Saturday, November 1, 2008

Cattle Undone: Tour of a Panhandle Slaughterhouse

My father works at a feedlot in Olton, Texas where cattle are pinned and fed until they reach cut weight. Freegrazers made barred gluttons.

My uncle works at a slaughterhouse, or "meat packing plant," in Cactus, Texas where the same cattle are sliced apart then boxed.

Sad seeing the creatures confined to dirt pins. Stomach-churning seeing them disassembled.

The entire beef production industry is a cold efficient machine wherein the living animal becomes a stock of raw material efficiently and economically manufactured from beginning to end. I've described feedlot life in my post, Sell by the Pound; below I describe slaughterhouse death as I witnessed it.

Cattle are offloaded 18-wheelers into pins outside the plant. As the cattle are led into the plant a worker sprays the cattle with a hose to remove any feces that may contaminate the meat lying under their tough hides. The herd follows the herd.

The knocker is a pneumatic gun that fires a rod into the cow's skull. The knocker is also the position title of the man who wields the device. He is a highly paid worker and wears a helmet with a grated face mask attached to it, similar to a baseball catcher's mask. Should the cow go berserk the knocker is protected. He must lay the cow down on the first fire.

A quick thrust of air and a stone like knock issues. Soon the hole left by the rod spurts a bright red blood that winds down the features of the cow's face. Sometimes the blood pumps steadily from the hole; other times the blood erupts like a rosy geyser. However the blood releases, the cow slumps down a lifeless mass.

With the cow dispatched, a worker underneath the knocking cage wraps a chain around a rear ankle and connects the chain to a ceiling mounted track that hoists the mass into the air and moves it to the next station. A section of the track pulses with electricity that zaps away whatever life may still reside in the animal.

At the next station one worker makes a horizontal slice into the neck large enough for the next worker to insert his knife and severe the jugular. The second man's cut is the bloodiest of the whole operation. There is no way to adequately describe how blood surges and drains out of the animal; it looks like a sheet of water poured from a 10 gallon bucket, only it's not water but, hot blood that splashes to the concrete floor. The second man wears a rubber apron and elbow length rubber gloves, yet blood still stains his attire.

The rest of the operation is worse but I won't write of it. I won't write about the peeling of the hide, the severing of the head, or the slicing out of the tongue. Nor will I write about the sharp-toothed tools that cut easily through both flesh and bone. I've seen these things, and they are for others to see as well.

The front of the slaughterhouse is called the "hot side" because all the work done there takes place while the meat is still warm. When the mass is cleaned and sliced in half it is stored in a massive freezer for at least a day, killing any bacteria that may damage the product. At the feedlot I saw acres of cattle standing and eating; in the freezer I saw acres of flesh hanging in halves from the ceiling.

After freezing the pieces for a day or so they are all moved into the "cold side" of the slaughterhouse. It is called the "cold side" because all the processing is done in a cold environment to cold pieces of meat. On the cold side the chunk is chopped down to marketable pieces of meat, like T-bones, ribs, and chuck. Every piece of cold flesh is used with extremely little being wasted. Droves of workers in chain male make one slice all day long as endless slabs of meat move down the conveyor belt. The workers come from all around the world making the slaughterhouse an international workplace. Muslim women in head coverings work beside Latino men as they vacuum seal product for shipment. My uncle has learned standard greetings in many languages.

The slaughterhouse produces its own boxes and packages its own product in these boxes. It is a meat packing plant. The product is stored and dispensed when needed to grocery stores throughout the panhandle. An interesting operation from start to finish.

I feel privileged to have seen the death, separation, and packaging of cattle. Few people witness how beef is made. As I watched the knocker kill the cattle and the second man spill their blood, I wondered how these men could do such a violent job countless times an hour, day in and day out. But the more I thought about how repetitive the job was and how small a role each cut played in the entire drama, it dawned on me that it the workers too realized this fact. I suppose when you have a razor sharp knife or a pneumatic knocker in hand and are responsible for one precise cut every 15 seconds, you don't have much time or room for disposable, reflective thought. A worker can't step back and ponder the meaning of it all on the killing floor.

And it's not as if the workers are dismantling cattle one at a time. They're slicing and packaging thousands of cattle each day, like a professor reading a class full of 15 page essays at the end of a semester: each paper is special the student who wrote it, but after the tenth paper the professor's mind is numbed and she just wants to get through the stack.

Besides, the knocker is the only one in the whole works who sees the cow go from a living being to a dead one. Perhaps he's the only one who works with a "cow;" maybe all the rest of the workers, especially on the cold side, are just carving prime ribs or T-bones. Give me a knife and I'll cut a steak, but I'd never slay a cow.

It is more than gallons of blood spilling out of the cow, or perhaps I should say, the blood pouring from the cow's veins is more than liquid. Within the blood is the spirit of the animal. There is something extremely visceral and unsettling about watching the life-force of a great creature spill onto indifferent concrete. The initial movement from life to death, from breath and wandering eyes to de-animation and dead weight: the killing is disturbing to watch. But as I walked farther down the line I grew as indifferent the concrete. I didn't much enjoy witnessing the taking of life, but what disturbed me more was the mechanized dis-assembly line method with which the cutting was preformed. The cattle business is cold and efficient.

I think of the word "dehumanization," which means to remove essentially human qualities from a person. There should be a word like that to describe the shift in perception that occurs when a great beast of the field is viewed as raw material for packaging and consumption.

My uncle asked me a deep question as we stood watching the knocker struggle to make a clean shot on a fear stricken, bewildered cow; he asked me if I would file into stocks and sit still while someone positioned a device over my head waiting for the right moment to kill me? "Would you accept the fact that your time was up calmly, or would you struggle and fight to the end?" I told him I would fight to my very last; for out of all the thousands of cattle the knocker has laid down, I'd make damn sure he'd remember me.


  1. Great post. You have a great talent for using words and imagination.

    Do you remember that time at LCU when you were so pumped about those steak knives you had bought on TV?

  2. I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, and it really seems to parallel well with this post. Not just in terms of the use of the "knocker" (though I have a new appreciation for that now), but also in terms of dealing with issues of life and death, and what our reaction is to those facts. An excellent book, and an excellent post. Well done!

  3. Lantz, thank you for comment. It's good to hear from you.

    I still use my Titanium II knifes with great zeal. I stand behind the blades if not for their quality then at least for the inexpensiveness.

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  5. ima knocker. tha job is intense an takes alot 4rom u. its real wut u say. but thts my job. i gotta do wut i gotta do 2 feed my kids...