November 1, 2017

"Saddest Slaughterhouse Footage Ever": What's Really Going On?

Commonly I hear suppositions, inferences, surmises and assumptions that the fat Charolais steer in the above video,"...knows what's coming..."; " so terrified/afraid of what's ahead..."; "is trying to turn around to escape to get away from what he knows is going to happen to him..." and so on and so forth.

But the question I post to everybody here is what is really going on?

I wrote a post earlier this year about animal slaughter, and why it's really and actually necessary here. I made the argument that slaughtering animals, or killing animals, for food, is necessary to make more room and more vegetation available for new animals coming in. Simply because of the fact that the amount of vegetation that the world produces is finite. Not killing animals threatens the capacity of the earth to feed all those extra herbivorous animals, thereby exacerbating inhumane issues such as starvation, malnutrition, and severe environmental damage.

But when we get down to the actual animal behaviour and psychology of animals prior to slaughter, there tends to be a way to expose the crazies, the ones who don't actually understand how animals may think and act and choose instead the far easier path of anthropomorphizing rather than using a bit of extra brain power to think outside of the human-shaped box.

The Simplicity of How Bovines Think and Behave

"Cows are not human, they don't think like a human," I argue.

"But humans are animals!" The response I often get in return. "If you were put down that corridor and seen what happened to those in front, wouldn't you be scared?!"

Typical straw-man argument.

Of course I would be scared because I, as a human, have much greater capacity and intellect to think and ponder about things that all other animal species cannot even comprehend. Simple things like how a pencil works, what makes grass grow, and that Death is always a part of Life; Things must die in order for others to live.

But does a bovine, like that steer in that video above, "feel" the same thing? Can he in fact comprehend the same concepts of Life and Death?

I've worked with and interacted with cattle for all of over two decades now. They've taught me a lot, and showed me the way they think and act in response to various different stresses, or lack thereof, in their lives.

Steers gathered around me a) because they can and
b) they think I have a tasty treat for them.
They know I'm not a threat, and a giver of good things.
That's why they're gathered up like that. Photo by the author.
Each and every time I've worked with them they've never argued with me about petty and trivial matters, talked back to me, questioned me about my behaviour or habits, nor have they attempted to or forced me into negotiations in attempt to reach a democratic decision with me or any other person of where they should go, what they should do and why.

They've never forged a grudge against me, hated me, plotted to murder me in cold blood because they know they're going to be killed in the end by me or another member of my species, nor have they ganged up on me and tried to torture and humiliate me.

Instead, they've been very forgiving, incredibly responsive to my own thoughts and feelings, and aren't afraid to tell me if I'm getting too close, or if I'm not close enough. They are quick to learn to associate certain sounds and sights of objects with good (food) or bad (pain); they can tell you if they like or feel afraid of their surroundings, and whether they like or not how they're treated. And, if you're particularly attentive, they'll tell you if they're tense and stressed out, or if they're calm and relaxed.

And they simply love being with their own herd mates, even after several others successfully escape from their own big, roomy pasture to join up with the larger group, and get to fighting over the bovine pecking order for a couple of hours. They love being with their herd so much that even those cattle that haven't had much to drink or salt to lick will quickly head back out to pasture to catch up to the rest of their pals.

Cattle, like all non-human animals, also live in the now. They don't fear or ponder about the future, nor do they live in the past. They certainly do remember things in the past, and from past repetitive experiences learn to anticipate things. But that still doesn't make them worriers or nostalgic renegades of the future and the past, respectively.

See, animals anticipate things by what they've learned from past experiences. It's not so much the situation they get put in, as the smells, sounds, and sights of certain objects that sets them into nervous bundles of bovid-snorting muscle, or causes them to relax and eructate some chewing cud.

Those sorts of things certainly do not make cattle (nor horses, nor dogs, nor cats, nor sheep, nor... etc.) human.

Nor does it nearly even make them capable of actually knowing, in a particular split-second moment that they're about to die. Not even when there's the business-end of a gun pointed at their heads just above their eyes. Nor, even when they get to be the last bovine to go down that chute into the kill box of the slaughter facility.

So what's really going on with that steer? Here's a hint: It's not what you think or what you read in the description.

Actions and Behaviour Tell Everything

As you could see in the video, first there was two, and then there was one. 

Right off I noticed these two were obviously in an unfamiliar environment. The steer in the first 45 seconds was attentive, ears pricked forward, staring forward. The one behind him has his head down, more for protection and because he has a herd member with him he feels safe with. But the leader up front is one who's the least sure. 

When the hissing of the gate is heard and suddenly opens up, the first steer balks and backs up. When cattle are in an unfamiliar environment, any sudden sights or sounds startles them and causes them to go into fight or flight mode. Flight was engaged first, and flight was to back up away from this unfamiliar, seemingly threatening sound he's never seen or heard before. But the steer wasn't so scared that he tried to leap up over the race to get out. 

That's the first hint you should get that neither steer are "so terrified of what's ahead." 

When the handler comes with the cattle prod and gets behind the hip of the front steer, the first steer knows that he needs to move away from that handler. The prod is just to make sure the steer keeps moving into the kill box, and doesn't baulk suddenly. 

I got into an argument with a vegan about this particular video, and the fact that the second steer actually willingly followed the first right into the kill box. The vegan tried to deny that that even happened, even though, right at 0:50 to 1:11, that steer exactly willingly followed the first steer right into the kill box, and would have also gone in with the first steer had the door not tried to stop him. Just two seconds after the door dropped down did the last steer finally decide to back up.

Following is primal herd-follower instinct of any bovine. They know there's safety in numbers, safety in each other's company. When they get alone, they start getting a little more nervous. And it doesn't help either that they're in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar sights, smells, and sounds. 

The last in the chute, the last in the bunch to be sacrificed for the human palate, backs up half-way down the chute, pricks his ears up at the sounds ahead, and predictably startles some at the sudden bang of the cap-bolt and the legs of the first steer crumpling suddenly down in the chute. He backs up a bit more down the chute, still nervous at being alone and in unfamiliar surroundings. 

But I still am very doubtful that he's "so terrified." Or even knows what's coming. 

Now, we need to remember that there's the person just behind him filming his every move. He knows that the videographer is there, and is just as unsure about him as he is what's around him. He keeps trying to move back, but doesn't want to, turning his head so his left eye is on the person above him rolling on the camera. Notably too he doesn't back all the way up so he's squishing his ass against the back gate. I know steers that have gotten themselves so worked up about being put in a chute that put their asses so far up against the back gate that their backs hunch up. Not this guy.

Eye on the videographer behind him,
yet curious about what's up front.
Curiosity is naturally bovine-esque
Nope, he moves forward again. He seems a little curious now; he can't see what's behind that gate but he hears curious sounds that he's trying to figure out, but can't. But then his insecurity gets the better of him and he backs up again, this time trying to get his head around to try to turn around in the chute. 

I can tell he's confused. He's alone, nervous, in unfamiliar surroundings, doesn't particularly want to stay in that chute for very long--he's probably getting a little hungry and thirsty since most cattle are forced to fast for over 12 hours prior to slaughter, and trying to find a way back to bovine company again. He's definitely not thinking that he's about to die. 

He's too big and fat to turn around, despite his attempts on either side. He certainly doesn't appreciate nor trust the human above him filming his movements, because he keeps cocking an ear back and casting a look back behind him. I can tell he doesn't even care if the person is a vegan with an undercover camera; It's a human to be wary of, like all humans. 

This steer is instinctually a prey animal, after all. And like most bovines, to him, all humans are predators to keep an eye on. 

Again he moves up, sniffing the walls as he goes, judging the scent of those before him, and backs up again because the handler has come back out to herd him up the chute. 

I don't believe that second hot-shot shock was necessary. 

He walks into the box without much fuss. You see, if he really was so terrified and knew what came, he would be fighting and putting up a hell of a fuss before eventually and finally getting into the box. But he went in pretty smoothly without much fuss. 

And when he was in the box, he wasn't kicking and screaming and putting up a hell of a rodeo before the cap-bolt put him down. I've seen cattle that just went into the squeeze chute for a little pokey needle that really made a real mad racket. Not this guy in this video, not even by some of the movement of his feet. 

Then hiss-BANG it was all over. 

That steer didn't know what was coming, that he knew he was about to die, nor was he nearly as scared or terrified as many are being lead to believe. He was just nervous about being in unfamiliar surroundings, about being alone, and liked that a lot less than the unknown prospect that Death was waiting for him just around the corner.

That's what was really going on. 
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