Slaughterhouse 1,100: The Emotional Impact of Killing Animals

This piece takes bits and pieces from previous posts, reworks them, adds something new, and will be published as a magazine piece in February 2012. 

There are approximately 1,100 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the United States, about seventy of which are in Texas. Most of them are located in rural hinterlands such as Mineola, Muenster, and Windthorst. The majority of these operations both slaughter and process animals, thus employing thousands of workers whose job it is to turn a constant stream of live creatures into a commodified array of profitable by-products.

A farm animal entering the front door will reach the exit about nineteen minutes later. It will do so not only as familiar chops destined for domestic meat counters, but as pelts bound for Turkey, lungs sent to dog-treat manufactures, bile for the pharmaceutical industry, caul fat (the lining of organs) for many Native American communities, and liver destined for Saudi Arabia (which, go figure, distributes cow liver globally).  There’s no question that these operations are models of efficiency.

They’re also hidden sites of suffering–and not only for dismembered animals. The literature currently emerging on the psychological affects on humans who work in slaughterhouses is startling. It’s often said that consumers are disconnected from the meat we eat. Rarely noted in this common observation is the fact that the slaughterhouse is a site of unfathomable connectivity. Indeed, the most intimate and bloodstained bond between humans and the animals we consume transpires between nearly voiceless slaughterhouse workers and the completely voiceless animals they’re employed to kill.

The results are devastating.  Slaughterhouse employees are not only exposed to a battery of physical threats, but the psychological weight of their work erodes their well being in quietly tragic ways. As one former abattoir employee attests:

The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in the stick pit [where the hogs are killed] for any period of time– that let’s you kill things but doesn’t let you care. You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around in the blood pit with you and think, “God, that really isn’t a bad looking animal.” You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up to nuzzle me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them. . . .I can’t care. 

“I cant care.” It will come as no surprise that the consequences of this emotional dissonance include domestic violence, social withdrawal, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe anxiety. As slaughterhouse workers are increasingly being treated for PTSD, researchers are finally starting to systematically explore the disturbing results of killing sentient animals for a living.

At the University of Windsor, the criminologist Amy Fitzgerald has found a strong correlation between the presence of a slaughterhouse and high crime rates. One might object that the increasing presence of a poor, working-class, largely male population might also cause an uptick in crime. Fitzgerald, however, controlled for these possibilities by comparing her data to counties with comparable populations also employed in factory-like operations. It was the abattoir, she concluded, that stood out as the lone factor most likely to have spiked the crime statistics. Workers, in essence, were “desensitized,” and their behavior outside of work reflected it.

Humans eat meat. A freaking lot of it. The average American consumes 212 pounds of it a year. I’m going to guess this figure is higher for the everyday Texan. Naturally, in places such as Austin, there will always be a conspicuous percentage of consumers who buy animal products sourced from small farms and think themselves absolved from all this messiness. But the hard truth is otherwise.

The vast majority of “humanely” sourced animal products are slaughtered and processed in the same industrial slaughterhouses that provide animal products to fast food joints.  Even farms that employ mobile slaughterhouse units–USDA approved trucks that will come to the local farm and kill on site–are equally implicated. As one mobile slaughter worker noted of the tiny moving slaughter-mill in which he worked, “It functions the same as any livestock facility, except it is much more condensed and put on wheels.”

Animal products these days are sold with a story–the animal was humanely raised, it was cage free, it was free ranged, it’s hormone free, it was pasture fed. Whatever. The bottom line is this: she was killed, she was a sentient being, she did not want to die, and the person who killed it so you could enjoy her with a bottle of Bordeaux and a side of arugula has been forced to declare, “I can’t care.” This story, needless to say, won’t make it onto the label that’s designed to make us pay more and feel better about the animals we eat.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

3 Responses to Slaughterhouse 1,100: The Emotional Impact of Killing Animals

  1. Ann says:

    “The bottom line is this: it was killed, it was a sentient being, it did not want to die,” and he or she was not an “it”.

    Thank you for this article.

  2. Provoked says:

    I’m hoping this angle receives a lot more attention and investigation. Why it hasn’t up till now is obvious. The truth is that there are severe consequences to the mental health of people charged with brutally ending life – all day long…

    As an aside – Throughout the years I’ve discussed these animal-killing issues with others – Most turn away from the compassion or environmental points… Many from the personal health issues too. They even have answers (rationalizations) to problems with world hunger. But once the kill floor workers are mentioned – They have little rebuttal.

    Could it be that we have the ability to connect with another human trapped in this most unholy task – Because this could be us? It becomes more real and alarming when we can exchange our positions with another human. No one wants to acknowledge how very destructive such an occupation is… As Howard Lyman said “If you visit the killing floor of a slaughterhouse, it will brand your soul for life.” And I don’t know if anything is worse than being forbidden to care.

  3. Campbell Zachary Kintner says:

    Everyone should be take. Into a slaughterhouse when they’re children for a tour. Then they can decide whether or not they want to eat meat. I’d be willing to be that the numbers of people who eat meat would dwindle drastically.

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