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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.
Saturday, January 24, 2004
I can remember that first night that I showed up for work after the transfer from debone to back dock. I thought I knew what to expect, since I had caught chickens before. The sheer number of chickens that we had to deal with at one time at such a quick pace, and seeing the brutality involved because of these combined factors, led me to believe that it wouldn't be much worse on back dock. It certainly paid better, even better than debone. At that time, killing was the best paying job on the dock.
I figured that, since you could work down there, inside, standing in one spot (and not in the cold, as in debone), as opposed to running around the houses all night, things would be better. I had hunted and grown up on a farm, so I had also been exposed to the slaughter of the animals and the blood that goes along with that. I really had not expected things to be so bad.
Little did I know how completely naive I was...
It was like a kid on his first day of school. Since I was the new guy, by the time I got on the line, everything was in full production. By the time I finished the necessary paperwork in the office, the plant had been in full production for over an hour.
It was in the summertime. The smell is worse then. I could smell the blood long before I got all the way back there.
Back then, they still had the old grate in the floor. This was before they put in the blood pump to pump the blood out to off-haul. Back then, the killer worked up on a catwalk. Underneath it, there was an open-topped 500-gallon trailer that they pulled out with a tractor when it got full, and replaced with another one. (Although, there were some nights when the guy responsible for pulling the trailer out started hitting on a jug out back and didn't get the job done. Now those were the really nasty nights, but let's stick with what happened normally at that time on a given night, without going to the occasional extremes for the purposes of this post.)
The problem was that it took only about 2 hours to fill the trailer, but we would work for 2-1/2 hours before break, so they couldn't change the trailer until break time. So, what didn't fit in the trailer, overflowed on the floor, and you walked around in it. Sometimes it would be 7 or 8 inches deep by break time. We are talking about a room that was about 8 ft. wide by about 12 ft. long. The trailer was exactly the size of the room, and fit underneath it.
I remember when I first walked in there on back dock, the first thing I did was to slip in the accumulated blood, and almost fall in it. I caught myself on the wall. The guy that was killing just laughed at me and said, "That's your first lesson. Everything you touch is gonna get blood on ya. You might as well get used to it."
As he was saying this to me, I was watching this blood clot about the size of my thumbnail slide down the bridge of his nose and rip off on his chin in little drops. I wondered why he didn't wipe it off.
Then I looked down at his hands and I saw why...
There was nothing that he could have used that wouldn't have gotten more on him. Then I realized what he meant about touching anything. Blood sprays all over the killer every time their throats are cut.
I also noticed that he never took his eyes off the line. Not one time.
So, I walked up to the line and took his place, while he backed off. It didn't take me long to figure out why he didn't take his eyes off the line, either. It only takes (snaps his fingers) that long to miss half a dozen if you don't pay attention at all times. (Of course, you still miss some, even doing your best, but it is your job not to.)
You have a killing machine that is killing a certain number of chickens. (There is a great dispute over how many it actually kills, but I have been there, so I figure I am pretty close to what the actual numbers are.) It was doing pretty good that night. It was only missing about 2 out of 7. But, the thing is that it isn't going to kill 5 and then miss 2. You stand there for a bit, watching them go by, trying to look at each one of their throats to make sure they have been slit, as they spray blood everywhere. Sometimes the ones that are missed by the machine have so much blood on them from the others, that it is hard to tell, unless you watch very closely. Other times, they will be only partially slit. When this happens, you have to stick your thumb in the hole in their throat to see if you can feel their neck bone. The way you tell if you felt it or not, is that, after sticking your thumb in the hole, you move your thumb back and forth over it, squeezing a bit. If they are cut right, you will touch their backbone and they will have a jerking, flopping fit. (It also wakes them up from being stunned and probably hurts like hell because they are not dead yet. At his point, they still have at least 60% of their blood still in them, which is enough to keep them alive.)
Then, sometimes, you get a bunch all at once that the machine misses and slit like mad to get them all. That is more often what happens than what most people think of when I say "2 out of 7." That's just a number to give you an idea of the number the killer is responsible for killing himself. That number changes from one second to the next and is not static. How well the hangers are doing directly affects that number, because of things like the "one-leggers"and such. If they aren't hung perfectly, that machine won't kill them.
Anyway, I stood there and they began to sling blood on me. The smell and the heat started getting to me. Then, here came a one-legger behind that...
I puked all over every damn one of those chickens.
I tried to cut one of their throats and there just wasn't any keeping it down. It was coming out. Everywhere. Everything in my stomach. Even some things that I didn't know were still there.
But, I somehow managed to get them all cut.
By the time break time came, I was just an "idiot." That's just all there is to it. In the industry, they call it being "line-crazy."
I realized later that they make a killer's first night his worst night. On purpose.
If you are going to quit, they want you to do it then.
I also found out later that for every 15 or 20 people that try out for that job, they might keep one. Most people just cannot handle it. (That's probably a good thing, huh? Wouldn't you be at least a little leery of someone who enjoyed this type of work?)
When break time comes, or any time chickens quit coming down the line to the killer, it was his job to also push the blood down and wash down the killing machine. You pushed the blood down with a big, industrial-size squeegee.
This was probably the most disgusting part of the job.
I've seen blood clots that were 8-10 ft. long, 4 ft. wide, and probably about a foot thick. No exaggeration.
This is what the big squeegee was for. Well, calling it a squeegee is kind of misleading, but it is hard to describe. You certainly couldn't call it a shovel. It was something they made specifically for cleaning out the blood tunnel down there at the plant.
It was not uncommon for the killer to have to get some help to push these massive blood clots down the drain. They were huge and heavy. Some of them would weight several hundred pounds. It was not uncommon to see a 300-400 lb. blood clot.
You used the squeegee to push the blood clots down to the drain. But, they had gotten so thick that they were almost the consistency of meat in a lot of cases. When that happened, you had to stomp them down so that the matter would flow between the little squares of the grate covering the drain that kept the big chunks from going down the drain.
Stomping it down is just what it sounds like. You got in there and walked around in it in rubber boots, stomping around.
And every time you stomped on it, it splattered all over you.
T., who became my partner in there, and I would usually end up having to do this. What we would do would be to bring two changes of clothes with us - one for 1st break and one for 2nd break. We bought these clothes at yard sales so that we could just throw them away if we had to. After we would get through, we stripped off the bloody clothes and took turns hosing each other off. There were 2 hoses and we would blast each other at the same time with them for about 5 minutes or so to get all the clotted blood off. These were big hoses, similar to fire hoses, that we kept turned down quite a bit so that they didn't hurt us, but were still powerful enough to get that nasty stuff off of you and out of your hair. Many times we just had to throw away our shirts.
Thus began the nightmare that ultimately drove me to write this blog.