Almost every time Americans turn on the news, watch a movie, or read the newspaper, they witness some form of violence–often glorified. The news constantly focuses on incidents featuring cruelty and brutality and places more emphasis on reporting news involving violence because, while triggering the gag reflex of most Americans, it draws their attention to the subject at hand (Paskova). Violence is like an accident on the side of a freeway: no matter how horrible it is, people cannot help but observe it–they enjoy watching it. Because violence is eye-catching, the news covers violent events like murders and war to pull in more viewers (Paskova). Americans see violence, such as offshore conflicts, on the news so often that they lose the sense of impact that it once carried; they become desensitized. That word, “desensitized,” is common when talking about violence. But what isn’t so common is how that desensitization might affect our daily lives, our perspectives, or even our choices. Would it sound crazy if we suggested to you that watching violent film and television influences the way you choose your meat in a supermarket?
People in the United States obviously care about the protection of animals. The US is a country of animal lovers with 43,346,000 households owning dogs and 36,117,000 households owning cats (U.S. Pet Ownership). This equates to over half the households in the United States caring for these animals and could not imagine taking their lives. When individuals or companies fail to protect animals, groups such as PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, often step up and march in. PETA is the largest animal rights group in the world with over 3 million members (About PETA). This group leads the fight for animal rights and have had success in numerous countries across the world, including the United States (PETA milestones). Not only have they managed to stop the military from wound testing on animals, but also banned experimentation on lab monkeys, and have gotten many other animal rights laws enacted. Our animal love and the size and impact of groups like PETA show that we hold animal welfare close to our hearts.
There is even a growing vegan/vegetarian demographic who, because of their love of animals, have completely removed meat from their diet. In the United States currently there are 7.3 million vegetarians with at least 1 million of those being vegan, meaning they stay completely away from all animal products (Vegetarianism in America).
For those who do eat meat, there is a growing interest in sustainability and animal treatment. In the film Food Inc., we meet Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, who raises animals naturally by grazing them in pastures, and giving them feed that was naturally intended for them. People drive hours to get meats from Polyface farms, and other places like it, because they know the animals have been treated right and raised properly. There is a contract between humans and animals, as explained by Jonathan Foer in Eating Animals. This contract states that humans will care for the animals, and protect them, and in return the animals can be used to hunt, work, milk and become food at the end of their lives (Foer). Places like Polyface Farm try to fulfill their end of the contract.
But despite a growing interest, the market for humane meat and happy animals is small. All the different groups and organizations, who fight so vehemently for the rights of animals, would make it seem as though people are still very sensitive and attuned to any violent treatment against them. They make it seem as though, if we just knew how things really were, we’d change our buying and eating habits. However, these groups do not make up the majority of consumers, who have a much bigger role in preventing or encouraging violence than it would appear. How could anyone, for example, watch a film like Food Inc. or read a book like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and continue to buy factory farmed meat when they know those animals were treated miserably their whole lives? The contract that Joel Salatin uses to farm–that he will treat his animals well in exchange for their meat–has been completely squashed by factory farming. Many of us know it–if not outright, deep down.
As Americans hear that the production of meat involves mass murder and torture of billions of animals, they seem hardly fazed. The industrial food system results in the slaughter of nearly ten billion animals a year (“Factory Farming: The Truth Behind the Barn Doors”). Factory farming is a violent system at its core. Producing meat on a large scale requires the killing of billions of animals a year to simply meet the demand. It seems, to Americans, that this system is a necessary evil to feed their desires, which brings us back to the question: How might the violence so prevalent in just about every aspect of our culture affect the way we buy meat at the supermarket?
Constant exposure to violence in all forms of the media have given Americans a diminished ability to connect with animals on an emotional level. While loving their cats and their cat pictures, they munch on slices of fatty bacon that come from a pig that never saw the light of day, lived miserably, and died like it was being punished for being born. As a result of their indifference, Americans have become just as responsible for the abuse as the perpetrators of animal violence. The media has fueled a desire for violence in Americans through the increased exposure to images of war, terror, and brutality. This violence has caused consumers to become more aggressive and frustrated in their daily lives. This increased aggression has manifested itself in the terrible conditions of the meat industry, such as rampant diseases and filthy holding pens. Animals can serve as an outlet for this aggression, and the violence towards them only further reinforces a deep seated belief in human superiority over animals. Americans tend to view humans as the top of a hierarchy, followed by domestic animals, with farm animals at the bottom. Human violence towards animals in the meat industry demonstrates this hierarchical view. But abusing the animals not only reinforces the sentiment that humans are superior, it suggests a kind of sadism. As a result of seeing themselves on top of the food chain, Americans can justify and encourage the abuse of farm animals to continue feeling superior, becoming willing accomplices in the crimes committed against animals on factory farms.
George Orwell’s 1945 novel Animal Farm serves as an allegory to the rise of Communism is the Soviet Union. In the story, an old, influential pig wins the approval of other barnyard animals with his concept of Animalism. This pig soon dies, however, leaving three younger pigs to take his place and try to implement his ideas. They collectively drive out the farmer and take control of the entire farm for themselves. As tensions rise between the three of them, a greater divide grows as they manipulate others for support and power. This leads to one of the pigs ousting his main rival and taking sole control of the farm. Under the guise of equality for all, the pig drives the other animals to exhaustion for his personal benefit. Eventually, the guiding principle of the farm becomes “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” The pig continues to act even more like a human as his power grows, until the other animals cannot distinguish between the pigs and the humans. This story is meant to represent Stalin’s rise to power in Russia, using Communism as a guise and working his people for his own personal gain. It also demonstrates people’s tendency to create hierarchies where there should be none. Claims of equality can be nothing more than a tool to ensure the very opposite.
Like in Orwell’s allegory, “some animals are more equal than others” in the industrial farming system; a hierarchy of animals exists. Humans sit on the top as the “rulers” like the pigs in the novel. They receive the best treatment since they have the strongest voice and decide the treatment of those below them. They can fight against oppression and control their own treatment unlike most animals. They have the most power. The “middle class” consists of the pets that are treated as companions by humans, such as cats and dogs. Finally, at the bottom, are the farm animals that are worth nothing more than food to humans. These animals are horribly mistreated as they have no ability to speak against their mistreatment, making them less equal that those above them. Humans show that they are “more equal” than other animals by oppressing the farm animals and keeping companion animals as pets. They torture, beat, and kill animals to show they have more power and control over them.
There are many pieces of historical evidence supporting the fact that Americans do not care for the well-being of animals. Just because you love your dog, doesn’t indicate that you care about the well-being of animals. A misogynist might love his wife. A deeply religious person who believes in the love of God might still blow up innocent people. The contradictions are so stark, and yet they often blend into the background. One of the most prominent examples is how the American public so readily forgot about how awful the meat industry is. There was a drastic increase in television sales after WWII, due to both the rise of suburbia and the incredible amount of soldiers returning from the war. Major meat companies saw a way to capitalize on this increase, and did. Since the meat industry had such a negative image pre WWII–due to Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle which exposed the horrors of the meat packing industry in Chicago to the world when it sold over 150,000 copies worldwide in the first year of publication–they used this opportunity to rebrand themselves (u-s-history.com).
Due to their previous shortcomings, the American meat industry aired a vast amount of patriotic advertisements to serve as a distraction during the war. Then, after the war, those same companies took advantage of the ideal “white picket fence” image to promote their products. This, combined with the horrors of WWII, allowed the companies to get away with one of the greatest publicity turnarounds of the century.
This advertising allowed the meat industry to sell more than they had ever before, as shown in the graphs below.
Concurrently, changes following World War II helped radically increase the demand for cheap meat. Vast highway building projects, the rise and subsequent proliferation of automobiles, as well as the expansion of the fast food industry all contributed to the rise in demand for meat and the genesis of factory farming. As people began to eat fast food more and more often, they became increasingly less connected to their food than any older generations were.
By the 1960s, half as many people — approximately 15 million, compared to a previous 30 million — grew their own food and raised their own animals as there were at the start of the 1940s (Historical Timeline). This loss of touch with food slowly eroded Americans’ sense of empathy for the animals. Additionally, the rise of automobiles and the proliferation of highways helped increase our independence while degrading the amount of human-to-human interaction. This attitude towards individualism and independence from fellow humans further strengthened our apathy towards the animals that were going to be eaten anyways (Larsen).
Beyond an increase in individualism, the popularity of violence in the media has also increased, causing a subsequent rise in human aggression and cruelty. For example, the 1999 Columbine high school shooting, the deadliest school shooting up to that point, was considered a rare freak attack when two students entered the school and shot 12 students and a teacher. Now, multiple shootings occur every year, such as Sandy Hook (2012), the Aurora shooting (2012), and the UCSB Isla Vista attack (2014). Coincidentally, the growth in violence corresponds with the growth of television sales, putting violent media in every household. In the 1950’s, only 10 percent of US households had a TV. Today, more than 99 percent do (Beresin). Access to a television also allows constant exposure to violence in the media, an exposure that can have adverse effects on America’s youth. An experimental study showed that when 5-6 year old children watched a violent movie, their play style had much more physical assault and other types of aggression than the group of children who had watched a nonviolent movie (Cami). The meteoric rise of television sales after WWII has inadvertently desensitized America’s youth to acts of violence. Not only children aren’t the only ones being affected by the violence, but adults are also being forced to see more violence in news networks ever since they jumped on the “terror” bandwagon. Prior to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, using the word “terror” in a broadcast was a taboo (Nagar). According to USA Today, “‘Terrorist,’ after all, is the mother of all labels in this post-9/11 age’’(Krattenmaker). The news shifted towards patriotic anti-terrorist stories after 9/11 to boost ratings. This shift gave terrorist’s public recognition that they don’t deserve. It’s hard to deny that this barrage of violence in the media has not affected our morals or tolerance when it comes to cruelty.
As people plop themselves on their couches and turn on any one of the multiple crime shows, the audience might begin to entertain fantasies about committing acts of violence. Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold reportedly wanted a higher kill rate than Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing (Cullen). But many viewers internalize this urge because it isn’t socially acceptable or lawful (Ellison). Research links heightened aggression with exposure to violent media, such as television, video games, music videos, and social networking sites (Ellison). For example, in one study investigating the short-term effects of media violence, elementary school children exposed to one episode of Mighty-Morphin Power Rangers demonstrated significantly more (seven times) intentional acts of aggression, such as hitting, kicking, and shoving than did a group that did not watch the program (Cami). Similarly, once slaughterhouse employees are on the kill floor, it is like they are kids again. They are allowed to express their aggression with no consequences. Behind the locked doors of a slaughter house, there are no social standards. Workers can freely release their sadistic fantasies on the animals, and they often do.
The end of World War II created a new United States that people had never seen before. New inventions like fast food and the television created a convenience and satisfaction level previously unheard of. The television became America’s main source of entertainment and everybody wanted one.
Leo Bogart, TV’s first historian stated, “Television had established its place as the most important single form of entertainment” (Bogart). This state-of-the-art entertainment form was popularized and eventually reached 83% of households by 1958. As the television reached a majority of American’s homes, information was able to be conveyed directly to citizens, especially in the form of news. As time progressed news networks and Hollywood realized the success of showing violence. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 57 percent of TV programs contained violence in 1996. Since the invention of the television and the ending of World War II, violence has saturated the media. However, the controversy remains hot. Does this violence actually have significant effects on viewers?
Many believe that the media does not play a role in violence, but these same people argue that a thirty second commercial can sway someone tremendously. Whether it is the desperate search for attention, a person trying to make a statement, or the simple belief that violence is a norm, copycat crimes are committed every year in the United States. After the Columbine High School shooting, police reported 52 bomb threats or scares. A poll found 37 percent of teens to know of similar threats at their own schools. In the United Kingdom, Director Stanley Kubrick withdrew his movie, “A Clockwork Orange,” in Britain after youths imitated the rape scene seen in the film. “Television doesn’t cause copycat crimes, but it does plant the ideas in vulnerable and troubled minds” (Tom Lehrer). But now, we can start seeing all of these ideas come together. In a ludicrous and desperate attempt to shock, Dolce and Gabbana released a highly controversial advertisement, which appeared to show a glorified and “elegant” gang rape.
Or how about this one, by Voodoo:
But you can’t show good, gritty violence in the news without a good source, right? Enter war. War has inadvertently contributed to the “war against animals” by desensitizing us to soldiers’ experiences and them to harsh realities of dealing with the consequences. As soon as soldiers start training, they often become numb towards killing because they undergo constant verbal and physical brutalization, as well as intense brainwashing to think the us-versus-enemy mindset (Dave). After spending time at war, soldiers have problems coping with their losses and experiences. Over fifty percent of the Vietnam Veterans who came back from the Vietnam War were diagnosed with PTSD (McNally). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has a large effect on brain, including violent emotional arousal (HelpGuide). As part of a project to create more jobs for veterans, the USDA created a bill in 2008 which coordinated a program to reach out to unemployed veterans to work as farmhands, ranchers, and other agricultural positions (”USDA | Outreach …”). It is an irony that is lost on many.
As a result of this violence, war, and PTSD, there have been many reports of soldiers returning for war and taking out their aggression on their pets or family members (Bannerman). Families who are related to veterans are at the highest risk of being in lethal domestic violence. They are often blinded to severity of the violence because it is done by the people they love. Many cases of domestic violence go unreported to police. And even fewer cases of violence inflicted on animals are reported (Trollinger).
Part of the problem is that violence is ingrained into the American identity. Even George Washington, America’s first president, is seen as the courageous general who fought the oppressive British for freedom. In an interview of American youth following 9/11, many of the boys who were interviewed “found war exciting” (Garatti). Perhaps even more revealing was the fact that many of the interviewees believed that “war is good if the US wins” (Garatti). If war is not seen as a last resort, which it obviously is not, and our taxpayer dollars go to supporting our wars, how can any of us claim to be innocent? How can we be innocent of the PTSD or our soldiers? And how on earth can we claim to be innocent of violence and cruelty when we turn on our televisions to it and buy it in our supermarkets?
One psychological phenomenon – Terror Management Theory – provides some explanation as to why our culture is so prone to accepting and advocating for acts of violence. This theory states humans fear death, and violence is a reminder that everyone is mortal and someday will perish (Pysszcynski). The bombings, shootings, and massacres that Americans witness on the news or on the front page of the newspaper enter everyday lives of civilians and increase overall anxiety. The natural instinct of humans is to build up barriers against fear by reminding one’s self of his or her worth and importance, which can be seen as a buildup of human superiority (Harmon-Jones). It’s not so unlike the hierarchy established in Orwell’s Animal Farm. This is a way that Americans can distance themselves from enemies or particular things that threaten the comfort of their independence. If we have the ability to kill and be cruel, isn’t that associated with power? Sure, violence feeds fear, but at the same time it fuels superiority. This superiority translates not only to the way other cultures are perceived, but also to the way we think about animals. When a consumer is influenced by war, and anxious about the threat that it brings, or worried about the struggles that accompany living in a competitive environment, or anxious about saving money for a new house or iPhone or SUV, animal cruelty in the factory farming system doesn’t stand out as a major problem. In fact, it just seems to reinforce our human superiority. “Look at me,” we can say. “I can drive to store and buy a whole chicken for a few bucks and never get my hands dirty. Thank you human superiority.”
By now it’s clear that most American consumers are more concerned with satisfying their needs than concerning themselves with the ethics behind the food they eat. Consumers too often perceive animals as components of the mass, not individual beings that can feel suffering (MacCormack). The United States Coast Guard uses animals as a means for training deployed soldiers in trauma care. Director Oliver Stone alongside PETA released a video exposing the inhumane acts inflicted upon these animals. In the video, a goat is deprived of anesthetics and has its limbs chopped off with a tree trimmer (Oliver Stone Exposes…). Commandant Manson Brown of the U.S. Coast Guard, along with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, conducted an investigation in response to the video. His report stated “no misconduct was committed by any Coast guard members” (Brown) due to the fact that live tissue trauma training is necessary, personnel were under military orders to attend, and no laws or regulations were broken. Brown’s only justification centered around the necessity of using the animal, and didn’t address the moral implications of harming and torturing a live creature. The American mindset mimics that of Brown. In this situation, the goat, like any animal in the factory farming system, was treated as a tool. When an animal is killed in a factory farm simply to make money, and later served on a dinner plate as a piece of cheap protein, the ethics got left behind. Like trauma training, factory farmed animals are used as a means of serving human needs because the hierarchical aspect of American culture requires that human needs be satisfied first.
By now, you’re probably wondering about the workers themselves. Like war in the Middle East, factory farming can seem foreign and distant to us because we don’t see it in front of our eyes. But the workers do. And it’s one thing to buy bacon in a supermarket, but quite another to kill or beat an animal yourself, right? Big difference.
But just like all of us, instead of viewing animals as individuals with their own emotions, factory farm workers need to create some distance in order to minimize the guilt felt as a result of the horrendous aspects of the factory farming system. In order to accomplish this, workers view animals as inferior beings. According to an anonymous worker in factory farming industry, “I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I got personal with [the animals]” (Joy). Sometimes this sort of disengagement leads the workers to commit terrible acts of violence against the animals in their care.
This moral disengagement really isn’t much different than what is happening at the consumer level. Through the act of eating meat, consumers are inadvertently responsible for perpetuating the cruelty. However, this moral disengagement allows them to eat food without feeling guilty about being a part of the problem. In a study done for the European Journal of Psychology, participants were asked to list emotions that they associate with different animals. The study found that most omnivores could describe less emotions with animals from the food industry than they could with companion animals and other humans, whereas vegetarians were capable of listing the same amount of emotions for farm animals as for companion animals and humans. (Bilewicz). Although this is a European study, the psychology behind it holds true in the United States. Consumers tend to associate the same sorts of feelings with companion animals as they do with other humans and then dissociate those feelings from animals bred for consumption. It all comes back to that mythic hierarchy in Animal Farm that tries to explain away consumer guilt.
Many meat-eating consumers claim that they do not belong in this category, because they eat “free range” or “grass fed” or “organic.” However, those terms have nothing to do with animal treatment, and are often misleading. Trying to find cruelty free meat in America today is harder than finding gold nuggets. Over 99% of the animals in the US are raised in factory farms (ASPCA). Remember Joel Salatin from Food Inc.? He said it well, when he stated, “A culture that uses a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure to be manipulated by whatever design a human can foist on that critter will probably view individuals within its community and other cultures [in the community of nations] with the same type of disdain and disrespect” (Food Inc.). It’s not just about us or you. When a culture adopts violent methods to treat animals, the same mentality creeps into other aspects of our lives and infects our perspectives. And that is why we are able to see a powerful connection between abusing animals and violence towards humans.
An article by PETA claims that many notorious serial killers have had a history of abusing animals as children (Animal Abuse and Human Abuse). A study done by the Australian news also supported the claim that human violence and animal violence are related. The report claims that factory farmers’ aggression levels were similar to people who are incarcerated (Slaughterhouse Workers). It mentions that the act of slaughtering the animals contributes to the desensitization of violence for the worker. A study conducted by MSPCA and Northeastern University shows that people who abuse animals are five times as likely to commit crimes on humans.
Naysayers who acknowledge violence while ignoring the desensitization use phrases such as “it’s human nature” and “it’s natural” in order to explain away things which they would rather not address. People around the world suppress or ignore their violent impulses rather than acknowledge them. If violence and abuse toward animals is nothing more than human nature, surely there must be examples everywhere. However, observation demonstrates that humans are the only creatures on the planet which kill and injure for reasons other than basic survival, even taking pleasure in cruelty and vengeance (Masson). Mankind has yet to see any other species beat one of its own kind for information or secrets. No one would argue that nature isn’t gritty and that animals aren’t violent or predatory. But that is comparing apples to AK 47s, assault rifles, and atomic bombs. You show us a monkey who likes to watch blood spill and heads be cut off on a television screen. Better yet, let’s compare apples to apples and see how human beings behave elsewhere in the world.
Switzerland, the oldest neutral country in the world, treats their animals far more humanely than Americans in their factory farms. America seems to have a war mentality that the Swiss do not possess. Switzerland, a country that prides itself on diplomacy and peace, does not get involved with armed conflict in other countries. Switzerland has not gotten involved in a war since 1847 (Bachmann). While the Swiss have sent members of the militia to support UN peacekeeping operations (Bachmann), one can easily see a stark difference between their attitude toward war and peace and our own here in America. The Swiss belief in peace and harmony has a clear correlation to their treatment of animals. They make animal welfare a priority, and passed legislation to help animals lead to a better life; one law made it a requirement for farmers to let horses and cattle have exercise for 60 days in the summer and 30 days in the winter (Djurresn Ratt). We have no such laws. Another law states that it is illegal to keep hens in cages, which was praised to be the “greatest animal welfare advancement in history” by the European Union (Animals Australia). We have no such law. Unlike Switzerland, the United States has not been able to stay neutral in armed conflict since the start of the First World War, and hens are still cruelly restricted in cages for their entire lives. Cattle are kept in filthy feedlots without proper exercise.
Sweden too has a largely peaceful mentality unmatched in America (Mille). Like Switzerland they have numerous laws protecting animals. And when was the last time you heard about Swedish forces killing innocent people in the Middle East or conducting drone strikes? In fact, in Sweden, livestock have what is called a “bill of rights” devoted exclusively to their welfare, established way back in 1988. According to the New York Times, “Under an animal-welfare law enacted in July, cattle, pigs and chickens are being freed from the restrictions of intensive, or factory-farming methods, in which animals are kept in crowded conditions and antibiotics and hormones are often administered.” American federal law has not one regulation in place concerned with the treatment of animals on farms. Meanwhile in Sweden: “Swedish cattle have been given grazing rights under the new law. Pigs can no longer be tethered and must be granted separate bedding and feeding places. Both cows and pigs, the law states, must have ‘access to straw and litter.’ Chickens must be let out of their cramped cages. No drugs or hormones can be used on farm animals, except to treat disease.” We could on. We could look at Finland and Denmark and Norway. But you get the point. We are not saying that war and media violence are necessarily the cause or effect of violence against animals. But we are supporting a connection. It’s hard to argue that this level of violence is in our nature and in our blood, when the same level of violence is largely missing in a country like Sweden. You tell a Swede that you love animals, and see what he or she thinks of it when you admit you eat factory farmed meat. It isn’t just about human superiority or the “animal farm.” It’s about American exceptionalism too.
This exceptionalism, guided by our ability to accept these levels of cruelty as simply a fact of life, exhibits a kind of psychopathy towards animals in the factory farming industry. Like psychopaths, we seem to believe in our superiority, weasel our way out of the arguments that are inconvenient, and manage to be accomplices in pervasive violence that exists against those forms of “protoplasmic inanimate structure” that are weaker than us.
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