I remember vividly the first time I saw an animal slaughtered at our home in Sudan. The hapless sheep was brought to the house and tethered in the garden days before the Eid festival. My sisters and I fed it, watered it and giggled at its silly bleats outside our bedroom windows at night.
I was vaguely aware that this sheep was to provide food for us, but as a five-year-old had not fully grasped the concept until I walked out on Eid morning just in time to see the butcher slit its throat.
Having spent my first few years in a non-Muslim country, I had grown familiar with anthropomorphised animals on TV, in children’s books and bedtime stories. We bought our meat from halal butchers, but never saw it killed.
So, arriving back in Sudan, I was somewhat more sensitive about the slaughter process than other children in my family and neighbourhood.
That fateful day, our neighbour’s two boys dropped by to witness the killing. Once the sheep was dead, the butcher sliced an aperture in its body and blew air between its skin and its flesh — a practice that makes skinning easier. As the carcass inflated, the two boys punched it gleefully.
Sorry to be graphic. I could go on. It was pretty gruesome. The poor animal certainly did not die immediately, since the religious stipulation on halal slaughter is that it must bleed to death. The logic behind this is that remaining blood in the body may become polluted and harmful to humans. By the time I eventually moved to Britain, my original cuddly approach towards animals had been eroded by years of mini-abattoirs in the back garden. If anything, the whole process had begun to take on pleasant associations as sheep were only ever slaughtered at our home in celebration of a happy event.
Brian Sewell, the art critic, had his own reverse epiphany, having previously consumed “half a calf's head in a Brussels brasserie, tête de veau complete with ear, eye and half muzzle, the cheek, the tongue and brain” like an “unthinking glutton”, he found his unflinching carnivorousness did not translate to indifference towards the way his meat was killed. When he witnessed halal and shechita slaughter, he saw animals kicked, bludgeoned and felled so that the butcher could get at their necks.
Isn’t there some hypocrisy in heartily consuming meat but being precious about how animals are butchered? Apart from lethal injection in a Swiss clinic somewhere, I can’t imagine that any method of execution is particularly pleasant. If you’re squeamish about the killing, surely vegetarianism is the only tenable position.
My own culture is less squeamish, more unequivocal. The shorter distance from farm gate to plate makes it so. In trying somehow to find some solace for the sheep killed in the back garden I asked my mother whether animals go to animal heaven. She said: “No, animals don't have souls, they were put on Earth to feed us.” So that was that.
The issue of legislation on halal and schechita slaughter in Britain is a thorny one. In 2003, The Farm Animal Welfare Council advised that the practice must end as it involves “severe suffering to animals”. The halal method of slaughter is exempted from a legal requirement to stun animals first. In halal terms, stunning is undesirable as there is a risk the animal may die before its throat is cut. The response from religious representatives is that once the throat is slit loss of consciousness is instantaneous and the animal does not feel any pain while bleeding to death as the brain is deprived of blood.
Whether one buys this or not, the dilemma is whether religious values should trump secular ethical ones when it comes to animal rights. In attempting to regulate an industry with no common standard by defaulting to the former, legislation also allows for the abuse of consumers who sometimes end up paying higher prices for meat products that are either falsely labelled as halal or were produced in factories were the definition of halal slaughter was stretched very thin.
Although halal and kosher methods are by no means merciful, banning them could drive already loosely regulated practices underground.
Regulators are probably relieved that so much attention is focused on religious groups at a time when battery farming is still rife and society is struggling to come to grips with mass consumption of animals while maintaining humane levels of farming and butchery.
Cracking down on halal and shechita slaughter is a disingenuous, albeit worthy cause. But perhaps that’s just me. Blame it on my mother.
The views expressed by the author are personal