Growing up, I was exposed to a number of industries in which animals are exploited for profit; my mum worked in the thoroughbred racing industry for 30 years of her life, and much of my extended family lived in rural Victoria as cattle and sheep farmers. Some of my earliest memories are that of witnessing animals suffering, and having a deep sense of unrest about what was going on. After becoming vegetarian at the age of 15, at 21 I went vegan. Much like many others who have learnt of the atrocities humans subject animals to on a daily basis, in the early years, I was angry. I felt justified in feeling absolute disdain and disgust for any person who worked within these industries, often wondering how they were able to live with themselves given what they participated in. Volunteering and working in animal advocacy for the last four years, I have changed hugely as a person and as an advocate. With this change has come a deep sense of empathy and compassion for people in industry, and an understanding that the very system used to oppress non-human animals is the same system used to oppress human animals too. I have learnt that viewing farm and abattoir workers as some kind of enemy stands in the way of finding real and meaningful paths forward towards change. Ultimately, we have all arrived at this point in history together, and the solutions we create need to be for everyone, non-human and human animals alike.

My personal experience

Like many other children, I idolised my aunties and uncles, with a deep desire to be accepted and loved by them. When I was six years old my uncle asked me if I wanted to go hunting with him and the answer was easy – of course I did. We drove to the top of the hill on which my nana lived, where a large mob of kangaroos were grazing. Much of them fled as the car pulled up beside the paddock, but two large males stayed behind, baring their chests in the face of danger, seemingly protecting their family from oncoming danger. As swiftly as I heard the gunshot, one of the males dropped to the ground, and within an instant I was crying uncontrollably. My uncle vowed to never bring me hunting again as we approached the kangaroo’s body, where he proceeded to use a knife to stab the kangaroo in the head repeatedly; to most outsiders a callous and cruel act, to my uncle a kindness, ensuring they weren’t to die a slow and agonising death. 

On another occasion, I recall spending time with another family member whilst they herded a flock of sheep from one paddock to another. As I sat on the four wheeler following the herd of sheep, I noticed one sheep with a badly injured leg. I proudly pointed out to my uncle the injured sheep, expecting he would immediately provide them with medical attention; instead he responded, ‘she’ll be right’. I now understand that these memories have stuck with me because they were the first time I was faced with feelings of moral inconsistency; I loved animals and these things I was witnessing happen to them was at odds with that.

The years following my transition to veganism I cut off contact from my extended family, writing them off as animal abusers who I had no desire to have relationships with. It has only been through years of working in the investigative sphere, witnessing unspeakable atrocities inflicted upon animals, that I have learnt my family are only a product of all they have ever known. In order to consistently view animals suffering, investigators, for the most part, must turn off their emotions to animals and just get on with the job they have at hand. It becomes easier to understand how workers in farms and abattoirs are able to do the work that they do – they become desensitized to the suffering they are inflicting. Most farmers are generational; they have been handed down the life they are living and the work they are doing, and it is all they have ever known. For many, a path out of animal agriculture is impossible to find or take. My family are not inherently bad people, they are living the life they inherited from their family before them. Demonising them and what they do is never going to change the reality animals are facing, it only acts to cause further divide when the solutions we seek need to be for them too.

Mental and physical health of workers

It is not in human nature to want to harm animals; asking children growing up what they want to do when they are older, you seldom hear any child tell you they want to work in an abattoir slaughtering animals. The work is physically and mentally demanding, with a serious injury rate three times that of any other industry in the US. Amputations, dislocated fingers, second degree burns and head trauma are among some of the serious injuries suffered by meat workers every week. Additionally, workers in slaughterhouses are exposed to extreme temperatures, intense noise, harsh chemicals and bacteria, as well being seven times more likely to experience repetitive strain injuries compared to any other industry.

The hands of an abattoir worker who has developed arthritis.

In addition to the physical toll these industries have on workers, there is now irrefutable evidence to suggest that working within the animal agriculture industry, particularly in slaughtering facilities, is hugely detrimental to the mental health of workers. Perpetrator-induced traumatic stress refers to the trauma experienced by someone inflicting repeated acts of violence on others. Sufferers are known to seek similar help to that of war veterans, experiencing anxiety, anger, fear, hostility and even psychoticism.

But who are these workers and why would they have chosen to work in such a dangerous environment in the first place? Why don’t they just find employment elsewhere? 

The truth is most workers in this industry have minimal opportunities to find alternative employment. Many are immigrants or resettled refugees, whose situations are exploited to work in a job that is both physically and mentally unsafe, to ensure they can make ends meet for themselves and their family. Sure, there may be some outliers, people who enjoy working in these places and inflicting harm upon animals, but the overwhelming majority are in these jobs out of circumstance, not choice.

A perfect example of this exploitation was seen in recent Australian media, which shed light on the trade of workers from poorer countries who are desperate to resettle in Australia, and placed in abattoirs due to a shortage of locals willing to fill such positions.

Moving forward

Despite how we may initially feel about the people who work within the animal agriculture industry, it is essential that we realise the very people working in these industries are also victims of an exploitative system. Veganism encompasses a desire to reduce suffering of sentient beings, and as such it is important we are working towards a world where the suffering of both human and non-human animals is addressed and alleviated. We can create the kind of world we wish to live in together, but to find the paths forward to this space, we first must find the common ground on which we require to forge them.

A pig and their caretaker sharing a tender moment. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media.
Alix Livingstone

Alix Livingstone is the Campaign Director of Kindness Project. Working in animal rights for the last four years, she has spent this time investigating, researching, writing, speaking, and educating on the different ways in which animals are exploited, particularly in our food system. Alix has a particular passion for advocating in the space where wildlife and farmed animals intersect and her work focuses closely on this area. Alix holds a Bachelor in Education and worked with children for a number of years whilst volunteering for animal protection groups, before having the privilege of working in animal rights full-time. Alix believes that the only way to dismantle the animal industrial complex is through advocating for all who are harmed by it; humans, non-human animals, and the planet alike. Alix trusts that through building community, empowering its members, and forging systemic solutions, a better world for all can be discovered.