Books

The Disturbing Story of an Activist Who Worked Undercover at a Turkey Slaughterhouse

It wasn't just the turkeys facing abuse; it was the workers, too.

Photo Credit: OVKNHR/Shutterstock

The following excerpt is from the new book Mercy For Animals: One Man's Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals, by Nathan Runkle (Avery, 2017)

Pete lay paralyzed on his back. He was in shock and didn’t feel any pain, but then it washed over him all at once. Next to him, the fender of his dirt bike was rammed ten inches into the sand. Pete was at his favorite supercross track, and he had hit an easy jump—the same one he had hit countless times before. Except this time his body positioning was slightly off and his speed was too fast, turning a twenty-foot bound into a sixty-foot free fall. Pete had landed directly on his heels and then on his ass and had never in his life been in so much pain.

“Think you can walk it off?” another motorcyclist asked him. “Nope,” Pete gasped. “Definitely can’t walk it off.”

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Fortunately, the other rider was the head of radiology at a local hospital. He helped Pete to his truck and brought him for X-rays. The X-rays revealed that he had broken the right transverse process of his L5 vertebra—more commonly known as the lower back. He would be out of commission for at least a month. The timing wasn’t good. It was October 2006, and Pete was poised to undertake our very first undercover investigation.

At the time of his accident, Pete was in North Carolina working at a chicken processor called Mountaire Farms. He had taken the job expecting to be working in the slaughterhouse but instead was sent to the freezer room, placing bits of raw chicken onto freezer trays. He wasn’t allowed anywhere near the slaughter floor. He had tried sneaking in twice, but he couldn’t get any footage of the slaughter process.

I need to get the hell out of here, Pete realized.

Thanksgiving was right around the corner. If he could get undercover footage of cruelty to turkeys, it could be a major coup for the animal-protection movement. As the second-largest turkey-producing state in the country, North Carolina was a perfect place to try. Every year North Carolina slaughters approximately thirty-six million turkeys. The poultry industry has seen rapid growth: The rate of poultry consumption has easily outpaced red meat consumption over the past decade, and overall consumption of poultry has grown twentyfold in the last century.

Pete had heard rumors at Mountaire that House of Raeford Farms, a turkey slaughterhouse in nearby Raeford, was a grueling place to work. “That place is hell,” he overheard a few of his coworkers saying.

Okay, Pete thought. I’ve got to get a job there.

The day before his accident Pete had walked into the manager’s office at House of Raeford and inquired about a job. The manager glared at him and responded in a pronounced southern drawl: “You think you got what it takes?”

“Sure do,” Pete said. “I want a job where I get paid to be on my feet and I hear that live hanging is a real workout.” Pete was a master at talking his way into places.

“Well, I’m gonna tell you something,” the manager said with a grin. “You go back there in that live-hang bay and see what these boys do. This is a real man’s job. If you come back in here and still want a job, I’ll give you one.”

The live-hang bay is where live turkeys are shackled by their feet onto a moving cable, which brings them assembly-line style to a rotating blade that cuts their throats open, draining their blood. This is how hundreds of millions of turkeys meet their end every year—a killing method as efficient as it is brutal.

The first thing Pete noticed was the smell. Even after all these years Pete remembers it distinctly: blood, shit, and cooked meat. (The cooked meat smell came from a marinade factory directly next door.) To this day Pete can’t be around a barbecue or burger joint without wanting to vomit.

Pete hadn’t taken two steps into the live-hang bay when he saw a bird that had been run over by a truck. Her organs had spilled out and were still pulsating in a pool of blood. Workers were ripping turkeys out of cages and hoisting them onto live-hang shackles as fast as possible. Blood and feces were everywhere. Complete chaos.

This is it, Pete thought. I think we found the spot for our first investigation.

The next day, after crashing at the motocross track, Pete was sitting in a wheelchair, doped up on painkillers.

Fortunately, the House of Raeford manager was understanding. “Come back when you’re ready,” he later told Pete. Live-hanging is a very physical job, requiring a lot of strength and stamina, along with a willingness to be perpetually covered in blood and feces. In other words, there aren’t many applicants, and they need to be in shape.

Pete was in a wheelchair for two weeks, and then on crutches for another two weeks. After a month he could walk, painfully, but that was good enough for him. There wasn’t yet a job opening, but Pete was unfazed. He kept showing up until the manager had a spot on the line. Finally, in January, he was in.

While Pete was filling out paperwork on his first day, a worker walked by and said, “Hey, you’re gonna be all right. You can do this job. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Another remarked, “Don’t worry, you can do it. Don’t think you can’t.” Now Pete was getting nervous. Surely this job wasn’t that difficult, was it?

It was. Even today, with more than a dozen strenuous factory-farm investigations under his belt, that first day at House of Raeford Farms remains the hardest day of work Pete said he has ever experienced. By the time they arrive at the slaughterhouse, turkeys weigh about thirty-six pounds. They are large, they are scared, and it was Pete’s job to take them out of cages, hoist them to about head height, and shackle them to a live-hang line. He had to do this for eight hours a day, not even a month after breaking his back.

Pete was barely surviving his first day, but the workers around him had endured this exhausting work for months and years. As the international nonprofit Oxfam reported in 2016, “Big Poultry treats workers as replaceable cogs in their machine. . . . To find workers will- ing to do these jobs, the poultry industry exploits vulnerable people who have few other options: minorities, immigrants, and refugees— even prisoners. Because of their precarious situations, most workers are afraid to speak out or do anything that might jeopardize their jobs.” Pete remembers one worker, José, who said he was eighteen but was probably younger, with hands so swollen he could barely open them—a result of repeating the same motions thousands of times each shift, with few moments to rest or stretch. Finally the boy could no longer work and pointed out the injury to his manager, who sneered and said, “Just soak it in some hot water and get back to work.” This story is no outlier: Oxfam calculates that the speed at which poultry companies run their processing lines has doubled in the past thirty-five years, and many workers are forced to repeat the same forceful motions more than twenty thousand times per day. A government report noted that among poultry workers, “the most common injuries are cuts, strains, cumulative trauma, and injuries sustained from falls, but more serious injuries, such as fractures and amputation, also occur.” As a result, “labor turnover in meat and poultry plants is quite high, and in some worksites can exceed 100 percent in a year.” It wasn’t just the turkeys facing abuse; it was the workers, too.

After removing the struggling birds from cages on trucks, workers would shove their feet into hanging steel shackles that suspend the birds upside down. As Pete soon learned, the turkeys’ knees blow out from the extreme force required to jam them into the shackling mechanism. Pete could feel the crunch reverberate in his arms each time. This happened with every single bird. At the same time, Pete estimated that 10 percent of the turkeys already had existing fractures and open wounds from their weeks spent crowded together at “grow-out” facilities.

Oftentimes, if a worker didn’t thrust a bird hard enough, the shackles would fail. Their knees shattered, these birds would fall to the ground and lie there for the rest of the day, ignored. A new bird would be lifted in his place while the first one lay terrified on the floor, subject to relentless kicking and trampling. Only at the end of the day, when the rest of the birds had been loaded into shackles, would the downed turkey be hoisted back onto the line.

After being shackled, the turkeys would be whisked along toward the opposite end of the factory, to their deaths. What Pete remembers most distinctly about this step was the complete lack of noise. The birds fought and squawked when they were being thrown from their cages, but once they reached the hanging line they were completely silent. Birds do not have muscular diaphragms, which makes it extremely difficult and painful for them to breathe while upside down. Their wings splayed out, their heads became still—an endless procession of birds quietly awaiting their death, as if they’d known it was coming all along. The only sounds were the clanking of steel shackles and the scuffling of workers below.

Two minutes later the turkeys reached a “stun bath”—essentially electrified running water—which temporarily paralyzed them. How- ever, oftentimes the bath merely gave the birds a painful shock, failing to render them unconscious. A moment later, a rotating blade cut their throats open. Farther down the line, a worker was stationed with a knife; it was his job to slice the necks of any birds who weren’t cleanly cut by the rotating blade. Their blood quickly draining, the birds struggled and flapped their wings. And then, finally, they were still.

Even during the final minutes of life, many of the turkeys weren’t spared abuse. Pete routinely watched workers—desensitized to violence by the sheer brutality of their jobs—use live turkeys as punching bags as they hung upside down on the slaughter line. Another time Pete was unloading turkeys from trucks when he saw a bird poke her head out of a cage. On a whim, another worker reached over and ripped it off. Then he laughed and threw the head over to another worker. At other times, workers would throw fallen turkeys up to eight-foot hanging platforms. The birds would often miss and fall back down to the floor. All in front of managers. For fun, some employees even shoved their hands into the vaginal cavities of live birds. And all the while, turkeys with broken wings and legs, bloody open wounds, tumors, and other untreated injuries were slaughtered for human consumption.

After five weeks of undercover filming, enough was enough. We were ready to go to law enforcement and present our case. I was also worried about Pete, who was thoroughly exhausted. Pete never complained, so I knew he wouldn’t tell me just how bad things were. He would stick out any case, in any conditions, if it meant helping animals. But I could tell he was suffering. The physical labor, long hours, filthy conditions, fumes, and daily injuries were extreme. The thought of Pete doing all this right after breaking his back made me very concerned. Pete wasn’t just an investigator; he was my friend, my brother. I wanted him out of there. By the end of the case he was taking 800 mg of ibuprofen three times a day for the carpal tunnel syndrome he had developed in his hands. He’d wake up in the morning and his hands would be locked in the position needed to grasp a thirty-six- pound turkey by the leg. At night he would massage and soak his hands in hot water, willing himself through the pain so he could open them sufficiently to cook dinner.

We prepared the case and mailed it to law enforcement. This was our very first investigation, and we knew that the odds of a prosecutor taking such a case were slim, even though the abuse was as repulsive as it was routine. No response. At the time, MFA was not well-known and was easy to ignore. We were pioneering this sort of work, and it would take many more investigations and immense fortitude before prosecutors would take the protection of farm animals seriously. But we had achieved something extremely important. With this case, we had developed a blueprint for litigating undercover investigations. We had pushed MFA into an exhilarating new era, and we would never look back.

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Nathan Runkle is founder and president of Mercy For Animals (MFA). His new book is Mercy For Animals: One Man's Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals (Avery, 2017).