Denmark's Animal Welfare Policy

Back in February the Danish government announced a new animal welfare policy. Over the last week this policy has been getting attention on social media for reasons that I can only suspect have something to do with the current Israel–Palestine conflict. I didn't say anything about it last winter, but now that it's back in the news I want to make one point.

The recent policy involves a ban on religious slaughter, in particular halal and kosher practices, that cause unnecessary pain to non-human animals. Both forms of slaughter involve killing the animal while it's still conscious. Although in principle they prohibit animal suffering, in practice the animal usually suffers a great deal. This is not only because the animal is conscious, but also the method of killing: its throat must be slit so that it bleeds out until it dies.

There is a serious concern that Denmark instituted this policy as much out of xenophobia and anti-religious sentiment as from a concern for animal welfare. I'm not denying that this a possibility, and that such a reason would be a bad justification.

However, I do think that this is a good law, in that I don't think that religious accommodation should be extended to include the painful killing of animals. The appropriate limits of religious accommodation is a big topic though, so beyond announcing my stance I'm going to set that question aside.

For now I want to focus on an accusation of inconsistency mentioned in the article that was levelled at the Danish government. It focuses on the killing of a healthy giraffe named Marius at the Copenhagen Zoo in February whose genes, according to the zoo, were too similar to other giraffes. The worry was that Marius would breed and that his offspring would threaten the welfare of other giraffes in a European breeding program. Although there were plenty of ways to keep Marius from breeding—e.g., sending him to a sanctuary, keeping him away from fertile female giraffes, and in other ways rendering him infertile—the zoo killed him with a bolt gun, dismembered him in front of some children, and fed him to lions.

Now, once again I'm going to set aside a discussion of the rightness or wrongness of killing Marius. I think it was wrong to kill him, but I'm not going to explore that issue.

The point I do want to make is that I don't see any inconsistency in these two policies. I take it that the inconsistency is supposed to be that lawmakers passed a law (ostensibly or not) out of concern for animal welfare, yet at the same time have no qualms allowing the killing of a giraffe for what I (and many others) is an unjustified reason.

But this is to miss just how moderate a ban on halal and kosher slaughter is. Denmark has said nothing regarding the amount of killing permitted or even, as the case of Marius shows, what type of animal can be killed. All Denmark has said is that a particularly cruel form of killing is impermissible, and that no exemption—religious or otherwise—is justified. That is the right decision. It would be inconsistent if the killing of Marius involved the cutting of his throat while he was fully conscious, but that's not how he was killed.

Accusations of inconsistency are therefore unfounded. Of course, there's still much to be said about animal welfare and Denmark's approach to it. (Perhaps even all of the important factors are still to be sorted out.) On the matter of how something is killed, however, Denmark isn't doing anything inconsistent.