We have long acknowledged cruelty towards animals as an indicator of psychopathy. Yet slaughterhouse workers are paid and expected to carry out what amounts to torture upon thousands of sentient beings, day in and day out. How could that not have an effect?
Table Of Contents
- Why the Mental Health of Slaughterhouse Workers Matters
- Why Would Anyone Work at a Slaughterhouse?
- The Prevalence of PTSD in Slaughterhouse Workers
- Are Slaughterhouse Workers More Prone to Violence?
- What’s the Solution?
- In Closing…
I once visited a very small slaughterhouse in Virginia. This particular slaughterhouse rotated the animals they killed by day. I happened to be there on a pig day. Before entering the slaughterhouse to observe the kill floor, I peered over the wall of the holding pen outside. There was a group of pigs milling about and two slaughterhouse workers talking in the middle.
One pig approached a worker wearing a blood-stained smock and nuzzled his side. The worker glanced down and started petting the pig, who readily laid down for a hearty belly rub. The slaughterhouse worker rubbed her belly as the pig closed her eyes in a look of bliss every person with a dog is more than accustomed to.
After a minute or so, he patted her head, saying “okay, I’ve gotta go,” and headed back into the kill floor, where he would later stab that very same pig in her carotid artery.
As far as slaughterhouses go, the one I visited was a far cry from the industrial, mechanized kill lines that run at staggering speed with haphazard results.
But in many ways, I found it almost more disturbing to see the very same man shower a living being with affection only to moments later take her life. This apparent emotional disconnect is hard for even meat-eaters to reconcile. There’s a reason most people don’t kill the animals they consume.
But as much distance as we may like to place between ourselves and the animals on our plates, there’s no avoiding the reality that purchasing animal products is simply a way of having others kill in our name.
And just as we dare not think of what the animals have experienced to make it to our grocery store, we equally resist considering the experience of those who took their lives.
Some people may wonder why I, a vegan animal liberation activist and educator, would take the time to address the mental health of slaughterhouse workers. The most basic reason why their mental health matters is that the psychological anguish of any sentient being matters. And when an occupation routinely causes psychological harm to workers across all countries and cultures, it’s worth asking why.
Slaughterhouse workers are essentially canaries in the coal mine for our collective humanity. If killing animals results in profound psychological trauma for workers, it would certainly call into question our societal belief that slaughtering animals is perfectly acceptable.
This belief is already a thinly veiled dissociation for people who consume animals. Ask the average person to watch footage from a slaughterhouse, and you’ll likely be met with resistance. If nothing is wrong with the way that we raise, confine, and kill animals, why are we so resistant to watching?
Perhaps even more telling is the animal products industry’s own resistance to transparency. Starting with my own state of Iowa,1 many states have criminalized the exposure of what takes place within their facilities. These so-called “ag-gag” laws place severe penalties of jail time and fees upon anyone who shows the inner workings of our animal agriculture system.2 Again, if there’s nothing to hide, why take such extreme steps to prevent exposure?
For some animal rights activists, it may seem that focusing at all on the health of slaughterhouse workers pulls attention from the real victims: the animals themselves. It’s a common misconception that being vegan means one has no concern for human rights.
However, even if our primary focus is non-human animals, the psychological damage workers experience from killing them is a powerful testament to the true impact of the animals’ suffering. The harm to workers flies in the face of viewing non-human animals as objects or commodities. Were that true, slaughterhouse workers would not be so gravely affected by taking their lives.
You may wonder what kind of person would work at a slaughterhouse in the first place? Perhaps people who take sadistic pleasure in harming animals?
While there are people who willingly gravitate towards slaughtering animals because they enjoy it, they are by far a minority.3
In reality, most slaughterhouse workers take the job as a last—or only—resort for income. Slaughterhouse workers typically come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, often with little to no education. Many, if not most, are members of vulnerable populations, like refugees, people of color, and undocumented immigrants.4
Former slaughterhouse worker turned animal activist Virgil Butler shared about the makeup of his coworkers in a speech about his nine years slaughtering chickens for the multinational corporation Tyson Foods:
“[M]ost…are very uneducated. Some of them can’t even read a comic book without some help. Tyson actually employs somebody to assist with job applications because most people can’t fill them out.
They also have a lot of Hispanic people that can’t speak English so naturally they can’t write it. […]
You’ve got a bunch of people here that really couldn’t possibly hope to get a really good job, so they’re stuck working for Tyson, and Tyson knows it. They pick on rural communities for that reason.”5— Virgil Butler, former slaughterhouse worker turned animal activist
(note: you can see this excerpt of Virgil’s speech in the video above at 04:25)
This makeup of the workforce is echoed across countries, from South Africa,6 to Denmark,7 to Turkey,8 to Australia,9 to…really anywhere. The lack of options workers face also explains why they stay, despite facing one of the highest illness and injury rates of any profession,10 and having to carry out horrific brutalities most people can’t even imagine.
Virgil Butler describes this desperate position, recounting how workers were expected to remove improperly hung chickens from the line “any way you can:”
“If that means ripping that chicken in half, that means rippin’ its leg off, if that means rippin’ its foot off—you do it.
If you don’t do it, you’re fired. There’s no choice.
They’ll tell you straight up: you are the most expendable human beings on earth.“11— Virgil Butler, former slaughterhouse worker turned animal activist (emphasis added)
(note: you can see this excerpt of Virgil’s speech in the video above at 05:30)
It’s rather telling that—at least at the time of my research for this article and video—when typing “slaughterhouse workers” into Google, the very first auto-suggestion is “slaughterhouse workers ptsd.”
Studies across countries and cultures show clear evidence of psychological trauma from working in slaughterhouses, though this is still a largely under-examined population.12
Workers studied have exhibited and reported a range of symptoms including:
- recurrent violent dreams,
- a sense of disintegration,
- an increase in aggression in and outside of work,
- substance abuse,
- suicidal ideation,
- and even psychoticism.13
Slaughterhouse workers are particularly prone to a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) called Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS).14 The concept of PITS was first introduced by sociologist and psychologist Rachel M. Macnair in her 2002 book Perpetration-induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing.
MacNair describes PITS as “a form of PTSD symptoms caused not by being a victim or rescuer in trauma, but by being an active participant in causing trauma”—meaning the psychological harm results from having caused the traumatic event.15 McNair argues that this resulting trauma suggests that “the human mind […] is not well suited for killing.”16
This assessment is echoed in a study in South Africa that created a timeline of the emotional breakdown of slaughterhouse workers, starting with the trauma of their first kill:
“During their first kill, slaughter workers remember feeling upset and experiencing physical shock manifested by shaking and shivering. [… They] were also emotionally disturbed by their first-time kill and noted feeling pained, saddened, and shameful.”17— From the study “Slaughtering for a living: A hermeneutic phenomenological perspective on the well-being of slaughterhouse employees”
The study relays one worker’s recounting of his first kill, noting how “the traumatic experience of the first kill is evident as well as how this emotive experience fades into detachment,”18 a later phase of the emotional timeline that we’ll address next. He recalls:
“The first time when I killed it was not easy for me. I feel pity for it. I felt I just wanted to close my eyes, turn around, and run away. It was really sad but the more you do it the easier it gets.
Like yesterday I had to shoot cows in the kraal [an enclosure for livestock]. I climbed over the fence, walked to the cow, and just shot it.
I feel nothing anymore. In the beginning it was very bad.”19— Slaughterhouse worker recounting his first kill
This eventual dissociation and emotional numbing is described time and again by slaughterhouse workers, and is part of what the South African study refers to as the “(mal)adjustment phase.”20
In an interview with journalist Ashitha Nagesh, Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, a consultant psychiatrist at Nightingale mental health hospital in London, spoke to the “repetitive trauma” experienced by slaughterhouse workers.21 With this kind of “complex PTSD,” Dr. Obuaya told Nagesh:
“there’s a sort of self-loathing that tends to emerge – a very strong dislike of oneself, and loss of one’s identity. That’s what one would see in this particular group, where the repetitive nature of the exposure to the trauma as a perpetrator then leads to this breakdown in the individual’s identity.”22— Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, speaking to the “repetitive trauma” experienced by slaughterhouse workers
In his book The Nazi Doctors, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton coined the term “doubling” to refer to the “formation of a second, relatively autonomous self, which enables one to participate in evil.”23
Doubling is essentially the act of dividing oneself into separate “selves”—one self to kill, the other self to maintain one’s sense of humanity and identity. It’s the mind’s survival mechanism for carrying out acts that are contrary to one’s moral compass.
Doubling could explain the disturbing duality I observed in the slaughterhouse worker in Virginia, showing affection for a pig just prior to killing her. This dissociation is echoed in a striking account from Ed Van Winkle, a long-time slaughterhouse worker:
“The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. [… Y]ou develop an attitude that lets you kill things but doesn’t let you care.
You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around down in the blood pit with you [and] you may want to pet it.
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.”24— Ed Van Winkle, a long-time slaughterhouse worker
Activist Virgil Butler writes in his moving post “Inside the mind of a killer”:
“The sheer amount of killing and blood can really get to you after awhile [sic], especially if you can’t just shut down all emotion completely and turn into a robot zombie of death. You feel like part of a big death machine. Pretty much treated that way as well. […]— Virgil Butler, former slaughterhouse worker turned animal activist
Out of desperation you send your mind elsewhere so that you don’t end up like those guys that lose it. Like the guy that fell on his knees praying to God for forgiveness. Or the guy they hauled off to the mental hospital that kept having nightmares that chickens were after him.”25
In many ways, the dissociation experienced by slaughterhouse workers is an extreme version of the dissociation experienced by most people who consume animals. No one wants to think they have a hand in overt cruelty towards animals. So we as a society distance ourselves as much as possible from the actions we pay others to do to animals in our names.
This dissociation is easier when you don’t have to see what the animals go through. When you don’t have to literally have their blood on your hands. For those doing the killing for consumers, the dissociation becomes extreme out of necessity.
There’s no arguing that the work of a slaughterhouse employee is violent. But are slaughterhouse workers more prone to violence as a whole?
As a society, we have long acknowledged cruelty towards animals as an indicator of budding psychopathy. Yet slaughterhouse workers are paid and expected to carry out what amounts to torture upon thousands of sentient beings, day in and day out. How could that not have an effect?
Studies have found links between slaughterhouse work and increased crime rates, including domestic violence, sex offenses, murder, assault, burglary, arson, rape, theft, and larceny.26
One may argue that perhaps the communities surrounding slaughterhouses are overall more prone to crime. However, this possibility was accounted for in a well-known study by criminology professor Amy Fitzgerald.27
So, is it their work that makes them violent, or are violent people more drawn to that kind of work? While the latter may be true in some cases, studies and stories from slaughterhouse workers illustrate severe changes in personality, deadening of empathy, and increased aggression.28
For her harrowing book Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry, Gail A. Eisnitz spoke with Donny Tice, a hog “sticker” (the worker who cuts the pig’s throat). Tice recounted:
“Down in the blood pit, they say that the smell of blood makes you aggressive […] And it does […]
Another thing that happens is that you don’t care about people’s pain anymore. I used to be very sensitive about people’s problems-willing to listen. After a while, you become desensitized.”29— Donny Tice, a hog “sticker” (the worker who cuts the pig’s throat)
Slaughterhouse workers often turn to substance abuse and other maladaptive ways of coping with the trauma of their work. Ed Van Winkle, whom we heard from earlier, told Eisnitz:
“Every sticker I know carries a gun, and every one of them would shoot you. Most stickers I know have been arrested for assault.
A lot of them have problems with alcohol. They have to drink, they have no other way of dealing with killing live, kicking animals all day long.”30— Ed Van Winkle, a long-time slaughterhouse worker
Activist Virgil Butler and many other former and current slaughterhouse workers recount horrifying “games” workers would play with the living beings they were employed to kill.
Whether ripping the head off of a chicken and placing it on their finger like a puppet,31 or purposefully not stunning a pig just to make it harder for the next worker to shackle them,32 or a number of other atrocities I’ll spare you from, but about which you can read for yourself in the works I’ve cited throughout this article.
For many workers, this sadistic behavior developed from the severe emotional detachment and stress of the job. While we like to think that abuse and cruelty within the animal industries are isolated events—a result of a few aberrant workers, this is simply not the case.
I have multiple videos, articles, and even full-length speeches showing the reality of humane regulations and what the “highest standards” really mean for the animals themselves.
The line that we draw between abuse and standard industry practice is arbitrary at best. Tossing live, conscious baby chicks into a meat grinder? Completely legal. In fact, it’s the standard method dictated in the European Union’s landmark humane regulations.33 Globally we kill approximately 3.2 billion male baby chicks every year.34
Slamming piglets into the concrete floor then tossing them into piles while many are still alive and twitching? Completely legal.35 Tearing off the testicles of piglets and calves, cutting their teeth, notching their ears, searing brands into flesh, chopping off their tails—all without any pain relief—completely legal.36
- How Smart People Think Their Way Out of Veganism
- Are You Advocating Cruelty? | Truth in Vegan Outreach (Speech)
- What Does Cage-Free Eggs Mean?
- How to Speak Non-Vegan | Effective Activism Through Mindful Language
- Why Dairy Is Never Humane
- Why I’m A Vegan Against Animal Welfare
- The Best We Have To Offer? | How Ireland Exposes “Humane” Farming
- LIVE At A UK Slaughterhouse & Gas Chamber
- Are Halal And Kosher Slaughter Humane?
- Why EGGS Are Never Humane | Babies In A Blender
As you heard from Virgil Butler, even clear violations of the limited regulations or standards that may exist are not only allowed, but actually required for employees to keep their job. Nothing can slow the speed of the line.
I’ve personally spoken with slaughterhouse workers—as well as read numerous accounts—about cows regularly still being conscious as their skin is removed and they are dismembered.37 Nothing can slow down the line.
When undercover videos come out documenting the inner workers of a slaughterhouse, the public is outraged and appalled. But what is never made clear in such exposés is which horrific acts captured are abuse, and which are standard legal practice.
When the line between cruel, psychopathic sadism and an everyday job task is so profoundly indistinguishable, shouldn’t that at least give us pause?
So what, you may ask, is the solution? Some animal rights activists distribute flyers directly to slaughterhouse workers with information about finding alternative employment, crisis lines, addiction support, and legal help.38
Labor rights advocates propose things like stronger union representation and legal reform.
In her book Slaughterhouse, Gail Eisnitz, in wondering why workers continued to put up with psychically dangerous and psychologically damaging conditions year after year, asked “Wasn’t that what unions were for?”
So she asked a union official, who informed her he’d raised many complaints about the extreme conditions and overt violations over the years, all to no avail.
The local union president wrote to the state, saying, “These are human beings and they need help! It’s inhumane to subject man or beast to these conditions.” Inspectors came, but took no action, saying they “observed slaughter procedures and have seen no problems with sticking hogs at this speed.”
However, even if officials were to listen and take action, even if we were to implement better worker safety—the fundamental reality of the job does not change. The psychological toll of taking hundreds to thousands of lives every day does not change. And the reality for the non-human animals certainly does not change.
The solution for humans, non-humans, our planet, and our society as a whole is the same: to stop exploiting sentient beings.
If nothing else, the deep and lasting psychological damage slaughterhouse workers experience is a testament to the profound impact of non-human animal suffering. The fact that their deaths can so devastate the human psyche must mean that their lives matter.
I wish I had a quick and simple solution to offer for the immense toll our animal products industries take upon human and non-human animals alike. Perhaps you wish I could offer absolution from even having concern for the humans in these industries at all.
What I can offer is what I always do: the reality of what you support when you purchase animal products. I can offer you the facts such that you can decide whether it’s in line with your values to continue paying others to kill in your name.
My hope is that you’ll choose to go vegan. If not for the animals, then for your fellow humans. You can get started with my free How to Go Vegan Guide. To support educational content like this, please consider making a donation.
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— Emily Moran Barwick