Hard Decisions

How Consumers View Mass Depopulation

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
The visuals of mass depopulation of animals will impact people beyond those in agriculture. (Getty stock image)

At a time when livestock producers are intensely focused on the survival of generations-old operations, another challenge is going to come as visuals of the euthanasia of hundreds of thousands of animals reach Americans in the coming days. Long after COVID-19 is gone, those impressions will remain, possibly impacting farmers and their markets for years to come.

Many opposed to animal agriculture are vigorously attacking the idea of euthanasia of livestock, hoping awareness created now of how production animals are depopulated will move forward their agendas in the years to come. Karen Davis, president of Virginia's United Poultry Concerns (UPC) told this reporter she is vehemently opposed to even the use of the word "euthanasia" in response to the current situation.

"To euthanize means to give someone a merciful, kind and peaceful death," she said. "I'm aware the term is common place in production agriculture, but this is not euthanasia. It is outright cruelty."

Davis specifically referred to three main methods she said are used to destroy poultry: ventilation shutdowns, the use of rolling foams and carbon dioxide poisoning. Regardless of the method used, she believes the suffering of birds is prolonged and intense.

Asked if there is any method that could be used during this time of crisis that she believes is better, she noted carbon monoxide is "possibly a less painful, less tortuous way to die." Ultimately, she admitted in today's situation the birds are going to be killed, whether the slaughter plant is open or not. And that, she noted, is the point. She stressed as humans there is no need for animal agriculture.

A vegan since 1983, and now 76 years old, Davis runs a rescue for poultry. She said humans should think about what they are eating and what they put animals through to accomplish this, and to consider the growing number of vegan alternatives available.

Being respectful of Davis' views is important, because moving forward livestock producers are going to hear from more animal welfare proponentsâ??as well as consumers those groups influence.

Roxi Beck, of The Center for Food Integrity, says livestock producers should expect increased pressure from groups like the UFC in the days to come. She adds that for the average person, any conversations about mass depopulation of livestock will raise eyebrows and increase scrutiny of producersâ??especially when the depopulation taking place involves healthy animals, and is not tied to a need to control disease.

"This concern won't stop with those consumers already passionate about animal welfare," she said. "And it is likely to spread to those who honestly rarely ever thought much about farm animals. That's because avoiding this story is nearly impossible today for anyone following the news."

Beck said producers should expect to see visuals hitting the news and social media that will be shocking. What can farmers and ranchers do in these difficult days?

First, Beck said, it's more important now than ever for farmers to be open to sharing their stories, and especially to talk about how challenging these times are for them. She acknowledges that is especially tough when someone is in the midst of impossible decisions and a highly emotionally charged environment.

"We know we can't change the reality. But we might be able to help consumers better understand the situation and ultimately have compassion for farmers, versus outrage over what is happening," she said.

"It's okay to share that this is an incredible crisis for you and your familyâ??just like it is for families all around the world. Share the fact that you are an animal lover and have dedicated your life to spending more time with animals than humans. Remind people you are just one person in a community of farmers all dealing with this heartbreaking reality."

Depopulation, noted Beck, is a last resort and never in history has it been necessary at this scale without threat of disease.

"It's important now to remind consumers we are ethically committed to responsible care of animals, for the environment and for people. Let them know you are working with your veterinarian to make these difficult decisions."

Victoria Myers