When a disease outbreak strikes animal agribusiness, here is South Korea’s method for dealing with the problem: they dig an enormous hole, dump live animals into it by the thousands, and use excavators to push the dirt back over it. Over the past two months, to combat a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, the country has killed more than a million pigs in this way.
Additionally, South Korea also ordered the killing of just over 100,000 cattle. As it set about killing all these cattle, the government showed staggering incompetence: it procured an anesthetic that can kill when injected in large amounts, but ran out partway through this effort—and proceeded to bury the remaining cattle alive.
In addition to the foot and mouth outbreak, avian flu has simultaneously descended on South Korea. And yet again, the country has responded by burying the animals alive: 2.7 million live birds have so far been bagged and buried.
If you consider animal agribusiness a desirable thing, then the bird cull can probably only be looked at as a necessary public health measure. There is, after all, no vaccine that could protect these birds from swiftly-mutating avian flu. And if the virus went on to infect many or most of the chickens in Korea, it would gain the opportunity to jump the species barrier and unleash the scenario every public health expert fears: a deadly, highly contagious human flu that could kill many millions of people.
Yet there’s no reason why burying animals alive should ever be regarded as an ethically acceptable choice. Between the use of an euthanasia drug and the time needed to make an injection, it needn’t cost much more than fifty cents per chicken to kill each animal prior to burial. So this is really a matter of South Korea and its factory farmers being unwilling to pony up about a million dollars for the sake of sparing these chickens the most horrific of deaths.
Where the pigs were concerned, the situation is even more unforgivable. In essence, the mass killing was a direct result of the government gambling that they could cheaply end the foot-and-mouth outbreak by killing just 12 percent of its pig population, rather than inoculate each of the country’s millions of pigs for against the disease. When this limited cull failed, it forced the government’s hand and they issued orders to begin a mass killing.
It’s not as if South Korea can claim they were caught off-guard and lacked time to prepare. They’d twice dodged catastrophe earlier in 2010, in January and again in April, by nipping two outbreaks in the bud—at the cost of killing 56,000 animals. What this means is that prior to the re-emergence of foot-and-mouth in late November, the government had at least a seven-month window of opportunity to implement a vaccination program throughout its livestock industry. Instead, it decided to roll the dice, and more than 1.4 million pigs and cattle have now been brutally killed and discarded as a consequence.
Unlike the United States and Britain, which have large and influential animal protection groups with the clout required to ban the most extreme animal abuses, there are no comparable groups in South Korea. So, despite the fact that South Korea is a member of the World Organization for Animal Health, the country has ignored the group’s guidelines forbidding the burial of live animals (Chapter 7.6, Killing of animals for disease control purposes, Article 7.6.1., Terrestrial Animal Health Code.)
So what we have in South Korea is a country whose leadership is incapable of acting with any decency where farmed animals are concerned. We’ve got no prospect of change from within, since the country lacks animal charities with the power to force quick reforms. And, given that little mainstream reporting has so far occurred, there’s little chance of international condemnation forcing Korea to remedy these abuses.
Stephen Bant of Korea Animal Rights Advocates describes the animals’ ordeal:
In the current cull, as in previous years, pigs in the back of trucks are simply tipped into a pit. These animals, many fully grown, would fall up to 4-5 meters into the hole only to have other pigs landing on top of them. We can assume that many are injured, perhaps with broken bones, or killed in the process. Hundreds of pigs would be crammed into the same hole. At other times pigs are herded near holes, then push in with excavator arms.
The animals are being buried alive at such a furious pace—about four million so far—that some rural Koreans are turning on their taps to find bloody water pouring from their pipes.
What we are witnessing in South Korea is unconscionable animal cruelty occurring on a massive scale, and no reliable way to prevent repeat this scenario from playing out again in the future. It’s a situation the entire world is ethically obligated to confront.
Erik Marcus is the author of Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, & Money and blogs daily at Vegan.com.