Animal welfare

We support the reduction of animal suffering resulting from human behaviour and see compassionate attitudes to animal suffering as a hallmark of a humane society.

Sometimes people think that because humanists are called humanists that they are unduly or narrowly concerned with the rights and welfare of human beings. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the word ‘humanism’: most humanists are strong supporters of animal welfare and recognise the necessity of sensible policy that respects and acknowledges animal sentience and their capacity to suffer. Humanists are called humanists because as human beings we try to make ethical decisions on the basis of our human capacity to reason, rather than looking to sources outside of human experience for guidance about what is right and wrong (in this sense, humanism contrasts with theism).

A Humanists UK poster summarising the Five Freedoms for Animals Under Human Control. Click to expand.

We endorse the World Organisation for Animal Health’s Five Freedoms for animals under human control, and want to see all these rights and freedoms implemented and protected in full in law or policy by governments across the UK and the world.  While we do not seek to duplicate the efforts of specialist animal welfare organisations like the RSPCA or the British Veterinary Association, in recent decades Humanists UK has supported every major effort to improve animal welfare to come before the UK Parliament.

One particular area where Humanists UK actively campaigns is on religious exemptions to animal welfare and farming laws. In the UK, these laws have significant weaknesses around the treatment of farm animals used in religious slaughter. For example, slaughtering animals without pre-stunning causes unnecessary pain and suffering to the animal, and so we have long campaigned for an end to the exemption from the law mandating pre-stunning for religious groups providing shechita (kosher) and halal meat. Short of that, we want to see rules introduced requiring all meat slaughtered without pre-stunning to be labeled as such.

In depth

Animal welfare legislation in the UK mandates that all animals must be stunned so that they are insensible to pain before the lethal cut is made during the slaughtering process. This is considered by most veterinary and animal welfare organisations to be the most humane method of slaughter.

However, there is an exception to this law for animals slaughtered according to halal and kosher methods. Under such methods, the animal’s throat severed using a sharp blade and it then dies slowly of blood loss, whilst being fully conscious.

In the UK, in practice around 80% of animals undergoing halal slaughter are actually stunned as certain stun methods are accepted by a number of halal certification bodies for certain species. However, all kosher meat is unstunned.

Between April and June 2017, 24.4% of sheep and goats were slaughtered without stunning, up from 15% in 2013. Similarly, the number of poultry killed without stunning rose from 3% to 18.5% in the same period.

We are not alone in campaigning against non-stunned slaughter: the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, the Government committee responsible for advising the British governments on farm animal welfare, has long recommended that farm animals should be stunned before slaughter. This mirrors the view of the Royal Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the British Veterinary Association (BVA), and the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA), who have issued a joint statement on the issue. They all recognise that the balance of evidence shows that not stunning animals prior to slaughter causes additional distress.

What we’re doing

  • In 2018, we responded to a consultation by Lancashire County Council on a proposal to remove meat from its school meals that’s slaughtered without being pre-stunned. The Council subsequently voted in favour of this change.
  • In 2018, we called upon members and supporters to respond to a consultation on the draft Animal Welfare (Sentencing and Recognition of Sentience) Bill demanding an end to non-stunned slaughter. We gave broad support the Government’s wider proposals to enhance UK animal welfare laws.
  • In 2017, we called upon the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to introduce a labelling system indicating whether an animal was pre-stunned or not on all of their approved sheep meat products.
  • We have also extensively researched and lobbied high street shops and supermarkets in an attempt to curb their support for non-stunned slaughter and raise awareness of issues surrounding this.

Get involved

Useful steps include writing to your MPs, councillors, or raising the issue in a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. If you live in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, you can also write to your MSs, MSPs, or MLAs, as farming is a devolved issue in the UK.

You can support Humanists UK’s campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead or in addition, you can make a donation to Humanists UK.