by Brian Tomasik
First written: 24 Feb. 2015; last update: 31 Dec. 2016

Summary

The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) is one of my two favorite animal charities. (The other is Animal Ethics.) While spending the equivalent of only half a million US dollars a year, HSA plays a leading role with advances in humane-slaughter technology and best practices. A conservative calculation suggests that HSA may have prevented one painful fish death per $50 of donations, and the actual figure could be at least an order of magnitude cheaper. HSA is also unique among animal charities in that it seems less likely than most others to cause long-run harm to wild animals through memes of non-interference and environmentalism. Still, HSA does pose its own downside risks, such as the possibility of making consumers assume that meat is humane, and it may not shape far-future trajectories as profoundly as outreach-oriented animal organizations do.

HSA is only eligible for Gift Aid in the UK, but if you live in another country, you should consider trading donations with a UK donor for mutual benefit, which is completely legal.

Note: HSA, a welfarist organization, is unrelated to the Humane Farming Association (HFA), which is an extreme abolitionist organization. HFA opposes basically all welfare reforms, setting itself against virtually every other mainstream animal charity.

Introduction

Imagine being a farmed trout, swimming in a crowded area amidst many of your neighbors. Suddenly you're hoisted out of the water and tossed into a pile. You can't breathe. Stress hormones fill your blood, and you wriggle around as best you can under the weight of other fish dumped on top of you. The pain becomes intense, but there's no escape: the burning agony of oxygen deprivation continues unrelentingly. Five minutes later, unconsciousness mercifully begins to set in.

To make the scenario more powerful, try holding your breath as long as you can. Then try imagining what it would feel like if you couldn't make the pain stop just by breathing again.

This is the manner of death that befalls many of the ~30,000 fish that humans kill every second for food.

HSA logoHSA works to reduce extreme suffering by farmed animals during slaughter. For an overview of HSA's accomplishments, see its Wikipedia article (which I wrote). This piece focuses on my personal reasons for supporting HSA, as well as why I prefer it to most other animal charities.

Sample HSA cost-effectiveness estimate

HSA works against painful slaughter practices with respect to all types of farmed vertebrates. But plausibly its most effective work has been to improve the slaughter of fish, because

  • most fish are killed without any attempt at humane stunning, and
  • at least an order of magnitude more fish are killed than all other vertebrate food animals combined.

One of HSA's victories was to participate in the development of electrical fish-stunning technology in the UK in the late 1990s and 2000s (see "Expert 1" later in this piece for details). Among other things, this work resulted in the development of Ace Aquatec humane stunners. This page reports that now: "95% of UK trout passes through an Ace Aquatec stunner." HSA's James Kirkwood lauded this development as benefitting "millions of fish."

I'll offer a crude and overly conservative cost-effectiveness calculation for HSA's work based on this example. This calculation should not be taken to extremes, since it ignores most relevant variables that are important when assessing a charity like HSA. Still, the exercise helps to make HSA's impact more concrete.

Mood and Brooke estimate (Fig. 6, p. 10) that about ~50-900 million rainbow trout are farmed in the EU per year. Take the lower bound (~50 million) to be conservative. For simplicity, assume that UK consumption is proportional to the UK's share of the EU population (64 million / 500 million). Ace Aquatec stunners are claimed to stun 95% of UK trout, but suppose this figure is exaggerated, and the number is only, say, 20%. Assume that death by successful electric stunning is as much as half as bad as death by asphyxiation. In addition, suppose there's only a 1/4 probability that the electric-stunning parameters are properly calibrated to make the stun effective, and otherwise they're ineffective.a Then Ace Aquatec stunning prevents at least

(50 million)(64/500)(20%)(1/2)(1/4) = 160,000 equivalent instances of rainbow-trout asphyxiation per year.

Imagine that if the movement for humane fish stunning hadn't occurred, it would have taken another 15 years to happen by other channels. And assume, to make the calculation conservative, that HSA's only work over the past 15 years was toward fish stunning. Suppose that HSA played only 20% of the causal role in the development of fish stunning. (This seems accurate or even conservative based on my discussions with experts in the field.) Then a year of HSA's work prevented (160,000)*(20%) = ~30,000 experiences of asphyxiation.

Following are HSA's annual budgets over the past several years. Since HSA is a UK charity, these are in British pounds (GBP). Since I live in the USA and think in dollars (USD), I converted each year's budget to USD based on the average exchange rate during the year covered by most of the budget period. For instance, the exchange rate I used for the Apr 2013 - Mar 2014 period is the average exchange rate in 2013. I ignore inflation over this short time period.

Year Resources expended (GBP) Avg USD/GBP exchange rate Resources expended (US$)
Apr 2013 - Mar 2014 345,281 1.564303 540,124
Apr 2012 - Mar 2013 269,409 1.584468 426,870
Apr 2011 - Mar 2012 323,566 1.603508 518,841
Apr 2010 - Mar 2011 373,789 1.545204 577,580
Apr 2009 - Mar 2010 250,235 1.566862 392,084
Apr 2008 - Mar 2009 250,357 1.853828 464,119
Apr 2007 - Mar 2008 226,679 2.002112 453,837
Apr 2006 - Mar 2007 389,129 1.842388 716,927
Average 303,556 511,298

So HSA's annual costs are roughly $500K.

Note that much of HSA's value comes from non-financial sources -- e.g., talented students, professors, and industry scientists who put in extra effort to humane-slaughter work because they care about it, not because it's lucrative. So the actual cost to carry out all of what HSA does is much more than $500K. But funding probably plays a significant role, and it seems plausible that funding constitutes at least 1/3 of all of the factors that allow HSA to function. So let's approximate HSA's "true annual budget" (donations + value of volunteer human capital) as $1.5 million.b

In the end, we have

($1,500,000 of equivalent HSA donations) / (~30,000 instances of asphyxiation prevented) = $50 per asphyxiation experience avoided.

This estimate is probably several orders of magnitude too low, since it

  • uses very conservative estimates
  • counts only one trout species
  • ignores spillover effects on other countries
  • ignores spillover effects on society's values in general.

One way in which the estimate might be too high is if in the future there aren't similarly big gains to be found as with fish stunning. Most of HSA's work focuses on cows, pigs, chickens, etc., which are less numerous than fish. However:

  1. There are tons of improvements needed for stunning of farmed fish, including extending the method to other species and non-UK countries, and
  2. HSA hasn't yet addressed stunning for wild-caught fish, which outnumber farmed fish by at least an order of magnitude.

So it's hardly as though there are no more low-hanging fruit. Moreover, even if HSA averted painful deaths for, say, 1000 cows every year, $1500 per agonizing death avoided by a large-brained mammal is not bad.

Praise for HSA

I wrote to some animal-welfare scientists to ask their impressions of HSA. None of them worked for HSA, though some had previously gotten grants from HSA. Of the four who replied, all were very positive. Following are excerpts (shared with permission) from my conversations with two of them, as well as a non-quoted summary of the comments of a third expert.

Expert 1

Brian: Did HSA accelerate fish-stunning research in any way? Or would that all have happened without HSA?

Reply: The HSA were instrumental in pushing forward the fish stunning work from the very beginning. They provided initial funding for about 20% of the cost of the initial research and their involvement gave a group of supermarkets and trade organisations the confidence to follow on with the rest of the funding. The HSA then managed the publicity and donated funding for some industry demonstrations and launch of the first bit of commercially available equipment. Later on they again supported research into developing the understanding on to sea-water application, into halibut stunning, and into an investigation of the particular issues with sea bass and bream.

Brian: Is HSA an effective charity?

Reply: I consider the HSA to a highly effective promoter of animal welfare, including fish. As you probably know, the HSA takes a completely different approach from many organisations in that they don’t publicly campaign against any organisation. They are therefore trusted by most of the industry enabling them to visit markets and slaughter houses. Where they see bad practice they will tell the management and advise on how it could be improved, but their reports remain confidential so they continue to have access to and dialogue with the industry. There is clearly a place for other more strident campaigning organisations, but the HSA provides the information, advice and assistance to any organisation wanting to improve the welfare of their animals.

Expert 2

Brian: Do HSA's scholarships and other activities appreciably increase the total amount of animal-welfare research? Or is such research mainly driven by students + professors, who would get funding from elsewhere if HSA didn’t exist?

Reply: I have been successful in applying for student scholarships from HSA over the years for MSc students [...]. Generally speaking, these projects would not have been undertaken without HSA funding and they have been used to investigate an area that we believe may warrant further investigation i.e. major funding. Therefore HSA pump-priming scholarships have led to major applied research projects that have helped to underpin welfare legislation in the UK and Europe. An example of HSA impact was to help fund the start of the Animal Welfare Officer Training program back in 1993 that has led to the adoption of AWO’s in every abattoir in Europe (EC Regulation 1099/2009).

Brian: How often does research translate into actual changes on farms? Do you have a rough sense of how many animals (including fish) are much more humanely slaughtered in the long run for every £1000 donated to HSA?

Reply: I wish I could calculate a figure for this as it would really help support funding applications. I suppose if you look at the recent FAWC report on the Welfare of Fish at Killing [...] and compare the advancements made since the first report (2765 Report on the Welfare of Farmed Fish 1996) was written, you could get some idea of the advances made in this field following investment in research. However, to filter out those improvements brought about be investments made in HSA-sponsored research would be nearly impossible!

Expert 3

The expert thought that HSA did important work by helping fund research projects. This person also thought that HSA's Humane Slaughter Awards were quite cost-effective because they incentivize further work and highlight role models.

Other arguments for HSA

Leverage of technology

The biggest changes in world history have resulted from technology. Some conflict between animal welfare and farmer profit can be avoided by innovations that make animal farming and slaughter less painful. Technology can sometimes improve farm profits and animal welfare simultaneously. HSA's focus on promoting research into humane science and technology thus appears a priori quite leveraged.

Gary Francione argues against so-called win-win technologies that make farms more humane and more efficient at the same time, because if the humane changes lower costs of production, they increase meat consumption somewhat. I personally think this effect is tiny compared with the welfare gains to many farmed animals. For instance, suppose you implement a humane measure that improves welfare by 25% and efficiency by 5%. (It seems unlikely efficiency would increase drastically because otherwise farms would have already implemented the change on their own.) Say that increase in efficiency lowers prices by 5%, which then increases consumption by, say, 5%. The 25% welfare gain significantly outweighs the 5% consumption increase.

Anyway, in most cases, it seems like humane reforms actually increase costs. Robert Garner also points out that if humane reforms are too expensive, they'll drive domestic farms out of business and increase consumption of very inhumane foreign meat.

Respectability

Some animal-rights organizations give the movement a bad name by vociferous messages and attention-grabbing stunts. HSA is among the most mainstream animal-welfare organizations. As a result, it can work with industry to implement realistic changes that affect millions of animals. HSA was invited to host a stand at the Royal Smithfield Fatstock Show, an event that veg*ans have protested.

Of course, some activists consider HSA's mainstream tenor and industry collaboration as flaws, since HSA doesn't challenge the use of animals in the first place.

Science over ideology

Animal agriculture is not black and white. Some "factory farms" cause many times more suffering than others. There are real differences among slaughter methods, and these differences may require scientific measurement to discern, because some aversive responses are unconscious reflexes.

HSA is one of the most scientifically grounded animal charities I've found. It supports academic research to actually figure out what kinds of animal killing are less painful, rather than ideologically declaring all forms of animal slaughter equally bad.

Of course, if you think most of the harm of slaughter comes from killing, then HSA's work will seem mostly useless and possibly even harmful if it makes people less concerned about slaughtering animals. But if, as I do, you think most of the harm of killing comes from the fear and pain that killing entails, then HSA's work will appear highly important.

Realism

Rather than holding out for an eventual revolution in society's views on animals, HSA takes a more pragmatic approach of making some changes now. This not only helps animals in the short run but may also revolutionize society's attitudes sooner anyway, in a similar way as an agile approach can complete a big project faster than a waterfall approach.

Maybe society can fully abolish the use of vertebrate animals, but at some point, compromises have to be made. It's unfortunately not realistic for society to refrain from harming all animals, especially insects, and HSA's scientifically minded pragmatism is what we need to address such dilemmas. Moreover, digital minds of the future will inevitably experience some suffering at human hands, and as much as I'd love to stop a technologically advanced human future, this is not possible. HSA-style compromises will be needed to trade off between economic demands for computation versus humane concerns about digital suffering. An abolitionist approach would not work in such a context. It's better if we promote ideals of cost-benefit analysis by pushing for reforms that avert the most suffering for the least cost.

I'd rather get away from the "exploitation" meme and move toward a "humane treatment" meme, because (a) we need a welfarist rather than absolutist approach for managing wild animals and (b) "exploitation" focuses too much on human wrongdoing rather than suffering per se. For instance, Gary L. Francione is one of the leading exponents of an anti-exploitation framework for animal rights, and he says: "I do not recognize an obligation to intervene in the relationships or activities among wild animals." That said, some make the argument that on rule-utilitarian grounds, better results will in fact follow from anti-exploitation thinking, in a similar way as deontology may in practice produce better utilitarian results than act-utilitarianism itself does.

Intensity of suffering during slaughter

Unlike many animal advocates, I think a lot (maybe at least 1/3) of all the suffering that farmed animals experience comes during the moments of slaughter, except when slaughter is done extremely well (e.g., successful captive-bolt stunning). Chickens who are scalded alive in defeathering tanks may experience more suffering when boiling and/or drowning to death than in all their experiences up to that point, in my view.

I'm much more averse to extreme forms of suffering (e.g., being disemboweled while conscious or boiled alive) than to mild forms of suffering (e.g., being cramped, stressed, having heart problems) based on my visceral reactions to imagining different forms of suffering. But we can also make a (weak) argument for giving orders of magnitude more weight per second to intense suffering than mild suffering based on evolutionary fitness. It would reduce a bird's evolutionary fitness to be cramped in a shed for a few months, breathing noxious air, having leg problems, etc. But it would be even more damaging to fitness for a bird to have its throat slit or to be boiled in scalding water. So a priori, insofar as hedonic experiences roughly track fitness changes, it's reasonable to think that the kinds of extreme suffering that chickens feel during slaughter are many orders of magnitude more intense per unit time than the kinds of moderate suffering they feel throughout their lives.c

What's wrong with other animal organizations?

While I think HSA is an outstanding charity in its own right, I was most drawn to it because I became less confident that the work of other animal charities was net positive, for the following two reasons.

1. Veg*ism may (or may not) increase wild-animal suffering

Crop cultivation might reduce wild-animal suffering in the short run by decreasing plant productivity. Meat, especially beef, requires many times more crop cultivation than plant-based foods. Hence, meat may reduce wild-animal (especially insect) suffering, possibly to a greater degree than the increase in suffering that results from factory farming itself. If so, then veg*ism may actually increase short-term suffering. (This point is very unclear, since the types of crops that farmed animals eat, especially grasses, tend to have high biomass densities and hence more wild-animal suffering, in which case cultivation of those crops might be net bad.)

Another consideration is that beef production is responsible for a large portion of rainforest destruction, which significantly reduces wild-animal suffering in the long run via reducing animal populations.

If more humane slaughter reduces the agony that animals endure when dying while keeping meat consumption roughly constant (or at least not reducing it as much as veg outreach does), then humane slaughter is more likely to be positive in its short-run effects than veg outreach.

If climate change causes net harm to wild animals, then veg*ism could turn out to be net positive after all, but this argument is speculative.

(Since it's unclear whether veg*ism is good or bad, I personally remain lacto-vegetarian, and I might continue to do so for spiritual/deontological reasons even if I thought veg*ism did cause net harm.)

2. The animal-rights meme may increase wild-animal suffering

So far I've been discussing short-term effects, but there's a reasonable case that long-run impacts on social trajectories are the most important considerations. In particular, the memetic effects of animal advocacy may influence more total lives in the far future than those helped proximately by our altruism.

Unfortunately, the impact of animal-rights messages on the far future is not obviously positive. In particular, I worry that ideas like "rejecting animal exploitation" and "liberating animals" cause people to focus too much on how humans harm animals, engendering a sentiment that whatever humans do is wrong, and whatever nature does is right. This line of thinking would conclude that it's bad for humans to destroy wild-animal habitats, even though I suspect that habitat destruction decreases long-run wild-animal suffering in many cases.

And this worry is not just theoretical. Most veg-outreach booklets contain a section on the environmental benefits of veg*ism. Some animal organizations have entire departments devoted to publicizing the ecological consequences of factory farming. Most animal-rights activists are also environmental conservationists.

That said, more moderate animal-welfare messages are not necessarily safe either. "Humane meat" and "organic / environmentally conscious meat" are often bought by the same kinds of consumers. Moreover, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is probably the biggest animal-welfare organization, but it devotes a disturbing fraction of resources toward wildlife campaigns, many of which seem likely to increase wild-animal suffering in the short run (via protecting predators) and long run (via associating animal welfare with environmental preservation). HSUS has pages on reducing "Habitat Loss & Fragmentation", stopping the seal hunt (even though seals eat vast numbers of fish), opposing whaling, and so on. Humane Society International has similar campaigns to protect seals, sharks, whales, wolves, etc. These efforts are all motivated by good intentions, and they may indeed reinforce the principle that animals should not suffer, but they also reinforce ideas like "predators are good" and "wilderness should be left alone". So even if the net impact of the Humane Society is positive, which I hope is true, the impact is arguably less positive than for organizations like HSA that focus exclusively on farm-animal welfare.

True humane slaughter is less painful than most deaths in nature. (Of course, bogus "humane slaughter" is often not.) One could thus draw an analogy between (1) how humans improve upon natural deaths using humane technology and (2) how they might one day improve upon suffering in wilderness using technology.

What animal charities are safe?

The possibility that veg outreach and animal rights cause net harm casts doubt on most animal charities. I suspect that many animal charities still have positive impacts in expectation, but I'm not at all certain of this, and the expected value of most animal advocacy is significantly undercut by my concerns.

The two animal organizations that appear relatively unaffected by my worries are

  • HSA, since it probably doesn't substantially increase veg*ism and doesn't promote an ideology that humans should leave animals alone
  • Animal Ethics, since even though it probably does increase veg*ism, this isn't its primary message, and its focus on wild-animal suffering hopefully more than nullifies concerns that it might increase support for environmental preservation.

I support Animal Ethics, but I also support HSA because of its own strengths. In particular, it's more clear that HSA makes large and tangible differences to actual policies and practices and thereby reduces animal agony in the near term.

Arguments against HSA

Humane-washing

Several of my animal-activist friends worry that HSA actually has a negative impact by making consumers more complacent about factory farming.

For one thing, HSA only addresses suffering at slaughter, not during animals' lives. "Humanely slaughtered" meat does not mean "humane" meat. I'm personally drawn toward a focus on slaughter because I think extreme suffering is vastly worse than mild suffering, and suboptimal slaughter is probably the biggest source of extreme suffering in a farm animal's life. For instance, I assign at least half of all the suffering of a factory-farmed animal to its pre-slaughter and slaughter moments, unless humane slaughter is successfully carried out.

Unfortunately, so-called humane slaughter often isn't humane. The US supposedly has a Humane Slaughter Act, but its enforcement is often atrocious. Gail Eisnitz reports:

Recently, the Humane Farming Association obtained massive evidence documenting that, for years, the nation’s largest meat producer and major fast-food supplier had been skinning and dismembering conscious cattle. Nearly two-dozen plant workers signed affidavits stating that they were being required to skin and chop the legs off of many thousands of live, conscious animals. Videotape shot at the plant depicted fully conscious cattle cut open and dangling from the bleed rail. Law enforcement authorities concluded that criminal activity had occurred.

Auditors for McDonald’s visited the plant during the height of the abuses. Despite the atrocities taking place, they gave the plant a passing grade.

Even in the UK, which is arguably the most humane country in the world, humane-slaughter laws are routinely violated (8 times out of 9, according to an Animal Aid investigation).

None of this argues directly that HSA's work is harmful, since HSA helps in its own ways to improve bad situations, such as through training and consultation. And some degree of carelessness and sadism by slaughterhouse staff can be remedied by technological innovation. For instance, controlled-atmosphere killing doesn't require workers to handle live birds, reducing the potential for abuse. (Temple Grandin says half of welfare improvements come from engineering and half from management.)

The humane-washing concern is more salient when it comes to public outreach and marketing. My impression is that HSA maintains a relatively low public profile, and maybe this is good in light of humane-washing concerns. I don't know if any companies cite HSA in their marketing, but insofar as HSA doesn't formally approve farms, I would guess this is less common than for labels like Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved. Still, the humane-washing concern is important to investigate further.

It seems likely that humane labels increase consumption of the labeled product. As Gary Francione says, farms wouldn't apply for such labels if farms didn't benefit economically from them. It remains to be seen how much these "humane" farms steal market share from non-"humane" farms versus how much they convince would-be veg*ans to eat "humane" meat. If you think veg*ism is net good, the ideal scenario is that humane labels cause lots of carnivores to switch to humane meat but cause almost no would-be veg*ans to eat meat.

Increasing meat consumption?

Humane-washing can be seen as harmful in two ways:

  1. It may lead to complacency about animal farming in general. In a similar way as impossibilist Marxists rejected gradual reforms for fear these would produce complacency with the capitalist system, animal-rights advocates might oppose humane slaughter insofar as it may people more accepting of animal exploitation. (Of course, it's not clear this is the net effect of humane slaughter. Most animal-welfare advocates believe that welfare reforms actually hasten animal abolition.)
  2. It may lead to increased meat consumption in particular.

Effect #2 is perfectly illustrated by an article that reviews the widely recognized "humane" beef farm, Prather Ranch. The author reports that on the Prather farm, cows fail to be stunned on the first shot "about twice each slaughter day." On his visit, the author saw "Two cows mooing and two cows having to be shot twice out of 21", which was "below Grandin’s standards of acceptability, and a higher percentage than at her usual McDonald’s plant audit." Nonetheless, because of the good living conditions on the farm, the author reaches a frustrating conclusion:

Three weeks after my visit to Prather, I see a burger made with their beef on a menu. I consider all that I know about the animal’s death. Humane slaughter at the level strenuously striven for at Prather ultimately doesn’t reflect what’s important to cows. It turns a mirror on the people who consume them. I order without hesitation.

Of course, as discussed above, it's possible that increased meat consumption reduces wild-animal suffering. But it's also very possible that it increases wild-animal suffering, and an analysis of HSA should take that possibility seriously.

All of this said, I find it likely that humane slaughter actually increases concern for animals on balance. As Norm Phelps put it:

“single issue campaigns” for reform reduce overall animal consumption by sensitizing the public to the plight of animals and forcing them to think of animals as sentient beings who love life and fear death, long for happiness and dread suffering. When you think of animals this way, it becomes very hard to eat them.

Occasionally siding with industry

HSA generally takes the right stance on public issues. For instance, HSA opposes kosher slaughter and rejected exemptions to qualification certificates for Certificates of Competence in slaughter. However, HSA largely sided with industry on the question of mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses.

I would welcome a more anti-industry humane-slaughter organization, but other charities that work on humane slaughter are problematic for different reasons. For instance, Animal Aid aligns very much with the "humans should stop interfering" message of animal rights; it also spends resources on less important issues like horse racing. That said, Animal Aid does seem like a promising charity to evaluate further.

Less memetic impact?

HSA is a safe charity insofar as it doesn't challenge "animal exploitation" as directly as veg charities. But on the flip side, because it doesn't engage in outreach and doesn't challenge speciesism as strongly, it might have less upside potential as well as downside potential regarding the far future.

This might be, but keep in mind that

  1. Institutional norms, regulations, etc. can affect public attitudes more than public attitudes affect norms and regulations. In particular, HSA's support of research that ultimately leads to improved UK slaughter requirements may have significant long-term effects on public opinion and policy down the road.
  2. The most important minds to influence are those of experts, academics, and policy-makers. HSA is highly respected by and influential in these communities, even if HSA doesn't change many hearts and minds among the general populace.

Animal welfare might be worse than rights regarding far-future suffering

As discussed above, it seems that a perspective informed by animal-welfare science is more likely to recognize the cruelties of nature than an ideological rights-based position that focuses on harms caused by humans. Hence, HSA-style work seems better for reducing wild-animal suffering in the short run.

However, in the far future, it could be that animal rights would protect animals better. When humanity debates whether to "use" animals to terraform other planets or in the course of running detailed ecological simulations, a rights position would protest against exploiting animals as a means to our ends, while a welfare stance might allow such animals to be created as long as their happiness outweighed their suffering. Hence, the animal-rights position is closer to my negative utilitarianism than an animal-welfare position. The same would be true of the animal-rights stance on factory farming if, counterfactually, animal farming had no effects on wildlife: Translated into welfarist terms, the abolitionist stance on factory farming claims that no amount of farm-animal suffering is acceptable, which is also the negative-utilitarian stance. In general, animal rights favors the pre-human status quo, and given that there's now much less animal suffering than there could be in the far future, this may be good by my lights.

On the flip side, because animal rights takes a somewhat arbitrary status-quo position rather than actually weighing the aggregate harms that animals would experience under various policies, an animal-rights stance is potentially less robust to unexpected discoveries than an animal-welfare stance.

Endowment

HSA has a lot of invested assets, currently at about 3.6 million GBP. Sometimes charities are chastised for investing funds rather than spending them. Of course, the question of whether to invest or spend immediately isn't obvious, as debates over college endowments make clear.

HSA has spent less money than it has taken in during all years between Apr 2006 and Mar 2014 except for Apr 2006 - Mar 2007. Does this mean that it's just saving for the future or that it has more resources than it can spend? Even if it can't use its resources now, presumably it will distribute them to a good cause later with compound investment returns, but it's not clear where exactly the later spending will go. Also, returns on investment could be argued as being lower than returns on charitable activities.

There's also a chance that having lots of funds in the bank will discourage other people from donating to HSA, but probably only a small fraction of donors notice this and change donation decisions based on it.

Questions I'd like to ask HSA

While I'm pretty certain that HSA is a great charity based on external data, I'd also like to hear answers to questions like the following:

  • What's your room for more funding? How quickly will you be spending down your endowment?
  • What does a marginal $10K donation buy on average? What's the distribution of activities that it supports?
  • How much causal role did you play in electric-stunning technology for farmed fish in the UK?
  • Have you thought about focusing more on humane slaughter of chickens and fish, especially wild-caught fish? Given that orders of magnitude more fish are killed than cows, and given that fish generally have no stunning at all right now, it seems most effective to focus on these smaller farm animals. Would you be open to earmarked donations to specifically support humane chicken and fish slaughter technologies?
  • Given that animal-welfare standards are generally worse outside the UK, has HSA considered expanding its operations to other countries?
  • Would the research you fund otherwise get funding from other sources, like the UK government or universities?
  • Do you have a rough estimate of how many animals you've helped per dollar by past work? Do you measure the effectiveness of your programs, such as estimating how much improvement in animal welfare results from your training sessions?
  • How much impact have you made on animal-welfare regulations? Can you demonstrate this impact?
  • Why did you not support mandatory CCTV in slaughterhouses?

Tax deductibility and donations trading

HSA is a UK charity, which means it's not tax-deductible in the US. I'd like to see if I can make it deductible, perhaps through a fiscal sponsor.

Before that happens, you should consider setting up donations trading with a UK donor if you live in another country. For example, since I'm in the US, I could find a UK donor who wants to give to a US charity, and we swap donations, both getting the benefit of tax deductibility / Gift Aid. This is apparently fully legal. Even if you've already donated up to the limit of deductibility and so can't deduct your donations in the US, it's still beneficial to trade donations because at least the UK donor can get Gift Aid on the donation. Likewise, even if the UK donor wants to give to a charity outside the US -- say in France -- you should offer to donate to the charity in France from the US because even though you won't get a tax deduction for doing so, this will allow the UK donor to give to HSA and thereby get Gift Aid.

If you can't arrange donation trading, you can't deduct HSA donations outside the UK. If you're in the US and donate more than 50% of your income, or if you donate so little that you take the standard deduction, you could give to HSA the portion of your donations that aren't deductible anyway. And of course, HSA may be sufficiently better than alternative charities that it's worth sacrificing deductibility.

Animal Ethics is deductible in the US, making that another option for US donors.

My history with this topic

Small farms not humane

Prior to 2005, I didn't think animals could suffer, or at least not very much. I wasn't appreciably affected by animal suffering. My family raised some animals because my parents did local farming for environmentalist reasons.

Around 2002-03, I volunteered to kill some of the meat chickens that my family had raised. We did this with an axe on a chopping block. According to HSA:

Decapitation involves severing the head from the neck using an axe or sharp blade. It is not recommended on welfare grounds as brain activity may continue for up to 30 seconds and it is doubtful the bird is rendered immediately unconscious. Decapitation is not an acceptable method of slaughter without prior stunning. In the EU, slaughter or killing birds by decapitation without prior stunning is not permitted.

Even worse, my aim wasn't perfect, and my blow wasn't as forceful as it should have been, so I sometimes didn't sever a chicken's head in one chop; instead I sometimes required two chops. Looking back now, I shudder at the agony that these chickens must have endured. I was only slightly bothered at the time because I was ignorant about animal neuroscience.

Around the same time, I also

  • Attended a workshop about poultry at the Northeast Organic Farming Association summer conference. The presenter suggested euthanizing chickens by poking a blade into their skulls to destroy their brains. HSA also disapproves of this: "Instruments that slice through a bird’s brain from inside the mouth should not be used as they are not effective, immediate or humane."
  • Took a tour of someone else's free-range poultry farm in my area. They killed their birds by putting them into inverted cones and slitting their throats. Killing without stunning is not accepted by HSA or Animal Welfare Approved.

All of these experiences, combined with videos I've seen online, cause me to suspect that small farms may be generally as bad as or worse than large farms on the dimension of suffering during slaughter, though of course there are exceptions.

One other side note: It's not obvious that free-range hens are better than caged hens, since free-range hens eat tons of bugs in the grass. Of course, the grain that feeds caged hens also kills tons of bugs, but it's not obvious that grain production causes net harm (though it certainly might).

Focus on veg outreach

In 2005, a simple article from Peter Singer convinced me that animals could suffer. At that point I immediately became passionate about animal welfare. A few months later I picked up a Vegan Outreach (VO) pamphlet and was convinced of the cost-effectiveness of veg outreach. I remained favorable to welfare-reform campaigns by organizations like PETA and HSUS, but I continued to focus mainly on veg outreach, in part because of Matt Ball's arguments and in part because veg outreach seemed a priori more likely to impact the far future insofar as it revolved around changing people's hearts and minds.

I donated a few hundred dollars to VO during college. In 2010-12, I gave ~$80K to VO with the help of Microsoft matching. I continue to think that VO, as well as The Humane League, Mercy for Animals, and other top recommendations by Animal Charity Evaluators (ACE), are extremely effective at accomplishing their goals. My main worry now is that I'm not confident that their goals will actually reduce animal suffering in the long term for the reasons discussed above. The Humane League and Mercy for Animals may be slightly more promising than VO because

  1. ACE recommends them a little more, and
  2. they do some welfare-reform campaigns in addition to veg outreach, and welfare reforms seem to have less downside risk.

On the other hand, VO thankfully uses fewer environmental arguments for veg*ism than these organizations.

My history with HSA

During the first few months of my enlightenment about animal rights in 2005, I surveyed a number of animal charities, wondering where to donate the small amounts of income I had at the time. I found HSA and thought it was a compelling candidate, though I ultimately chose VO instead.

In 2011, I began to worry more seriously whether veg*ism caused net harm to wild animals. I promoted PETA's McCruelty campaign, noting that humane slaughter is a "safe" policy to advocate because, at least a priori, it holds roughly constant "messy variables" like the environmental impacts of veg*ism. In the same year, I researched humane fish slaughter and came across HSA's work in that context. I was very impressed by HSA, but I continued to support VO on the grounds that VO probably had more memetic impact on the far future because it focused on outreach.

In 2013, I grew increasingly concerned with the pro-environmental inclinations of veg*ans. This cast doubt not just on the short-run but also the long-run effects of animal advocacy. HSA's more neutral stance with respect to these issues thus became more appealing. In 2015, I became an HSA member, and it seems reasonably likely I'll donate larger amounts to HSA in the future.

Footnotes

  1. I suppose there's some probability that applying electricity with inaccurate stun parameters is actually a much worse experience than asphyxiating without electricity. So there's some chance that attempts at electric stunning causes net harm in the short run. However, in the long run, more research of the type that HSA supports would hopefully explore such concerns, so a setback like this wouldn't render HSA's long-run impact negative.  (back)
  2. Another, equivalent, way to interpret this point is that the full direct + opportunity cost of HSA employees and grantees is being approximated as 3 times their direct salary cost. That is, if these people weren't working on HSA projects, they'd on average be doing something else 2/3 as valuable.  (back)
  3. This argument correlating pain with fitness cost requires caution. For one thing, all forms of immediate death have equal fitness cost, but it's clear that not all forms of dying are equally painful. Second, pain is only useful when the animal might survive and then can avoid similar situations in the future. High pain intensities from high fitness costs should be present when the extent of fitness lost is an increasing function of the kind of damage that eventually causes death. For example, being ground up should be very painful because breaking bones, cutting oneself open, etc. are moderately bad for fitness, with the extent of fitness loss being roughly proportional to how many bones you break, how severe your flesh wounds are, etc. Likewise, the fitness loss caused by scalding water should increase fairly continuously with an increase in the temperature of the water and the duration of exposure.  (back)