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What do we mean by humane killing or slaughter?

Article ID: 115
Last updated: 08 Feb, 2018
Revision: 4
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Dictionary meanings of humane include: ‘kind, benevolent behaviour’ and ‘compassion for the suffering or distressed’ when applied to people and ‘inflicts less pain than others’ when applied to an instrument.

The RSPCA definition of humane killing is: ‘when an animal is either killed instantly or rendered insensible until death ensues, without pain, suffering or distress'. When killing animals for food (termed slaughter), this means they must be stunned prior to bleeding out so they immediately become unconscious.

All methods of humane killing, including slaughter and on-farm euthanasia, must meet the same criteria:

  • death of an animal without pain, suffering or distress
  • instant unconsciousness followed by rapid death without regaining consciousness
  • reliability for both single or large numbers of animals
  • simplicity and minimal maintenance
  • minimal detrimental impact on operators or observers.

A high level of operator skill is essential for the humane killing of animals. Operators must be trained in:

  • animal handling
  • selection of the best killing method
  • correct application of the killing method
  • proper maintenance of equipment.

The method of killing will vary according to species and the circumstances at the time. Some procedures for humane slaughter regularly used include:

  • operated instruments, such as captive-bolt pistols, followed by bleeding out
  • instruments for stunning by electric current, followed by bleeding out
  • the use of gas, followed by bleeding out.

Humane killing on farm is often carried out using a rifle and, depending on the species, will be done using one of the following positions:

  • Frontal method - the firearm is directed at a point midway across the forehead where two lines from the topside of the base of the ears and top of the eyes intersect (pigs – from the bottom side of the ears to the eyes). The line of fire should be aimed horizontally into the skull towards the centre of the brain or spinal cord.
  • Poll method (for horned animals) - the animal is shot through the skull just behind the base of the horns. The line of fire should be in line with the animal’s muzzle. 
  • Temporal method - the firearm is directed at a point midway between the eye and the base of the ear on the same side of the head. The projectile should be directed horizontally into the skull.

Killing methods should only be used if they have been declared humane by recognised expert authorities and they meet these basic criteria.

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Also listed in
folder Farm animals -> Animal management
folder Humane killing -> Killing animals for food

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