Society is distinguished by the level of its care for children — for example, whether it provides safe and enabling environments and prepares them adequately for adult life. Through educational programs, children learn values such as compassion and empathy. However, as some scholars have pointed out, controversial educational programs such as animal dissection do not facilitate empathy and instead endorse the view that violence toward animals is acceptable and that mental health consequences for students are inconsequential. What then are the implications of an educational curriculum that trains adolescents to become butchers? In my forthcoming article, “Training Young Killers: How Butcher Education Might be Damaging Young People,” in Journal of Animal Ethics I explore this concern.
The meat industry has gradually received more and more criticism from experts, media, and the general public. It is now considered a key contributor to climate change and environmental degradation, human disease, workforce injury, and animal mistreatment. However, there is generally less consideration for the mental health effects associated with working in the meat industry. In particular, there is little to no attention to adolescents who are trained to work in slaughterhouses.
Vocational training programs for butchers are part of many national educational systems throughout Europe — including Germany, Denmark, Slovenia, Croatia, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, among other countries. (Blaznik, forthcoming) After completing primary education at the age of approximately fifteen years, children can continue with professional education. Those who enrol in vocational training and education for butchers are trained to slaughter different species of animals. They learn about meat processing, preparation of meat products, packaging, and retail. Slaughter training consists of stunning animals with a stun gun, use of electricity and gas, slaughtering, bleeding out, skinning and dismembering animals with different tools such as meat cleavers and power saws.
Psychology and sociology studies reveal the harmful mental health consequences of working in slaughterhouses. Adult slaughterhouse workers exhibit desensitization to violence, mental health issues, addictions, and aggressive and criminal behaviour. Criminology studies have found a significant connection between slaughterhouse location, slaughterhouse employment, and violent crime rates. Due to high rates of injury, it is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Nevertheless, it is the trauma associated with the intentional mass killing of healthy living beings that makes this profession unlike any other.
“The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. … Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them — beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.” — Ed Van Winkle, hogsticker at Morrell slaughterhouse plant, Sioux City, Iowa (Dillard, 2007, p. 1).
As military experts point out, people exhibit resistance to killing and this behaviour requires systematic training. Emotional process of killing people or animals is found to be the same, the difference is only in its intensity.
As if the explicit violent content of this vocational training is not problematic enough by itself, we need to consider it in the context of students’ age and brain development period during which it is conducted. Young people with developing minds may be particularly susceptible to the emotional effects of killing animals and witnessing their suffering. As neuroscientific studies point out, the brain undergoes significant structural and organizational changes throughout adolescence, and these changes often continue into early adulthood. Experts stress that subject matter and experiences importantly affect brain development. What experiences are shaping and wiring young brain when slaughterhouse is learning environment, when slaughtering is trained behaviour and when emotional impact of violent perpetration is ignored?
Therefore, it is hard to understand how education and child development experts consider this educational program appropriate and beneficial for teenage development when there is evidence that even adult butchers have problems dealing with the nature of this work. How can desensitization to violence, inhibition of empathy, moral disengagement from their own actions, emotional numbness, long-term negative mental health issues such as depression and addictions be overlooked when certifying educational programs? And why are this educational program and similar programs associated with teaching violence rarely scrutinized?
“And then it gets to a point where you’re at a daydream stage. Where you can think about everything else and still do your job. You become emotionally dead.” (Eisnitz, 2006, p. 75)
Vocational training for butchers reveals how relativized violence is in our society. When children are violent to animals and hurt them in their homes and communities, their behaviour is considered unacceptable and unhealthy and a sign of potential psychopathology. On the other hand, when children are trained by adults to perform explicitly violent activities such as slaughtering, society endorses this behaviour, while ignoring negative implications. By admitting to the damaging mental health consequences of butcher training and the job in general, society would consequently acknowledge the unfathomable cruelty that is inherently connected to the present model of the meat industry and the urgently needed change. Until this happens the meat industry is given precedence over child and society welfare.
We have a neurological predisposition to be both empathic and violent. (Moya-Albiol et al., 2010) But because both behaviours share a part of same brain circuits, we cannot experience them at the same time. The characteristics that we nurture and stimulate will become strengthened and internalized. Currently, within society, violence is normalized and relativized, so it is evident which of the two human potentials is being cultivated. How can we as human race start making a shift towards cultivating the other predisposition — empathy — that evolution has equipped us with? How can we prompt a shift in society in which empathy is normalized for all beings?
Blaznik, M. (forthcoming). Training Young Killers: How Butcher Education Might be Damaging Young People. Journal of Animal Ethics.
Dillard, J. (2007). A Slaughterhouse Nightmare: Psychological Harm Suffered by Slaughterhouse Employees and the Possibility of Redress through Legal Reform (SSRN Scholarly Paper No. ID 1016401). Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. Retrieved from https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1016401
Eisnitz, G. A. (2006). Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.
Moya-Albiol, L., Herrero, N., & Bernal, M. C. (2010). The neural bases of empathy. Revista De Neurologia, 50(2), 89–100.