Animal Rights Zone

Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism

Distanced from death: animal cruelty at the abattoir

Written by NIK TAYLOR

Violence towards animals facing death in abattoirs has horrified many. But what damage does the daily management of death inflict on slaughterhouse workers? asks Nik Taylor.

The recent expose of cruelty to turkeys in a Sydney slaughterhouse comes on the back of similar reports of animal abuse in other Australian slaughterhouses and has people asking questions about the nature of slaughterhouse work – is there something about it that predisposes workers towards cruel and callous treatment of animals, and possibly of other humans too? Slaughterhouse work, which can involve killing up to 10,000 animals per hour (or three per second), is hard, dirty and often dangerous.  High levels of worker dissatisfaction, racism and sexism are well-documented facets of life for slaughterhouse workers.  Less considered, however, are the kinds of damage the daily management of death might inflict on workers.

Humans have different, and often conflicting, attitudes to animals depending on the function of the animal in question. For instance, most of the 63 per cent of Australians who live with pets consider them to be family members, yet at the same time we live in a culture where we see animals as commodities to be disposed of at will when deemed necessary. This has shocking consequences - millions of pets destroyed worldwide; around 45,000 cats and dogs are euthanised per year in Australia by the RSPCA alone.

The ultimate disposable animals, though, are those destined to be food on our plates and the volume at which we consume them is shocking - annual numbers of animals killed for food currently stand at around 10 billion a year in the US; 9 million in Australia, and 900 million in the UK, and these statistics are likely to be lower than the reality as they are collated in ways which don't account for all species (e.g. marine life). Surely this shows, at a societal level, a deeply embedded disregard for other animals. At the very least it demonstrates a belief that humans can, and should, use other species for their own 'needs'.

In many cases the callous disregard some slaughterhouse workers show toward the animals they deal with is an extension of this attitude. Animals destined for slaughter are reconfigured as meat long before they enter the slaughterhouse. This makes what happens in a slaughterhouse palatable - for workers and for general society too. In other words, slaughterhouse workers manage their work by distancing themselves from the animals they kill. They make use of technical and economic language to describe the animals and the practices of killing them - dead chickens is not a term used, instead, reference is made to whole bird products; parts of cows become 'pieces of beef'; the act of killing becomes one of 'processing', and so on. These distancing techniques are based on a need to no longer see the animal as a whole, sentient, being, and to remove any sense of the animal as worthy and thus remove any empathy the worker might have with them. We know that reduced empathy - the ability to recognise the feelings of others - can lead to callous attitudes and violent behaviour and that assuming another being is worthless can lead to a lack of moral concern, so it's no surprise that some slaughterhouse workers are casually cruel to the animals they process. That this spills over into violence and cruelty is not surprising; rather, that we don't see more instances of such behaviour is the surprise. There's a clear, and urgent need, then to address cruelty in slaughterhouses - for the animals and the humans involved. Education, training and awareness, perhaps under the auspices of Occupational Health and Safety, will be a start as will the installation of CCTV in all slaughterhouses but we also need to look at the tougher issues.

Research tells us that some slaughterhouse workers are more prone to violence than members of the general population and it also tells us that communities where slaughterhouses are located experience higher levels of crime and deviance. These are uncomfortable facts as they point to a need to consider the way we manage our relationships with other species and, like anything that makes us uncomfortable, we sweep it under the carpet. With slaughterhouses this occurs literally as we relegate them spatially to the edges of society; it is their very invisibility which makes them palatable. Sadly, this also means those who work there are often ignored and/or reviled, or in the current case, blamed and pathologised when it comes to instances of cruelty to animals. The reality is that in a world where animals are considered inferior and to exist primarily for human needs/gain, cruel and abusive behaviour toward them is the norm rather than the exception. Recognising the mechanisms whereby this occurs throughout our societies and cultures is the only way to end abusive behaviour towards other creatures, both within and without the slaughterhouse.


Nik Taylor is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Flinders University in South Australia, the Managing Editor of Society & Animals and a charter scholar of the Animals and Society Institute. View her full profile here.

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