Outrage over barbaric pig slaying by gun

Sunday Independent, 19/06/2005

A disturbing video showing the “inhumane” slaughter of farm animals under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture has been obtained by the Sunday Independent.

A disturbing video showing the “inhumane” slaughter of farm animals under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture has been obtained by the Sunday Independent.  The video shows a farmer killing pigs with a captive bolt gun – contrary to regulations which only permit its use for stunning an animal.  The highly-distressed pigs can then been seen writhing in agony in their dying moments with their legs lashing out in spasms for several minutes after receiving the shot from the gun.  In horrific scenes, the farmer can also be seen shooting one of the squealing and highly-agitated animals for a second time when the first shot fails to end the unfortunate animal’s life.

  The man who shot the film on his video camera does not want to be named. But he said last night: “It was horrible alright to watch. There was a lot of people sickened over it. Even the man from the Department [not a veterinary inspector] was sickened over it. He even had to turn his head away.”

  In other departures from veterinary best practice , the video – which has now been viewed by senior Department officials – clearly shows that before being stunned and are not killed in isolation.

  The farmer, based in Co Waterford, has admitted he had no formal training in the slaughter of animals when he carried out the killing of almost 4,000 of his own pigs.  The pigs were impounded on the farm by the department leading to overcrowded conditions and an outbreak of swine fever.

  After watching the video, Martin Blake, the deputy chief veterinary officer at the Department of Agriculture admitted last night that the slaughter was “less than ideal” – even though inspectors had reported no concernes to the Department.

  TDs and farmers groups last night demanded an inquiry into the slaughter.

  Denis Naughton, Fine Gael’s agricultural spokesman, called for a thorough investigation by the Department of Agriculture.  After watching the video, Mr Naughton said: “ I think it is completely and wholly unacceptable that any animal should be treated in such a manner.”

  A spokesman for the Farmers Rights Action Group, which represents a group of 40 farmers, demanded a full independent inquiry.

  The images were condemned this weekend by senior veterinarians as depicting an “inhumane” slaughter.

  There were also concerns that the farmer was allowed to kill more than 4,000 animals himself, even though he had no veterinary skills.  Yet the slaughter was agreed by the Department of Agriculture and was partially inspected by veterinary officials to ensure the animals were being killed humanely.

  The video was recorded in July 2002 when the farmer slaughtered his ailing herd of 4,000 pigs after they were impounded by the Department of Agriculture. The farmer is facing numerous prosecutions under the Animal Remedies Act and cannot be identified for legal reasons.

  Seal O’Laoide, the vice-president of the European Veterinary Federation who viewed the video last week, expressed grave concerns over the slaughtering process, which he said did not conform to veterinary best practice.

  The Department of Agriculture’s deputy chielf veterinary officer Martin Blake acknowledged that the slaughter “was less than ideal” but said: “The Department’s involvement was two-fold: one was to ensure that none of the product found its way into the food chain,” he said.

  “The secondary role was to oversee the efficiency of the slaughtering process. Two of our veterinary inspectors did inspect the situation and found no cause for concern.”

Aidan Murray, the Department’s principal officer, said the Department had a food record on animal welfare but that this was an unusual case.

Department steeped in wrangle over farmer’s mass cull of pigs

A five-minute recording of a single-handed slaughter of 4,000 animals over six days, viewed by the Sunday Independent, reveals a string of deviations from standard veterinary best practice.

  Two years ago, a farmer in the Republic of Ireland was faced with the prospect of having to slaughter his herd of more than 4,000 pigs.  The owner of the piggery was in serious trouble with the Department of Agriculture and Food. The details are sub judice – he currently faces numerous charges under the Animal Remedies Act and he is, in turn, suing the Department for damages.  Suffice it to say that in April 2002,0 his pigs were impounded by the Department. That meant he was not allowed to sell the animals or move them off his land without the Department’s say-so.

  By July, the piggery was getting overcrowded and many animals stated to fall sick. With no cash coming in, he struggled to meet the cost of feeding an ailing herd.  Friends say the farmer was at the end of his tether and was left with no option but to kill his herd. They say he sought to have the animals professionally in an abattoir but he could not get permission to move the animals from his land. The Department of Agriculture has no record that he applied for a permit to move pigs to a slaughterhouse, according to senior officials.

  Either way, on July 12, the farmer wrote to a senior civil servant in the Department informing him that he was left with no choice but to slaughter the animals himself.

  “Approximately two thirds of my pigs are suffering from swine dysentery and, as it is very contagious it is vital that these pigs and all other pigs should be put to sleep immediately on welfare grounds. I can have everything in place for Monday next, July 15 at 9am. I will put these to sleep in a proper manner supervised by the Department of Agriculture. I have a humane killer and have been shown by a qualified butcher how to carry out this operation. This matter is very urgent from a welfare point of view of the pigs.”

The Department agreed.

  It was unusual that so many animals were to be slaughtered on a farm rather than in a licensed abattoir. But this, senior officials claimed, was an unusual situation in which the Department’s overriding concern was one of public health.

  What seems more unusual, however, was that the Department allowed the farmer to carry out the mass cull on his own, despite the huge scale of the task and his complete lack of veterinary training.

  The Department is charged with “promoting best practice” in relation to animal health and welfare. Killing more than 4,000 animals in one operation was a considerable undertaking for a licensed slaughterhouse, let alone an unskilled farmer whose only lesson in slaughter weaponry came from a local butcher.  It appears that, as far as the Department was concerned, the slaughter was instigated by the farmer and as such, became his responsibility under EU rules. As custodians of animal welfare, the Department had a duty to ensure that the slaughter was humane.  To fulfill this duty, it appointed two veterinary inspectors to keep an eye on things. The vets were not required to supervise the entire slaughtering process but to conduct periodic inspections, according to Martin Blake, the deputy chief veterinary officer.  Another official was to be present on a full-time basis. But his function was to ensure that the dead animals were properly disposed of, officials said, as the Department also had a duty to ensure that a suspect herd did not end up entering the food chain.

  Strict regulations and guidelines govern the slaughter of animals. Animals are required by law to be spared avoidable “excitement, pain or suffering.”

  Veterinary Ireland’s policy document says: “all animals must be restrained prior to stunning. The restraint must avoid fear, discomfort or pain to the animal. It is required that animals cannot see any carcass, blood or offal prior to stunning. There must be no avoidable delay between restraint and stunning.”

  The weapon, the captive bolt gun, was, by veterinary standards, ambitious given the numbers of animals.  The pistol projects a rod into the skull which, if aimed properly, should pierce the brain. The impact of rod on skill concusses the animal while the invasion of the brain renders the animal senseless. A shot from a captive bolt will mostly cause an animal to die of brain damage in a few minutes. But sometimes the animals regain consciousness.

  To make sure an animal is dead, standard veterinary practice is to finish it off before it regains consciousness, either by cutting its throat or ‘pithing’ – sticking a rod through the hole in its head to mash the brain.

  That is why the European Union’s regulations on slaughter of animals – passed into Irish law in 1995 – permit the captive bolt gun to stun an animal only but not to kill it.

  On Monday morning, July 15, 2002 the farmer began the unpleasant and no doubt harrowing job of personally slaughtering the animals that once were his livelihood.

  The massive cull took six gruesome days to complete, using a captive bolt gun, and killing 600 to 800 animals a day.  He was assisted only by his son and a farmhand.

  The farmer later told experts his gun broke down a few times. Pigs had to be shot twice. He claimed that he didn’t know about bleeding or pithing them and let them die by the instrument. He claimed that on one occasion in an effort to speed up the slaughter he killed 45 pigs with a hammer. He was told to stop the method. He then made an abortive attempt to suffocate the pigs by closing up the ventilation in their pens. It is thought that no Department veterinary inspector was present at either point.

  On day five, the farmer hired a video company to record the slaughter.

  The film, obtained by the Sunday Independent, is dated July 19, 2002 and timed at 4.35pm.

  The farmer, dressed in a red jumper, is walking through the pig enclosure hollering and waving his arms, steering the pigs towards a small gated pen. He herds six animals into the narrow enclosed space and shuts the gate. The pigs jostle and butt him as he stands in their midst brandishing a captive bolt gun.

  Notwithstanding the legal requirements to restrain the animals, the famer leans across to put the gun to the head of a pig in front of him. The pig collapses to loud squeals on to its side, and starts convulsing violently, its whole body contorting. According to the text-books, this is a natural reaction in stunned pigs. The other pigs appear distressed and trample over the stricken animal, to avoid the forceful lash of its legs.

  In the panic, the pigs press around the farmer, pushing their snouts towards the base of gate the pen, as though trying to escape.  The farmer re-sets the gun and singles out another pig. He leans across the other animals to fire into the pig’s forehead. This pig squeals loudly but does not go down. It appears it wasn’t stunned properly. The farmer shoots the animal a second time. The pig collapses on its side and the violent paroxysms begin. Another is hit and now three pigs are thrashing about violently on their sides in the pen.

  The remaining pigs have little room to escape the violently contorting limbs of the maimed animals and clamber over them.  And then there are two, hunched against a gate. The loud squeals that accompany the shots pierce through the roar of the farm machinery. Within minutes, the pen is a mass of writhing, thrashing pigs, their hooves loudly clattering and banging against its walls and floors.

  The viewer does not see animals being ‘pithed’ or ‘bled’ as the protocols demand.

  In another scene, a farm hand leans into a pen of still-convulsing pigs and hauls one towards the shovel of a waiting bulldozer. It is not clear if the pig is hauled away by its haunches for loading on to bulldozer shovel. As it is pulled by the legs, there is a loud squeal. Perhaps it emanated off-camera but it leaves the viewer wondering whether the pig is dead at all.

  By the end of the video, the operator pans his camera over the rural landscape to a soundtrack of increasingly loud squeals almost human in pitch. A man’s voice is heard saying: “An awful racket so it is.”

  “Ah it is,” replies another man as the squealing continues at fever-pitch.

The five-minute tape provides just a snapshot of a slaughtering process that lasted over six days. But those minutes reveal a string of deviations from standard veterinary best practice during this massive one-man slaughter operation.

  Sean O Laoide, vice president of the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe and a past president of Veterinary Ireland, said he was shocked and surprised by the images.

  “If this were a factory slaughter, you would stop it in its tracks. It would not meet what I would require as best practice,” he said. “Best practice would require appropriate handling of the animals. They would go individually into a shoot and would be individually stunned – not stunned and left to die in sight of each other.

  “There should be a standard operating procedure where the animal is stunned effectively and then pithed to ensure it is dead. That would be the standard procedure.”

Dermot Sparrow, a veterinarian who sits on a number of the Department of Agriculture’s working groups including its animal welfare committee, provided an expert report for the farmer.

  “The veterinary responsibility clearly lay with the Department officials and it is hard to understand how such an unfortunate occurrence could have happened. It is not reasonable to assume that a farmer could be expected to know how to slaughter a large number of pigs humanely.”

After viewing the tape on Friday afternoon, Mr Blake, the Department’s deputy chief veterinary officer, said there was no evidence from the tape that offences were committed.

  He said the veterinary officers who had inspected the slaughtering process made “no significant adverse comments” in their reports to the Department.  He pointed to research that shows that killing animals in sight of each other may not have the adverse affects as previously thought. He also highlighted the argument that wedging lots of animals tightly into a pen for slaughter can be an effective method of restraining them. As for using a captive bolt as a method of killing the animals, Mr Blake said: “The process of gathering the animals together in one spot and using captive bolt would not be considered to be unacceptable practice.”

He referred to the veterinary inspectors’ reports, saying that “on many occasions, the pigs died as a result of the captive bolt being used. And (the reports) recorded that the farmer did pith those animals that did not die.”

  But the European Community’s (Protection of Animals at Time of Slaughter) Regulations – passed into Irish law in 1995 – are clear.

Regulation 5, second schedule, says that animals which hare “stunned or killed by mechanical or electrical means applied to the head shall be presented in such a position that the equipment can be applied and operated easily, accurately and for the appropriate time.”  

  Regulation 5, third schedule, lists the captive bolt gun as a permitted method of stunning animals such as pigs but no for killing them.

  The same schedule says the captive bolt gun must be positioned to “so as to ensure that the projectile enters the cerebral cortex.” And the operator must be ready to stun it “as soon as the animal is placed in the pen.”

  Failure to comply with the regulations constitutes an offence punishable with a fine of up to €1,000, 12 months in jail or both.

  The Department has a huge responsibility in protecting the purity of food for public consumption, but there are many in the industry unhappy with what they would see as the Department’s draconian powers. The legality of some of its powers are being challenged in the High Court.

  The existence of the farmer’s video has long been rumoured but until last week never seen. But regardless of reasons for its release, the Department is taking the contents of the video seriously.

  Mr Blake did concede that there were general issues in the video that he was not happy with and has asked for a copy of it so that he can review the images.

“Looking at the video, you would have to say the situation was less than ideal,” he said. “Perhaps if we were faced into the situation again we might exert greater controls over what went on.”

Asked if the farmer should have been permitted to kill so many animals in the first place without veterinary assistance, he said: “It was a major undertaking but it was within his right to do it. It was a less than ideal situation for that number of animals.”