09/27/2013 11:13 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2013

'Suffering' as a Guiding Principle for Raising Livestock


The other day I was filling the sheep's water trough, and as I poured the water I saw a large spider fall out of the bucket into the trough. The momentum of the water stream pushed the spider down into the water. The spider swirled around against the side of the trough and then bobbed up to the surface. It was upside down and was flailing its legs. Without really thinking about it, I reached down and broke off a long piece of grass and then placed the grass against the spider's abdomen. The spider immediately wrapped its legs around the grass. I raised the spider up out of the water and dropped the piece of grass on the ground next to the trough. The spider scurried off.

Why did I save the spider? Or, why was my reflexive response to seeing the spider flailing its legs around on its back on the surface of the water to save it? Why didn't I just leave it there? Or, why didn't I kill it, considering that I have killed hundreds of them in my lifetime?

I had started to ask myself those questions as I was raising the spider out of the trough. It was one of those fruitful juxtapositions that I just can't resist. There I was providing water to sheep whose sole purpose is to live and grow until they are nice and plump at which time they are methodically killed and cut up so that we can eat their flesh, while at the very same time, I was tenderly rescuing a spider from drowning.

It seems highly contradictory, but I realized that I was acting according to a guiding principle that resolves the contradiction, a prohibition against suffering. I must act in such a way that the lives of the creatures in the world that I interact with are free of suffering. Relatively stress free, almost totally painless slaughter does not cause suffering. Rescuing spiders from drowning relieves suffering. Quick spider deaths by squashing with a magazine do not cause suffering.

Of course, "suffering" is a highly subjective concept, so such a thing does not relieve the tension between ethical vegetarians/vegans (especially vegans) and livestock farmers/meat eaters. For a vegan, nothing but narcissistic hubris grants me the authority to declare what does and does not cause a living creature suffering, although a vegan would certainly appreciate my tender care of the spider. I admit there is something to this criticism. Who am I to declare the subjective experience of a sheep or a spider? Livestock scientist Temple Grandin argues that frequency of cow vocalization is an adequate measure of suffering in a slaughterhouse environment. She has developed an "objective" measure of slaughterhouse animal welfare based on quantifying vocalizations. However, until very recently, animal scientists believed that giraffes don't vocalize at all. It turns out, however, that they do, but they do so in a frequency below that of human hearing, and vocalization is a very important part of the giraffe community. The suffering of cows could be expressed in innumerable ways that we have not yet fathomed. It very well could be that vocalization is but one form of expression of an extreme level of suffering. We look out at a steadily moving stream of cows at an industrial slaughterhouse hearing only the occasional bellow here or a moo there and think with Grandin that we are therefore not causing those cows to suffer. Meanwhile, it might really be the case that the cows, like the giraffes, are bombarding each other with low frequency declarations of the most miserable suffering.

Granted. Nevertheless, I am not a vegan. I eat meat, and I raise animals to slaughter and butcher for their meat. So, in spite of the fact that measuring suffering is fraught, I use it as one of my guiding principles for providing a high level of animal welfare. Animals (creatures) must not suffer while in my care (or while in the care of those to whom I entrust them). Such a principle permits me to raise animals for slaughter while enabling me at the same time to rescue spiders from drowning. It does not, however, relieve me of the burden of the subjectivity of any declaration of the suffering of another creature. I feel in this regard that I am always balancing on the edge of a knife blade.