Mark Bridger was yesterday convicted of killing five-year-old April Jones. Bridger was a slaughterman. His job demanded that he extinguish life quickly, dispassionately and daily. He was required to cut throats, drain blood and not give those creatures a second thought. It would be a poor slaughterman who allowed the spilled blood and screaming of frightened animals to keep him awake at night, but those were the very images and sounds that haunted me as I embarked on Animal Aid’s three-year investigation into cruelty inside UK slaughterhouses.
In 2009, Animal Aid began placing fly-on-the-wall cameras inside nine English abattoirs and filmed everyday events and practices inside these killing factories. No one – including the vets who are stationed there – had any idea of the level of criminality and animal abuse taking place inside. Among the crimes we filmed were: pigs burnt with cigarettes; animals punched, kicked, beaten, dragged by their ears and tails, and picked up by their fleeces and thrown; animals electrically goaded in the face and anus; pigs deliberately given electric shocks through their tails, legs, ears, snouts and open mouths; animals going to the knife without adequate stunning; animals stunned and then allowed to come round again; seriously injured pigs forced to drag themselves through the slaughter pen; animals being kicked in the face, slapped and thrown to the floor; and sheep being decapitated while still alive.
The workers’ attitude to their suffering was usually callous indifference. Staff at a Wiltshire slaughterhouse, for example, repeatedly walked past two young calves who crashed down onto the slippery slaughterhouse floor over and over again for three hours without taking action. Suffering was not always met with such indifference; some workers took obvious pleasure in the plight of animals. In Essex, one worker squared up to a pig who was cowering in a corner, and mocked her: ‘You’re going to get cut.’ In another slaughterhouse, workers yelled ‘yee-ha’ as a pig scrambled and leapt to escape the electric shock being sent through her brain, while in a Somerset abattoir, the slaughterman sang the theme from James Bond while he killed a sheep with a captive bolt gun.
In all, I watched more than 200 hours of slaughterhouse footage. In the beginning, I found it an unbearable task, and tears came easily each time I saw a brutal act or a poignant sight, such as the lamb who continued to suckle his mother while she was being killed. I cried while driving to work, and I cried driving home. At night, I cried more. However, by the time the footage from the fourth slaughterhouse landed on my desk, I was able to eat my lunch while reviewing it. In short, I had become desensitised.
It was a shock to realise that my ability to empathise had dissipated so quickly, but the mind knows how best to protect itself, and shutting down those feelings – even temporarily – was essential to prevent me from going to pieces. Thankfully, the process soon reversed once the investigation was over, but if desensitisation was the only way I could cope with the sights I saw, how much more necessary is it for those who actually wield the knife and cut the throats? I believe that desensitisation is not only inevitable, it is essential for those who undertake that job, and it may explain why we found the abuse of animals in eight out of nine slaughterhouses, in plants of varying sizes, in six different counties, and directed at all species. Desensitisation is the reason why those slaughterhouse workers battered, kicked and goaded animals they saw as unwilling and obstinate, where we saw only animals paralysed with fear.
After a lengthy battle to get the authorities to take action, two workers were finally jailed in April 2012, although many more should have been brought in front of the courts. Our filming may be over but the question that remains in my mind is whether these men had a propensity to violence before they became slaughtermen, or whether the job itself significantly influenced their attitudes and behaviour.
Some years ago, I wrote a report directed at prosecutors, judges and the police about the link between cruelty to animals and violence to people. There is now significant evidence to suggest that those who enjoyed harming animals as children may have a propensity towards harming their fellow humans later in life. There are plenty of high profile examples to illustrate this, including 1960s child killer, Mary Bell, Moors murderer Ian Brady, Dunblane murderer, Thomas Hamilton, and the so-called railway killers, David Mulcahy and John Duffy, who raped and / or murdered 15 women between 1982 and 1986 in London and the Home Counties.
When asked to produce a version of the report for law enforcers in Australia and Asia, I had no trouble finding equivalent stomach-churning cases to cite, and colleagues in the USA had already produced a report for their country. In America, where most of the detailed research into this phenomenon has been conducted, the FBI found that a history of cruelty to animals is one of the traits that regularly appears in the records of serial rapists and murderers. Says Robert Ressler of the FBI’s Behavioural Sciences Unit, ‘These are the kids who never learned it was wrong to poke out a puppy’s eyes.’
Research in the UK has found that violence directed against a spouse or a child may also be directed at a domestic ‘pet’, and that batterers may control their human victims by harming or threatening to harm animals. Recognising this, the NSPCC and the RSPCA jointly hosted a conference back in 2001, hoping to forge links between different agencies to better combat all domestic abuse. And last month, it was reported that vets in Scotland were being trained by police to spot signs of violence in the animals brought to them, and also in the people who brought them in. A multi-agency approach to eradicating domestic violence is logical and valuable. However, both research and positive action are significantly less advanced when it comes to those individuals who routinely and quite legally cause harm to animals, individuals like Mark Bridger.
When Animal Aid’s slaughterhouse investigations made the national news, we received a number of calls from workers keen to share their own experiences. One man expressed concern that a colleague at his slaughterhouse had just been released from prison following a conviction for rape. We checked the conditions for issuing slaughter licences and found that the questionnaire asked only that applicants declare animal welfare convictions. Those who have convictions for harming people, no matter how vicious or sadistic the attack, are welcome to apply for a licence to kill animals. And those who do have convictions for abusing animals but fail to declare them can also rest easy, as no CRB checks are undertaken. Unsurprisingly, then, when we asked the Food Standards Agency how many licensed slaughterers had unspent convictions for violent or sexual assaults, it didn’t know.
What we do know is that there are a significant number of slaughterhouse employees who have also deliberately harmed people, including: John McFarlane who used a captive bolt gun to kill a woman he had been stalking; Nathan Morgan, who was jailed for kicking and punching a passer-by; Patrick Colleran, who was convicted of raping two women; John Smith, who killed his wife, having already been convicted more than once of assaulting her; Peter Newbery, who sexually assaulted and murdered two teenagers in a care home; Paul Weedon, who slit the throat of a pensioner; Drew Affleck, who set fire to a house, killing three people; Paul Harry Smith who was jailed for beating up his pregnant girlfriend; Jason Baldwin, who killed, disemboweled and butchered his neighbour; and now, of course, Mark Bridger who killed April Jones in 2012.
Obviously not all slaughterers harm people, but a key question is whether they are more likely to do so than, say, bus drivers or bankers. A 2012 Australian study found that slaughterhouse workers are more inclined to commit acts of violence. The lead researcher, Dr Taylor, found that their levels of aggression were ‘so high they’re similar to the scores… for incarcerated populations’. These findings corroborate a 2010 Canadian study, which found that violent crimes including sexual assault and rape increase in towns once an abattoir moves in.
There remain many unanswered questions concerning the psychological effects of working in a slaughterhouse, and more research is undoubtedly needed. We need to know how many slaughterhouse workers already have unspent convictions for violence before they start killing animals for a living, and we need to know for how many others, and to what extent, the job itself desensitises them and leads them inexorably on towards harming people.
For those employed to slit the throats, eviscerate the organs and butcher the corpses of the 850 million animals who enter British slaughterhouses each year, the business of killing is normalised. More than that, it is rewarded with a pay cheque. So, why are we surprised when these desensitised men go off the rails and harm innocent people? For, in employing people to do what we are too squeamish to do ourselves, society helps to create this monster, and society must share some of the culpability when its victims are human.