THE BLOG

Consider the Slaughterhouse

Oct 24, 2013 | Updated Jan 23, 2014
Zach Phillips

Since March, there has only been life on the farm (other than a couple of unfortunate piglet deaths). However, we are getting to that time of year when life and death commingle and the real purpose of the farm reasserts itself. We are loading up the first batch of this year's slaughter pigs tomorrow afternoon. The ultimate purpose of the farm, though not the whole point, is to raise animals to be slaughtered and butchered so that we can eat their meat. While the killing part is the most troubling, it is also the most satisfying. I feel the best about the farm, not when I am on the farm watching the pigs spin and twirl and bark and run in excitement, or sitting still listening to the sheep munch grass in a new paddock, but in the truck on the drive home from the slaughterhouse, after dropping off live, vital animals to become meat.

However, it has been long enough since I've trailered any animals to slaughter that I am back to that apprehensive place of my first years of farming where I feel the nag nagging at me from within the deep corridors of my mind/brain/soul/whatever. I recently re-read David Foster Wallace's 2004 Gourmet magazine article "Consider the Lobster" in which his assignment to report on the Maine Lobster Fest turned into a discourse on the ethics of eating lobster. Wallace starts with the premise: "Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?" He delves into the neuroanatomy of the lobster and concludes that the creature demonstrates pain-behavior in its frantic scrabbling to avoid being cooked. Wallace ends up admitting that his interest in clinging to his belief that animals are less morally important than humans is selfish rather than part of any truly defensible personal ethical system. I had long since forgotten how one could feel Wallace's own anxiety coming through in almost every paragraph. I identify with that anxiety very much.

"Am I doing the right thing?"

"Is it okay for me to raise animals with care only to have them killed so that we can eat their meat?"

"Should I quit -- quit farming, quit eating meat?"

"Is there something inherently wrong about it, so wrong that I will find myself thrown into some karmic hell?"

"Wilbur, is that you?"

In spite of these questions, in spite of the nag nagging, I will load the pigs up and drop them off to be killed. With these questions unresolved, with them lingering, hanging over me, really, like a cloud, I go about the work of a livestock farm, raising animals for slaughter. Because of my unease, I live a life of contradiction, but, rather than become immobilized by unresolved contradiction, I accept things as they are: I am a livestock farmer, and my unease, my uncertainty, my apprehension, do not change that brute fact, that brute fact that I feel so deeply I feel it in my bones, I feel it tingle my skin, the same way, I suspect, a deeply religious person feels his god coursing through him. I kill -- ethical vegetarians/vegans would say "murder" -- for a living, but, that is not all that I do; I also provide an alternative to the jungle of factory farms: I provide freedom and care, I provide the barely restrained expression of the animals' interests -- sustenance, water, shelter, foraging, rooting, wallowing, and, perhaps the most important, play and carefree lounging.

On the farm the animals and their care are about an idea, or a number of ideas, really. They are about the idea of ethical care, about the idea of sound ecological management, about Booker T. Washington's idea of living a "high, simple, and useful life," about the idea of community, and about the idea of finding a viable, satisfying alternative to my life in a cubicle.

The slaughterhouse, however, is the place where ideas go to become reality, and that reality is more or less brutal depending on whether it's an industrial or small-scale slaughterhouse. The capacity of a large-scale industrial slaughterhouse is about 400 cows per hour. They whiz by overhead, hanging from a long, snaking line of transportation rails. In contrast, the capacity of the small slaughterhouse that I use is about eight cows per day, or a single cow per hour. At the industrial rate, occasional missteps in the process happen, so that, for example, a cow which should have been rendered unconscious before having its throat slit, is not. But the line doesn't stop for such a misstep, if it is even noticed, so the animal is fully conscious as the cut is made, and it starts to bleed out. It has been reported that it can take as long as 30 seconds for a large animal such as a cow to die from bleeding out, so it dies, fully conscious, upside down, bearing the full weight of its 1,500 pounds by a single leg shackled to an overhead rail.

Thousands of lambs are slaughtered each day by dozens of people in an industrial slaughterhouse, each making the same repetitive cut over and over again for their whole shift as the animals fly by, while merely dozens are killed by a few, or even one or two, people in a small slaughterhouse, who carry out the whole range of actions and cuts necessary to take a live animal to a hanging carcass. And, when only one animal is killed every few minutes, any rare missteps in the process are quickly remedied, and the number of animals that are not unconscious for the throat cut is practically zero. Simply put, the animals are run down the line of an industrial slaughterhouse as abstract units of production; there is very little difference there between how the animals are "processed" and how a widget is produced.

The speed and repetitive nature of the work in industrial slaughterhouses make it one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Common slaughterhouse injuries include deep cuts, accidental stabbings, and "cumulative trauma" injuries that stem from making the same motion, like the same cut, thousands of times per day. Industrial slaughterhouse cumulative trauma injuries happen at a rate thirty three times the national average. There is a psychological toll as well. Workers in industrial slaughterhouses commonly report a strong sense of dehumanization. Thus, it is no surprise that industrial slaughterhouses have one of the highest employee turnover rates of any job in the country (often as high as 200 percent in the first year).

In contrast, in the ten years that I have been going to the small slaughterhouse that I use, I have seen the same faces on nearly every visit, of which I have made literally hundreds, and in those ten years, I know of only one or two, perhaps three injuries. People leave work at my slaughterhouse because their internships end, after which they often move on to full-time employment at other small slaughterhouses.

While workers in industrial slaughterhouses are factory line workers, the slaughtermen at small slaughterhouses operate at the scale, rhythm, and variety of true craftsmen -- and, increasingly, craftswomen. The slow, measured pace of small slaughterhouses permits the slaughtermen to do their work safely and without dissociating from their sense of themselves as human beings or the animals they are killing. In a small slaughterhouse, the animals are killed and butchered as animals -- as lambs, or cows, or pigs.

Though it is arguably better to treat an animal as an animal rather than a widget, in either case we are assuming that an animal does not have the same capacity for feeling as a human. A little more than five years ago, I encountered Peter Singer's concept of speciesism. By speciesism, Singer means that we think it is okay to eat the meat of various animals because we believe they have lower moral standing because they are fundamentally, permanently, and definitely different than we are. Cows, while indeed sentient beings capable of suffering that have some moral standing (we shouldn't abuse them, they should be well cared for, etc.), do not have a high enough moral standing to outweigh our interest (it is not a need) in eating their flesh. The danger of speciesism, Singer argues, is that speciesism is no different than racism or sexism, which were based on the same belief in the lower moral standing of the subject according to what were believed to be at the time identifiable differences. It is speciesism above all else that interrupts me, because it is so clearly the true ground for my meat-eating justification. A pig is not a person. In fundamental and permissive ways, a pig is less than a person. In light of speciesism, with it, in fact, constantly tapping on my shoulder in an effort to get my attention, I make a reverse Pascalian wager and act as if the threat of speciesism will never come to pass. That threat being we will discover one day, just as we did with racism and sexism, that there is no difference there and that animals of different species have equal moral standing to us.

Continually spinning the wheel round and round this inescapable (because I am unwilling to give up eating meat) ethical quandary, I make regular trips to the slaughterhouse. With Foster Wallace's essay on my mind, I feel that to continue eating meat, to continue raising animals for the express purpose of having them killed so people, myself included, can eat their meat, I must consider the slaughterhouse, as the slaughterhouse is, so to speak, the meat-eater's ethical moment.

There is a lamb on the farm that I call "My Pretty Girl." She is the cutest, most adorable thing I have ever seen. First, she is tiny. At five months old, she still probably only weighs forty pounds. She isn't unhealthy, just small in the same way that some people are big and some are small. Second, she has the whitest, cleanest, most delicately-featured face you can imagine. She has great big doe eyes. Third, while skittish, she is quite bold and curious. She approaches me with her little nose stretched out, crinkling it as she sniffs the air between us. Of the 100 lambs in her group, she will be, because of her size, in the last group to go to the slaughterhouse, and as "My Pretty Girl," she is the perfect lamb with whom (not, note, with which) to consider the slaughterhouse.

Probably 99.9 percent of us never see the inside of a slaughterhouse, and this fact, incidentally, is exactly how the jungle is able to thrive inside those windowless buildings. Not all slaughterhouses are jungles however. The one I use is not. To consider the slaughterhouse, I would like to take us through My Pretty Girl's journey through my slaughterhouse.

The morning that I take My Pretty Girl to the slaughterhouse will be stressful for her. For the past five months she will have been comfortably living in a familiar location following a familiar routine. When I come to load her group on the trailer, that routine will be shockingly interrupted. Instead of bringing the lambs their feed, I will open the pen and herd My Pretty Girl and her pen-mates first into a holding area, then up a lighted aisle, and finally onto the trailer. The group of lambs will be extremely nervous and will travel in a tightly wound blob, sort of like a school of fish. As they go up the aisle toward the trailer, it will narrow and they will get more nervous. They will feel me walking behind them, urging them on. They might balk and try to turn around, only to find me standing behind them. My Pretty Girl and the rest of them will be wide-eyed and anxious, no matter how calmly I work them. Livestock are critters of routine, which is one of the reasons working with them is possible. When we break that routine, no matter how calmly, it upsets them. At the trailer door, they will definitely balk. Because of the time of year, I need to load the lambs in the dark, and critters do not like moving from a lighted area (the aisle) to a darker area (the trailer with a nonfunctional interior light). As I put pressure on them to urge just one of them to hop on the trailer, their level of anxiety will rise because they feel trapped, penned in, not realizing that they can relieve the physical discomfort of the close space by hopping up onto the trailer. Within a minute or two, one of them will hop on. I would be lying, however, if I didn't tell you that I occasionally need to pick one up and toss it on to the trailer. As soon as the first one goes, they flow on like water.

I am one of the lucky ones with a slaughterhouse nearby, so the trip only takes 20 minutes. I have always wanted to put a camera inside the trailer to see what the ride is like, but I have yet to do that. I drive as carefully as I can, but still, I imagine the lambs being jostled about by turns and bumps is unsettling. Maybe My Pretty Girl will lie down, which would make the trip much more comfortable for her.

Once at the slaughterhouse, I will back the trailer up to the unloading chute and then walk around to the front of the building to let them know I have arrived. During that time the lambs will be standing in a troubled huddle in the trailer, completely adrift, cut off from their familiar routine. They will be anxious, not terrified or even frightened, just anxious. My Pretty Girl, though small, will likely be on the outer edge of the group because she is bold. She will face the slaughterman when he opens the door of the trailer ready to run for her life. But, instead, when the slaughterman steps onto the trailer (I will be outside the trailer on the other side of the chute), My Pretty Girl will get scared and turn with the rest of her group and scurry up to the far end of the trailer away from the slaughterman, who will walk slowly, calmly, and thoughtfully (he is good at his job) up the length of the trailer so that he can get behind the lambs. As soon as he moves halfway past her body, My Pretty Girl will rush to the other end of the trailer, but she and the rest of the group will balk at the edge of the trailer. They won't simply hop down. In just that short 20-minute drive, the trailer will have become the familiar place compared to the concrete-floored chute outside of it. The slaughterman will slowly walk up behind them, saying "Come on sheep. Come on sheep." and making "woosshh, wissshhhh, wissssh" sounds. When he gets to the group, My Pretty Girl will dig in her heels and lean back so that she doesn't get pushed out of the trailer, but as the slaughterman gently puts pressure on the lambs by pressing against them with his knees, eventually the pressure will be enough that one lamb, maybe My Pretty Girl, decides to step off the trailer, and once one goes, they all go. After that, they will walk about ten feet to the door leading into the holding pens where, once again, they will balk and the process will be repeated. Once they have all gone inside, the slaughterman will slide the door closed, and then we'll button up my trailer.

Inside the holding pen, My Pretty Girl and her pen-mates will continue to be nervous, a bit agitated and unsettled, but they will soon calm down some. In an hour or two depending on how busy the slaughterhouse is, the slaughterman will reappear, making My Pretty Girl and her pen-mates anxious again. He will herd them out of the holding pen into the kill chute, which is a narrow aisle that forces the lambs into single file. Just as before, he will do this calmly, thoughtfully, and deliberately.

Within a few minutes of being herded into the kill chute, My Pretty Girl will be led forward onto the kill floor. The slaughterman will quickly and confidently place a captive bolt stun gun against her forehead and pull the trigger. The gun will make a loud popping sound, and My Pretty Girl, the cutest, sweetest, most adorable little lamb you can imagine will drop like a stone. It will have been a stressful morning for her, anyone who denies that is a liar or a fool, but, at the end, she will drop like a stone. In the time it takes her to flutter those pretty long lashes, she will go from conscious to unconscious.

Within five seconds of being rendered unconscious by the blow to the brain of the captive bolt, a heavy metal shackle at the end of a chain will be placed around one of My Pretty Girl's hind feet, and using a motorized pulley, the slaughterman will raise her up off the ground with her unconscious head hanging limply down. He will then grab an ear and hold her head back and deftly insert a very sharp knife into My Pretty Girl's throat and sever the major veins, arteries, and windpipe. With the force of her still beating heart, My Pretty Girl's blood will gush out of her neck and splash onto the kill room floor. Within seconds, My Pretty Girl will pass from unconscious to dead.

The slaughterman will leave My Pretty Girl's body to dangle for a while to ensure that all of the blood has drained out. Then he will move her over to a sort of metal cradle and lower her onto it. The slaughterman will skin her and cut off her feet. Then he will cut off her head. From the cradle he will move her about ten feet away and then raise her up into the air again by her hind legs, spread by a gambrel hook, with her belly facing him. The slaughterman will then disembowel her, slicing her belly open from her navel to her sternum, being careful not to spill any of the contents of her guts inside of her, which would foul the meat.

About 15 minutes after being walked forward onto the kill floor, My Pretty Girl will be a familiar-looking whole lamb carcass ready to be rolled along the rails and placed into the cooler where she will hang for a week before being cut up to my specifications by the butchers in the cutting room, while other lambs or cows or pigs, though almost certainly none as cute, are being killed on the kill floor.

I am a speciesist. I believe because only I and none of her sheep family will miss her, and because only I and not she can imagine the future and because only I and not she can wish for something different and only because I have considered the slaughterhouse, that it is okay to kill My Pretty Girl and eat her.

One of the interesting things about Foster Wallace's article is that it ends with the issue unresolved. Most of us who admit this ethical quandary into our lives end up living with it perpetually; very few of us become vegetarians and/or vegans, just a few percent. Instead, we become like funeral attendees who periodically have our laughs and giggles and general good times interrupted by the memory of the loss of the loved one we are mourning. For those of us who live consciously with the ethical quandary, every now and then in the midst of mastication, as teeth meet teeth through tender cooked flesh, we are jarred by the realization that the taste and texture, the sensuous pleasure being ground between our teeth was very much a sentient critter with distinct identifiable interests, a personality, a face, and the capacity for a great deal of suffering. As at the funeral, however, the moment passes and the joviality continues.

Being a livestock farmer is a hard life, in this case not because of the physical demands, but rather the psychological demands of unresolved contradiction, of living life from within the being/Being contradiction. But, again, by accepting things as they are while being mindful of the struggles and aware of how I interact with them, I am able to keep going, slogging through the mud and the muck, through the blood and hard looks, through the hunks and chunks of meat, of flesh, of life taken to provide sustenance, surely, but pleasure as well. I take pleasure, great, thrilling pleasure, in the flesh of the animals I care for, that I raise up from wee pigs and wee lambs. As long as I am going to eat meat, I want the animals that are killed to be raised on a farm like mine, where the ideas infuse the meat with values every bit as essential and nourishing as those of the flesh itself.

"Is there something wrong with that?"

I think so. I think not.

Bob Comis is a farmer and writer who blogs at stonybrookfarm.wordpress.com.

This essay was completed with the invaluable editorial support of Sarah Key.

Photo by Zach Phillips.