11/01/2011 04:22 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

Gatineau Steer Shooting: Let's Stop the Bull

When police in Gatineau mercilessly gunned down two escaped steers last week, the public reaction was swift and overwhelming. People responded with sympathy for the animals, coupled with shock, outrage, and condemnation over their violent demise. Obviously, the disturbing incident raises questions about whether the police response was appropriate. But it also forces us to consider a more fundamental question: how should we treat the animals that we use for food?

The steers were on their way to the slaughterhouse when they escaped from a trailer and began roaming free in a rural area near a Quebec highway. Thanks to a video made by bystanders, people everywhere were able to see exactly how horrific the end of life was for these two animals. With lights flashing and sirens blaring, police cars arrived on the scene. Surrounding one of the animals with their vehicles, the police pumped half a dozen shots into the terrified steer while he struggled to run away from the barrage of bullets. As they finished him off, he fell to the ground. Both animals died -- undoubtedly in a state of fear, confusion, and pain.

Killing the two steers in this way seems completely inhumane and unnecessary, and there is little doubt that this is one reason the public is so disturbed. The police have defended their actions as necessary to protect the public, which brings to mind the recent shootings of dozens of exotic animals who had been released in Ohio by their owner. In that case, Ohio officials also invoked public safety to justify gunning down the animals. But it should never be the case that at the first hint of danger toward humans, we suddenly and automatically become exempt from showing basic decency toward other species. We have an obligation to treat other creatures with respect, and animal shootings like these run contrary to societal standards of compassion and decency.

Further, the public safety excuse seems like a stretch. The steers were loose in a rural area, and they were domesticated farm animals. How could they possibly have posed a threat so severe that police decided gunning them down was the only option? Why not tranquilize the animals instead? Why not corral them instead of opening fire? And more fundamentally, why has the federal government failed to deliver on its years-old promise to require better training and protocol for the transport of farm animals?

We deserve answers to these questions. But we should also consider another question -- one that I think is ultimately more important: Why do we object so vigorously to what these poor animals experienced, yet accept that had they not escaped from the trailer, the steers would have be slaughtered for food just hours later?

In reality, the end-of-life terror these animals experienced could have been just as bad -- or worse -- had they gone to the slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouse investigations have revealed that abuse and cruelty are common, with animals often suffering horribly before they die. For instance, sick and injured cows may be beaten and prodded with electric rods, forced to walk to their own slaughter. It is not uncommon for animals to be improperly stunned, leaving them conscious, afraid, and in intense pain while they are killed. Unconscious animals who are not killed quickly enough may regain their senses before they die.

The truth is that animals raised for food suffer horribly at all stages of life -- and death -- before they end up on our dinner plates. The only difference is, we don't bear witness to these conditions -- the suffering goes on behind closed doors.

The public response to the steer shootings is a stirring reminder that at our core, we know animals are sentient beings who experience fear and pain. We want them to be treated humanely and with respect. Yet the factory farming system of food production disregards these deeply-held societal values, subjecting animals to misery while hiding the cruelty from the public. If we want animals like the two steers to be spared from suffering, we need to tackle the root of the problem. Let's demand that animals be treated with compassion at all stages of the farming process.