Earlier today I came across the following, which I had submitted a couple of years ago to The Globe and Mail in response to an article by Fred Stenson, but which had never been published. It struck me that it would do no harm to post it here on the blog.“We owe it to animals to treat them well,” says Fred Stenson in his article “In Defence of Branding Cattle: Alberta Ranchers on a Burning Tradition” (The Globe and Mail, June 23, 2012). But apparently what we owe to non-human animals is easily trumped by our own self-interest.
Stenson is under no illusions as to the pain that branding causes. “The smoke rises, the calf bellows. If the hair catches fire, someone brushes it with a gloved hand. The calf wobbles away, shaking its head and sorrowful.” Indeed, Stenson sees it as a virtue that ranchers do “this harsh work themselves: feel themselves inflict the pain. It is less hypocritical,” that way, Stenson argues, than it would be if ranchers were to have someone else inflict the pain on their behalf. No doubt it is. But does the pain really need to be inflicted at all?
The current American Veterinary Medical Association policy on livestock identification recommends that "a high priority be placed on using alternatives to hot-iron branding." And, as Stenson reports, there are indeed alternatives to branding with a hot iron: a method of freezing the brand on, and ear tag ID markers (which since 2005 have been mandatory in Canada). Not all studies agree that freeze branding is significantly less painful than hot-iron branding, but ear-tagging and micro-chipping are universally agreed to be far less painful.
Why are these not sufficient? Because the traditional hot-iron brand is easier for the rancher to read at long range. “We still need a brand for a quick ID,” Stenson quotes rancher Dave Lowe as saying. Otherwise, ranchers “would have to catch” a calf that strayed onto a neighbor’s property in order to be sure of the identification. Stenson accepts that as sufficient reason to continue the practice of branding all calves with a hot iron:
If the purpose of cattle branding were only about tradition and not practical at all, I would have to be against it. But that time is not here yet. In the meantime, I shall continue to respect it as necessary work.Necessary? That an act of considerable cruelty saves us from some slight inconvenience does not make it necessary. It would certainly be more convenient for me to be able to identify my cat Frankie at long range if he were branded; Frankie not infrequently strays onto the neighbor’s property, and there are at least two other neighborhood cats who look very like Frankie at long range. It can be a real inconvenience for me to take the time to be sure it is Frankie in the neighbor’s yard. But that’s no evidence for the necessity of burning Frankie with a branding iron—any more than a slight inconvenience to ranchers justifies the pain they inflict on calves.