I have been horrified by something I discovered a year after it happened in South Korea. The live burial of, get this, 3.5m pigs and 5m poultry by the Korean government to stem the spread of foot and mouth disease (FMD). Large numbers of cattle and apparently even dogs were simply buried alive. According to Korean Animal Rights Advocates, this was carried out illegally - even for a country who tolerates the eating of dogs who have been beaten to death (apparently they taste better if they've been brutally killed). But since the government refused to pay for the vaccination of animals in farms surrounding outbreaks, they had no choice. Culling was the only solution. The law was flouted to save money, and most Koreans simply shrugged their shoulders, worried only about the affect this would have on the price of their ham. 'They were going to die anyway, and didn't suffer for long'.
My problem is not with the government's failure to pay for vaccines. It's questionable whether this would have worked anyway to prevent the spread of FMD - which, by the way, is not usually a fatal disease. Left to run its course, most animals make a full recovery. The problem for farmers is that they can't sell animals with the infection, or uninfected animals from the same herd. It is therefore an economic problem of feeding sick animals and their cohabitants while they recover without the ability to sell anything from the whole of your farm to pay for the extra feed, treatments and vaccines. You are also quarantined so you can't leave and no-one can visit your premises until the disease has run its course. The symptoms are sometimes described as 'flu-like'. So eradication of the disease is not about relieving suffering. Farmers and their governmental support departments simply can't afford FMD which therefore has to be stopped quickly once discovered.
I also do not have a problem with culling, despite the incredible waste of edible meat that's entailed while billions starve globally. Vaccination better, culling cheaper. My problem is with the inhumanity involved in the cull, and the effect it has on all of us by hardening our tolerance of the suffering of other sentient creatures who have almost exactly the same organs as us (in fact we use pig heart valves as replacements for our own) and whose DNA differs by only a couple of % from humans. Contrary to popular belief, they are highly intelligent, have a wide communication vocabulary (if brought up in more natural communities), and clearly feel pain and fear just like us.
There are many considerations for governments when faced with FMD culling. Cost, speed, availability of skilled resources in sufficient numbers and geographic distribution, training, disease testing, transport, disposal of corpses, counselling of staff (indeed even some Koreans found the activity distressing), cooperation of farmers (especially from neighbouring but uninfected farms), compensation, timing of green light re-stocking, media management (local and international) etc. But for me there's one component that their moral compass failed to consider in this instance, and that's the extra cost to our species of ignoring the suffering of the animals being culled in order to save a few dollars (or whatever). At least in the UK we humanely transport and cull with electrocution and captive-bolt stun guns before burning the piles of corpses. We also mobilise large numbers of pre-trained volunteer vets and farm workers to travel to affected areas in emergencies, and the animals are usually destroyed and disposed of without the need to transport them away from their farms (which in turn prevents further contamination).
So how was the far more efficient, but wickedly cruel Korean method an extra cost? Surely the Koreans were saving money by digging a hole, dumping unwitting creatures in it and covering it up. The animals didn't know they were going there, so had no prior anxiety. They couldn't see what awaited them. 5 minutes of suffering tops. Cram them into dumper trucks (not going far, so no worries about transport comfort), and pour them out. No need to worry about damaging the livestock (even the word makes them expendable). The priority was that the pits needed to be deep enough so they couldn't escape. A few dumper trucks, diggers and bulldozers. Job done.
But the cost to you and me was not directly financial. It was in the hardening of our resistance to suffering, and the ultimate cost of this to the planet through our overwhelming ability to ignore something that's patently wrong, just because it happened in another country and to something we value only as food.
My argument is that if we can tolerate, and even in some cases actually enjoy (game shooting, bullfighting etc) the suffering of another creature, then our ability to tolerate the suffering of our own species increases. By tolerating suffering, how much closer do we each get to becoming the nazis of Auschwitz who believed they were cost-effectively eradicating a disease in their society? How much closer have we got to exporting the retarded and elderly in our societies into out-of-sight-out-of-mind (OOSOOM) institutions? How much closer have we got to bombing children in Iraq to punish moslems for flying planes into skyscrapers? How much closer have we got to flying planes into skyscrapers to punish people who don't believe there are bearded wizards in the sky?
Desmond Morris, a British zoologist, anthropologist and former TV personality, published a number of books on the subject of the relationship between man and our animal neighbours. Two in particular are relevant here. The Naked Ape, which explores the proximity of our species to otherwise 'dumb' animals, and more significantly The Animal Contract, about which it is simpler to quote the synopsis on Amazon:
In this book Desmond Morris asks if the human species has become too successful for the good of the planet. Animals have been completely subordinated by humans and incarcerated on farms, in zoos and laboratories. But the fate of humans is inextricably linked to that of other animals and the relationship between them is more vital than at any other time in history. This relationship - the animal contract - is explored in this book which also looks at the consequences of breaking it. The laws of nature assert that you kill only for food, eat only when hungry, reproduce only in sustainable numbers and if any animal breaks these rules the result is extinction. For centuries, however, man has set himself above these laws, killing for pleasure, profit or glory, reducing captive creatures to a commodity and recklessly overpopulating everywhere.
So if you accept that with every act of cruelty we instigate, and perhaps even worse, ignore and therefore condone, we increase our potential to accept cruelties to our own species. And the cost, ultimately, is that someone, somewhere may one day see you, and your loved ones, as expendable.