turn tail and make an attempt to "run for the hills." If they feel cornered, they may even charge in a very aggressive manner. Such stimuli include but are not limited to the following:
- Bright yellow tarp or coat hanging on the fence
- Sunlight hitting a puddle in the middle of a working chute
- Unfamiliar people
- Unfamiliar surroundings
- Tractor back-firing
- A crowd of people talking, laughing, clapping, shouting, etc.
- Creaky gate
- Person yelling at them to "get them moving"
- Body odor from strange person/people
- Disinfectants, detergents, etc.
- Pheromones emitting from other cattle in a panicked or highly anxious state of mind
Physical touch (in terms of pain):
- Hot-shot or cattle prod being used repeatedly
- Hit with a sorting stick repeatedly
- Slapped on the rump
- Struck on any other part of the body with an object (wooden board, hand, jacket, etc.)
They will be in a high state of fear and anxiety when they are subjected to such unnecessary stimuli, thus making it very unpleasant for them before they die. They may be relieved that it is over when the cloak of Death finally envelopes over them, but their experiences prior to would not nor should not be considered happy or pleasant experiences. However, much of these negative factors can be prevented, creating a more positive environment for that animal. An animal that is exposed to positive stimuli prior to slaughter, on the other hand, will have minimal to no fear or anxiety when it is time for them to go.
Positive stimuli for cattle are things that do not involve loud noises, bright, contrasting objects or hues, or nor pain. They are calm when they cannot see what's around the bend or what's happening in front of them, nor of an animal in front of them being altered in some way (like the head or hide being removed). They are also calm when they are following a lead animal versus being the first one to go into the chute, or when they are given the time to see where they are going and inspect things for a few seconds before moving on towards their final destination. Cattle are willing to move quietly and calmly if a person isn't stepping too far into their flight or comfort zone, or moving in such a way that causes confusion. Smooth movement through the handling facility will also occur if there are no foreign objects hanging on the fence or sudden contrasts of light or floor texture in their path. Panic will also not ensue if handlers do not yell or beat the cattle to force them to move forward, nor if a cattle prod is not used unless absolutely necessary. Though unfamiliar smells cannot be prevented, the biggest factor is if there is very little to no pheromone emitted from the other cattle in the herd nor from the group of cattle that when before them, they will be calm. Finally, once cattle are on the kill floor, death comes quickly and painlessly when the cap-bolt gun, electric-stunning gun, rifle or knife is used skillfully and correctly in such a manner that the animals die as peacefully and quickly as possible.
We know from that mentioned previously prey animals will not stand being restrained when they can see their escape route in front of them. This is especially true with the wilder animals that have more powerful self-preservation instincts than most domesticated animals like sheep, goats, cattle and most horses. However, these same prey animals will become calmer, quieter and easier to handle when cannot see what's in front or around them. This is advantageous for biologists who have to tranquilize and handle a wild and dangerous animal in order to take blood samples or to move it to another location. Simply putting a blanket or cloth over the eyes of the animal makes it that much easier to manage and handle such a dangerous animal like a rhinoceros or a water buffalo. On a bison ranch, the Hi-Hog head-gate and squeeze chute built for handling bison are designed so that the animals cannot see outside nor in front of them while being restrained during processing before being released back to the herd. With cattle, they are calm when they are handled and herded in a solid-sided working chute versus one with open sides, and are also calm when they cannot see what is happening in front of them just before they enter the squeeze chute.
Inhibiting vision is highly useful for restraint cradles or box chutes used in slaughter facilities. The box chute is designed minimize fear and anxiety in animals because it does not allow that animal to see what is in front, beside or behind it. It also contains a solid gate at the back so that the animals behind the box chute cannot see what is going on in front. The top is open, and the sides are high enough so that a cow, even if it raises its head, cannot see over top. The open top is so that the person who is handling the cap-bolt gun or electric-stunning gun can reach down from above to render the animal senseless. The side then collapses, allowing access to the legs so that they can be shackled and hoisted up onto a pulley system to let rest of the slaughtering process to continue.
Cattle in North America are killed primarily either by the cap-bolt gun or, if slaughtered on the farm or ranch, with a rifle or pistol. The cap-bolt gun is designed so that a steel rod is shot through the brain of the animal, killing the animal instantly. This tool is only effective if positioned at the right angle and in the right location of the animal's head. To render insensibility, it must be positioned not right between the eyes, but in the middle of the forehead. Drawing an imaginary line from the base of the left ear to the inside-corner of the right eye and another line from the right ear to the left eye will form an X. The middle of this X (or even slightly above) is where the muzzle of the cap-bolt gun should be positioned at in order to stun and kill. This X is also highly useful if an animal needs to be euthanized with a rifle or pistol. The person with the rifle needs to stand at a minimum distance of 3 feet or more to make the kill-shot. With a pistol, the muzzle should be only a few inches away, though for some producers an animal can be killed with a pistol if they stood farther away. It is very important that the first shot be the kill-shot in order for a quick, humane death to occur. If more than one shot is needed, then it will more than likely defeat the purpose of such tools required to humanely euthanize an animal.
It does not help ourselves nor the animals to use anthropomorphisms when talking about animals, death, and animals dying or being killed simply because we are only putting our emotions into areas where they are not necessary. It is obvious that slaughtering cattle or any other animal is a highly controversial subject, but when we possess greater knowledge and understanding of how cattle and all other animals think, act and react to various things in their world, including Death, only then can we truly appreciate and understand how Death is perceived by animals and why the slaughtering of animals is merely an integral part of the food chain.