A visit to the kill floor of a local abattoir last week has left me with some questions about myself, and what moves me. I came away surprised.
I gave up eating meat nearly three years ago now. There wasn’t a tipping point for me. I didn’t have an epiphany and make a decision. Just one day, it was the right thing for me to do.
The fact was, I had been more or less disinterested in the meat portion of my meal for some time. I make the dinners, and so bought organic meats at a specialty butcher and had a selection of meats in the freezer, and included a portion of those meats in about five out of seven of our weekly meals.
Then one day in March of 2012, my husband was away, and I just went, nope. Done with the meat. I was 42.
I still prepare meat for my husband’s meal, but I just make myself something else, and I don’t miss it.
A little history might be useful here. As a kid, I think about everybody knew I was animal-crazy. Not a stray dog wandered down our block (or any surrounding blocks) that I wouldn’t figure a way to drag it home and call animal control to find the owner. Two found a home with our family.
I also walked all the neighbors’ dogs for free. Just to have the joy of walking a dog.
So no surprise that as a young child, I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian. Despite any other talent I might have had or academic deficiencies I might have carried, being a vet was tops on my list.
I was accepted to all the colleges I applied for and chose the University of Illinois for its vet school and proximity to Chicago. I spent the first year as an animal science major. I joined the Illini Dairy Club, where I won an award. I showed a sheep. I felt fairly convinced I made the right decision.
Until I worked for a summer at a vet’s, and assisted with euthanizing at least one animal a day. Sometimes several.
From kittens to rabbits, ferrets, old crippled dogs to young waggy dogs, I held them still while the vets put them down-sometimes with attending problems (they kept missing the heart)-then wrapped them in a plastic bag and put them in a chest freezer.
I recall one ferret, that as the vet angled the needle this way and that into its heart and kept missing (I was told you had to inject the smaller animals in the heart) the ferret grasped my fingertip with its little paw and held on until it died. It was like that. It was awful.
Sometimes the decision was the right one for the animal if it was very ill, injured or damaged. A lot of the times, it seemed irrational.
One kitten’s death changed my mind, and I won’t go into that now, but the attitude of the newly-minted vet from the school I was planning to attend had such a streak of apathy about the demise of this puffy little grey kitten, that I decided to change my major.
I never wanted to feel that detached about a death, or that inured to taking a life.
Since I changed gears, and in my experience as a horse trainer and having a small flock of sheep of my own, I have had the privilege and the misfortune to know several vets. Some have been outstanding and compassionate, and others, just money-grubbing bastards I didn’t have time for.
I say all of this because I recognize in myself, as it is in many people I suspect, a connection to animals. I gave up meat because I felt I did not want to eat something with which I knew I could make a connection.
The other day, I was kindly included in a tour of the local abattoir for a tour with regional producers so see the plant and how it worked. I have been there before on story assignments; in the boning/cutting and packing rooms and the cool rooms where the massive carcases hang.
Every day, I drive past the abattoir paddocks filled with cattle, and usually at the end of the day or by the next day, it’s a new herd or the paddocks are empty.
This time, the tour included the kill floor. Before I set off, I called my husband and told him I wouldn’t be going in there. “No way, man,” I said. “I’ll just wait outside.”
But when the time came and my little group in the tour was to head off, I thought, “I am a coward. I owe it to myself to know what happens in there.”
To be honest, I didn’t know if I was going to cry, or feel sick, or horrified or what.
My first impression was the heat. The rest of the plant is air conditioned and as sanitary as it can be when in some rooms, there are bits of meat flying around. The kill room was messy, loud, tepid, and the smell of blood and meat was ripe. It was a sensory overload.
In that way, everywhere I looked, up in the air to down at eye level, something was happening, a little like a Bosch painting; from eviscerating, to skinning, taking an earless skull with the eyeballs hanging out to two jawbones, noseless and footless animals dangling and moving all around you.
Blood everywhere, but all incredibly efficient.
I kept thinking, this job, what a shit job. These guys-and it was all men except one woman I saw up high determining fat density, were working like rapid-fire automatons. Highly skilled and incredibly fast. The line is relentless.
Here’s the thing. I didn’t feel sick, didn’t feel desperately sad or choked up. There was no need for me to break from the group and excuse myself. Instead, I kept looking where I could stand it and just took it in. Inside, I felt a kind of horror, but outside, I must have looked a little dumbstruck.
I did ask the fellow guiding us around why the noses were cut off, and I learned it is because it makes the skinning process easier. Imagine a nose having all that pulling power.
The other thing I was amazed by was the apparent unflappability of the rest of my group. They were all gazing around in interest. All of them are beef producers, so this is a process for their livelihoods, but still, none of them appeared to be remotely bothered by what was happening around us, where for me, it blew me away.
I felt like the odd one in the room.
I have seen animals die; big animals. I have seen animals opened up and skinned. I skinned a dead cat and took it to bits for high school biology. But the kill floor was the dividing line between them and us; humans and animals. Though there were images in my head about what I would see, I was not prepared for what I did encounter on the kill floor.
What also surprised me was my reaction to the animals, many still kicking from post-mortem involuntary twitches. I knew why it was happening and I could accept that. I didn’t hear cattle bawling from fear or confusion, I did not witness any disrespect for the animals. It was a quick, efficient, unemotional and mechanical dismemberment of each beast.
Maybe, inside, it has been incredibly upsetting, because I can’t stop thinking about it.
I’m still working this out in my head.
In the meantime, a funny thing happened today. I watched this BBC documentary titled: Slaughterhouse – The Task of Blood (it is nearly an hour long but fascinating if you’ve got the time).
The 2005 film documents a small, family-owned slaughterhouse in England. It is very graphic, and you are not left with any questions about how pigs, sheep and cattle meet their death. More than that, it is an excellent film profiling the men and their qualities working at this place. Some are disturbing, others, sympathetic.
Though some treatment of the animals in the film I found appalling, it doesn’t seem like an overt argument for ethics to me, though it does plug it a little at the beginning and near the end.
As I did not cry (surprisingly) before or after I visited the kill floor the other day, I did not cry watching the slaughter activities in the film. But I did get choked up at the end when, totally out of tone with the rest of it, a pig makes a break for freedom, and in a kind of Keystone Cops moment, the farmer and an abattoir worker can’t catch her.
I got all upset. And it’s making me think, what is the difference? A brain-dead noseless, earless, footless, kicking, skinless cow suspended on a chain in real life can’t move me to visible emotion, but a runaway pig on film does?
It has not changed my mind about eating meat. I am also glad I went. After that visit, I think it is important to know what happens in there, and I didn’t expect that.
-I took the image above of some cattle on the road into town earlier this year during the height of the drought.