"You know they are alive because they are breathing real hared, they
make noise, they kick the other cows, and it moves the whole chain." --
excerpt from affidavit of slaughterhouse employee
When the suggestion was made that I visit a slaughterhouse to observe
first-hand blatant infractions upon the rights of animals, I was very skeptical.
The reason for my skepticism was that I felt a slaughterhouse did not present an
example of cruelty far enough removed from everyday life to be poignant or
relevant in a discussion of animal rights. I felt that I should be writing on
something a little more esoteric or something considered cruel or immoral, such
as the clubbing to death of baby seals. I was gravely mistaken. And the fact
that what goes on inside a slaughterhouse is done because of the demand the vast
majority of the American public has for the flesh of other living beings makes
it all the more poignant and relevant. There is no convenient escape from
guilt by association for what goes on inside a slaughterhouse as there is from
the case of the baby seals in the Arctic. While it is easy for most of us to
refrain from purchasing the goods for which seals were slain -- thus incurring
no guilt for their deaths -- most people willingly (and thoughtlessly) eat the
flesh of one type of animal or another whose life has been terminated within the
walls of a slaughterhouse.
As I stepped from my car in the parking lot of the packing plant, the
combination of sounds and smells emanating from the corrugated metal structure
made me question whether or not this was something I really wanted to go through
with. The first thing to hit my senses was the sound of cattle -- not the pleas-
ant bucolic mooing one might hear on a stroll down a country lane next to a
small farm, but a rapid, frantic mooing. It was the kind of mooing I heard
during a weekend stay at my uncle's dairy farm when one of the cows was attacked
by stray dogs. Aside from the noise, the release of adrenaline in her body made
the cow drool, and caused her nose to run so profusely that she briefly had
difficulty breathing. At that moment in the parking lot, I could only sense
discomfort in the sound of the cows, but later I discovered that each one
awaiting slaughter in the chute leading to the "killing stall" was suffering the
same symptoms of terror I witnessed at my uncle's farm.
The second thing I noticed was also a sound. As I walked toward the building,
I heard the strange muffled whine that can only come from a saw cutting bone
still encased in flesh. At this point I realized that I was not prepared for
what I was about to experience. That feeling was intensified to the point of
nausea when, as I walked closer, I caught my first whiff of the combination of
smells that I would have to endure for the next few hours: the oddly sickening
odor of newly slaughtered flesh still so warm from the life so recently removed
that steam rises from it; the not so oddly nauseating stench of the sausage and
hot dog meat boilers; and the quiet, cold reeking of flesh hanging, carcass
after carcass, row upon row, in the freezer storage area. My imagination had
prepared me a little bit for the visual experience, but I was entirely
unprepared for the almost unbearable smell that permeated the entire plant.
After brief "pleasantries" with Jerry, the production manager of the plant, I
was allowed to proceed through the building unguided and at my own pace. I began
the tour "where it all starts", as Jerry put it, in the "kill shed".
I entered the kill shed through a short, tunnel-like hall through which I
could see what I soon learned was the third butchering station. The kill shed
consisted of one room in which a number of operations are performed by one or
two of six butchers at four stations along the length of the room. In the kill
shed there is also a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector
who examines parts of every animal who goes through the kill shed.
The first station is the killing station. It is worked by one man whose job
is to herd the animal into the killing stall, slaughter him or her, and begin
the butchering process. This stage of the process takes about ten minutes for
each animal, and begins with the opening of a heavy steel door that separates
the killing stall from the waiting chute. The man working this station must then
go into a corridor adjacent to the waiting chute, and prod his next victim into
the killing stall with a high-voltage electric cattle prod. This is the most
time-consuming part of the operation because the cattle are fully aware of what
lies ahead, and are determined not to enter the killing stall. The physical
symptoms of terror were painfully evident on the faces of each and every animal
I saw either in the actual killing stall or in the waiting chute. During the 40
seconds to a minute that each animal had to wait in the killing stall before
losing consciousness, the terror became visibly more intense. The animal could
smell the blood, and see his or her former companions in various stages of
dismemberment. During the last few seconds of life, the animal thrashes about
the stall as much as its confines allow. All four of the cows whose deaths I
witnessed strained frantically, futilely, and pathetically towards the ceiling
-- the only direction that was not blocked by a steel door. Death came in the
form of a pneumatic nail gun that was placed against their heads and fired.
The gun is designed so that the nail never completely leaves the gun, but
simply is blown into the animal's head and then pulled out by the butcher as the
animal collapses. Three of the four times I saw it used, it did the job on the
first try, but one cow struggled a good deal after collapsing. After the animal
has collapsed, the side of the killing stall is raised, and a chain is secured
to the right hind leg. The cow is then hoisted by that one leg to a hanging
position. At this point, the butcher drains the body of blood by slitting the
cow's throat. When the blood vessels are severed, there is an amazing torrent of
blood so profuse that the butcher is unable to step aside fast enough to avoid
being covered with it. This steaming torrent of blood lasts only about 15
seconds, after which the only task left to the man at the first station is to
skin and remove the animal's head.
At the second station in the kill shed, the headless animal is dropped to the
floor. The body is propped up on the back and relieved of hooves and, if female,
milk sack and udders. At this time, any urine and feces that didn't drain from
the body during the first few seconds of death now pour freely onto the floor.
The body is then slit down the middle, and the hide is peeled partially away. A
yoke is then hooked to the stumps of the hind legs, the body is lifted upwards,
and the rest of the hide is pulled past a roller secured to the floor and peeled
off. The animal's body is now at the third station of the kill shed where it is
gutted and then sawed in half -- becoming two "sides of beef".
The sides of beef are sprayed down and weighed at the fourth and final
station of the kill station. They are then placed in the cooling locker where
the residual warmth of life steams away slowly in preparation for the
deep-freeze storage locker. From the cooling locker, the meat goes into a main
storage area where it is kept for as long as a week. This locker exits to a
butchering area where the sides of beef are reduced to parts for the supermarket
which end up on dining room tables.
The final stop on my tour was the sausage and hot dog production facilities.
It is often said that if you could see what goes into a hot dog, you'd never eat
one again. Well that adage applies tenfold to the production of sausage. The
most violently nauseating smell that I have ever experienced was the odor
wafting up from the sausage meat boiling vats.
As I left the complex, I was embarrassed about my previous skepticism, and I
encourage anyone who has any of the doubts that I once possessed to make a visit
to a slaughterhouse or spend a day at a factory farm. I think it would become
clear that there has to be better way to feed ourselves, and that it is our duty
as moral beings to pursue the alternatives.
About the author: Dave Gifford is a student at Trinity College in
Hartford, Connecticut. This comment was reprinted from "The Forum", the school's