Let’s hear it for slaughtermen and women: those who deal with the death of farm animals so we don’t have to
Celebrate the slaughtermen. The people operating the brush bike, sweeping chickens into a bag, later placing their feet in hooks on a moving belt that passes a blade over their necks. The bolt-gun operators who deftly dab the head of a cow between its ears and gently depress the trigger. The electrical technicians who encourage pigs into an encased platform, ready to be lowered into a chamber of gas. The knife craftsmen who sweep their blades into the necks of livestock. The egg separation operatives who skilfully pick the yellow male chicks cheeping along the conveyor belt and gently move them into a grinder.
For these workers know death. They have the privilege of observing life cease, the last breath, the final beat of the heart, the nerve twitch at the very end. Who else sees millions of moments of death like this? Who else knows what the act of killing looks like, sounds like, smells like? Nobody that you can tell me. Not you, not me, not even our farmers really.
We all see life. Lambs, calves, piglets being born. Life in the fields, in barns and sheds. Often, high welfare life. Sometimes we even see life in lorries on the motorway and we speed up, eyes forward.
FIELDS AND FORKS
We don’t want to see death. We want somebody else to take it on please. And that bit afterwards where each body needs to be drained of its blood, rid of its hide and feathers, head, tails and feet removed, organs taken out.
All we want to see is a tiny bit of muscle tissue, marbled with visceral fat. We want to see fields and forks and nothing else. So let’s hear it for our slaughtermen for a change. Better still, let’s hear our slaughtermen and women. Let’s know more about what they observe: the physiology, the cognition and the behaviour of death.
When fellow Countryfile presenter Tom Heap and I spoke at a recent press event about our wish that slaughterhouses were open to the public, especially children – directly or via cameras – there was enough of a backlash for Tom to sit on TV sofas for the rest of the week explaining himself. (I would have joined him if only I opened my laptop often enough.) The reaction was, on the whole, supportive from both sides: vegan groups and meat producers. Only the odd school thought it too much.
But if anyone has had to break news to children about animal, or indeed human deaths, they’ll have observed how youngsters seem to have a quicker route to clear thinking on the subject than adults. (Why then do all children’s books show farms with a single cow, a donkey – which farms have donkeys anyway? – a sheep and a pig and they’re all friends in the farmyard?)
In the course of human history, it wasn’t long ago that we hunted and put the final blow into the body of whichever animal we were about to eat, and in that moment was the recognition of life sacrificed to nourish another. Eating meat would have been rare. It’s only in very, very recent years that the frankly absurd notion of meat three times per day has become expected, and at a cost nobody wants to look at.
Unless we bear witness to the full cycle, how can meat-eaters be sure of a good life and, crucially, a good death for the creatures they eat? And there are worlds of difference between the two.
If we see it with our own eyes and process the killing with our evolved conscious minds, can we be sure we could make that kill ourselves and, if not, at least recognise it when we ask someone else to do it on our behalf, often for the minimum wage?
October was historically slaughter month and much more visible back then. It’s time once more to dare to look.