It’s a gruesome topic that no one really likes to talk about but last week the methods for “depopulating”—killing—hundreds of thousands of pigs and chickens during a natural or manmade disaster, such as a pandemic like COVID-19, were front and center at a meeting of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). This is because nearly 3,000 veterinary professionals, many of them members of the AVMA, had petitioned the organization to take a stand against a brutal method of depopulation known as ventilation shutdown. Ventilation shutdown involves locking a flock or herd of animals in a building and turning off the ventilation systems. As the temperature rises and gases inside the building accumulate, the animals experience heat stress and suffocate to death. The process is akin to leaving a dog in a hot car.

The petition against ventilation shutdown was backed by a coalition of groups that includes the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA), Veterinarians Against Ventilation Shutdown (VAVSD) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

In an even more extreme form—referred to as ventilation shutdown-plus—heat, steam and/or gas are injected into the building, baking the animals alive. The method was used to kill hundreds of thousands of pigs during the COVID-19 pandemic when slaughterhouses shut down and backlogs occurred at production facilities.

While the AVMA doesn’t have the authority to regulate the methods for depopulation that livestock producers use, its recommendations are referenced and used as justification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the swine and poultry industries. And the AVMA currently classifies ventilation shutdown-plus (VSD+) as “permitted in constrained circumstances” for pigs and chickens in situations of acute urgency involving an animal disease outbreak. In a gross misinterpretation of this guidance, during the pandemic, pig producers used VSD+ to cut costs and kill healthy animals.

The proposed resolution asked the AVMA to classify ventilation shutdown (VSD) as “not recommended” for both chickens and pigs and VSD+ as “not recommended” from its current classification of “permitted under constrained conditions.” In an extremely disappointing turn of events, the AVMA failed to take action on the petition last week and instead, with a vote of 99.1%, the AVMA House of Delegates referred it to a panel for further research.

Lead petitioner Dr. Gail Hansen, an HSVMA representative, expressed disappointment in the AVMA’s failure to take a stand against a depopulation method that is so brutal and inhumane. “This change would have made it very clear that VSD should only be used in extremely unusual and timely life-threatening situations and ensure animals are not unnecessarily subjected to inhumane death.” Other HSVMA members said they were bewildered that this practice was still sanctioned in any situation, and some noted that it would be considered egregious animal cruelty if deployed on cats, dogs or other companion animals.

We believe that meaningful action to stop ventilation shutdown cannot wait, but AVMA leaders recommended more research in advance of the meeting, stating it would be inappropriate to act when they have a group of experts evaluating ventilation shutdown. The existing AVMA Guidelines for the Depopulation of Animals, released in 2019, were themselves the result of a two-year research project involving 60 experts and, in addition to allowing for ventilation shutdown-plus, other methods were described as preferred for depopulating depending on conditions.

None of these facts provide justification for allowing a cruel and painful practice to continue. Further, giving animals in factory farms the space they need, rather than caging and confining them, could help to systemically prevent outbreaks of illnesses among animals and therefore mitigate the need for mass depopulations in emergencies.

Animals on factory farms are already vastly unprotected by animal welfare laws. No animal deserves to live in the acute misery such animals experience, often confined in cages and crates so small they can’t even turn around. Certainly, these animals do not deserve a death that is torturous. It is time we recognize that using such nightmarish methods to kill animals who already endure so much suffering is a chilling reflection of who we are as a society.

Convenience and cost should never be prioritized over the most basic standards of animal welfare, and the AVMA had the power to make a strong statement on what these animals, at the very minimum, deserve. Unfortunately, it failed the test this time around.

Several federally funded research projects are underway in the U.S. to investigate other methods of depopulation that would be more humane. In the meantime, veterinary professionals can continue to sign the petition to put pressure on the AVMA to change their recommendation on ventilation shutdown and invest in more humane options. If you want to speak up against ventilation shutdown, you can encourage you own veterinarian to contact the AVMA on this issue. The history of our cause includes several instances in which humane considerations prompted the abandonment of cruel and questionable methods of killing. That’s what should happen here.

Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.