Cruel story

Why ‘live markets’ need to die

Thelma Lee Gross, D.V.M. is a veterinary pathologist with a special interest in food animal welfare that lives in Davis, California.

On March 4, 2010, the California Fish and Game Commission approved a ban on imports of non-native turtles and frogs for food in live markets. The principle argument was that these imported animals were overwhelming the native species of California by spread of disease, by competition for food and habitat, and by predation.

I applaud the commission and the hard work of activists and others who brought this decision about. But sadly, the argument that these animals were heading to live markets and that such markets are inhumane never really took hold. As reported by Cosmo Garvin in SN&R (“Man bites frog,” SN&R Bites, February 25), “The commission … stopped short of a ban in the past, because of opposition from trade associations representing [live] markets, and worries that such a rule would appear culturally insensitive.”

Luckily, as it turned out, our native species had to be protected and the ban has prevailed. But what of this other compelling argument?

The cruelty issues in live markets are twofold. First, animals face filthy, crowded conditions and are piled up together in tanks, boxes or bags with inadequate water and oxygen. They are handled roughly with no regard to their status as living things. Poor conditions and handling create and increase sensitivity to pain, the latter because injured tissue hurts more when touched. (Think about how it feels when someone grabs your sprained thumb.) Studies have shown that injury-induced pain sensitivity can spread to nearby normal tissue, thus increasing overall pain and discomfort.

The second issue is the lack of humane slaughter in the live-market setting. Although state law requires that live frogs and turtles be killed before they leave the market, the rule is often broken. Further, there are significant challenges to killing these animals humanely. As outlined by the American Veterinary Medical Association Guidelines on Euthanasia (June 2007), pithing, or the insertion of a sharp instrument into both the brain and spinal cord, is needed for humane killing of reptiles, fish and amphibians, because their central nervous system tolerates low oxygen and low blood pressure after decapitation. Removing the head is not enough: A conscious state persists for several minutes. In fact, the humane slaughter of turtles for food cannot be accomplished under any circumstances, because a turtle will not voluntarily extrude his head and neck for any kind of procedure. Turtles in markets are cut apart while still alive.

While many of us choose to eat meat, often we do this without being sensitive to the path these animals take to arrive on our plates. As humans (and thus “humane”), we owe our food animals proper handling and a painless death without stress or fear. With our moral sense comes responsibility. When considering live markets, we would all do well to visit them and get a firsthand experience of what it is like for a living, breathing animal that is only “food in waiting.” Live markets need to die.