The human toll of animal euthanasia

Unpleasant work Humane euthanasia methods 
are just as important for those who do the deed

Reading Time: 3 minutes

If you’re going to raise livestock, you inevitably must deal with deadstock — and sometimes you have to put it out of its misery.

While euthanasia is an accepted reality of animal production, its human toll is often ignored, industry observers say.

“I think in the last few years we have realized the importance of euthanasia in terms of animal welfare, and for the perception and the viability of our industry,” said Tina Widowski, a University of Guelph researcher who specializes in farm animal welfare. “We’ve also realized the importance of it from the perspective of the stockperson.”

Despite the fact animals will get sick or injured — be it a household pet, a farm animal or a lab animal — openly discussing euthanasia is taboo for some people.

But the issue was brought to the forefront recently when provincial officials responding to a complaint regarding a Manitoba hog farm euthanized 1,300 young pigs with rifles.

“Somebody has to do it and I have great respect for the people from the province who undertake these mass euthanizations with farm animals. It’s not easy to do,” said Winnipeg Humane Society CEO Bill McDonald.

There are emotional risks that come with repeat or intense exposure to animal euthanizations, including the development of compassion fatigue, he said.

Also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder, the condition is often linked to professions like nursing and policing, and is associated with a gradual erosion of a person’s ability to be compassionate over time. It may prompt feelings of hopelessness, stress, pervasive negativity and anxiety as well.

Organizations like the Winnipeg Humane Society offer staff resources to cope with compassion fatigue, and veterinarians may have access to professional training, but stockpersons confronted with the need to put down animals may not have the same emotional tools available to them.

“We always try to schedule euthanasia at the end of the day, so that we don’t have to dwell on what we’ve done for the rest of the day, and we can go home to our families and happy events, and manage that,” said Richard Hodges, director of animal care and veterinary services at the University of Manitoba.

Moot point

Some dismiss issues around euthanasia, arguing farm animals are designed for dinner plates and how or when they are killed is a moot point. But others contend the context in which livestock is killed plays a role in a person’s ability to rationalize and deal with the situation.

“The kind of psychological frame or interpretation we put on events does play a really important role in terms of how we feel about it, and how we’re able to cope with it,” said Ed Johnson, a psychology professor at University of Manitoba.

Killing a sick animal to end its suffering, or slaughtering an animal for food, may impact a person differently than killing a healthy animal because resources are scarce, or putting down a shelter animal no one wants.

Mass culls can be the most traumatic for participants. In 2001, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the Netherlands required the killing of 27,000 dairy cows.

Of the 661 farmers affected, about half were found to be suffering from severe post-traumatic distress following the cull.

For those left with feelings of distress after such events, Johnson said it’s important to seek help, even by talking to people you trust. “Many people find a lot of relief in doing that,” he said.

But if distress persists after a few months, it might be time to talk to your employer about adjusting responsibilities, or even seeking out counselling, said Johnson.

However, the dichotomy between caring for and slaughtering animals is something farmers have always had to reconcile.

“My intuition is that in order to feel happy and content in your work as a farmer… you probably have a certain philosophy or outlook on the issue that helps you have a good relationship with your animals on the one hand, and on the other hand, understand that at the end of the day these animals are going to serve as food for all of us,” said Johnson.

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist with the Manitoba Co-operator. She has previously reported for the the Metros, Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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