I Don’t Blame the Men Who Bludgeoned Pigs to Death in Front of Me
As long as people continue to eat animals, someone will have to kill them. I feel sorry for them.
Editor’s note: This piece contains graphic descriptions of animal slaughter.
The walls of this inner-city slaughterhouse are formed by apartment buildings, and so for many of the families living there, their only window directly overlooks the killing floor. It was in one of these apartments that I was crouched down, holding my camera through the bars of the window. Below me, the pigs lay motionless in pens, likely exhausted from what would have been a horrific journey across Cambodia. The workers had arrived an hour before. Now, they lay swinging in hammocks, waiting for their shift to begin.
In April, my partner and I filmed undercover footage at an open-air slaughterhouse in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where an estimated 600 pigs are killed every night. To capture this footage, we rented a small, single apartment room that directly overlooked the killing floor.
He would return to the same spot, flop down his body and rest his head against the pig next to him. This small act of tenderness between the two animals stood in achingly sharp contrast to what was about to happen.
We arrived there at 10 p.m., before the slaughter was due to start. Earlier that day, the street was bustling with people, from vendors and street traders, to children and dogs. Now, it was silent and empty. Walking down the corridor in near total darkness to our room, I tripped slightly on a pile of children’s shoes. The children I’d seen playing that morning were now asleep here, their rooms filled with the stench of ammonia and pig faeces.
We set up our room by covering the window with a thick black cloth, so that when the killing began, the workers would not see us if they happened to glance up. Then we waited. For the first few hours everything was quiet. The pigs lay close to one another, avoiding the bloodstain from the thousands of pigs before them that marked the middle of the concrete floor. One individual pig caught my eye. He kept standing to explore the pen, sniffing at the corners and biting on the metal bars. Each time, he would return to the same spot, flop down his body and rest his head against the pig next to him. This small act of tenderness between the two animals stood in achingly sharp contrast to what was about to happen.
In an apartment room close by, a baby began to shriek. The wailing sounded eerily similar to the animals’ screams coming from the killing floor below.
Eventually, the workers rose from their hammocks, picked up their knives, and approached the animals in pairs. One worker used a metal rod to pummel the pig’s head, before sitting on the struggling animal. Then, while the dazed pig writhed and trembled, the other worker knelt and slit the pig’s throat. As the animals died, they were dragged across the bloody concrete floor, to be thrown into a boiling vat of water. The other pigs huddled together, their bodies shaking. The night quickly filled with the sound of screaming animals. In an apartment room close by, a baby began to shriek. The wailing sounded eerily similar to the animals’ screams coming from the killing floor below.
As I filmed the animals and their final struggles, I expected to feel anger, even hatred, for the men killing the pigs. But I felt nothing but despair. These were normal men, potentially even fathers of the children sleeping in the rooms next door. Every night, they must say goodbye to their families, and spend hours committing brutal, bloody violent acts against animals. I couldn’t help but notice that one worker repeatedly looked away as his colleague slit the animals’ throats. In fact, Cambodia’s own agriculture director has said that this method has an effect on the workers — “the knives, the blood and the killing traumatizes them.” Tellingly, the worker who slits the pigs’ throats is paid the highest wage.
It is so important to remember that workers too are victims of a hideous system which exploits others to meet demand and drive profit. For animal rights activists, it’s easy for us to demonize the slaughterhouse workers. Indeed, when our undercover footage was published by British news platform The Guardian for their Farmed Animal Series, the many disgusted comments were reflective of such attitudes. Many of us are privileged enough that we don’t have to work in a slaughterhouse to provide for our families, but others do not necessarily have that same choice.
Abattoirs often thrive off those in society who cannot defend their rights: many slaughterhouse workers come from low-income neighbourhoods, as was the case at the slaughterhouse I documented in Cambodia, and in the United States, slaughterhouses commonly employ and exploit underage workers and illegal immigrants.
Due to the inherent nature of the job, slaughterhouse workers are frequently exposed to trauma, violence, and extreme stress, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that slaughterhouse employees suffer from a host of physical and psychological problems including PTSD. These problems often spill over into families and communities through an increase in crime rate, particularly drug and alcohol abuse, and higher incidents of domestic abuse.
Every night, the residents must endure the screams of dying animals and the unmistakable thud of the metal bar slamming against the animals’ heads. The first sight in the morning when they glance from their window is the bloody stain from the slaughter the night before.
In one study, an anonymous slaughterhouse worker shared their experience:
It is complicated to me, it can influence you so that you start beating your wife, assault children, such things, kick animals, hurt animals. It happened to me.
I thought of the families in the rooms surrounding our rented apartment. Ours mirrored the others: a single room, one small toilet, and a lonely barred window which overlooked the killing floor. Every night, the residents must endure the screams of dying animals and the unmistakable thud of the metal bar slamming against the animals’ heads. The first sight in the morning when they glance from their window is the bloody stain from the slaughter the night before.
People often condemn the workers and accuse them of lacking empathy. In reality, workers must employ coping mechanisms to deal with the suffering of the animals, and to do that, they must view the animals not as living, breathing beings, but as commodities — a job to finish. In turn, this creates an environment where additional abuse can occur and anger-triggered cruelty can fester.
As time passes, you get used to it. You feel nothing. You can imagine, if you kill a thing a 1000 times over and over, you wouldn’t have feelings after a while. It kills you on the inside, an abattoir, it kills you. You can be full of blood, it will not bother you.
Slaughterhouses take the lives of animals, and the souls of the people who work there.
I know how difficult this was for my partner and I to experience and to document; witnessing this brutality has taken something from us that we can never get back. So, it breaks my heart when I think of those who don’t just witness it, but who actually have to experience it: how utterly soul-destroying it must be for the desperate workers, who on their first day of employment are instructed on how to kill, and told how many animals they are expected to kill on each shift.
As I gripped my camera and watched them bludgeon the pig who had so curiously explored his pen earlier, my heart ached for the animal as he fought so desperately for his life, and my heart ached for the man — the father, brother, son — who sat atop the struggling animal and looked determinedly away as the blood spilt onto the floor.
As long as people continue to eat animals, someone will have to kill them; someone will have to dismember the body parts; and someone will have to mop up the blood.