Coping with Culling

» April 11th, 2013

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 Investigation into the psychological and physical effects of participating in a mass “depopulation” operation [unpublished Unitec Research Committee Research Report].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:

9 Responses to Coping with Culling

  1. Daniel Hooley says:

    Just a quick terminological note. I think there are good reasons for AR activists and others not to use the term “euthanasia” for the painless (or near painless) killing of animals when we no longer want them. To be properly euthanized, it must be in the interest of someone to die. Death must benefit them. But for many of the animals “euthanized” worldwide every year, this is not the case. Either we don’t want them anymore, don’t wish to pay for their medical bills, or certain organizations just don’t have the resources to take care of the animals. But for most of these animals, as individuals, death is not something that is in their interest.

    • Taylor says:

      Quite right. “Euthanasia”, which properly means a “good death” in the sense of a death that is in the interest of the one put to death, is too often used as a euphemism for killing those whose continued existence is inconvenient for us. Along this line, I also object to use of the term “animal welfare” to distinguish the stance of the “humane” exploitation crowd from animal liberation/rights. “Welfare” means well being, happiness, prosperity, health, flourishing. As such, who could possibly be against animal welfare? When the term is used to refer to a certain kind of exploitation of animals, we should point out that welfare is not what is being promoted.

      AR lawyer Lesli Bisgould puts it nicely when she writes, “We have tried so hard for so long to identify the magic feature that qualitatively distinguishes the human from the nonhuman animals so as to justify the treatment we accord them. While the old favourites have been dismissed by science in the many decades since Darwin first said ‘evolution’ (they can’t reason, they don’t think, they can’t communicate, they don’t feel pain …) perhaps we have found one after all: let us never underestimate the unique power of the human mind to rationalize — and even make ourselves feel good about — behaviour that is harmful to others.”

  2. Mountain says:

    This makes me so angry. This is the waste, the inefficiency of raising animals in a factory farm system. This is the cost people aren’t accounting for when they nonsensically claim that factory farming is the most efficient form of agriculture. It isn’t. It’s just the form that most efficiently pushes those costs onto others (the animals themselves, the environment, the people involved in culling, etc).

    De-beaking may be the worst thing industry does to chickens. Almost everything else, horrible though it is, a chicken can be saved from. But once her beak is gone, it’s gone, and even though she can be taken to a sanctuary or a farm that doesn’t abuse its animals, she can never truly fend for herself– she will always be a captive, even if she’s at a sanctuary where her caretakers are kind and loving people.

  3. Rebecca Allen says:

    Yesterday, my 11 year old student told me his father is helping to build a big new shed to hold thousands of chickens.

    You can imagine how I felt. I could tell he was looking to me to see what I was feeling, too. He knows I do not eat meat. His told his dad told him it is bad to eat meat, but that’s where the job is. His father works at a vegetable farm and an animal farm according to the student and I am thinking, wouldn’t be better is there was more demand for the vegetables than for eggs.

    I am saddened about what this child be exposed to and maybe desensitized to, so that he can help out.

    • 1848 says:

      That your student is approaching you about this is very meaningful. He trusts you. If you trust him back, it will stay with him. One teacher in particular opened my eyes to the environment, and the power of group effort to make a difference through action. The love and respect I have today for the environment and its inhabitants is directly linked to that teacher. I got distracted, here and there, after leaving that classroom, but I found my way back because that teacher’s passion, enthusiasm, and example stuck with me. It wasn’t so much taught as experienced directly. We can save the rainforest. How? By coming together as a class, creatively raising funds, then using those funds to support an organization that supports the rainforest. We saved four acres by selling popcorn, and then we were taken to a large field to be shown what four acres looks like. Much of how I am today is linked to that teacher’s sharing of enthusiasm and trust. No other teacher or professor had that kind of effect on me, not because they were bad in any way, but because they didn’t try to reach you. Of all the teachers and profs, just one teacher made such a difference.

      It’s wonderful that you have a connection to this student, and that he knows you are against eating meat. If he knows why, you are teaching him how to think.

      Trust that each student is kind, intelligent, and compassionate, and they will become it. Listen to each student, value their experience, and they will speak up.

      • CQ says:

        Thank you for your encouraging words to Rebecca, 1848. You remind her — and all of us — that even if we don’t have a classroom, we can all “teach” by example — by thinking critically and creatively and caringly, by engaging others enthusiastically, and by practicing what we profess.

        Only occasionally do we find out, sometimes much later, that our passion and compassion — and, as you put it, our “trust* that each student is kind, intelligent, and compassionate” — have touched hearts, influenced minds, changed lives.

        *Though you used “trust” as a verb, it works as a noun in this sentence! I like this Merriam Webster definition of “trust”: firm belief in the integrity, ability, effectiveness, or genuineness of someone ….

  4. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    I am pleased that you are examining this most wretched of topics since it needs clarification as do all aspects of Mans connection or disconnection to animals in all their manifectations. The more we who care can understand, the better we can help mitigate the situations in which we/ they find themselves. When one remembers how vile were the cruelties and barbarous actions of the Nazis or the Japanese or ‘you name’ the tribe/regime et.a.,against ‘the other’ then we see evidence of psychological distancing at its most acute! Thank you for embarking on this most gastly of tasks.

  5. Ruth says:

    I recently read “Every Twelve Seconds” by Timothy Pachirat after seeing good reviews for it, and saying that it had interviews with slaughterhouse workers, which would have most interested me, although there wasn’t really much of that. However, a couple of interesting things were that the workers who worked on the killing floor, but didn’t do the killing were able to distance themselves from the actual process of actually killing an animal, as if it wasn’t “down to them”., and that the actual slaughterers had some sort of psychological therapy. (Apparently there are 121 different jobs on the killing floor alone in the big US slaughterhouses). Shame the therapists don’t tell them that the best thing for them is not to do such a thing.

  6. Marian says:

    I think this is interesting. One of the things that I talk about when I talk about veganism, is the impact of mass-killing on the people who work in the slaughterhouses. I think that people who consume animals, give no thought to the working conditions of those in the slaughterhouses or the impact of the gruesome activity on the lives of the workers. I have met a couple of people who took work in slaughterhouses, they didn’t last long and became veggie . . . but what must it do to people who stay there? I understand that your article is about the animal welfare ‘culling’ of animals . . . but I think it is relevant to this wider issue too.

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