By definition, euthanasia should be timely and humane; on the farm, however, achieving both goals can be difficult. Most managers understand that euthanasia is an important part of good husbandry, but that doesn't necessarily make the process any easier to carry out. Also, today fewer agricultural employees have a farming background or practical experience in caring for animals.
Morgan Morrow and Robert Meyer, researchers at North Carolina State University, have found little research on the attitudes of farm-animal workers toward euthanasia. However, when the two researchers asked farm workers, most said they don't enjoy the task.
In a survey of job satisfaction, farrowing managers reported the most dissatisfaction with their job– 31.3 percent said their job satisfaction "needs changes" or was "poor". That compares with managers at 17.2 percent who said the same things; assistant managers, 26.9 percent; and herdsman, 24.4 percent. "We surmise that at least a part of their dissatisfaction is associated with their job requirement of having to euthanatize many poor-doing piglet," says Morrow.
For businesses in general, and for the livestock industry in particular, hiring and retaining quality employees is an increasingly difficult task. To help reduce labor turnover, management must be sensitive to factors contributing to employee unease and if it's related to euthanasia you will need a special effort to resolve those issues.
"We suspect farm workers' attitudes to euthanasia vary according to their prior experience," says Morrow. For example, people raised on farms that have euthanatized animals before, or seen others do it, may be less likely to find it objectionable. Part of the reason people dislike euthanatizing animals is that they transfer their fear and the unpleasantness they associate with the death of a human to the death of an animal, notes Morrow.
Farm managers must recognize differences in people's aversion to euthanasia and delegate the responsibilities accordingly, he adds. If people are constantly and reluctantly exposed to euthanasia they can experience dissatisfaction with their work. It can cause absenteeism, belligerence or careless and callous handling of animals.
"We are limited to euthanasia methods that act through mechanisms of direct neuronal depression, disruption of brain activity, and hypoxia to cause rapid unconsciousness and humane death," notes Morrow. "Regardless of the method, people are disturbed less by the process when they feel distanced from the physical act of euthanasia or when animals exhibit little or no movement."
For example, laboratory technicians reported they felt more comfortable gassing animals, where they were more dissociated from the animals' death, than directly killing the animal with cervical dislocation. Focus groups consisting of North Carolina swine farm managers told the North Carolina State researchers that they would prefer euthanasia methods "where you could give a shot and the animal goes to sleep" over the physical methods currently in use.
Because the euthanasia process often combines physical restraint of an animal with a lethal action or chemical agent, animal handlers can become injured. Less well understood, however, is that some farm workers suffer psychological distress when asked to euthanatize animals.
"This is a poorly understood area in production agriculture," notes Morrow. He advises that you or your managers spend time analyzing who is most affected, how can you address their concerns, how can their distress be alleviated? He adds that each farm needs to make this area a priority and provide employees with clear criteria for treatment or euthanasia of farm animals. You also need to provide appropriate equipment for the job and follow up with proper and continuous employee training.