By Gail A. Eisnitz
Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY: 1997; (716) 691-0133
318 pp. Inc. Glossary, Photographs, Index
ISBN: 1-57392-166-1 Hardbound $25.95
Reviewed for the Feminists for Animal Rights Newsletter by Karen Davis, PhD, founder and president of United Poultry Concerns and author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry.
I thought I was going to have a hard time reading Gail Eisnitz' book Slaughterhouse, but as soon as I started reading, I was drawn into this "shocking story of greed, neglect, and inhumane treatment inside the U.S. meat industry." Eisnitz really does tell a story. The reader is plunged into a world it is hard to believe exists, unless, like Eisnitz, we choose to enter this terrible place, or we are forced, or feel forced, to be there. The book starts out like a novel or a movie that sets a chill in your heart in the very first scene. You enter the spiritual universe of In Cold Blood and Deliverance. Here we have it: a vulnerable woman in a world of violent men. A savvy woman courting danger, terrified, running for her life, keeping her wits, a smart chick. "Carol Taylor" is a fake name--the undercover identity of "I, Gail Eisnitz," who is boldly sneaking around in Florida chasing down a notorious animal abuser for arrest. Her search leads her to the Slaughterhouse. Years ago, when I first started learning about the things humans do to animals on farms and in laboratories, wondering if I could endure this information, Peter Singer answered my question. In Animal Liberation, he said that if the animals must go through this in reality, the least we can do is to go through it in our minds.
The Ninth Circle of Hell in Slaughterhouse is the kill floor.
Consider a horse who doesn't want to die. "'You can't spend fifteen or twenty minutes on one horse. You have to do whatever you can to get him in that box to get him skinned--fast. You can't let one horse stop you from making money.'"
(Later) "'What about the inspector?' I asked. 'Does he ever see any of this?'
"'How do you know? You've seen him?'
"'We all on the kill floor together,' he said, 'we all watching this. Sometimes he'd complain about it. But you've got a lot of guys there, new, unexperienced, and they think it's a game.'" Pick almost any place in Slaughterhouse, and you've got testimony, an eyewitness who is soaked in blood reciting the facts, reenacting the daily ritual. Eisnitz documents alcoholism, anger, misery, murder, fear, family violence, callousness, sadism, compassion, jail time, prison sentences--the slaughterhouse milieu including the "good times." One of the book's benefits is the range of attitudes and self-revelations elicited by Eisnitz. It reminds me of what a student of mine once said about an essay we were reading: "The author said that he wasn't commenting, merely stating facts. However, his facts were full of comments."
For me, the heart of the book is the interview with Ed Van Winkle, a pig-sticker described by men who have worked with him as "the most ferocious of the stickers." He says, "'The worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll. If you work in that stick pit for any period of time, you develop an attitude that lets you kill things but doesn't let you care. You may look a hog in the eye that's walking around down in the blood pit with you and think, God, that really isn't a bad-looking animal. You may want to pet it. Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them--beat them to death with a pipe. I can't care.'"
The book focuses on mammals, rather than on the birds who make up the 95 percent of animals slaughtered for food. (While 35 million cattle are slaughtered each year in the United States, 35 million chickens are slaughtered every day.) However, Slaughterhouse does provide a lot of information about the poultry industry, as in these comments by inspectors Macias and Carney:
"'Poultry is exempt from coverage under the Humane Slaughter Act, right?' I asked.
"'Correct,' Carney said. 'It's not humanely slaughtered. Because they're going into the scald tanks still alive, breathing and sucking in the water.'
"Macias nodded. 'Most of them are still alive when they go into that tank and they fill their lungs. That's a reason for the high contamination.'
"'The kicker,' Carney said, 'is that when that chicken is exported to Canada, inspectors have to sign off on an export certificate that says it's been humanely slaughtered. We have no control over how they're slaughtered. None whatsoever.'
The point is that "laws" or no laws, mammals and birds alike are tortured to death and anything goes in this environment. There's a kind of macabre humor in the way the cast of characters either couldn't care less about, cannot implement, and often is not even aware of the federal "humane slaughter" law for livestock. In any case, "violations of the Humane Slaughter Act carry no penalties at all."
In trying to do justice to Slaughterhouse, I find I can't. There is too much packed into it and the book's sensibility must be experienced directly. There is Eisnitz's cancer while she is doing her investigations, her ordeals with the news media, violent sickness and death from food poisoning, information about the Clinton Administration, and information like this: "'Fat- reduced beef isn't meat,' he [a former USDA inspector] explained. 'It's fatty tissue, the solid part of fat. It's a gray, ugly mass. It makes you sick to look at it. They form it into patties, color it, freeze it--if you leave it out too long it will start to smell--and then they tell you to cook it.'"
Many animals, including their heads, are skinned alive, and rotten chicken flesh is mixed with other meat and sold for baby food. Also, about a hundred individuals are ground up in every hamburger.
Slaughterhouse shows the reader what is happening, without telling us what to do. In a manner akin to the archetype of the Ancient Mariner, Eisnitz has journeyed through hell, "And now I am telling the world." If, vicariously, we could "become" these animals, the workers, and Eisnitz herself, perhaps history would stop repeating itself.
Gail A. Eisnitz is a cruelty investigator for the Humane Farming Association, San Francisco, CA. www.hfa.org