PTSD in the Slaughterhouse


A version of this story ran in the February 2012 issue.

There are approximately 1,100 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the United States, about 70 of which are in Texas. Most are in hinterlands such as Mineola, Muenster and Windthorst. The majority of these facilities slaughter and process animals, collectively employing thousands of workers who turn a constant stream of live creatures into an array of profitable by-products.

A farm animal entering the front door will reach the exit about 19 minutes later. It will do so not only as chops destined for domestic meat counters, but as pelts bound for Turkey, lungs sent to dog-treat manufacturers, bile for the pharmaceutical industry, caul fat (the lining of organs) for Native American communities and liver destined for Saudi Arabia (which, go figure, distributes cow liver globally). There’s no question that these operations are models of efficiency.

They’re also hidden sites of suffering. The emerging literature, including a study by the University of Windsor, on the psychological effects of slaughterhouse work on humans is startling. It’s often said that consumers are disconnected from the meat we eat. Rarely noted is the fact that the slaughterhouse is a site of unfathomable connectivity. The most intimate and bloodstained bond between humans and the animals we consume is forged between nearly voiceless slaughterhouse workers and the animals they’re employed to kill.

Slaughterhouse employees are not only exposed to a battery of physical dangers on the cut floor, but the psychological weight of their work erodes their well being. As one former abattoir employee attests in the book Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry:

“The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in the stick pit [where hogs are killed] for any period of time—that let’s [sic] you kill things but doesn’t let you care. You may look a hog in the eye that’s walking around in the blood pit with you and think, ‘God, that really isn’t a bad looking animal.’ You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up to nuzzle me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them. … I can’t care.”

It will come as no surprise that the consequences of such emotional dissonance include domestic violence, social withdrawal, drug and alcohol abuse, and severe anxiety. As slaughterhouse workers are increasingly being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers are finally starting to systematically explore the results of killing sentient animals for a living.

Amy Fitzgerald, a criminology professor at the University of Windsor in Canada, has found a strong correlation between the presence of a large slaughterhouse and high crime rates in U.S. communities. One might object that a slaughterhouse town’s disproportionate population of poor, working-class males might be the real cause, but Fitzgerald controlled for that possibility by comparing her data to counties with comparable populations employed in factory-like operations. In her study released in 2007, the abattoir stood out as the factor most likely to spike crime statistics. Slaughterhouse workers, in essence, were “desensitized,” and their behavior outside of work reflected it.

Humans eat meat—a lot of it. The average American consumes 212 pounds of meat a year. Naturally, in food-conscious places such as Austin, there will be a conspicuous percentage of consumers who buy animal products sourced from small farms and think themselves absolved from all this messiness. But the hard truth is otherwise.

Most “humanely” sourced animal products are slaughtered and processed in the same industrial slaughterhouses that provide animal products to fast-food joints. Farms that employ mobile slaughterhouse units—USDA-approved trucks that drive to the local farm and kill on site—are equally implicated. As one mobile slaughter worker noted, “It functions the same as any livestock facility, except it is much more condensed and put on wheels.”

Animal products these days are sold with a story: the animal was humanely raised, it was cage-free, it was free-ranged, it was pasture-fed, it’s hormone-free. Whatever. Excluded from these stories is the fact that an animal was killed. He or she was a sentient being who didn’t want to die. And the person who killed it—the person we almost never consider—has had to declare “I can’t care” to cope with the trauma of his job. This story, needless to say, won’t make it onto the label that’s designed to make us pay more and feel better about the animals we eat.