Home » Recent Posts, Vadim Chelom

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.

Print Friendly