This article was originally published on VICE Germany, via the Zurich office.
In the small village of Stein in the north of Switzerland, at least one living creature dies every Monday. Often at the hands of Bobby Müller.
Each week, farmers bring their livestock to the Müller family butchery, where Bobby, his siblings and a total of ten employees have been slaughtering animals, de-boning them and selling or cooking them for catering events for almost 30 years. I wanted to know how killing professionally affects Bobby, and what goes through his mind as he pulls the trigger. So, I asked.
MUNCHIES: What was it like for you to kill an animal for the first time?
Bobby Müller: It was a very strange feeling. The first animal I killed was a sow. I was 16 years old. My father was also a butcher and often took me to work, so I knew what was going to happen. Right at the beginning of my apprenticeship I saw how an animal is stunned [the word “stun” can be used to describe either making an animal unconscious or killing it. Bobby uses it to describe killing] with a bolt or electric shock. It's amazing, one second it's still standing, the next – boom! – the animal crashes lifelessly to the ground. The first time I used the bolt gun myself was intense. I wanted to do it right, so that it wouldn't suffer. When the animal was dead, I was amazed that I’d been able to do it.
And how does it feel today?
It's easier today. You need a calm attitude and to know exactly what you’re doing. I mentally go through the slaughter plan, adjust to the animal and try to assess its mood. Animals react to a person's attitude – if I go about my work in a calm and determined way, the animal will sense that. Before I apply the bolt gun [which kills by delivering a sharp strike to the head] or the shock tongs [which kill by electrocuting the animal], I think to myself, "OK, it's your turn, I'll put you out of your misery". That may sound a bit esoteric, but I think it's better than pulling the trigger impulsively.
How does the killing process work exactly?
Every Monday, we order the animals to our slaughterhouse. The vet first assesses the animals' behaviour and checks any medical findings. Then, it's time to stay calm. As soon as the door to the transporter [vehicle] opens, we try to be quiet and careful, to limit stress to the animal. We lead animals one by one to the slaughter room so they don’t have to watch the slaughter. I don't think they mind, but I think it's just more respectful that way. Then we stun the animal, either with the bolt gun for large livestock or with the stun gun for smaller animals, like sheep.
But that's not always the case, we regularly see animals tortured in slaughterhouses, don't we?
Especially in large farms, things are sometimes more brutal, yes. There, the meat is often treated as a commodity. When you kill on a daily basis, you lose touch with the animal and only see meat. After my apprenticeship I worked in a company like that. A total of 260 pigs were slaughtered in one hour. That takes its toll on you physically, too. Every day I cut belly fat out of pigs with a metal claw, and by the weekend my fingers were completely swollen. After two months, I quit. I think the life of an animal has to be appreciated. I can guarantee that in a small butcher's shop like ours, but in a large company that's often no longer possible.
Does killing just become routine at some point?
To a certain extent, sure. At a certain point, you learn where to put the machine to ensure a quick and correct stunning. But I've always had trouble with calves. They like to suck my fingers when I lead them into the slaughterhouse and they are just sweet and cute. I've had the shakes and felt queasy several times.
You could just stop killing animals.
Humans have been killing for food for so long. In the Stone Age, people [debatably] drove animals down cliffs to hunt them. But today you can kill animals humanely for their meat. It’s also important that we know where the meat comes from: from a living animal and not pre-packaged from the supermarket.
Under what circumstances would you refuse to slaughter an animal?
If I didn’t have the opportunity or the equipment to slaughter the animal properly. For example, the slaughter technique – where an animal is bled to death without anaesthesia with a cut to its neck – that's something I can't see the point of. The nervous systems of both humans and animals are designed to keep our body alive even if we suffer a severe injury. The adrenalin keeps us conscious, so I find it hard to imagine that the slaughter technique is a suffering-free method of killing an animal.
Would you kill your own pet?
Yes, I've had to do that a few times. I've killed all my horses myself so far when it was their time. And sometimes a neighbour's dog. But always for health reasons.
Have you ever had sleepless nights because of your job?
Not me personally, but a colleague who worked in a large slaughterhouse a few years ago told me he couldn't get any sleep at night. His colleagues were getting drunk after work, but he couldn’t. He ended up quitting.
Do many butchers have drinking problems?
You can't make that connection so easily. It’s more that in larger-scale slaughterhouses, it’s like working on an assembly line. I experienced that myself, I was in the zone for eight hours and all I did was work. I went home in the evening and couldn't wind down because I was still so full of adrenalin. If you drink your after-work beer in that zone, you continue with that attitude.
As a butcher, you have to be aware that every slaughter is a new challenge. You can't become emotionally numb and you have to be aware of what you are doing. The job is actually like a relationship – you have to stay in touch with how you’re feeling and work on yourself. That's the only way to deal with it.