If Killing Animals Is Traumatic for U.S. Farmers, Why Have Slaughterhouse Workers Do It?

Piglets being hauled in a transport truck from a breeding facility to a farmer’s growing sheds. Near Monmouth, IL, March 2016; photo taken by B. Donaldson

US lawmakers stood up for the mental health of farmers in late April, calling on the White House Coronavirus Task Force led by Mike Pence to provide “mental health assistance to farmers, veterinarians and others involved in the difficult decisions and processes around euthanizing and disposing of animals . . .” Yet, if farmers need mental health assistance when confronted with the gruesome task of euthanizing millions of pigs, broiler chickens, and egg-laying hens, what about those workers who kill these animals day in and day out to the tune of 9 billion animals per year?

Awareness of farmers’ mental well-being has gained traction during the Covid-19 crisis. A CBS reporter describes animal culling — whether by shotgun, lethal injection, abortion, incineration, water-based foam, or whole-shed gassing — as “a process that is equal parts financially crippling and emotionally heartbreaking.” Pork industry analyst Steve Meyer commented that “[T]he emotional and psychological and spiritual impact of this will have much longer consequences.” Dean Meyer, a farmer who breeds sows in northwest Iowa, was unable to participate in the euthanasia of piglets. “It’s totally against our nature,” Meyer said, “The natural thing is to keep everything alive and give the best care we can.” In an interview with , Minnesota pig farmer Greg Boerboom said, “There are farmers who cannot finish their sentences when they talk about what they have to do,” warning of possible “suicides in rural America.”

Yet, every day these animals are slaughtered by individuals employed in full-time killing whose mental health is given little thought. In the US alone, over 70,000 individuals work on slaughter lines, tasked with killing several hundred, or even several thousand, animals each hour who do not want to be killed. Another 125,000 work on the processing side, transforming bodies into packaged parts.

It is well known that slaughterhouse work is one of the most physically dangerous occupations in the country. Amputations, fractured fingers, second-degree burns and head trauma are just some of the serious injuries suffered by US meat plant workers every week according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The psychological effects of slaughterhouse work are also immense, but less well known. The violent nature of slaughter work has been associated with higher prevalence of serious psychological disorders among meat-packers compared to US population-wide estimates. Workers also have higher rates of PTSD, including a form of psychic distress related to repetitive infliction of harm called PITS, or “perpetration-induced traumatic stress,” or what one researcher describes as “mental, and also moral suffering.”

The violence of the slaughterhouse also spills into society. This includes documented aggression toward animals inside packing plants and outside of work, as well as substance abuse and intimate partner violence. One study links observing or participating in animal abuse to interhuman violence, while another study identified higher county crime statistics from 1994–2002 in towns with slaughterhouses.

Workers’ mental health challenges are further compounded by lack of training, financial resources, literacy, and safety equipment to cope with these stressors. The median wage for slaughterhouse workers is just over $14/hour according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Certainly, there is no one perspective among slaughterhouse workers, but their voices are as instructive as farmers’. Ed Van Winkle, a pig “sticker” interviewed in Gail Eisnitz’ book describes his work in several packing plants. ‘The worst thing, worse than the physical danger is the emotional toll,’ Van Winkle said. ‘Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them . . . .” Virgil Butler, who worked in a Tyson poultry plant from 1997 until 2002, authored The Cyberactivist blog after leaving the slaughterhouse, narrating his sense of living “Inside the Mind of a Killer”: “Remember, [birds] come at you 182–186 per minute. There is blood everywhere . . .on your face, your neck, your arms, all down your apron. You’re covered in it… You can’t catch them all, but you try. Every time you miss one you ‘hear’ the awful squawk it’s making when you see it flopping around in the [scalding tank], beating itself against the sides . . .”

If killing animals is this traumatic, why have anyone do it? Far from “essential” business, slaughterhouse work destroys animals and corrodes the well-being of people. Since nearly all humans living in the industrialized world can live well and healthy without animal flesh, the time has come to transition away from a practice widely acknowledged to be a source of personal trauma and social harm.

Writer and professor exploring animal & social ethics, industrial agriculture, bioethics, and South Asian philosophies. Website: www.briannedonaldson.com

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