A Brief Comment on the “Euthanasia” of Farm Animals as a Result of Covid-19

“Thanks for feeling bad because you have to ‘euthanize’ us; how about not killing us for food in the first place?” (photo: Kenneth Schipper-Vera/Unspalsh)

For the past several weeks, news outlets have been telling us repeatedly that, as a result of meat processing plants closing because large numbers of employees have contracted Covid-19, and as a result of supply-chain disruptions for meat, milk, and eggs caused by the virus, many millions of farm animals are having to be “euthanized.” Farmers and industry executives are appearing as daily guests on news shows talking about how heartbroken they are that they have to “euthanize” these animals. The news anchors doing the interviews often treat their guests with a level of sympathy similar to what they show to people who have lost family members as a result of the virus. I saw one report where an anchor interviewed a woman who had just lost her mother to Covid-19 and then talked to a pig farmer who was moaning about having to “depopulate” his farm by “euthanizing” his pigs. The anchor treated both as suffering a similar sort of personal tragedy.

The fact that we are lamenting the killing of these animals shows how deeply committed we are to our horribly confused thinking about animals.

First, let’s deal with the use of “euthanasia” to describe what is going on here. Euthanasia is a death that is in the interest of the being who is killed. If someone were to say, “I decided to euthanize my dog because he had cancer, was in great pain, and had stopped eating or exhibiting any behavior consistent with his having any quality of life,” I would regard that as a proper use of “euthanize.” If someone were to say, “I decided to euthanize my dog because I just didn’t want to live with a dog anymore even though my dog was healthy, happy, and had a great quality of life,” I would regard that as an improper use of “euthanize.” The proper word in the second example is kill. Death was not in the interest of the dog in the second example. Death is not ever in the interest of a healthy sentient being — human or nonhuman.

The deaths of these farm animals is not as a result of euthanasia; it is the result of killing; it is the result of slaughter.

“Euthanasia” is being used in the context of animals being killed in the wake of the Covid-19 virus precisely because it evokes the sort of emotional reactions we experience when we think about ending the life of a beloved nonhuman family member. It promotes the notion that we care morally and emotionally about the farm animals being killed. Although I do not defend the institution of pet ownership, it is clear that the context in which we decide to euthanize a nonhuman family member when the animal is ill and no longer has any quality of life is completely different from the context in which we kill farm animals because workers are sick and not showing up for work or because demand for meat is decreasing as a result of the pandemic.

Moreover, “euthanasia,” when used properly, involves a method of causing death that is as painless as possible, and is without distress or fear. I can assure you that the the farm animals being killed as a result of the virus are suffering considerable pain, fear, and distress — just as they do during the conventional slaughtering process.

Second, why is anyone lamenting the killing of farm animals who were going to be killed and eaten anyway? It’s not as if these animals were going to have a nice life if they weren’t “euthanized.” They were going to be killed; indeed, if it were not for the virus disrupting things, most of these animals would have been slaughtered already. The reason why they are being “euthanized” is because the workers are not there to kill them and the demand is such that their butchered bodies won’t sell for the time being and no one wants to waste any more money on these animals because there are others coming up through the supply chain.

These animals have no inherent or intrinsic vale. They are property; they are things that have only an extrinsic, external, and economic value. They exist to be used by humans exclusively as replaceable resources. They exist to be part of an institutional use where producers and consumers engage in selling and buying them and their body parts and products. The only difference between a pig who has been “euthanized” and one who has been slaughtered, butchered, and sold in the supermarket is that no humans benefited from the death of the animal in the former case. No one made a profit; no one got to eat the animal. The animal property was wasted. That may occasion feeling sorry for us. It is absurd for us to lament the deaths of these animals as though they were a tragedy for them. They were going to be killed no matter what. We “euthanize” them because it is in our economic interest to do so.

Our lamenting the deaths of these animals, and our use of “euthanasia” to describe what is just plain and simple killing, provide yet another example of our confused thinking about our use of nonhuman animals. We claim to regard animals as having moral value. Most of us believe that it is wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering on animals. But it is not necessary to eat animals for reasons of health; indeed, there is a growing consensus that animal products are detrimental to human health. We eat animals because we like the taste or because it’s convenient or because we’ve been doing it for a long time and it’s a habit. None of those reasons makes the practice of eating animals and animal products necessary. All of the harm that we inflict on these animals is gratuitous. And that means that, despite our claim that we take animals seriously as a moral matter, we don’t.

So we try to make ourselves feel better by lamenting the deaths of these animals and talking about their “euthanasia.” Like many fantasies, it may make us feel better, but it is nothing more than an attempt to make it seem as though we care about animals when, if we did, we would not be using them for food (or for clothing, entertainment, etc.) in the first place.

And as we contemplate the dystopian nightmare that we are all living as a result of this pandemic, and contemplate that it, like almost all pandemics, is the result of humans exploiting nonhumans, and consider the ecological devastation of animal agriculture, maybe veganism will seem less “extreme.” For more information about a vegan diet and veganism as a general matter, including all sorts of easy, cheap, and nutritious recipes, visit here.

Gary L. Francione is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Law at Rutgers University and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the University of Lincoln.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store