The steel bin was loaded with meat hooks — giant, heavyweight, shiny, perfectly curved hooks. There must have been six dozen of them. They were clean, bloodless, and soaking in sterilized water in the outside hallway of the meat processing building at the nearby state university “animal farm.”
I guessed then that I’d found the place I was looking for. For the past hour or so, I had wandered the campus in a photographic discovery. I took panoramic pictures of the line of dairy cows standing in wait outside the milking parlor. Their big heads poked through the metal fence slats when I approached. Their large eyes seemed so forgiving. As a member of the human race, I didn’t deserve the sentiment.
Some of the cows’ offspring were corralled in isolating wire pens just barely larger than their bodies, across the lot from the dairy barns, and given shelter from the sweltering sun in plastic doghouse-like structures. Even more curious than their mothers, and obviously desperate for touch, they scrambled to their feet at my approach. I knelt before an almost black calf, maybe two weeks old, and presented my hand. Veal, I mused, as that little wet, toothless mouth sucked longingly on my fingers.
He abandoned the futile effort and tried the rim of my baseball cap. His face was so close to mine, and I couldn’t help but think he was the most precious little creature I had ever been close to. He even smelled newborn — fresh, and as innocent as he was. Sleek. Fragile. And such bright, begging eyes. When I stood up to greet another calf, he bucked in his pen and threw his head to express his disappointment. He had such fragile little legs and tiny cleft hooves.
In a neighboring warehouse building, I found the pigs. Young pigs were crammed into finishing pens. The room smelled of feces and urine. Flies buzzed about. In an adjoining room were the farrowing pens: stalls each housing a full-grown sow and her new-born piglets. I approached one sow who was standing and couldn’t turn around between the metal bars. There was no way she could nuzzle her young — and a scrawny one lay dying under the heat lamp.
In this room, the smell was even greater; feces caked the metal pen slats, and the flies were as thick as tar. Through a window I watched a pickup truck drive away with a dead piglet on the tailgate. The cleaning crew had come and gone. I quickly jumped in my own vehicle and followed it to the Dumpster, which is where I found the slaughterhouse.
It was nearing six on a Thursday afternoon and the place was deserted. I went in cautiously, past the observation deck and onto the kill floor. Electric tongs gave away the method of stunning. Long, sharp “sticking” knives. There was the standard bleed pit. The power saw that dismembered the carcasses. A scale to measure the body parts. Tables with center drains where the pieces were cut into loin, steak, round, et al. Graphs on the walls addressed the process, from living animal to putrefying flesh.
In a refrigeration room, I found the dismembered corpses, the fully dressed veal. In a trash bin, I found the inedibles: fragile little calf legs with tiny cleft hooves.
And I couldn’t help but wonder — again — why we couldn’t see the sickness in this chamber of horrors. If we did in here to dogs what we were doing to cows and pigs…
At a recent birthday party for a beautiful 5-year-old, I watched mothers prepare hamburgers and hot dogs, and encourage their children to consume them. I saw such love and nurturing. They cared so much for their babies — while I reflected on those other mothers, the deprived dairy cows, and the painful separation they suffered from their offspring. I thought about those tightly penned calves desperate for suckling, the feces and fly-infested farrowing pens where piglets died on wire-mesh floors. And there was the slaughterhouse: the dismembered, decaying corpses now posing as hamburgers and mustard-laden hot dogs.
Forgive them, I’ve heard it said, for they know not what they do.
They couldn’t possibly.