The American Veterinary Medical Association’s Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals rightly defines euthanasia as a “good death.” But the Guidelines make all kinds of exceptions for situations in which the inhumane killing of animals—a very bad death—may be considered “euthanasia.”
People take their beloved companion animals reluctantly to the veterinarian to be euthanized, not to get rid of an inconvenience or for some other selfish purpose, but because their pet’s suffering is profound, cannot be alleviated, and will only worsen. Euthanizing a hopelessly suffering nonhuman animal or human being is an act of mercy. In such cases, the decision-makers implicitly understand the true meaning of euthanasia. The sufferer is not going to die slowly and painfully with an infusion of, say, carbon dioxide gas (CO2), or be baked to death “humanely,” as described in “How to Kill Half a Million Chickens at Once” and in “Pigs Roasted Alive in Coronavirus Mass-Extermination, Probe Uncovers” where the investigators errantly refer to the killings as “euthanizing.”
This verbal corruption confounds our discourse when, instead of a companion animal or human sufferer, the subject is a chicken, a pig, a turkey, or a mouse on a farm or in a laboratory. In these settings, the individual is one of the hundreds, thousands, or millions of captive individuals who exist solely for human use. They are born to be harmed—injured, infected, killed—for human “benefit.” When the researcher or the farmer decides in the interest of expedience to kill them, by whatever means, the term that is used to characterize the procedure is “euthanasia.”
An example appears in the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine publication, Water-Based Foam for Poultry Depopulation, which cites the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in support of the mass-suffocation of poultry under rolling carpets of chemically irritating fire-fighting foam:
Euthanasia of large numbers of birds in a quick, efficient manner with welfare consideration. The process is used to control disease spread or end the suffering of dying birds during a disease outbreak or natural disaster situations.
Though decades of research have confirmed that exposure to CO2 gas causes pain, panic and slow suffocation in mammals and birds, who will desperately seek to escape a CO2-filled chamber, the AVMA Guidelines 2020 equivocate, as in this directive for killing small animals in experimental settings:
In addition to humane outcomes, an important consideration in the choice of method for euthanasia of laboratory animals is the research objectives for the animals being euthanized.
For small animals like mice and rats in laboratories: Carbon dioxide, with or without premedication with halogenated [inhaled] anesthetics, is acceptable with conditions for euthanasia of small rodents.
In other words, a “humane outcome”—a manner of death that is painless, swift, and compassionate—may be sacrificed to “research objectives” and still be called “euthanasia,” and even absurdly at times, “humane euthanasia.”
Appallingly, the AVMA has fostered a language of impunity for agribusiness and the animal research industry to the point of elevating, in public and industry discourse, the opposite of what euthanasia and humane treatment literally mean. This fraudulent usage is a perfect example of Orwellian “newspeak,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “propagandistic language marked by euphemism, circumlocution, and the inversion of customary meanings.”
It’s easy for the public and for animal advocates to get lulled into a sense of complacency when all around us the authorities use terms like “euthanasia” to not only characterize but endorse the mass killings of farmed animals and animals in laboratories by asphyxiating, baking, or engulfing them in deadly chemicals with fire-fighting foam. Animals subjected to the cruelties of carbon dioxide, fire-fighting foam, and ventilation shutdown can take up to ten minutes, even hours, to die while struggling together in agony; and many survive these automated, crude procedures only to be trashed, buried or bulldozed, alive.
Where does this leave us—the animal advocacy community—in confronting the massive, unrelenting, painful carnage of living, breathing beings? Do we ignore it because the problem is too big for us to change? Do we justify our position because, as even animal advocates have said on occasion, fraught with frustration that can degenerate into apathy, “They’re going to die anyway”?
Of course, we’re all going to die, but when it comes to our own species and our beloved companion animals, we do not invoke our mortal fate as an excuse for abuse. The conundrum in the case of laboratory animals and farmed animals isn’t simply that they are “going to die anyway.” It’s that they are going to die inhumanely in a slaughterhouse or as part of an experiment, or in the inhumane circumstances that surround slaughter and experimentation—transportation, neglect, rough handling, overwhelming stress, fear, and learned helplessness.
There is no quick or easy answer because if there were, animal advocates would champion it. But this much we know: Silence and euphemisms like “euthanasia” are not the answer. We may be uncomfortable with a problem that is so immense and seemingly intractable, but we need to speak up—and speak accurately—even if we feel we’re shouting in the wind.
As animal advocates, we cannot allow animal exploiters to define the conversation for us, lull us into false rhetoric, or determine how we regard animals. Succumbing to these pressures, we degrade the lives of the animals down to the level at which the exploiters abuse them. By submitting to linguistic subterfuges, we accommodate virtually any mistreatment of animals as acceptable. This is the moral downslide that allows agribusiness and animal researchers to inflict pain, torment, and death on animals unfazed. It’s the type of “convenience” that debased language facilitates. As advocates for animals, let us not call the brutal mass-extermination of innocent, defenseless creatures for the sake of human convenience, “euthanasia.”
For the animals’ sake, we cannot let ourselves, or the public, be “put to sleep.”
Karen Davis, PhD is the President and Founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl including a sanctuary for chickens in Virginia. She is the author of numerous books, essays, articles, and campaigns advocating for these birds. Her latest book is For the Birds: From Exploitation to Liberation: Essays on Chickens, Turkeys, and Other Domesticated Fowl (Lantern Books, 2019).
Barbara Stagno is the President and Founder of Citizens for Alternatives to Animal Research & Experimentation (CAARE). Since 1995, Barbara has worked to oppose the exploitation of animals, especially the use of animals in experiments. She founded CAARE in 2014 to disseminate information about the power of emerging science to end the use of animals in research, while also raising awareness of their immense suffering. Before starting CAARE, Barbara was a campaign director for a national animal protection organization.