Warning: This post and the accompanying pictures are graphic. If you’re a vegetarian or someone who doesn’t like the sight of meat, you might like to look away now…
BY MADELEINE PARRY
A mixture of hot fat, flesh and guts mixed with that clean, sanitised smell of a butchershop. That’s what I noticed first. Second, that this slaughterhouse was small – nothing like the super-abattoirs that dominate the Australian industry and operate 24 hours creating meat. On that first morning, as I pulled up to start work at a country abattoir I thought, ‘how did I get here?’
I was raised on meat. But food has done more than turn me into a woman. I’m half-Greek, and in my family a lamb roast is a sign of love.
Two years ago I calculated roughly how many animals had died to feed me. Averaging 3 meat meals a week for 21 years, I’d eaten a part of 3,276 creatures.
But I’d never killed anything bigger than a spider.
In primary school I was quite possibly a pacifist. At recess I was professing non-violent philosophy and mediating disputes between friends. I went through that stage, probably in Year 3, of protecting ants from the feet of careless school kids (likely whilst eating a ham sandwich) and in Year 12 was awarded ‘Most Likely To Win A Nobel Peace Prize’ at the Formal.
I’ve always thought of myself as compassionate. But the more I ruminated on my lunch, the less sure I was about what eating meat meant. So I decided if I couldn’t kill it, I wouldn’t eat it. I worked my way up the food chain; picking broccoli, fishing, making chicken soup with my Grandma and slaughtering a lamb for dinner.
It was a conflicting experience. On a basic level, it was violent – there is no non- violent way to break a chicken’s neck – and that flew in the face of my identity. I didn’t eat meat for weeks.
But, although it wasn’t nice, killing didn’t feel wrong.
I felt… humbled. Ironically, shooting a gun and slitting the throat of a lamb led me to a fairly hippy conclusion; I am reliant on the world around me – be it plant or animal. The notion of humans as superior to the rest of the world is nonsense. We are our environment – it’s in our bones, our brains, our muscles, our heart.
So when my grandmother offered me her love in the form of chicken soup, I ate it. But. I wanted to know how that animal died. Now, it was about respect.
Unlike Mark Zuckerberg, I couldn’t personally kill every animal I ate. The meat we bought from the supermarket came from an abattoir.
I could have read books, watched clandestinely filmed footage or taken the industry’s word that animals are slaughtered humanely in Australia.
But this was personal, is personal. And after my experience killing the lamb, I wanted to know how the meatworkers deal with what they do, and what exactly humane meant.
Getting access to an abattoir wasn’t easy. After eight months of country driving and suspicious butchers, a small facility agreed to take me on. Whether it was pride, bravery or foolishness I don’t know, but unlike the rest of the industry, the owner trusted me, and the public, to handle what we would see.
I and my crew woke for work at 5:30am every work day for five weeks.
At first it was shocking, there was blood on the floor, animals in their death throes and piles of hearts and guts. But it was an ordered environment, and it’s amazing how quickly we adapted.
At first the workers were suspicious but intrigued, they wanted to see how far I would go. And eventually, I think got a little paternalistic.
But what really caught me completely off-guard was my reaction to the animals. If I’d approached this as an observer who could leave at any moment maybe things would have been different. But I was a worker; this was a job. And the clarity of my purpose, the push to do what I was there for, provided a simple answer for how to behave.
It says something that on the first day, the fact the flesh of the animals was so soft and hot surprised me. I imagined it to be hard, more ‘mechanical’ like the rest of the factory. Subconsciously, in my mind the animals were already objects, a product. The problem with that is that they look and behave very alive.
When I killed a lamb two years earlier it was emotional. But I did feel a degree of ‘switching off’. At the time I called it conflicted, ‘emotional but not’. In the abattoir the scale of death was larger, and so was my lack of attachment.
But this didn’t mean I was blind to the fact the animals were upset, in a strange environment, very much alive, and didn’t want to die.
Over the five weeks I felt in turns nauseous, disgusted and upset, and completely fine and at peace with what I was doing. The guys put forward a strong argument that they felt no moral issue with their actions at all – ‘life’s not fair’, ‘that’s just the way it is’. It was an attitude I’d never considered, and sounded mature and realistic, if tough.
But every now and then a question would slip through a crack in their argument. And I wanted desperately to care about the animals I was killing. I didn’t want to limit my compassion, to be callous, to just… stop caring. What a horrible slippery slope.
But I couldn’t find a way to kill and care, and no-one else could show me either.
I put myself in such an extreme position trying to find an answer. I asked that age-old question about our relationship with the animals we eat. And I discovered killing is not kind, fair or pretty.
As the weeks went by and it became clear that slaughtering animals is not the compassionate act I wish it was, the question arose – what will change, my actions or my beliefs?
Would I stop eating meat because it’s not compassionate, or would I stop caring because I want to eat lamb roast and bacon for breakfast? If neither my beliefs nor actions changed I would simply become an informed hypocrite. But is that better… or worse than ignorance?
No one could tell me if meat eating was right or wrong. I faced the reality. And learnt that ultimately it’s my responsibility to decide what it means.
Humans have an amazing power to interpret reality in a way that suits them, and whether I choose to look at the animals as less intelligent and raised for my dinner plate, or to admit eating meat means killing and causing distress to a sentient being, either way, if I believe compassion for other living things is paramount – as a meat eater – I’ll be a hypocrite.
Maddie Parry is a young film-maker who has really just begun exploring life and telling stories that are relevant, difficult and real (usually documentary). She works in film, television, radio and print. Her first half-hour doco MEATWORK screened on the ABC2 a week ago and is available to watch1 on iView until Sunday 25th November.
How do you feel about eating meat? Do you want to know where your food comes from? Could you kill an animal for food?