The sad lot of Hong Kong's slaughterhouse animals
Paul Stapleton says while we claim the right to kill birds to avert a flu outbreak, we should rethink the way we treat farm animals in general
Once again, images of chickens being grabbed by their wings and tossed into plastic bags to be gassed and sent to incinerators have hit our TV screens. This time, 20,000 birds were "culled" in Hong Kong, a convenient euphemism used by the government and media in place of "asphyxiated" or just plain, "killed". It is true that these birds, under normal circumstances, would soon have met a similar grim ending, albeit in the stomachs of Hong Kong consumers rather than incinerators; however, the wasted lives of this massive number of sentient beings underscores a sad reality and hypocrisy in the way society treats animals.
Watch: Hong Kong culls 20,000 chickens after H7N9 found
The need for the slaughter, of course, is to eradicate any chance of the birds passing on the H7N9 flu virus to humans. This time, one bird was found with the virus so 20,000 had to be killed. Past experience suggests this course of action is wise given the virulence of this virus, which last year killed about a third of the 144 people infected on the mainland. Another suspected avian virus causing the Spanish flu in 1918-19 killed 20 million people.
Clearly, our government is correct in taking no chances, and its offer to compensate the chicken farmers to cover their costs is appropriate. However, seldom discussed when another round of slaughter takes place is the moral cost of wasting the lives of myriad chickens, and the broader hypocrisy harboured in our treatment of animals.
Here in Hong Kong, frequent stories about the deliberate poisoning of dogs make headlines when a handful of pets are found dead. Their owners are rightfully outraged. Yet, before these dogs died, they were probably being fed the meat from farm animals called "pet food", for much of their lives. And in most cases, the chickens, pigs and cows that sacrificed their existence to end up in a can lived miserable lives.
Those 20,000 chickens, for example, most likely spent most of their lives inside a shed in a cage, where they were unable to spread their wings stacked one over another, never to see the light of day. Such a claustrophobic environment is surely as bad for the chickens' well-being as it is good for the spread of viruses. The lives of domestic cows and pigs are little better.
Instead of any concern for the chickens slaughtered in the cull, one of the biggest concerns was the fact that Hong Kong people would have to endure eating frozen, rather than fresh, chicken over the Lunar New Year holiday. This disregard for animal life points to the fact that farm animals have become commodities. They are in a separate category than pets. Even a goldfish gets more respect.
In Hong Kong and much of the world, the consumer has grown to expect to pay no more than a few dollars for a meal of meat. The extremely crowded conditions endured by farm animals, where antibiotics are infused into their feed as a matter of course, runs in tandem with meat being produced as a commodity. Obviously, something has to give in such a system and it is clearly the comfort of animals.
However, the recent spread of avian and swine viruses is in no small way unrelated to society's insistence on producing meat in the most efficient and cost-effective way. Indeed, the chickens are coming home to roost.
Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education