Eating Animals Part 4



BACK BAY BOOKS                       2009



Chapter 4: Hiding/Seeking

In the typical cage for egg-laying hens, each bird has 67 square inches of space – the size of this page. Nearly all cage-free birds have approximately the same amount of space.

I’m not the kind of person who finds himself on a stranger’s farm in the middle of the night

  • We drove down the highway known as Blood Run because of both the frequency of accidents and the number of trucks that use the road to transport animals to slaughter.
  • I took the scrap of paper from my pocket and read it one last time:

In case any domestic animal is at any time impounded and continues to be without necessary food and water for more than twelve consecutive hours, it is lawful for any person, from time to time, as may be deemed necessary, to enter into and upon any pound in which the animal is confined, and supply it with necessary food and water so long as it remains so confined. Such person is not liable for the entry.

Your continued consideration

To Whom It May Concern at Tyson Foods:

I am following up on my previous letters of January 10, February 27, March 15, April 20, May 15, and June 7. To reiterate, I am a new father, eager to learn as much as I can about the meat industry, in an effort to make informed decisions about what to feed my son. Given that Tyson Foods is the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork, your company is an obvious place to start. I would like to visit some of your farms and speak with company representatives about everything from the nuts and bolts of how your farms operate, to animal welfare and environmental issues. If possible, I would also like to speak with some of your farmers. I can make myself available at just about any time, and on relatively short notice, and am happy to travel as is needed.

Given your “family-centered philosophy” and recent “It’s What Your Family Deserves” advertising campaign, I assume you’ll appreciate my desire to see for myself where my son’s food comes from.

Thanks so much for your continued consideration.


Jonathan Safran Foer

The whole sad business

  • We’ve parked several hundred yards from the farm because C noticed in a satellite photo that it was possible to reach the sheds under the cover of an adjacent apricot grove.
  • The farm is set up in a series of seven sheds, each about 50 feet wide by 500 feet long, each holding in the neighborhood of 25,000 birds – although I don’t yet know these facts.
  • Everyone has a mental image of a farm, and to most it probably includes fields, barns, tractors, and animals, or at least one of the above. I doubt there’s anyone on earth not involved in farming whose mind would conjure what I’m now looking at. And yet before me is the kind of farm that produces 99% of the animals consumed in America.
  • With her astronaut’s gloves, C spreads the harp of barbed wire far enough apart for me to squeeze through.
  • With each step, my feet sink into a compost of animal waste, dirt, and I-don’t-yet-know-what-else that has been poured around the sheds. Huge fan units – maybe ten fans, each about four feet in diameter – come on and shut off intermittently.
  • We approach the first shed. Light spills from under its door. I wonder: Why would a shed full of animals be brightly lit in the middle of the night?
  • We spend several minutes looking for an unlocked door. Another why: Why would a farmer lock the doors of his turkey farm?
  • It can’t be because he’s afraid someone will steal his equipment or animals. There’s no equipment to steal in the sheds, and the animals aren’t worth the Herculean effort it would take to illicitly transport a significant number.
  • In the three years I will spend in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. Nothing will better capture the whole sad business of factory farming. And nothing will more strongly convince me to write this book.
  •  Even research organizations with paid staff find themselves consistently thwarted by industry secrecy. When the prestigious and well-heeled Pew Commission decided to fund a two-year study to evaluate the impact of factory farming, they reported that

there have been some serious obstacles to the Commission completing its review and approving consensus recommendations. In fact, while some industrial agriculture representatives were recommending potential authors for the technical reports to Commission staff, other industrial agriculture representatives were discouraging those same authors  from assisting us by threatening to withhold research funding for their college or university. We found significant influence by the industry at every turn: in academic research, agriculture policy development, government regulation, and enforcement.

  • The power brokers of factory farming know that their business model depends on consumers not being able to see (or hear about) what they do.


The rescue

  • The first thing that catches my attention is the row of gas masks on the near wall. Why would there be gas masks in a farm shed?
  • We creep in. There are tens of thousands of turkey chicks, huddled in groups, asleep beneath the heat lamps installed to replace the warmth their broody mothers would have provided. Where are the mothers?
  • I am surprised by how easy it is to forget the anonymous life all around and simply admire the technological symphony that so precisely regulates this little world-unto-itself, to see the efficiency and mastery of the machine, and then to understand the birds as extensions of, or cogs in, that machine – not beings, but parts.
  • The closer I look, the more I see. The ends of the beaks of the chicks are blackened, as are the ends of their toes. Some have red spots on the tops of their heads.
  • It takes me several minutes before I take in just how many dead ones there are. Some are blood matted; some are covered in sores. Some have been pecked at; others are as desiccated and loosely gathered as small piles of dead leaves. Some are deformed. The dead are the exceptions, but there are few places to look without seeing at least one.
  • C is kneeling over something. A chick is trembling on its side, legs splayed, eyes crusted over. Scabs protrude from bald patches. Its beak is slightly open, and its head is shaking back and forth.
  • C opens her bag and removes a knife. Holding one hand over the chick’s head, she slices its neck, rescuing it.


2. I am the kind of person who finds herself on a stranger’s farm in the middle of the night

That turkey chick I euthanized on our rescue, that was hard. One of my jobs, many years ago, was at a poultry plant. I was a backup killer, which meant it was my responsibility to slit the throats of the chickens that survived the automated throat slitter. I killed thousands of the chickens that way. Maybe tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands. In that context, you lose track of everything: where you are, what you’re doing, how long you’ve been doing it, what the animals are, what you are. It’s a survival mechanism, to keep you for going insane. But it’s its own insanity.

So because of my work on the kill line, I knew the anatomy of the neck and how to kill the chick instantly. And every part of me knew that it was the right thing to put it out of its misery. But it was hard, because that chick wasn’t in a line of thousands of birds to be slaughtered. It was an individual. Everything about this is hard.

I’m not a radical. In almost every way, I’m a middle-of-the-road person. I don’t have any piercings. No weird haircut. I don’t do drugs. Politically, I’m liberal on some issues and conservative on others. But see, factory farming is a middle-of-the-road issue – something most reasonable people would agree on if they had access to the truth.

I grew up in Wisconsin and Texas. My family was typical: My dad was (and is) into hunting; all of my uncles trapped and fished. My mom cooked roasts every Monday night, chicken Tuesday, and so on. My brother was All-State in two sports.

The first time I was exposed to farming issues was when a friend showed me some films of cows being slaughtered. We were teenagers, and it was just gross-out shit, like those “Faces of Death” videos. He wasn’t a vegetarian – no one was vegetarian – and he wasn’t trying to make me one. It was for a laugh.

We had drumsticks for dinner that night, and I couldn’t eat mine. When I held the bone in my hand ,it didn’t feel like chicken, but a chicken.. I always knew that I was eating an individual, I suppose, but it never hit me before. My dad asked me what was wrong, and I told him about the video. At that point in my life, I took whatever he said to be the truth, and I was sure he could explain everything. But the best he could come up with was something like “It’s unpleasant stuff.” If he’d left it there, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now. But then he made a joke about it. The same joke everyone makes. I’ve hear it a million times since. He pretended he was a crying animal. It was revealing to me, and infuriating. I decided then and there never to become someone who told jokes when explanations were impossible.

I wanted to know if that video was exceptional. I suppose I wanted a way out of having to change my life. So I wrote letters to all of the big farm corporations, asking for tours. Honestly, it never crossed my mind that they would say no or not respond. When that didn’t work, I started driving around and asking any farmers I saw if I could look in their sheds. They all had reasons for saying no. Given what they’re doing, I don’t blame them for not wanting anyone to see. But given their secrecy about something so important, who could blame me for feeling that I needed to do things my own way?

The first farm I entered at night was an egg facility, maybe a million hens. They were packed into cages that were stacked several rows high. My eyes and lungs burned for days after. It was less violent and gory than what I’d seen in the video, but it affected me even more strongly. That really changed me, when I realized that an excruciating life is worse than an excruciating death.

The farm was so bad that I assumed it, too, had to be exceptional. I guess I couldn’t believe that people let that kind of thing happen on so large a scale. So I got myself into another farm, a turkey farm. By chance I’d come just a few days before slaughter, so the turkeys were full grown and jammed body to body. You couldn’t see the floor through them. They were totally crazy: flapping, squawking, going after each other. There were dead birds everywhere, and half-dead birds. It was sad. I didn’t put them there, but I felt ashamed just to be a person. I told myself it had to be exceptional. So I entered another farm. And another. And another.

Maybe on some deep level, I kept doing this because I didn’t want to believe that the things I’d seen were representative. But everyone who cares to know about this stuff knows that factory farms are nearly all there is. Most people aren’t able to see these farms with their own eyes, but they can see them through mine. I’ve videotaped conditions at chicken and egg factories, turkey factories, a couple of hog farms (those are basically impossible to get into now), rabbit farms, drylot dairies and feedlots, livestock auctions, and in transport  trucks. I’ve worked in a few slaughterhouses. Occasionally the footage will make its way onto the evening news or into the newspaper. A few times it’s been used in animal cruelty cases.

That’s why I agreed to help you. I don’t know you. I don’t know what kind of book you’re going to write. But if any part of it is bringing what happens inside those farms to the outside world, that can only be a good thing. The truth is so powerful in this case it doesn’t even matter what your angle is.

Anyway, I wanted to be sure that when you write your book you don’t make it seem like I kill animals all the time. I’ve done it four times, only when it couldn’t be avoided. Usually I take the sickest animals to a vet. But that chick was too sick to be moved. And it was suffering too much to leave be. Look, I’m pro-life. I believe in God, and I believe in heaven and hell. But I don’t have any reverence for suffering. These factory farmers calculate how close to death they can keep the animals without killing them. That’s the business model. How quickly can they be made to grow, how tightly can they be packed, how much or little can they eat, how sick can they get without dying.

This isn’t animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Tell me something: Why is taste the crudest of our senses, exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses? If you stop and think about it, it’s crazy. Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. And how would you judge an artist who mutilated animals in a gallery because it was visually arresting? How riveting would the sound of a tortured animal need to be to make you want to hear it that badly? Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.

If I misuse a corporation’s logo, I could potentially be put in jail; if a corporation abuses a billion birds, the law will protect not the birds, but the corporation’s right to do what it wants. That is what it looks like when you deny animals rights. It’s crazy that the idea of animal rights seems crazy to anyone. We live in a world in which it’s conventional to treat an animal like a hunk of wood and extreme to treat an animal like an animal.

Before child labor laws, there were businesses that treated their ten-year-old employees well. Society didn’t ban child labor because it’s impossible to imagine children working in a good environment, but because when you give that much power to businesses over powerless individuals, it’s corrupting. When we walk around thinking we have a greater right to eat an animal than the animal has a right to live without suffering, it’s corrupting. I’m not speculating. This is our reality. Look at what factory farming is. Look at what we as a society have done to animals as soon as we had the technological power. Look at what we actually do  in the name  of “animal welfare” and “humanness,” then decide if you still believe in eating meat.

3. I am a factory farmer

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