Commentary: Behavior of Slaughter Plant and Auction Employees toward the Animals

Anthrozoos, 1988, Volume I, Number 4, pp. 205-213.

Temple Grandin

now at
Dept. of Animal Science
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado 80523


Abuses of animals at auctions and slaughter plants occur often. Commonly observed abuses include the dragging of crippled animals, hitting and excessive prodding of animals. In both auctions and slaughter plants, employees are under pressure to maintain a steady flow of animals to the auction ring or slaughter lines. In both types of facilities large numbers of animals must be moved rapidly. The purpose of this study was to determine the behavior of people handling livestock in these types of facilities. Observations of the behavior of slaughter plant managers were also made to gain a better understanding of how management behavior affects employee behavior.


In 1984, an investigator was hired to make unannounced visits on sale day at 51 livestock markets in 11 southeastern states. His itinerary was objectively predetermined by a person who had no knowledge of the conditions in the markets. Ten percent of the markets on the published lists were visited in each state.

Twenty-one percent of the surveyed markets had excellent handling and 32% had either rough handling or acts of cruelty (Table 1). When the condition of the market facilities was evaluated, it was found that 35% had excellent, well-maintained facilities and 28% had dirty, broken-down, or poorly designed facilities (Table 2). Markets that had good facilities tended to have a lower incidence of rough handling (Table 3). The quality of the facilities had little effect on the incidences of overt cruelty nor on the incidence of rough handling due to poor management. Thirty-three percent had no water troughs or feeding facilities.

The size of the market was not related to handling practices, but markets that specialized in one species had a tendency to have better handling. Both the "excellent handling" markets as well as the "not acceptable handling" markets preferred battery-operated electric prods. This indicates that the important factor in handling is how a driving aid is used rather than what is used -- a good handler will often tap an animal with the prod instead of shocking it. There was a tendency for handling to be more abusive when electric prods connected to an overhead wire were used. This type of prod will give a less localized shock compared to a battery prod.


Twenty-five federally inspected U.S. and Canadian slaughter plants were visited. More than two days were spent in each plant observing the behavior of employees who killed and handled the livestock. The visits were made by the author between 1975 and 1987. Plants were rated as belonging to one of three categories -- 1. Acts of deliberate cruelty occurring on a regular basis, 2. Rough handling occurring as a routine practice, and 3. Good to excellent employee behavior. The condition of plant equipment and facilities was not included in this rating even if they contributed to handling problems. This was strictly an employee behavior survey. Of the 25 plants, 8 (32%) were in category 1, 3 (12%) were in category 2, and 14 (56%) were in category 3. Twelve plants were surveyed before 1982 and 13 after 1982. The incidence of cruelty and abuse dropped from 67% during' 1975-1982 to 23% in 1982-1987.

Table 1: Handling Ratings for Southeastern Livestock Markets

Category Description %
Excellent Handling Animals were moved quietly with a minimum of prodding. Care was taken to avoid slamming gates on animals, and they were never kicked or hit with solid objects 21%
Acceptable Handling Handling practices did not fall into the excellent or one of the not acceptable categories 47%
Not Acceptable - Rough Handling Many animals were handled roughly by more than one person, and management did not attempt to stop the abuse. A rough-handling rating was given if any one of the following abuses was observed as a routine practice: constant prodding with an electric prod when the animals had no space to move, slamming gates on animals, overcrowding and causing animals to pile up, hitting animals with sticks or other objects, and constant whipping of animals with whips 20%
Not Acceptable - Cruelty Animals were dragged, thrown, or picked up by the tail or ears. This rating was also given if the majority of the employees handled most animals roughly and appeared to have no regard for them 12%

Source: Grandin 1985.

Table 2: Facilities Ratings for Southeastern Livestock Markets

Category Description %
Excellent All pens and chutes were clean and well-maintained with a minimum of sharp protrusions that could injure animals. Facilities also had to have adequate lighting to be placed in this category. A market with a good pen layout design was also placed in this category 35%
Acceptable The majority of the pens and chutes were well-maintained and clean. A market with a few broken boards or muddy pens was placed in this category 37%
Dirty or needed major repairs Many of the pens had broken fences or gates and there was a need for major repairs. A market was also placed in this category if it was littered with trash, or chutes showed no evidence of being cleaned out on a regular basis 22%
Design unsatisfactory This rating was given if a design defect caused a serious handling problem that increased the amount of rough handling and was likely to cause injuries to animals 6%

Source: Grandin 1985.

Table 3: Relationship Between Handling and Quality of Facilities

Facilities Excellent/Acceptable Not Acceptable/Cruelty
Excellent/Acceptable 28 (76%) 9 (24%)
Not Acceptable 7 (50%) 7 (50%)

(x2 = 3.11; p = 0.08)

Factors Influencing the Abuse and Cruelty Incidence

Operations identified as having humane handling had a manager who enforced a strict code of conduct. If an employee abused an animal he was either fired or transferred away from the animals. Slaughter plants that had cruelty problems tended to have lax management in the livestock department. In four instances, slaughter plants markedly improved their handling rating after hiring a new manager. In one instance, handling got worse. Management enforcement of a strict code of conduct had a greater influence on employee behavior than the regional location of the plant or employee cultural background.

The size of the slaughter plant or livestock market was not found to be related to the incidence of bad employee behavior resulting in rough handling or cruelty. However, poorly maintained or poorly designed facilities correlated with an increased incidence of rough handling and livestock accidents. Gentle handling is impossible if animals constantly balk, fall down on slick floors, or become jammed in chutes. Facilities should be well-lighted and kept clean. It is also easier to encourage good employee attitudes in pleasant surroundings.

Good facilities, however, do not guarantee good handling. The two worst incidents of deliberate animal cruelty witnessed occurred in slaughter plants that had new, well-designed facilities. One man took pleasure in shooting the eyes out of cattle before he killed them. In the other plant, a man stabbed a meat hook deep into a live hog's shoulder and dragged it like a hay bale. One of these plants had lax management and never disciplined employees for cruelty, while the other only gave a reprimand for stabbing the hog. In neither of these cases did management punish employees severely for cruelty.

Personal observations indicate that the incidence of rough handling tends to be lower in Midwestern and more northern areas with an estimated incidence of rough handling for all types of livestock operations at 10% - 15%. In the southern U.S. rough handling appears to be higher, probably due to a more widespread "macho" attitude. Kellert (1978, 1980) has also observed regional differences in attitudes toward animals. In Europe there was less interest in animal welfare in southern countries (Curtis and Guither, 1983). There appears to be a correlation between climate and handling. In Australia, there is a greater concern for animals in the cooler, southern parts. In the tropical north handling is more often very rough according to personal observations and discussions. There is a trend for slaughter plant managers in Scandinavian countries and in Canada to be more concerned about humane handling than are U.S. managers. Slaughter plants in Holland and Sweden are very civilized. The employees are concerned about animal welfare and the management is concerned about the welfare of the employees. By contrast, the slaughter houses are dreadful in Mexico. There is an impression that societies that treat people humanely also tend to treat animals humanely.

In the surveyed slaughter plants, approximately 4% of the employees directly involved with livestock committed acts of deliberate cruelty. These people appeared to enjoy watching an animal suffer. If a plant or feedlot has a cruelty problem, usually only one or two people are involved in the worst incidents. On the other hand, rough handling tends to become widespread in poorly managed operations. In some poorly managed plants and auctions over half the employees engaged in rough treatment of animals.

Abuse and Cruelty by Children

A disturbing finding in the livestock market survey was that half the markets rated as having cruel handling allowed young children to abuse animals. At one sale, a young seven- to eight- year-old boy continually hit feeder pigs on the nose in the auction ring. None of the adults sitting around the ring made any attempt to stop it. At another sale teenage boys appeared to enjoy hitting cattle with boards. Three or four different instances of children tormenting calves with an electric prod have been observed this year. (Begin 1999 Update) Last summer my students observed similar abusive behavior by children in an auction in Texas (End 1999 Update). Children who enjoy abusing animals may be more likely to engage in cruelty or aggressive behavior as adults (Felthous and Kellert, 1987). Leyton (1987) reports that serial killers Albert DeSalvo (The Boston Strangler) and Edmund Kemper, who cooked part of his victim in a macaroni casserole, both tortured cats when they were children. One slaughter plant employee handled cattle roughly and teased them; he stated that when he was a child he was forced to kill his pet steer. He said, "I could never love another beef again." His behavior was similar to the taunting of animals prior to sacrifice in the ancient bear cults. Serpell (1986) states that taunting the victim helps distance the killers emotionally from an animal they had tenderly reared. This employee, however, never committed an extreme act of cruelty such as the ones described previously.

Factors that Correlate with Improved Animal Handling

The two major factors that motivate managers to improve handling in slaughter plants are legal sanctions and economic incentives. Most of the handling improvements observed during 1982 - 1987 can be attributed to legal sanctions and economic incentives. In 1978, the jurisdiction of the Humane Slaughter Act was extended to handling. In later years a greater percentage of the meat was sold on a carcass basis instead of on a live-weight basis. Ownership changes hands only after slaughter in a carcass-based system, and the seller has to pay for bruises.

Sellers exert strong pressure on plant management to improve handling and to take steps to improve handling at their feedlots. Cattle sold on a live-weight basis had almost twice as many discountable bruises (Grandin, 1981). Rough handling doubles the amount of bruising.

Within the last five years many pork plants have also started to export to Japan. The Japanese reject poor-quality pork. Reducing stress and excitement in the stunning chute will improve pork quality (Grandin, 1986). When a plant starts exporting to Japan, management usually takes immediate steps to improve handling, because they see the Japanese grader rejecting over 50% of their pork. Six of the plants visited during 1982 - 1987 exported pork to Japan. These plants all had good handling. Four non-exporting hog plants were also surveyed. Three of these plants had either rough handling or incidents of cruelty.

Personal observations indicate that severe rough handling, abuse, and neglect on farms, ranches, markets, and feedlots have remained at a steady 10% - 15% of operations for the last ten years over the entire United States. They have not shown the improvement that has occurred in slaughter plants. Even though rough handling causes great economic losses it continues, because the market is segmented. The attitude of some market people is, "I don't care if they get shipping fever - that's the feedlot's problem." The abuses will continue unless there is a direct economic incentive or animal welfare pressure leads to legal sanctions. Approximately 25% of all operations have truly excellent handling.


Michael Lesy (1987) in his book, The Forbidden Zone, describes a dreadful plant with a wisecracking, foul-mouthed manager. The manager tells endless dirty jokes. This type of manager is in a minority. The most common management psychology is simply denial of the reality of killing. Managers will use words such as "dispatching" and "processing" to avoid this reality.

Over the years the author has made many observations of the behavior of slaughter plant managers. In large plants with corporate offices in a distant city, management tends to deny the reality of killing. The few times they visit the plant they tend to avoid the kill area. Even managers who have their offices on the plant grounds sometimes have this attitude. One manager told the author that he would not expand the stockyard because he did not want to see it from his office window. He wanted his plant to look like a "food factory."

The meat-packaging room, coolers, and the dressing line where the carcass is cut up are often much better designed and maintained than are the stockyards and kill chute. Several plants had stockyards that were falling apart and neglected while the rest of the plant was new and modern. Management attitudes are further reflected by the fact that livestock handling and kill-chute jobs are often the lowest-paid jobs on the line.

This attitude makes no sense economically. Bruises cost the meat industry $46 million per year, and meat-quality problems due to animal stress cost even more (Livestock Conservation Institute, 1983; Grandin 1986). Improving handling can increase Japanese acceptance of pork loins by 10%-25% (Grandin, 1986). Well-designed chutes and stockyards and good handling practices will reduce bruises and stress-related meat quality problems (Grandin, 1982, 1982a, b, 1981, 1980a; Kilgour, 1971). The actual cost of livestock accounts for at least half the operating costs of a slaughter plant.

The author has also worked with managers and engineers who really care about animals but who also avoid visiting the kill area because it upsets them. Managers who care about livestock often raise their own livestock or have had previous experiences working with animals. These managers will enforce a strict code of conduct. They appear to be motivated by a genuine caring for the animals. One engineering manager who raised cattle made unauthorized expenditures to improve the humaneness of slaughter equipment. A feedlot owner, newly in the slaughter business, built his new office looking out toward the plant stockyards. From his office he could watch and ensure that employees did not abuse the animals. He seldom went inside the slaughter area. Managers promoted from the livestock-buying department are usually more concerned about animal treatment than managers promoted from other departments. A manager's background affects his attitudes. One of the best-managed and most humane slaughter plants in the United States is owned and run by a Mennonite family. Hard work and good values transformed a small business into a company with almost $400 million in annual sales. The managers have an attitude of humaneness toward both animals and employees and have state-of-the-art equipment throughout the plant. They are proud of their operation, which is one of the few plants that still conduct public tours. While the big corporations attempt to cover up what they are doing, this company is proud of its excellent operation. Another plant with excellent humane handling had many Mormons in high management positions.


Herzog and McGee (1983), in a study of college student attitudes to slaughter, found that when college students first visited a slaughter plant, the killing of the animals bothered them more than gutting the carcass. Owens et al. (1981) did a study on the psychology of euthanasia technicians who kill surplus dogs and cats at the animal shelters. They found that the technicians often felt guilty, but they felt that they were performing a needed service. One technician commented, "I would rather euthanize the animals myself than leave it to someone who does not know what they are doing." Slaughter plant employees have made similar statements. Several said that they took the kill-chute job to prevent sadistic people from doing it.

Some technicians adopt the mechanical attitude suggested by Owens' study (Owens et al., 1981): "permeating most responses was the theme of protecting oneself from the full impact of the act by isolating one's feelings from the act. Some accomplished this by talking about euthanasia formally or intellectually." The meat industry also has euphemisms for killing, such as 'dispatching." Animal-shelter personnel have euphemisms for killing, such as PTS, 'put them to sleep," (Arkow, 1985).

The people who actually do the killing in slaughter plants have three different approaches to their jobs. These are the mechanical approach, the sadistic approach, and the sacred ritual approach. These approaches usually are observed only in the people who actually do the killing or who drive the animal up the chute.

Mechanical Approach

The mechanical attitude is most common. The person doing the killing approaches his job as if he was stapling boxes moving along a conveyer belt He has no emotions about his act. Most people who have the mechanical attitude kill the animals efficiently and painlessly. Employees who use the mechanical approach will chitchat about the weather and gossip while they kill hundreds of animals per day. The animals have become a commodity. A consulting engineer who raised cattle and designed a system for electrocuting hogs stated, "Hogs are just a commodity but I can't stand to watch cattle killed." He used the mechanical approach for hogs only.

Some slaughter plant employees who have humanely killed animals for many years act as if the animals were inanimate objects. They do not talk to animals, call them names, or get angry at them. A person who has fully accepted the mechanical attitude no longer has any emotions about the job. Serpell (1986) states that people who kill animals regularly become progressively desensitized. The first few killings are upsetting, but then the person becomes habituated, and the killing act becomes a reflex without emotion. Slaughter plant employees often comment that they were upset when they first started their jobs.

Sadistic Approach

The second approach is sadistic. The person starts to enjoy killing and will sometimes do extremely cruel things and torment the animals on purpose. A typical comment from a person with sadistic tendencies is, "They are just animals and it does not really hurt them." "It is going to die in five minutes so it does not matter how I treat it." The above statements are examples of devaluation of the subject according to social-psychology terminology. By devaluing the animal, the person justifies in his mind the cruel things he does to it.

This concept was graphically illustrated by a series of experiments with people during the 1960s and early 70s. The first experiments were conducted by Milgram (1963) and Elms and Milgram (1966). Human subjects were instructed by an experimenter to give progressively bigger electrical shocks to another subject when he made mistakes on a learning task. The highest shock level was labeled 450 volts, "Danger Severe Shock." Sixty-five percent of normal American males obeyed the experimenter's orders and administered the highest shock levels. The entire shocking procedure was fake, but the subject believed he was giving real shocks.

Subjects who obeyed and administered the highest shock level tended to devalue the other subject. A typical comment was, "The good scientist deserved to be followed while the stupid, excitable learner deserved to be given a lesson" (Elms and Milgram, 1966).

A similar study was designed by Zimbardo (1972), who placed college students in a simulated prison. Half the students were "guards" and half were 'prisoners.' One-third of the student guards treated the prisoners in a sadistic manner. Zimbardo concluded that normal people can be turned into sadists.

Fromm (1973) notes that two-thirds of the student guards did not turn into sadists and questions how they might be distinguished from the other third who did. In the Milgram experiments, many of the obedient subjects had emotional conflict and were nervous and upset when they pushed the shock buttons. On the other hand, some of the obedient subjects were calm and deliberate. Fromm suggests that the subjects who did not experience conflict may turn into sadists.

Sacred Ritual Approach

The third approach is to make the act of killing a sacred ritual. Many different societies have slaughter ceremonies. The American Indians showed respect for the deer and elk they ate. As a sign of respect the bones from these animals were not thrown to the dogs (Frazer, 1922). Serpell (1986) also describes slaughter ceremonies practiced by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Babylonians, Hebrews, and Romans. Judaism attaches great seriousness to the act of taking life. One reason for the many laws detailing the precise manner in which animals are killed for food is to maintain controls on the act itself (Grandin, 1980b). A ritual serves to place controls on the act of killing and prevents it from getting out of control.

The shochet (ritual slaughterman) must be moral; otherwise he would be degraded by his work (Lesy, 1987). Grunwald (1955) stated that the person performing shechitah (slaughter) should think about the act of taking an animal's life:

A man may kill an animal but he should always remember that the animal is a living creature and that taking life from the animal involves responsibility (Levinger, 7979).

Islam has similar controls. The slaughterman must have a clear mind. "The act of slaughter (Al-Dhabh) starts by pronouncing the name of Allah, the Creator (this is symbolic to take his permission and in order to make the slaughter-man accountable and responsible and give compassion and mercy to the animal during this act)" (Katme, 1986).

The builders of high-speed automated pig-killing equipment in Holland appear to have similar feelings. The Machinefabriek, G. NIHJUIS B.V., in Winterswijk, Holland, named their most highly automated equipment "Walhalla." In Nordic mythology, Walhalla is the paradise for warriors who died gloriously in battle (Davidson, 1972). Richard Selzer (1987), a surgeon, after a visit to a slaughter plant describes his view of an ideally designed slaughter house that definitely falls in the sacred ritual category. He describes an atrium built from columns with carved cattle heads, a labyrinthine, serpentine loading ramp, and workers reciting prayers.

Promoting a humane attitude toward animals is extremely important. These words were written by a blind girl when she visited a slaughter plant and reached over the side of the chute and touched an animal:

The Stairway to Heaven is dedicated to those people who desire to learn the meaning of life and not to fear death. We, through respect for these animals, can come to respect our fellow man as well (Tester 1974).

Signs with the above message have been placed over the kill chute in some plants to help improve employee attitudes.

Slaughter rituals usually occur among the people who actually perform animal killing. When animals are killed by hunting dogs or by traps there is no slaughter ritual (Serpell, 1986). The blame for the animal's death is shifted to the dogs. Burkert (cited by Serpell, 1986) states that sacrificial customs are elaborate exercises in blame-shifting. The priests are directly responsible for the animal's death, but theirs is a sacred duty and therefore forgivable. The gods are blamed instead, because they demanded the sacrifice.

Rituals also serve a beneficial function by placing controls on the act of killing, and they also help prevent the devaluation and detachment that leads to the mechanical approach or to sadism. For over 12 years the author has designed and operated the equipment used to kill animals in commercial slaughter plants. To prevent herself from degenerating into mechanical "box stapling" she uses the sacred ritual approach. A ritual can be simple and still be effective in controlling behavior and promoting respect for animals. The act of killing is controlled by an act of submission similar to a submissive wolf exposing its throat to a dominant wolf. The author's own ritual is to face the plant and bow her head down when first approaching it She has also written "Stairway to Heaven or "Valhalla" on some of the drawings for new systems. The braces and supports on one slaughtering system were designed utilizing the Greek Golden Mean and a mathematical sequence which determines the behavior of many things in nature. Humans do not really know what happens after death. A ritual act of submission before one kills an animal acknowledges the unknown that haunts all people.

The ritual also serves a very practical function of controlling bad behavior. The author has observed Kosher slaughter in 13 different U.S. slaughter plants with a total of over 20 days observation time. Even though plant employees sometimes abused the animals, a shochet was never observed taunting, teasing, or deliberately abusing an animal. This observation illustrates the power of the ritual to control behavior. Some Kosher plants have cruel, dangerous methods for restraining the animal, which would have a tendency to encourage cruel behavior. Sixty-one percent of the Kosher plants engaged in cruel, dangerous live hoisting, and 23% had employees who abused animals. The shochets never engaged in abuse even though their working environment was often worse than that of most non-kosher plants. A total of 19 different shochets were observed actually killing animals.

Plant Case Study

The mechanical approach is the most common. In one large beef slaughter plant the author observed ten regular employees driving livestock, stunning, shackling, and bleeding cattle every week for three years. Seven employees utilized the mechanical approach, two were sadistic, and one worked hard to treat the animals with kindness. The plant manager cared deeply about humane treatment of animals, but he was unable to fire the sadistic employees because his superiors wished to avoid union problems. The people engaged in shackling, in hoisting of stunned animals, and in bleeding all had the mechanical attitude. The two sadists worked as a stunner operator and as a cattle driver. This pattern appeared in other plants. Shacklers and bleeders of stunned animals seldom engaged in cruelty. The stunned animal is either clinically dead or at least appears dead when it reaches their stations. Shacklers who hoisted fully conscious animals for ritual slaughter were often observed abusing animals. People do not torment or act sadistically toward dead animals or animals that appear dead.


It is important to rotate the employees who do the killing, bleeding, shackling, and driving. Nobody should kill animals all the time. Several plant managers and supervisors state that rotation helps prevent employees from becoming sadistic. The author has worked many full shifts driving livestock and operating the kill chute at slaughter plants. Rotation every few hours between the kill chute and driving cattle up the chute made it easier to maintain a humane attitude. It is also easier to maintain a good attitude in plants with a slower line speed. At 1,000 hogs per hour it is almost impossible to handle the hogs properly. The constant pressure to keep up with the line leads to abuse. Maintaining respect for animals is much harder at 1,000 hogs per hour compared to 500 hogs per hour. Rotation of employees is even more essential on a high-speed line. One of the worst aspects of a high-speed line is the noise and confusion. Designing equipment to reduce noise would reduce stress on employees and animals.

The three types of approaches (Mechanical, Sadistic, and Sacred Ritual) have been repeatedly observed in over 150 slaughter plants. These three categories only apply to the people who actually do the killing and people who work in the kill-chute area. For managers the most common attitude is simply denial of the reality of killing. Some good managers who really care about animals often become upset when they have to watch the kill chute, but they express their caring by enforcing a strict code of employee conduct and spending money on good equipment. The paradox is that it is difficult to care about animals but be involved in killing them.


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