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Behind the scenes of the fight for the protection of animals and workers and the preservation of the environment - my experiences as a Tyson slaughterhouse hanger/killer turned activist. Exposing the evils of factory farming, by Virgil Butler. If you have arrived here looking for the Tyson stories, view the early archives. Some of them are now featured on the sidebar for easy searching.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
of year when the conditions are the
worst for working back dock The days
are long and hot, and the catchers
start well before dark. It could still be
hovering close to 100F outside, but in
the hanging cage it would be another
15 degrees hotter, with an increase of
at least 10% humidity.
Everyone drags themselves in to work
for another night. The workers' faces
look like they are walking dead, and no
one is looking forward to the night.
Everybody gathers in the back dock
break room at about 8:35 p.m. Every-
one is pushing and shoving in the little
room, trying to get their gear on.
You have to wear a smock, full-length
plastic apron (from chin to toes), knee-
high rubber boots, and 2 pairs of gloves -
rubber over cloth. If you are lucky, you
also get a pair of sleeve guards to protect
your arms from the ammonia burns.
You hear the truck pull up and the super
hollers, "FORKLIFT!" That means the forklift
driver is on deck, ready to start unloading
the cages onto the dump. Then the super
hollers, "DUMP!" The dump operator turns
on his machine and dumps 3 cages onto the
belt - about 900 chickens. (In the winter
there would be twice that many.)
Every time a cage goes over, the dust rises
up so thick you can barely see the cage the
chickens came out of. Up with the dust comes
the smell - at least the first of the real smell.
It smells like death.
Then the super hollers, "STAND ON THE LINE!"
You have about 30 seconds to go. You walk
to the front of the belt and hit the lever to
run the chickens up to where you and the
other 6 people are standing directly over them.
You hear the big motors start up (there are 2
electric motors about the size of VWs). The
line is running. The smell is atrocious and the
chickens are panicking. Many of them are
squawking loudly, some are just sitting there
trembling. Sometimes you catch one looking
up at you, eye to eye, and you know it's
(I have seen the look on men's faces as they
go into battle for the first time. It looks the
same as the look in that chicken's eyes. No
one can convince me that that chicken did not
know what was about to happen.)
The super walks out and Troy yells, "HANG 'EM!"
For the next 2 1/2 hours you are "married" to
that line. You better hope you don't have to
go to the bathroom. Your night has begun.
The job description says you are expected to
hang 26 birds/minute - 1/7th of the line,
approximately at 182-186/minute.
Within the first hour, your hands are getting
sore. By then, the dust is so thick, you can
actually feel it settle on your eyes. You don't
dare breathe through your mouth. You clench
your jaw and breathe through your nose.
You reach down, looking at that chicken on the
belt. You know your shackle is coming. You
have exactly enough time to reach down and
pick your chicken up before your shackle gets
to you. You reach down and grab it by the
wing or the head to spin it around to face you.
Then, to make sure it doesn't move while you
are grabbing it to hang it, you put one hand on
its head and push its head down against the belt.
That will make it try to jump up to get away from
you and it will extend its legs. Then you catch its
leg between your first 2 fingers and slide them all
the way down until the back of your hand touches
its foot. You put your thumb on its hock and
bend its leg backward until it's hyper-extended,
while you close your hand around its leg at the
thigh. As you snatch it up off the belt, you grab
its other leg the same way. You glance at the
line and identify your shackle. When it gets within
reach of you, you slap your chicken all the way
to the bottom of it. Then go for the next one
and hope you have been fast enough.
You must do this a minimum of 26 times every
minute. If you don't keep up, you will be, at
first sternly reprimanded, then sent home.
If you are unfortunate to get caught on the
end of the line, and you are experienced, you
are also expected to catch all the empty
shackles the new hires miss, plus your own.
You are also responsible for the "one-leggers,"
"high-hangs," (when the chicken has not been
pulled to the bottom of the shackle - you have
to pull down on its wings real hard), and "wing
hangs" (when its wing is trapped in the shackle -
you grab the wing and pull).
If you are hanging lead, you have to keep the
belt running in addition to hanging you shackle.
This means, sometimes, you will get a pile of
chickens in front of you. There will be an empty
spot on the belt down the line where the dump
operator was slow to get a cage dumped. So,
you grab the big pile of birds you have and sling
them at the people who have none - while running
the belt and hanging your shackle.
Only the absolute, most experienced hangers
even have a chance at doing this job. If you
are doing it and screw up - it doesn't matter
why, it's your fault.
After 2 1/2 hours of this, you get a 30-minute
break. This includes the time it takes to take
off all your gear and wash up. There is one
sink for everybody. You have to clean up
before begin allowed to enter the part of the
plant where the vending machines and tables
are, which is all the way around the other side
of the complex. It usually takes 10-15 minutes
to get around there. So, if you grab your stuff
and eat it on the way back, you have enough
time before you have to gear back up and go at
it all over again for another 2 1/2 hours.
By second break, you are what they call "galded"
by the ammonia. The dust containing the
ammonia not only leaves burns, but also chafes
your skin. The dust is probably 75% chicken
manure dried to a powder. Every time the
chickens flap their wings in front of you and
fight the shackles, they create clouds of it.
Did I also mention your eyes are burning like
hell? Oh, yeah, forgot that part of it. It's
not uncommon to have nose bleeds, either.
Usually the 2nd round was when people would
usually start getting frustrated. It wasn't
uncommon for the next 2 1/2 hours to see
some real evil things go on.
I have seen people grab a chicken by its legs
and beat it against the belt until they ripped
it in half, usually because it shit in their face.
If you are dumb enough to open your mouth
to talk to someone (and almost all newbies
wanted to talk) you will get a shot right inside
your mouth. Yes, I've swallowed some in my
time. It's unavoidable sometimes. It's kind of
gritty, like Metamucil, and tastes kind of salty.
It's gross, but it's part of the job.
After the 2nd break (2:20 a.m.-2:50 a.m.) you
go again until the chickens run out, which is
usually around 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. Then, it's
finally over - you can go home and fall into bed.
Can you believe I did this for years?????
They always have openings if anyone is
interested. Starting pay is $6.85/hr. for night
shift, $6.55/hr. for days+benefits. They
usually hire a whole new crew every summer.
If they made it through one summer, they
usually won't go back for another one. No?
I don't blame you. I must have been crazy.