“I needed to learn how to kill”: How Slaughtering Harms Our Better Angels
March 9, 2012 15 Comments
Contemplate the industrial production of animals and it quickly becomes clear that it’s designed to protect consumers from the act most essential to the industry’s existence: slaughter. Studies of slaughterhouse workers show that the psychological impact of slaughtering animals is acute. So disturbing is the reality of the abattoir that even workers within it devise strategies calibrated to protect themselves psychologically from what transpires within. It’s the employees who do the actual killing that have the hardest time buffering themselves from what they do. They are the ones who suffer the most (besides, of course, the animals they are killing).
It’s with this point in mind that I wonder why advocates of backyard slaughtering think that they can somehow avoid the psychological fallout from killing an innocent and sentient animal for food we do not need. In a way, killing an animal that you live with and care for is even more troubling than killing an animal you didn’t know. One might hypothesize a couple of outcomes from backyard/local slaughter. For example, it seems safe to propose that killing animals might lead to such coping mechanisms as a) distorting your cowardly act into something heroic, and b) objectifying the animal you’re killing.
It is one of the sadder aspects of my work, but I keep a growing file of on-line accounts of backyard slaughters. Within them, I find both of the above propositions to be repeatedly confirmed. Consider this account from this first time chicken killer, and note how he twists his act into a brave confrontation of the industrial food system. Tragically, as the photo below shows, this self-proclaimed rebel against the industrial food system twisted more than his own little story. Here he goes:
The small children were removed from the area and [I was] handed an Orpington rooster. The method of how to break the neck was explained. I was up to go first. As I stood there, preparing to kill the chicken with my bare hands, I wondered: How is it that, at the age of 38, and having consumed some unthinkable number of chickens in my life, this will be the first time that I’ve personally killed a chicken? The answers to that question are far more disturbing than the act of killing the chicken. . . . A lot of things that are wrong with the planet today can be explained by the fact that the vast majority of people in “developed” countries have absolutely nothing at all to do with producing the food (and in many cases, alleged food, or pHood) that they are consuming. Once societies were sold on letting food production become someone else’s job—and in the most horrific examples, left up to the state—that was it. Heretofore unthinkable nonsense came to be seen as efficient, healthy and convenient.
This weekend pioneer, after plugging Food Inc., goes on to explain how he “needed to learn how to kill, pluck and dress” chickens. A commenter to his blog applauded, writing, “Good on you for taking back another piece of your food chain!” People frequently ask me why I’m so cranky about the sustainable food movement as it now exists. Part of my answer is that, until it seriously confronts the ethics of eating animals, what you are seeing here is its logical conclusion. I want nothing to do with such a movement.
Another common outcome of killing animals locally is objectification–essentially the same sort that happens inside industrial slaughterhouses. Consider this post from “a nurse who wishes she was a farmer.” (How nice that she’d rather kill animals than nurture humans!) This woman explains how the Cornish X she was raising wouldn’t grow, so she decided to “process [this little bird] with respect.” After watching “a few YouTube videos” she chopped off the little bird’s head. Afterwards, she became anxious–but not for the reason you might think. Instead, she explained, “If I accidentally cut her intestines or her gallbladder, we wouldn’t be able to use the meat.” Once this mishap was averted, she concluded, “I felt a whole lot of pride, and I felt like a real farmer.”
The objectification in this account is evident throughout, but it’s this picture that made me realize that this woman was protecting herself from the fact that she’s taken the life of a sentient being by objectifying it. To me, it’s disturbing beyond words:
As I said, if this is what it means to take back our food system, you can count me out. It’s not industrial agriculture that’s the problem, it’s the fact that it’s based on the exploitation of animals–exploitation that only changes location when the food system is localized.