Last month, an employee at a Fresno slaughterhouse shot four co-workers before attempting to take his own life. Many claimed to be puzzled by this outburst, and the president of the slaughterhouse declared the incident to be a "random act."
But was it? There's no way to prove concretely that slaughterhouse work caused this gruesome assault, but I think it's worth examining whether this man's decision to kill humans in a setting where thousands of animals are killed daily was more than coincidental.
As a society, we maintain a paradoxical relationship with the animal world. On the one hand, we agree that killing a dog or a cat is an act of violence, but we rationalize and romanticize the annual slaughter of 10 billion birds, pigs and cows because it is socially acceptable.
But socially sanctioned violence is still violence, and the violence inherent in killing animals — for whatever purpose — has undeniable psychological consequences for those who participate. There is much research to be done in this field, but the theory is not new. The "Sinclair Hypothesis, which posits that the propensity for violent crime is increased by work that involves the routine slaughter of other animals, is named after the author of the provocative and policy-changing 1906 novel, "The Jungle." But writers, philosophers and humanists have been making the connection between animal abuse and violent crime for centuries.
However, we need look no further than the slaughterhouse workers themselves, and what they say about their daily roles as "knockers," "shacklers," "stickers" and "gutters," is sobering. Pressured to meet killing quotas or lose their jobs, employees routinely vent their frustrations by torturing the animals; videos reveal workers ripping the heads off chickens, playing football with live turkeys and poking pigs and cattle in sensitive areas with electric prods.
Such revelations, along with data collected and examined by sociologists and psychologists, suggest that a cold mentality toward animal life, a mentality necessitated by such work, might in turn cheapen regard for human life.
Provided what we know about the social-psychological connections between animal abuse and human violence, I think we need to take seriously the possibility that systematic violence against animals can lead to "random" violence against humans.
With a Perspective, I'm Colleen Patrick-Goudreau.
Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is an Oakland-based author who writes about food, compassion, and animal advocacy. She co-wrote this piece with James McWilliams, an Austin-based historian and author of several books.