I co-wrote the following piece with Colleen Patrick-Gourdreau, vegan activist and cookbook author. Colleen will be reading a shortened version of it on the NPR program “Perspectives” tomorrow morning.
Last month, an employee at a slaughterhouse in Fresno, California walked into work, pulled out a gun, and shot four people, two of them execution style, before attempting to take his own life. Coworkers, many of whom described the suspect as “nice” and “respectful,” claimed to be puzzled by this outburst. The president of Valley Protein, the abattoir where the shooting happened, declared the incident to be a “random act.”
But was it? There’s no way to prove concretely that, in this particular case, slaughterhouse work caused—or even meaningfully contributed t0—this gruesome assault. Still, it’s fair to suggest that this man’s decision to kill humans in a setting where thousands of animals are killed daily was more than coincidental.
Provided what we know about the social-psychological connections between animal slaughter and human violence, we need to take seriously the possibility that systematic violence against animals can lead to “random” violence against humans.
As a society, we maintain a paradoxical relationship with the animal world. On the one hand, we agree that killing a domestic pet counts as a horrific act. On the other, when it comes to slaughtering “food animals,” we rationalize and romanticize it. The annual slaughter of 10 billion chickens, pigs, and cows in the United States is socially acceptable, but one could end up behind bars for kicking a dog.
Socially sanctioned violence, however, is still violence, and the violence required to kill animals—in whatever environment and for whatever purpose—has undeniable psychological consequences for those who labor in the vortex of death. It doesn’t take much reflection for a person to realize that there’s something fundamentally wrong with killing animals at work while loving them at home.
The notion that a violent disposition increases when witnessing the routine slaughter of helpless animals is nothing new. Psychologists have even given this phenomenon a name: The ‘Sinclair hypothesis’ — referring to the author of The Jungle, the provocative and policy-changing novel about slaughterhouse workers and conditions published in 1906.
Considerable academic research supports the connection between slaughterhouse work and human-on-human violence. Amy Fitzgerald, a criminologist at the University of Windsor, has demonstrated a causative correlation between the presence of a slaughterhouse in a neighborhood and an increase in the local crime rate. Her work confirms that being around systematic killing – -and not the industrial setting itself- – is the sole factor that causes a local increase in crimes such as sexual abuse and other violent assaults.
Beyond the scholarly trenches, there’s the testimony of the employees themselves. The trauma of working in a slaughterhouse is, for most of us, beyond imagination. However, when former slaughterhouse employees talk, what they say about violence is sobering. As one distressed ex-worker told Gail Eisnitz, the author ofSlaughterhouse, in 1997: “I’ve had ideas of hanging my foreman upside down on the line and sticking him [with a knife]. I remember telling the personnel man that I have no problem pulling the trigger on a person—if you get in my face, I’ll blow you away.”
Further evidence that those on the slaughterhouse floor are more prone to commit violent crimes against humans comes from the way modern slaughterhouses are designed. There are over 120 specific job functions in an industrial slaughterhouse, but only about 2 or 3 of them allow workers to see the animals at the moment of death. The reason is clear: witnessing violence is psychologically unhealthy. Timothy Pachirat, who worked undercover in a Nebraska slaughterhouse as part of his Yale dissertation research, noted how “nothing in my imagination had prepared me for the utter invisibility of the slaughter, the banal insidiousness of what hides in plain sight.”
Of course, no matter how hard slaughterhouse designers may try, when twenty-thousand animals are being killed daily, death cannot hide for long. Slaughterhouse employees—who are reduced to terms such as “knockers,” “shacklers,” “stickers,” and “gutters”—routinely vent their anger in the face of routinized violence by abusing food animals “just for fun.” They rip the heads off chickens, play football with live turkeys, and poke pigs in the anus with electric prods.
To think that this cold mentality toward animal life, a mentality necessarily fostered in the slaughterhouse, would not cheapen regard for human life and, in turn, predispose violence against it, would be naive.
In an era when we are urged to “know our farmer, know our food,” we should also know more about the inherent violence of bringing animal products to our plate. We should know more about how that violence effects the nameless, faceless, and troubled humans who do the dirty work that so few of us would ever do on our own. In doing so, we might think differently about the tragedies that only appear to be “random.”