Going Undercover at a Slaughterhouse - Humanity Is Capable of Atrocities It Simply Can't Confront

I used to wake up at 4:30am for the morning shift at the slaughterhouse. It was fall and the chill in the air matched the emptiness of the roads that were surrounded by rural Maryland’s forests and tributaries feeding into the Chesapeake Bay. It should have been a peaceful time of day, but the thoughts would race: “Can I do this another day? What if they notice my hidden camera? What would they do if they found out I was an undercover investigator?”

On my first day of training, I watched presentations on topics regarding food safety and avoiding hazards. Animal treatment never came up during the training period, which seemed odd since my sole job was handling animals.

The next day, the line leader handed me a full body white suit akin to a disposable hazmat outfit. After I changed into it, he brought me into the area where I would work for the next several weeks, the shackling room.

As I stepped through the door, the nauseating smell made me gag. Aside from a few dull, red lights, the room was kept almost completely dark in an effort to calm the frenzied chickens we were to kill. The line leader positioned me so I was facing a row of metal shackles at chest level with a conveyer belt at my waist.

Once the shackles started to move, a churning sound from the machinery began permeating the air. The conveyer began turning, and the first batch of chickens emerged to my left. They were piled one on top of another, making a deep, raspy sound as if their lungs were filled with fluid. As they got closer, the team leader grabbed one.

“Pick up the chickens upside-down, and put their legs in the shackle,” he said. That was the only instruction he gave.

As he walked away, a chicken came down the belt. Her legs were deformed, with her left leg twisted one way and her right twisted the other. She was dirty and her chest was bright red, which I would later learn was from the ammonia burns resulting from living in her own waste. She was massive, like a gargantuan monster of a bird.

I lifted her up, sickened at the thought of what I had to do.

That was more than 10 years ago. Since then, the lives and deaths of chickens haven’t changed much. They’re still genetically manipulated to grow so large and fast that their lungs and legs can’t keep up with their grotesque size. The poultry industry’s slaughterhouses still shackle and kill birds while they’re fully conscious.

However, actions of the past several months provide hope that chickens, who represent nine out of 10 land animals we raise and kill for food, will have better lives. The Humane Society of the United States, along with other animal protection organizations, have helped the nation’s largest food companies create comprehensive chicken welfare standards for their suppliers. Major chicken buyers like Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo, Chipotle, Panera Bread, TGI Friday’s, Quiznos, Red Robin and others are mandating that their suppliers address the very horrors I saw first-hand in that slaughterhouse.

These companies are demanding healthier breeds of chickens, instead of painfully oversized Frankenbirds the industry breeds today. They’re demanding more humane living conditions and requiring birds to have more space, better litter quality and enrichments like perches and hay bales to allow the birds to get off the ground. They are also demanding better slaughter systems, in which birds are killed via a controlled-atmosphere—a practice that is less cruel and prevents birds from facing the terror and pain of going through the shackling and slaughter process while conscious.

These reforms are the very least we should do for the animals who give us so much. Along with the food industry’s unique responsibility to mitigate cruelty comes an opportunity to improve life for billions of animals. While we cannot undo what the poultry industry has done to these animals in the past, we can change the industry to create a better, more humane food supply.

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