By Michael Sappol
Is empathy innate? Are we all born with the ability to identify with the emotions of others, to feel someone else’s pain? Today’s media is chock full of stories about experiments in neuroscience and child psychology that seem to show that the emergence and growth of the ability to empathize is a natural part of human psychological development, present even in toddlers.
Yet human beings periodically commit terrible acts of cruelty and violence, and are often indifferent to suffering. What if the development of empathy is a precious and fragile cultural accomplishment, something that has developed in fits and starts over time, in certain historical moments, in certain places, among certain people? Maybe most people have the ability to empathize, but what if empathy is a set of practices and beliefs that have to be learned and cultivated in order for individuals to exercise it? Those practices and beliefs would, of necessity, only fully develop in a society that has come to place a high value on empathy, that formally and informally rewards empathic behavior and punishes cruelty and indifference, a society that devotes resources to teaching, rehearsing and developing methods of empathy.
How to Kill Animals Humanely is a relic of the history of empathy. English-speaking people originally used the terms “human” and “humane” interchangeably, merely to distinguish human beings from other “brute” animal species. Sometime in the early 18th century, “humane” began to have a special use: to denote a compassionate, caring attitude toward the suffering of other humans and animals, a profound sensitivity that was both a moral obligation and a psychological condition. The word “humane” increasingly came to be used in opposition to “inhumane,” a term that was applied to acts of cruelty to other living beings, and to the people who took pleasure in inflicting suffering or who were just callously indifferent. In the 19th century, “humane” societies were founded to “prevent cruelty,” first to animals (and later to children), first in Great Britain and then in the United States.
This pamphlet, a publication of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), is both a polemic against “needless cruelty” and a handy guide for those who are obliged to slaughter animals for food, medical research, or—in the case of injured or ailing animals—for purposes of euthanasia. “If you must kill them, do it without cruelty. Every animal has a right to justice and protection at the hands of the superior animal—man….” (This was very unlike contemporary antivivisectionism and vegetarianism, and later People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which absolutely opposed the slaughter of animals, and which criticized the very notion of human moral superiority.)
The author, Dr. Daniel Denison Slade, was a socially prominent surgeon and veterinarian, founder of the Boston Veterinary Institute, professor of applied zoology at Harvard, director of the MSPCA, and a man of many other interests. Being a veterinarian of longstanding practice, Dr. Slade was an expert on animal slaughter. In his little pamphlet he considers how “the Jews,” Germans, French and Dutch do their killing, but in the end makes his own recommendations, supplemented by helpful illustrations. Ways to kill animals “in the most humane manner possible,” must vary according to the varying anatomical structure of different species: horses, cows, dogs, pigs, cats, poultry, Dr. Slade tells us. Even fish should be killed humanely. For most mammals, the creature should receive powerful blows to the head with a mallet— precisely where depends on the species and individual beast—stunning the animal into unconsciousness, and then finishing it off with more blows or a bullet or a blast from a shotgun. Slade also considers other techniques to lessen the suffering, even chloroform. But he warns against “pithing” a method “commonly in vogue,” in which the “spinal cord is severed or punctured between the first and second bones of the neck.” Such an approach, he worries, is “undoubtedly attended by more suffering than other methods.”
Although humane techniques of slaughter may require some practice to get right and a bit more work, Slade argues, they can also improve “the wholesomeness of meat for food, and the market value of the animal slaughtered; there being no question as to the effects of torture, cruelty and fear upon the secretions, and if upon the secretions, necessarily upon the flesh.” He finishes the pamphlet with a long listing of the mission and accomplishments of the MSPCA (including the provision to Boston police stations of “hammers and hoods for killing horses mercifully”), followed by the Society’s “thirty-nine articles of faith” and a fee schedule for membership.
D. D. (Daniel Denison) Slade (1823–1896), How to Kill Animals Humanely (Boston: Issued by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, [1879?]). 15 pp., illustrated. 4” x 6½”.
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