I made my first visit to a slaughterhouse, a chicken processing plant, some 30 years ago. I was there to pick up chicken heads to feed an injured great horned owl in my care. In a noisy, steamy room, a jolly cluster of stout women in hair nets and rubber aprons grabbed at plucked chicken bodies. As the workers gossiped and joked, they hacked away grotesque tumours, blistered bits of flesh, bloody bruises, ruptured morsels of bloodstained meat, cancerous organs and repulsive lesions. What was left, I was told, would be packaged and sold in fast food outlets. I soon became a vegetarian.
How brutal we are. I have been reading with morbid fascination the unravelling dead stock scandal, neatly tied by the Grits and the NDP to the provincial election. But virtually nowhere do I detect a trace of compassion for the other victims of this horror. I refer to the animals.
In 1992, I was one of several people who put together a cooperative called Animal Alliance of Canada. A cow had collapsed at the St. Clair Stockyards. A camera caught the incident, showing the animal on the ramp where she had been dragged by winch. It was all subsequently shown on TV news. That cow was what the industry calls a "downer."
My colleagues began collecting various written reports on downers for three-month periods through the years. And we began to lobby, not for everyone to stop eating carrion, diseased or otherwise, but simply to end the practice of dragging downed animals to slaughter. Manitoba is the only province that prohibits the practice.
Reading the various forms relating to downers - about the cow with a ruptured uterus (April 1999), the "dull" cow with a torn uterus (April 1999), the 10-year-old cow who was "excitable" and had just given birth two hours earlier but was otherwise in "good condition" and approved for slaughter (May 1999), the young bull who had "trauma to the hocks" and a fractured sternum (May 1999) and on and on - is difficult if you don't like to see animals tortured.
The reports were filled out by vets doing on-farm inspections, by in-plant vets monitoring animals going down between farm and slaughterhouse, and incident reports. Before killing, vets look for obvious injuries or signs of sickness. Afterwards, parts may be further examined or tissue screened for drug residues. But unless the brain is specifically examined microscopically, neurological disease (namely BSE or mad cow disease) can't be detected.
According to documents obtained by my colleagues under the Freedom of Information Act, between April and June last year in Ontario most of over 1,000 downers cruelly dragged, pushed and winched to slaughter were not checked by a veterinarian at the slaughterhouse, nor were post-mortems recorded for these animals.
And that should worry those who produce, sell or eat beef when they consider two important points: the single cow that so far tested positive for BSE in Canada was a downer; and BSE cannot be definitively diagnosed without a sophisticated post-mortem examination of the brain. While most downers are obviously not BSE cows, a disproportionately high number of BSE cows have been downers.
When recent allegations were made that Aylmer Meats was processing dead stock, I listened while a CFRB radio talk show host fumed about what he and his children had been eating. True, a downer is not yet dead, but it's often very nearly so, and whether or not dead stock is fed to humans, downers routinely are. Except in Manitoba. Terry Whiting, a vet with Manitoba Agriculture and Food, tells me, "It's obvious that animals that can't stand on their own should not be transported. It's impossible to do it humanely.'
I know none of the political parties care about the suffering of downers being dragged to slaughter, but clearly they should be concerned about public health. The electorate needs to hear from one party that Ontario will follow Manitoba's lead. The silence on this subject is shattering.