{A-Z:Veganism} K is for Kill Floor

The concrete floor is bitterly cold beneath her body.

She attempts to stand. But her weak legs cannot support her, and she collapses.

Milk gently flows from her engorged udder, and mixes with blood on the floor.

The blood of her kin.

The white and red swirls drip into a nearby drain.

Soon, her blood will join the stream.

***

K is for…

Kill floor.

Each year, billions of animals take their last breaths on the world’s kill floors.

It is difficult to imagine the slaughterhouse environment as anything other than brutal.

The confusion and terror of the animals.

The smell.

The noise.

While researching J is for Jacob – a piece about the experiences of Australian animals subjected to the live export trade- I viewed photos and videos taken on kill floors in Indonesia and Egypt.

Some of those images are seared in my memory.

Bulging eyes. 

Gaping wounds.

Blood. So much blood. 

I could never subject myself to witnessing these sights first-hand.

But some individuals do.

This post highlights the experiences of three people who spent time in slaughterhouses. All three produced books that provide a disturbing glimpse into the slaughterhouse environment.

Sue Coe, artist and author, spent many years visiting slaughterhouses across the United States. Armed with a sketchbook, she visually documented the struggles and deaths of countless animals – cows, horses, goats, pigs, sheep. The product of that documentation is a book titled ‘Dead Meat’.

Of witnessing the killing of goats in an Arizona slaughterhouse, she writes:

‘The door slowly closes. The older man grabs the front and back legs of a goat, swinging the goat to the ground. He pins the goat down by putting his boot on the other leg. The second goat watches and backs away…The younger man electrocutes the goat and cuts [the] throat. The second goat cries like a child, she shakes. They drag the first goat, still kicking and writhing, into a concrete pit’.

Understandably, Coe writes of her desire to save animals:

‘Sheep bleat even after their throats are cut. They writhe. Every part of my being says to stop it, save them, which is impossible…I feel sick and my legs are shaking – my hands too – I concentrate on acting ‘normal’. Various animals are killed. I look for a way out’.

There is no way out for the animals. They leave the facility as ‘boxes of meat parts’.

In his 1906 novel, The Jungle, Upton Sinclair writes about the experiences of immigrant workers in a Chicago slaughterhouse in the early 20th century.

Sinclair gathered information while working ‘incognito’ in Chicago meatpacking establishments. He intended his novel to expose the exploitation and appalling conditions endured by workers in slaughterhouses. Of ‘wool-pluckers’ he writes:

‘[their] hands went to pieces…for the pelts of the sheep had to be painted with acid to loosen the wool, and then the pluckers had to pull out this wool with their bare hands, till the acid had eaten their fingers off’.

However, many readers focused more readily on the issues of food contamination that the book highlighted.

The general public were alarmed by descriptions such as this:

‘There were men who worked in the cooking rooms, in the midst of steam and sickening odors, by artificial light; in these rooms the germs of tuberculosis might live for 2 years, but the supply was renewed every hour’. 

And this:

‘When, for instance, a man had fallen into one of the rendering tanks and had been made into pure leaf lard and peerless fertilizer, there was no use letting that fact out and making his family unhappy’. 

Of workers who had fallen into the tanks, he writes: ‘Sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!’. 

Sinclair conceded that the public cared little for the workers in slaughterhouses but they certainly ‘did not want to eat tubercular beef’. Or human-laced lard.

What about the non-human animals in slaughterhouses of the early 20th century?

Of the slaughter of pigs – referred to as ‘porkmaking by machinery’ – Sinclair writes:

‘There were high squeals and low squeals, grunts, and wails of agony: there would come a momentary lull, and then a fresh outburst, louder than ever, surging up to a deafening climax…One by one [the workers] hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats…[The hogs] vanished with a splash into a vat of boiling water’.

Clearly, slaughterhouses of the early 1900’s were brutal environments for non-human and human animals.

More than one hundred years after the publication of Sinclair’s book, Timothy Pachirat, Assistant Professor of Politics, made the decision to work undercover in a Nebraska slaughterhouse. He writes about his time there in a (non-fiction) book that has been dubbed ‘The Jungle for the 21st century’.

Published in 2011,  Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Policitics of Sight, provides an account of industrialised killing from the viewpoint of a participant. 

Of his motivation to experience a slaughterhouse from the inside, Pachirat states:

‘I wanted to understand how massive processes of violence become normalized in modern society, and I wanted to do so from the perspective of those who work in the slaughterhouse’. 

How do the workers perform this ‘work’, day in and day out? How do they regard the fear and resistance of the animals that they are paid to slaughter? Are they callous and heartless people with little regard for animal suffering?

The pages of Pachirat’s book provide some insight into these questions.

The politics of sight

Patchirat discusses the fact that modern society censors, compartmentalises and conceals that which is unpalatable. The annual killing of billions of animals in slaughterhouses is hidden from the public gaze.

In Dead Meat, Coe states:

‘…When Sinclair wrote ‘The Jungle’, packinghouses were very proud of their slaughtering techniques and would offer guided tours for the public…By the end of the 20th century, that [was] no longer the case. The public is not welcome. Slaughterhouses, especially the larger ones, are guarded like military compounds’.

The branding of animal rights activists as ‘terrorists’, and attempts to introduce legislation that would ban the filming of undercover footage in slaughterhouses (and factory farms), demonstrates the lengths that industry will go to in order to conceal that which is ‘hidden in plain sight’ (to use a phrase coined by Pachirat).

water2

Photo by author

But the act of killing is concealed and compartmentalised within the slaughterhouse too.

Workers are separated into departments within the slaughterhouse environment. Consequently, Pachirat explains, it is conceivable for non-kill-floor workers to bypass entirely the witnessing of animals being killed in the slaughterhouse. Moreover, it is easy for most workers to avoid encountering a live animal at all – even in a slaughterhouse that kills hundreds of thousands of animals per year.

What about kill floor workers? Surely, they can’t avoid the reality of their role in the killing of sentient beings? 

Pachirat argues that the act of killing is hidden here too. In the very place that we would expect it to be most visible:

‘…the kill floor is divided spatially into a clean side and a dirty side. The dirty side refers to everything that happens while the cattle’s hides are still on them and the clean side to everything that happens after the hides have been removed. Workers from the clean side are segregated from workers on the dirty side, even during food and bathroom breaks’. 

This separation is required to avoid contamination of the finished product – the ‘meat’ – but it also serves to conceal the violence of killing.

Of the eight hundred workers on the Nebraska facility’s kill floor, only four workers are directly involved in the killing of the animals. Moreover, less than twenty workers have a direct ‘line of sight’ to the killing of the animals. Pachirat states, in a 2012 interview:

‘Of 121 distinct kill floor jobs…only the ‘knocker’ both sees the cattle while sentient and delivers the blow that is supposed to render them insensible. On an average day, this lone worker shoots 2,500 individual animals at a rate of one every twelve seconds’.

This undisputed fact – that only the ‘knocker’ administers the captive bolt gun – allows for the remaining workers to distance themselves from the act of killing. Pachirat states:

‘…the kill floor operates with 120+1 jobs. And as long as the 1 exists, as long as there is some plausible narrative that concentrates the heaviest weight of the dirtiest work on this 1, then the other 120 kill floor workers can say, and believe it, “I’m not going to take part in this.” ‘

Pachirat provides a powerful example of the way that euphemism is used in the slaughterhouse, to disguise the sentience of animals:

 ‘…the use of language is another way of concealing the violence of killing. From the moment cattle are unloaded from transport trucks into the slaughterhouse’s holding pens, managers and kill floor supervisors refer to them as ‘beef.’ Although they are living, breathing, sentient beings, they have already linguistically been reduced to inanimate flesh…’

Pachirat argues that the responsibility for the violence inflicted on animals in slaughterhouses does not rest solely on the shoulders of the ‘knocker’ or the other slaughterhouse workers.

It rests with all of us.

‘Our complicity lies not in a direct infliction of violence but rather in our tacit agreement to look away and not to ask some very, very simple questions: Where does this meat come from and how did it get here?’

***

The dairy cow’s body is still now – but still warm.

She did not consent to her death.

Nor did she consent to the theft of her newborn babies during her short life. At 7 years old, she was still many years from old age.

Soon, rough hands will work quickly to remove her head and hooves. A man with a power saw will remove her skin.

In life, she was prized only for her ability to produce milk.

She will leave the slaughterhouse in pieces.

***

Although not within the scope of this article, the correlation between increased crime rates and slaughterhouse work has been explored, and makes for interesting reading. Research suggests that crime rates are higher in towns and suburbs that contain a slaughterhouse.

Are violent people drawn to slaughterhouse work, or does the nature of the work encourage slaughterhouse workers to act violently outside their workplace? Or a combination of both?

To read more about these issues, refer to these articles:

Slaughterhouses and Increased Crime Rates: An Empirical Analysis of the Spillover From ‘The Jungle’ Into the Surrounding Community (2009) Fitzgerald, AJ et al. Organization and Environment.

Animal abuse leads to human abuse (2012) Grezo, C New Internationalist

***

References for K is for Kill Floor:

Coe, S (1995) Dead Meat Four Walls Eight Windows, NY, USA.

Pachirat, T (2011) Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Policitics of Sight Kindle eBook, Yale University Press

Sinclair, U The Jungle Kindle eBook, Waxkeep Publishing

Solomon, A Working Undercover in a Slaughterhouse: An interview with Timothy Pachirat  March 2012

Note: The experiences of the dairy cow (in my intro and conclusion) were inspired by Coe’s drawing, Meat Fly (click here).

In my A-Z of Veganism series, I discuss and explore a topic or issue related to veganism, and my experiences as a vegan – as I work my way through the alphabet!

Ally 

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About Ally
Mamma. Vegan. I blog at Made of Stars.

15 Responses to {A-Z:Veganism} K is for Kill Floor

  1. susykat says:

    A very powerful piece, Ally.

  2. narf77 says:

    I am not going to click like Ally, there is nothing to like in this article aside from the honesty and sharing. The same disregard that society uses to produce it’s food is barely distanced from what makes people decide not to help, care or share…its what allowed people to clinically segregate jews, gays and the disabled and allow them to be burned in gas chambers. It’s the same decompartmentalisation that allows people to walk away when someone needs help “it’s not my business…it’s nothing to do with me”. But it is. It’s everything to do with all of us and we have to work together to first expose, and then deal with the issues that arise. It’s the part of us that we should all be working to minimise and balance out with kindness and consideration. When you can turn off your empathy towards the suffering of something that lives and breathes the same air as you, you need to start thinking about what really matters here. Thankyou for sharing Ally. Hard lessons to learn but more than important.

    • Ally says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Fran. I am always grateful for the time that you take to share your thoughts.

      ‘It’s everything to do with all of us…’ Yes, I agree. Most people abhor violence towards animals, yet they partake of ‘meat products’ obtained in a brutal manner from animals that do not willingly give up their lives.

      If one does not support violence, then one must not expect another to do it for them. That is what one does when they consume animals – they shield their eyes and mind, while another does the act of killing. Of course, the meat industry is happy for people to turn their backs.

      While researching this article, I came across a lot of interesting and disturbing information. I had no idea that the kill floors in large slaughterhouses were so compartmentalised. It is interesting that many of the employees are able to shield their eyes as well.

      Thanks Fran.

      • narf77 says:

        Its a highly emotive thing with me as well. As a vegan I span degrees of acceptance. Do I eat honey? Do I mind cooking meat for Steve? Lots of issues but at the very core of it all is how we view the creatures around us and how we treat the least of them is how we are judged. Your article highlighted the ignorance about the meat food chain. Meat is such a sanitary non animalistic looking thing on supermarket shelves that it is easy to distance yourself from it’s origins and now we find that even those people actively employed by slaughterhouses are segregated? One might ask why? If you are willing to eat meat you should be willing to know and see where it comes from.

  3. Michael Lane says:

    This is a very, very good post. I have been a vegan for 6 years now, and I guess that has “entitled” me to not confront the truth any more since I guess I’m not as much as part of the problem… but I guess I need to bear witness… great post pulling a lot of stuff together, thanks.

    • Ally says:

      Hi Michael, Thanks for taking the time to read my post, and for your comment. I’m glad you liked it.

      Yes, I agree with your sentiments. As a long-term vegan, I do not feel as though I am participating in this brutality. Being vegan is my daily manifestation of my belief system, my rejection of violence and oppression. However, I feel as though I have a responsibility to do more. It’s hard sometimes; I’m not always sure what else to ‘do’. The enormity of the scale of suffering is so overwhelming.

      On a happier note, it’s always great to meet another vegan. 🙂 I am following your blog now. I love your writing style.

  4. Linda says:

    Great post, Ally. And I’ve followed up those links too. Part of me wants to block it all out because it’s so horrifying, but if those of us who know block it out, we’ll never spread the information to everyone else. As Michael said, we need to bear witness, after all, it’s nothing compared to what those animals go through.

    • Ally says:

      Hi Linda,

      I hope you are well. I’ve been wondering how you are, now that the hectic MoFo time is over. I have missed seeing you in my Reader on a (almost) daily basis. Are you going to participate in the Virtual Vegan Potluck?

      Thanks for your thoughtful, honest comment. I know what you mean; I want to block it all out too. I read some disturbing content while researching this post. I have no idea how Sue Coe was able to sit in slaughterhouse after slaughterhouse, for years. Her artwork is very powerful.

      I also like what Michael said about ‘bearing witness’.

      I’m glad to hear that you followed up with the links. The interview with Pachirat is so eye-opening and compelling.

      Have a great day, Linda.

  5. Not as warm and fuzzy as a chocolate cupcake, but it needs to be spoken!

  6. Xiomara says:

    I love this post. It provides insight into the raison d’etre for ethical vegans. Reading about the conditions of human and nonhuman animals on the kill floor pushed me towards veganism. “Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry” by
    Gail A. Eisnitz is another great book. The author interviews many workers who express how the killing and mistreatment of animals desensitizes them and how the violence flows into their private home life.

    Keep up the great work with A-Z !

    • Ally says:

      Hi! I’m glad you like it. Thanks for mentioning the Eisnitz book. I’ll try to track it down.
      I’m aiming to get a bit quicker with my publishing of the A-Z series! I’m happy that you like it. 🙂 It really is good to connect with you again after many months.

      • Ally says:

        I just tried to leave a comment on your blog. I’m not sure if it worked. It’s been happening with WP blogs for a few days now. Very frustrating!
        I wanted to congratulate you on two years of veganism! That’s fabulous!
        I’m also happy to read that you are still doing yoga.
        🙂

      • Xiomara says:

        I looked at your A-Z tab and thought “woa…i haven’t miss too much on A-Z” because I remembered reading “J”. Your A-Z posts are amazingly detailed and moving they’re worth the wait!! :p

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