“I needed to learn how to kill”: How Slaughtering Harms Our Better Angels

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.

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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.

15 Responses to “I needed to learn how to kill”: How Slaughtering Harms Our Better Angels

  1. stiegem says:

    So true, and very well said. Keep on…

  2. These people could eat vegetables, but apparently that lacks killings spirituality.

  3. People have been and continue to be nearly inextricably indoctrinated with lies in regard to food and health. First by our well meaning parents and later by the various (cow, pig, dairy, chicken, etc.) corporate conglomerates. Subsequently, we are systematically addicted to the additives not only our flesh and milk/egg products, but other products as well. The whole thing revolves around money and is accomplished through mind control. The down side is that in the process we are creating a [human] species devoid of feeling about life and death and psychologically unsound. More and more, people are programmed to believe they need to be “medicated” either to control dangerous impulses, to mitigate the effects of their lifestyles, or to be able to get through another day face to face with the horror that the world is becoming. Then we tell ourselves and each other we are the smartest, most evolved species to ever grace this planet.

  4. CQ says:

    “… exploitation that only changes location…” — and changes hands.

    Well, at least locavore killers can say they’re no longer foisting the miserable job onto poor, hapless abattoir employees, who, to drown their guilt, are apt to go on drinking binges and crime sprees. Will backyard butchers end up in AA and in jail?

    If I were to ask myself, as the rooster-killer above did, how I had consumed so many chickens in my life without ever doing the dastardly deed myself, the solution to my shame would not be to break an innocent creature’s neck for my dinner, but something far simpler and less sinister: STOP EATING ANIMALS.

    Were this “know your food” movement not so heavily promoted and so popular, most people would be ashamed to kill an animal — or at least ashamed to own up to it. But this is how mass mesmerism works. It’s like there’s some Milgram-like authority figure forcing a bunch of mindless victims to comply with orders.

    I say we stop heeding those devilish temptations and listen to the angel voice within, which always guides us to take the high road, our fellow travelers of all species at our side.

  5. deveryminou says:

    The nurse’s picture with the chicken she killed recalls the pictures of Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib.

    Thank you so much for your continual criticism of the backyard slaughter trend and for repeatedly proving it to be the Marie-Antoinette-playing-shepherdess indulgent nonsense that it is.

  6. Dawn says:

    I’m not understanding the problem. While I’ve never killed a chicken why is it such a heineous thing? Before we had factory farms it was always done by the people doing the eating of it! In the back yard like my grandmother and all before her had to do it.
    I’m sure they HAVE to condition their minds in some way to cope with it. While they may act in some ways like it was enjoyable, I’m sure it wasn’t and yes I can see how they could feel a bit of pride in getting it done without freaking too badly. I just don’t find that abnormal. What I do find abnormal is the way factory farms slaughter. You know, they don’t just slice their own necks…there are actual human beings that make the whole process work. Why does it matter if it’s in a stuffy, smelly enclosure or in a backyard? The animals in those factory farms are treated horribly and chickens never see the light of day. But I guess thats more normal than a free range rooster becoming dinner in the family back yard.

  7. Bob says:

    Most of these comments here are horrifying! There has been a paradigm shift in the wrong direction in the minds of many people. If you honestly think killing a chicken or a cow for food is somehow evil or wrong, I would have to admit you have lost your mind! the animals God created were not put here for us to protect and elevate them to the status of a human; they were put here for man to use, beasts of burden and to…EAT. I am a hypoglycemic. i could not survive without animal protein. Should i be put in jail because i choose to eat meat?. many of you may not be aware of the fact that the Bible speaks specifically of the abstaining from the eating of meat as being a doctrine of devils. which,IMO, translates into many of these vegan movements and even vegetarianism, especially in their more militant forms as being from a demonic source. to deny the eating of animals is a form of insanity. And this comes from someone who does NOT eat a lot of meat. when i do eat meat, i prefer fish. i also agree that the modern form of meat production in developed countries is based in greed and should be abolished.

  8. Brenda says:

    You choose to look at the world through your own very narrow lense and make a lot of judgements about people you know nothing about. It is possible to give an animal a clean healthy life and the respect it deserves for feeding our families. I personally check out an abattoir before taking an animal there to be sure it is clean and the animals are kept calm and given a quick, painless death. You have every right to choose to not eat meat and I respect your right to make that choice. People that choose to eat meat deserve the same respect. I would be right there among the first in line to demand that filthy factory farms that abuse animals be stopped. NO animal deserves to be treated like that.

  9. genie says:

    I think perhaps you are missing the point.

    I grew up on a farm where we raised our own food animals and a large garden. I have also spent several years as a vegetarian and lived in a 3rd world country where people were litterally severely malnourished. I have also been accused on more than one occasion of being a tree hugging hippie. 🙂

    In the developed world, where there is a massive disconnect between food production and consumption (even of vegetables – how many people really know what it takes to grow a carrot?), people consume without understanding. Numerous adults don’t realize that hamburger used to be a cow! Because they don’t understand the massive effort it takes to grow a tomato, vast amounts of the vegetables that are purchased are never eaten – people simply forget about them in their fridges.

    People who actively work to raise their own food KNOW the effort, the sweat and the joy of picking peas straight from the plant and consume and preserve their food with respect. Not only for the food itself but for their own time involved in its production.

    This is no different with animals raised for meat. By knowing the sacrifice given, people who raise and slaughter their own animals have a much greater respect for their meals than the mindless hordes who eat endless Mcburgers made with pink slime.

    It is much like the First Nation attitudes towards hunting where many cultures offered prayers to the animal spirit thanking them for their sacrifice. In many cases, consumption of meat is of lower environmental impact than raising vegetables – naturally grazed cattle on native prairie or deer hunted in areas where there is extreme over populations of them – negatively affecting the native plants and other animals. (Admitedly, the deer issue is of direct result of humans previous removal of predators from an area but…until you’re happy with wolves and bear in your back woods…)

    Your own personal ethics may dictate that you not eat meat – and that is fine. But judging others because their ethical code is different than yours is not fair. Especially when the people you judge are working very hard to reconnect to the value and sacrifice involved in all food production. Being vegetarian is not the only answer to ethical food production, or environmentally sustainable production either. My personal belief is that it is more important to consume locally from organic sources and eat seasonaly than to eat strictly vegetarian from foods from around the world.

    Oh, and while I do eat meat now, I eat small ammounts of meat mainly produced in my small town from people I know and who do not add chemicals to their products. As I have raised farm animals (and loved them in the process) I greatly respect the meals that I eat. I also am a member of a local CSA and support my local farmers in ethically raised vegetables, too.

    • Thank you for your comment. But I’m not persuaded by your logic. If a person’s personal code of ethics includes causing unnecessary suffering to sentient animals, I most certainly do have a right to judge that code as wrong. Unless you are willing to either a) condone unnecessary suffering as morally acceptable, or b) make a case for why farm animals do not deserve moral consideration, then I do not see how you can make the case that killing an animal is a personal moral choice. My question to you, then, is simple: can you make a moral case for unnecessary suffering that is not speciesist? I cannot, and thus choose to promote veganism.

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