Coping with Culling
Given the gruesome state of global factory farming, animal welfare organizations are often placed in the position of having to euthanize very large numbers of very sick animals.
One theme that I’m researching for my book on the psychological and cultural origins of factory farming is the broad impact mass culling had on those who worked with newly consolidated animals in the nineteenth century. My sense is that, historically speaking, a devaluation of sorts occurred when humans oversaw collective rather than individual slaughter, and that one reason why factory farming became acceptable was the desensitization that mass killings fostered.
Contemporary research on the psychological impact of mass euthanization (often called “depopulation operations”) sheds an interesting light on this issue. It seems safe to assume that the employees of animal welfare organizations would be more sensitive to the prospect of animal suffering and death than the average citizen. It is therefore quite noteworthy that, according to a 2011 study of Animal Welfare Investigation workers who had to euthanize 5000 chickens, 77 percent of the workers reported becoming “emotionally switched off” during their participation.
This emotional alienation was partially enabled by the logistics of the undertaking. For example, 66 percent reported that “having leather gloves, a broiler suit and a mask was helpful in detaching themselves from the situation.” Understandably, 88 percent of the participants actively displaced blame away from themselves onto the farmer, seeing their task as “helping the animals.”
None of this is to suggest that the detachment was in any way permanent or complete. After all, almost 50 percent experienced a sensation of “disgust,” 38 percent underwent “extreme shaking,” 69 percent did not find that the task got easier over time, and 62 percent “experienced intrusive memories and flashbacks. ”
In other words, desensitization and emotional engagement appear to coexist when animals are culled, reinforcing the psychological difficulty not only of slaughtering animals but of making comprehensive or categorical judgments about what collective depopulation does to the psyche of those who oversee such a horror show.
Citation: Dale, A. (2011). Investigation into the psychological and physical effects of participating in a mass “depopulation” operation [unpublished Unitec Research Committee Research Report]. Permanent link to Research Bank version: http://hdl.handle.net/10652/1666