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Tradition at the Cutting Edge of Animal Welfare

March 22, 2012 – 8:18 pm13 Comments

A dugong

By Vadim Chelom
In one of last week’s most reported news stories, an activist with a hidden video camera filmed an indigenous dugong hunt. The video, when broadcast on the ABC, provoked outrage by the apparent cruelty with which the animals were treated. However it was another aspect of the story that attracted my attention.

Certain aspects of indigenous hunting practice might sit uncomfortably when viewed through the prism of Australia’s animal welfare laws. Without access to refrigeration, Aboriginal hunters keep captured animals alive and incapacitated to prevent meat spoilage. The Queensland Native Title Act implicitly recognises the inherent conflict between Aboriginal practice and the modern view of animal welfare by exempting Indigenous hunting practices from animal welfare laws. Thus a person of Aboriginal descent engaging in a traditional hunt is legally permitted to engage in behaviour towards an animal for which a non-Aboriginal person would be held liable. This exemption has been well known to conservationists and the animal welfare lobby. What is puzzling is that up to now this legal contradiction has elicited little debate or outrage.

This inconsistency within the law and more importantly, the indifference to it by those claiming to act out of concern for animal welfare has a profound implication in another area of animal welfare seemingly far removed – namely the area of Jewish ritual slaughter.

The proper discussion of the animal welfare of Jewish ritual slaughter (shechita) deserves an article of its own. To make a brief point, consider this study performed by Prof. Temple Grandin, doctor of animal science and Professor of Colorado State University. Grandin is a recognised world authority on animal handling and restraint. She has single-handedly transformed the discipline of farm animal handling – an extraordinary contribution that earned her a mention in Time Magazine’s 100 most Influential People.

To evaluate the effects of Jewish ritual slaughter, Grandin observed the slaughter process while allowing the animal’s full movement as well as the ability, if they choose to remove themselves from the procedure. In an extraordinary finding, Grandin reports that “none of the ten cattle moved or attempted to pull their heads out [of the restraint]” (www.grandin.com/ritual). She goes on to say that “the author has observed that kosher slaughter performed with a long, straight, razor-sharp knife appears not to be painful” and further, that “touching [the cow’s] head caused a bigger reaction [than shechita]”. These are extraordinary findings.

As an animal scientist and a proponent of animal welfare, I find it astounding that a ritual practice prescribed by Jewish law thousands of years ago is to this day unsurpassed in minimising the level of pain it renders to the animal.

This knowledge is important when you consider that today shechita is under threat around the world. It has been banned in Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Sweden with Netherlands and New Zealand soon to follow. The UK is preparing legislation that, by labelling kosher meat “slaughtered without stunning”, will make shechita economically unviable.

It would be a delusion for anyone to believe that this campaign to outlaw Jewish ritual slaughter will not reach Australia’s shores. Indeed, such a campaign may be already under way with a number of articles published in The Age newspaper attacking shechita by linking it with Muslim ritual slaughter.

Viewed in this light, one suspects that the animal welfare lobby’s pursuit of shechita on the grounds of animal cruelty is less sincere then it appears. In Australia, it seems that some cultures are granted special permission to engage in acts that contravene animal welfare laws, while others are forced to defend emotive charges without evidence.

If there is a lesson to be learned from this story it’s that the Australian Jewish community’s time honoured practice of reactive passivity is no longer an adequate strategy in defending our cultural heritage. For far too long the opponents of Jewish tradition have been successful in framing the arguments in the public arena by presenting shechita as cruel and inhumane. It is about time the community made a greater effort in educating the general public about the Jewish tradition’s evidence based, scientifically proven standard of animal welfare excellence.

Dr Vadim Chelom is a Veterinarian, a writer and an educator. You can read his blog here.

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13 Comments »

  • frosh says:

    Hi Vadim,

    I’m not making an argument for the banning of shechita, but I think it’s perfectly valid for Indigenous cultures to be granted special permission to be exempt from certain Australian laws, when you consider the history of colonial invasion and settlement in this country.

    I think any arguments for or against shechita need not invoke a comparison with Indigenous hunting rights.

    The best argument for shechita is that there is no evidence that regular slaughter and the regular meat industry in Australia (or elsewhere) has any less cruelty than that involved in the Kosher meat industry.

  • AustIsr says:

    Vadim,

    Your assertion that the community displays a “Reactive passivity” is simply not accurate.

    Many rabbis and Jewish lay leaders in Sydney and Melbourne have written and spoken out on the issue, particularly on those occasions when public debate flares up. They stress not only the right to religious practice, but also the findings of Dr Grandin and many others.

    See, for example:

    ECAJ document – http://www.ecaj.org.au/news_files/110628_kosher.pdf

    Rabbinical Council of Victoria statement – http://www.rcv.org.au/images/docs/110627%20-%20rcv%20media%20release%20-%20victorian%20rabbinate%20rejects%20calls%20to%20ban%20shechitah.pdf

    Article by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple – http://www.oztorah.com/2010/06/is-shechita-cruel-ask-the-rabbi/

  • Vadim,

    Great article. Most people have very little understanding of what goes on in any abbatoir, and if they did a lot less meat might be consumed. There is a reason we are comfortable pushing these facilities our into rural areas and comfortably buying nice-looking packaged meat in supermarkets. “Stunning” is a misnomer – would you be “stunned” if someone shot a metal bolt through your brain and then retracted it? JBD hosted a great talk to Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant on this topic – you can access the podcast here http://www.jbd.org.au/events/how-to-kill-an-animal-humanely

    Frosh,

    Where do you draw the line with exemptions to Australian law for indigenous communities? And do they get these exemptions because our ancestors were really bad to them?

  • frosh says:

    Hi David,

    First of all, my “ancestors” immigrated here from Continental Europe in the middle of the 20th century, so I’m going to exclude myself from talk of what “our ancestors” did or didn’t do.

    However, I should add that I have cousins in Germany of my generation who, in the final years of the 20th century, were exempted from conscription (compulsory national service) because they were Jewish, and because of what happened to Jews in Germany in the first half of that century.

    Nevertheless, it is not as much about what has been done to Indigenous people (although that’s important too) as it is about having respect for the fact that they had their own tribal laws and practices prior to colonial settlement, and consideration should be taken so that Indigenous people can preserve their cultural practices. It comes down to the fact that THEY WERE HERE FIRST.

  • frosh,

    It certainly makes sense to respect cultural practices that were in place in Australia before the arrival of “our ancestors” (i.e. early colonists/invaders/settlers who are the collective ancestors of contemporary Australian life as most of us live it).

    But again, where do you draw the line? You are happy to allow animal cruelty. What other traditional Aboriginal cultural practices that breach modern laws would you allow? Which (if any) would you disallow?

  • Interested Reader says:

    Tribal Aboriginal Law (practiced today in the outback) allows for several practices that would not be tolerated by the rest of the community

    E.g. There is the spear throwing (commonly known as ‘payback’)& sorcery based punishments that can be handed down by the Tribal council. In some cases this results in death and in other cases results in severe injury and humiliation.

    I can only assume that Frosh is at ease with these cultural practices as THEY WERE HERE FIRST.

    Well done to Dr Chelom on this eye opening article. Sometimes the media and lobby groups with very little if any practical knowledge lead the wider community astray.

  • Meir Rabi says:

    Vadim,
    thank you for this perspective which was unknown to many of us.
    The essential question is now clear, it is no longer, “What is the best way to dispatch an animal”
    it is, “When there is a clash of values, how do we evaluate the correct balance between our values and the values of other traditions?”

    It is also illuminating to contemplate the background forces that energise these discussions? Especially when we consider the vigour displayed by some of the proponents.

    BTW, stunning is designed to not shatter the skull but to concuss the beast, although it hardly makes a difference.

  • frosh says:

    David,

    You wrote to me

    “You are happy to allow animal cruelty. What other traditional Aboriginal cultural practices that breach modern laws would you allow? Which (if any) would you disallow?”

    Firstly, I am not “happy” to allow animal cruelty. I’ve long since ceased eating fleishig, and I never attended or supported the Rubashkin prayer rally. I think that speaks for itself.

    I would naturally prefer that all Australian Jews and Indigenous Australian people became vegetarian. However, with that not happening, I think they should both be permitted to maintain their traditional slaughter methods, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

    As to what should be allowed or not, this doesn’t necessarily have a simple answer. However, there ought to be an ethos of allowing Indigenous people to maintain their culture and practices if they wish to.

    For example, Traditional hunting? Yes. Opening up a modern slaughterhouse that doesn’t meet Australian standards? No.

    Similarly in modern Germany. Jews exempt from conscription? Yes. Jews exempt from road safety regulations? No. (Note: conscription was recently abolished in Germany. I am referring to the period immediately prior to this)

    Meanwhile, in Victoria, white red-necks can shoot ducks with modern firearms for sport

  • Frosh,

    “happy” was the wrong choice of word … maybe “comfortable” or “not uncomfortable” is more appropriate.

    Agree that finding the line is difficult – that’s why I asked the question.

    But what is the difference between Australian families who have engaged in the “cultural practice” of duck shooting (which they then eat) for several generations and traditional hunting of Aboriginals?

    Some interesting comments about that on talk back radio last week – one person claimed that it’s far more ethical to shoot an animal and then eat it, then to have these same animals kept in appalling and cramped conditions, force fed, and then slaughtered.

  • Joe in Australia says:

    But what is the difference between Australian families who have engaged in the “cultural practice” of duck shooting (which they then eat) for several generations and traditional hunting of Aboriginals?

    I am shocked and surprised to hear that people are hunting Aboriginals.

    Seriously, hunting for game isn’t the worst thing in the world. I recognise that hunting has social value among other community groups but in this instance there’s an argument for refraining from action, what the Talmud would call “shev v’al taaseh”. The very weak moral authority that our past treatment of Aboriginal Australians has left us and the concomitant duty to refrain from further injury to their culture means that we should sometimes treat traditional Aboriginal practices separately from those of the community in general.

  • Jason says:

    “Sheev val taaseeh” as the reason for permitting the continuation of unreasonably cruel (because it is unnecessary) treatment to animals (dugongs, ducks, or goats) is the poorest excuse I’ve heard for a while.

    The above approach seems to overtly overlook the modern animal welfare values that humanity in Australia has developed over time. It seems to encourage a blind eye to the suffering of the animals in the name of “giving them a break”, instead of looking for better ways to give them that break (so to speak) by, for example, giving them refrigeration (in the case of aboriginal dugong killings) should that be unaffordable for the specific community concerned and economiclly feasible and politically acceptable from a public policy point of view.

    Traditional killing methods belong to the dustbin of history, lest the proponents and practitioners of such methods seek to exclusively live like their ancestors… And even then, civilized society as a whole should still not be tolerated because the need to employ such a method (and unjustifiable cruelty inflicted upon an involuntary sentient being) no longer exists.

  • Seraphya says:

    I think that if Jews want to keep shechita then it is important to be proactive not just in the verbal defence of shechita. It is just as important if not more important to make sure that all shechita around the world is done in the most humane way that Temple Grandin described.

    The hoist and shackle methods still used in South America can and will be used as an example of inhumane shechita. That is just one extreme example that bogs us down and makes our arguments of how inherently humane shechita seem disingenuous apologetics.

  • Shelton Merrihew says:

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