Skip to main content

Jessica Scott-Reid is a Canadian freelance writer and animal advocate.

Suggesting a constitutionally protected freedom be outlawed in Canada is tricky; we take our human rights very seriously. But over time, many rights and freedoms have evolved and changed, often following touchy talks and ethical debates. And just as current conversations regarding freedom of expression and hate speech can get muddy, so too can the topic of ritual animal slaughter. Both raise the question: Where do personal rights end and causing harm begin?

A recent video on social media has brought these issues to the surface. The video appears to show a cow hoisted up by a leg, being skinned while possibly still alive, outside a temporary mosque in Milton, Ont. In the video, one man is reportedly heard saying: “Take a look, a cow is being butchered the halal way on Eid-al-Adha as a sacrifice,” in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan. The cow appears to move his head, though Halton Regional Police have said they do not believe the animal was alive at the moment, and are not pressing cruelty charges. The video is graphic and hard to watch.

Eid-al-Adha is a major Islamic holiday celebrated worldwide in part by sacrificing an animal using the halal method of slaughter. The animal is typically still conscious when its throat is cut. (Regardless of whether the cow in the video was alive during the skinning, it was likely conscious when it started to bleed out.)

In Canada, halal slaughter makes up approximately 15 per cent of cattle and 35 per cent of calves processed for consumer sale each year, making it a billion-dollar industry.

It is also protected by federal law.

Despite Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) regulations stating that food animals are not to be subjected to avoidable distress or pain, and must be rendered unconscious via captive bolt to the head, gas or electric shock before being cut (arguably causing less suffering), an exception is made for ritual slaughter.

Section 77 of the Meat Inspection Regulations states that animals slaughtered in accordance with Judaic or Islamic law “shall be restrained and slaughtered by means of a cut resulting in rapid, simultaneous and complete severance of the jugular veins and carotid arteries in a manner that causes the animal to lose consciousness immediately."

Supporters of no-stun ritual slaughter typically believe that a swift cut with an especially sharp knife causes minimal pain, and may in fact cause less suffering than stunning.

But as Canadian animal rights lawyer Anna Pippus explains, "Slaughter without any stunning means the fully conscious animal will have their neck sliced and will experience pain and fear until they lose enough blood to lose consciousness." Stunning, on the other hand, "stops brain activity so they don't register the pain and suffering associated with being sliced into," she says.

Evidence has shown that cutting the throat of a conscious animal does cause great, avoidable pain. (Just imagine it was your own throat, or that of a beloved pet.)

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, British Veterinarian Association and Federation of Veterinarians of Europe have all publicly opposed the method, along with many advocacy groups, including the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Humane Slaughter Association, and others.

Slaughtering animals without prior stunning is already banned in Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Slovenia, Norway, and likely soon in Belgium. Denmark's minister of agriculture and food, Dan Jorgensen, famously said, "Animal rights come before religion," leading some groups to deem the ban anti-Semitic, and interfering in religious freedom.

And that’s where conversations about ritual animal slaughter get difficult.

In Canada, we greatly value our freedom of religion and our diversity. But today, we also value the humane treatment of animals. Thus the question becomes: Does a human being's right to eat food prepared in a way to abide by religious rule actually trump an animal's right to be killed without avoidable pain and excessive suffering? For a very long time, the answer has been yes. But now, in a society with increasing concern for animal welfare, this no longer makes sense.

Current debates over ritual slaughter are not about religion, race or culture, but about humanity, science and ethics; and more importantly, about the animals. A call for a ban is not a condemnation of any group or belief, but an acknowledgment of evolution in thought. Our knowledge of animal sentience has grown, along with our compassion for their suffering. Today, allowing any animal to endure avoidable pain, in the name of religion or for any other reason, is no longer acceptable.

Of course, animal slaughter without adequate stunning also happens in traditional slaughterhouses across Canada. Mistakes are commonplace in a system that kills thousands of animals each day on an assembly line. The CFIA allows for a margin of error regarding stunning of 1-to-5 per cent depending on species, meaning a minimum of about 15 million animals per year can be cut and bled while still conscious. However, because the number of animals being ineffectively stunned is self reported by slaughterhouses, advocates believe the amount to be much higher.

Ultimately, while there are certainly less-cruel ways to slaughter an animal, there really is no right way. But for those who insist on doing so, let it be done with all the knowledge and empathy we now have. Let's join other compassionate nations and ban no-stun animal slaughter. Let's do more than just talk about it.

Interact with The Globe