The Economics of Animal Welfare
Pistol v. Poleax: a Handbook on Humane Slaughter was published in London in 1932. The book’s opening line explains, “If there is one quality in the British character which is so ingrained as to be almost universal, it is love of animals and hatred of unnecessary cruelty.” This sentiment underscores the book’s 500+ page effort to justify the transition from one form of stunning animals to another before killing them.
The poleax was primitive. Men swung it like crazed cavemen and, more often than not, missed their target, which was described as the size of a teacup. Or they hit it too hard, rendering the animal’s brain unsellable. Or they didn’t hit hard enough, which created a prolonged tragedy for the poor animal. As one slaughterhouse employee recounted in 1922:
I have seen three, four, five, and even ten blows levelled at an animal before it has been brought to the ground; and I have known cases, though these are exceptional, where all efforts have failed to bring the animal down through the repeated blows having caused the head to swell.
Hence the pistol: the supposed source of humane reform. Efforts to promote this new devise, avidly supported by the RSPCA, included having one Madame Douchez Menebode, President of the Council of Justice to Animals, dressed in heels and a coat fringed with fur delivering a mechanized death blow to a cow (see above). The gun was called the Temple-Cox Killer.
For those who currently follow efforts to reform animal agriculture in order to make it more humane—for example HSUS’s ongoing effort to eliminate battery cages without a corresponding effort to eliminate animal agriculture—you will quickly realize that history is as much about continuity as change. One form of death replaces another, sensible people feel better, and everyone has their meat and eats it, too. This axiom was as true in 1922 as it is today.
But there’s an interesting change that’s possibly obscured by this so-called humane transition form one form of killing to another. With the adoption of the pistol over the poleax, slaughter became much more efficient. One slaughterhouse owner, after adopting the pistol form of stunning, exhorted his colleagues (upon retiring):
Have you for your own business adopted a certain method of stunning?—In September, 1922, after a lifelong study, I was persuaded that something required to be done to get rid of the antiquated poleax. My firm agreed to my recommendation to adopt the use of the RSPCA gun, and from that day to this was have slaughtered approximately 12,000 cattle. . . . . It is a decided improvement.
Readers of the abolitionist activist Gary Francione will be nodding their heads knowingly. Francione has long argued that welfarist efforts to reform animal agriculture backfire by making animal agriculture more efficient and, in turn, more profitable. This claim certainly seems to be the case with the historical example of the poleax/pistol transition.
It is not, however, the case today—and this is an important point to keep in mind as we evaluate the viability of welfare reforms. In 1922, humane reforms came through new technologies that happened to blend increased welfare and efficiency. This is no longer the case. Today, humane reforms come at a cost, as readers of Jayson Lusk’s and F. Bailey Norwood’s Compassion by the Pound will fully understand. The upshot is that the economics of welfare reform are, unlike a century ago, in trouble.
Whereas seeking humane reforms in animal agriculture once led to cheaper meat, today the situation is exactly the opposite. As a result, there will never be a mainstream transition to humanely raised animal products. Ever. As long as there’s a cheaper option—and until we seek to stigmatize eating animals rather than only stigmatizing eating industrially raised animals, there always will be a cheaper option—all efforts to improve the experience of animals before they are killed for food we don’t need will merely benefit those who can afford to feel virtuous.