Researchers seek better tools

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Euthanasia remains an important tool in animal industry to maintain herd health, stop the spread of disease or prevent financial loss, said Tina Widowski, a University of Guelph researcher who specializes in farm animal welfare.

The Ontario-based researcher and her students recently evaluated a device called the Zephyr, designed to kill piglets using an air-powered, non-penetrating captive bolt.

“What’s nice about the Zephyr is that is doesn’t penetrate the head… just a divot and bruising, so you can see the skull has been crushed, but it’s not as if there is any brain matter showing,” she said. “I know this is gory, but this is a very gory subject.”

And as effective as the device is in rendering the pig insensible and causing brain death, the effects of the device are also easier for the stockperson using it, she said.

“(Euthanasia) is hard on a stockperson, it’s hard on a researcher, it’s hard on everyone,” said Widowski. “But things can be done to make it easier.”

Public perceptions are also important.

Widowski notes a single, properly directed blow from something like a metal pipe can result in an immediate and humane death for some species if other options aren’t available. But this carries the risk of generating negative perceptions.

“The esthetics are poor, and if the animal goes into convulsions and it ends up on YouTube… well, people don’t understand,” she said, adding convulsions occur when an animal is unconscious and unable to feel pain.


In animal shelters an overdose of barbiturates — preceded by a sedative — is a common and effective way to humanely put an animal down, said Winnipeg Humane Society executive director Bill McDonald. But, he added, in remote locations or on farm operations that’s not often feasible.

McDonald said veterinarians aren’t always nearby, and may not offer methods of euthanasia suitable for livestock populations.

Although some in animal welfare circles might give him flack for it, McDonald believes shooting an animal is an acceptable and humane method of euthanasia.

“There are times and locations where that is the only option,” he said, pointing to “dog shoot” days held in some northern communities as an example.

But that doesn’t mean taking potshots from the back of a pickup, he said.

“It’s up close, it’s personal and it’s one shot,” he said.

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