Changing the Name of the Film to Farm and Red Moon

Abattoir Rising, although an appropriate title in the beginning of making this documentary, became less and less adequate in regard to capturing the direction of the film. When we started production, we centered on New England farmers and the challenges they were facing having their animals processed humanely, but the more we researched about the topic of humane slaughter, the more we realized that this is not an issue endemic to one particular region.  Meat production, and along with it, animal welfare, are global concerns of increasingly vast proportions, especially since contemporary consumers know so little about it.

Farm and Red Sun ChagallIn December of 2012, we decided that the film was not so much focused on the infrastructure of slaughter in New England, but about engaging consumer audiences in the complexities and challenges of humane slaughter, an issue that goes beyond the slaughterhouses themselves. Around this time we also realized that the story of the film needed to be told from Audrey’s perspective and what she had encountered over the past four years as she investigated the issues of humane slaughter and spoke with farmers and slaughterhouse workers.

On the wall of Audrey’s home study hangs a print of Chagall’s 1945 painting, Farm and Red Sun. Often, while working on the film, she’s looked up at the painting and thought the blue goat reminds her of the goats she has seen slaughtered, at times with great suffering. The inordinately large chicken on the roof of the wooden house, peering onto the farm with suspicion, makes her think about the chickens she has watched being killed, many remaining conscious and trying to breathe for minutes as they bleed out in the silver cones. A mother, with an open mouth aghast, holds a naked child to her bosom, and seems to look out of the painting for help. Looming over the scene is a huge red sun, bleeding out into the sky.  To Audrey, it is a moon with a dark side that cannot be seen, although she knows it must. These reflections led to the new name of the film, Farm and Red Moon. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun in order to illuminate an otherwise dark night, the film illuminates a topic that for most people remains shrouded in darkness and mystery.

Image credit: Marc Chagall, Farm and Red Sun, 1945, © Christie’s Images Ltd – ARTOTHEK

Janet Riley and the American Meat Institute

Janet Riley, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs and Member Services, speaks to us about transparency and animal welfare in the meat industry.

On August 23rd of 2012, the American Meat Institute released a video on YouTube that features Temple Grandin explaining the humane slaughter of cattle at a typical beef plant. The AMI initiative is called The Glass Walls Project. Here are links for both the American Meat Institute website and the Glass Walls Project video:

We travelled to Washington, DC on November 30th to speak with Janet Riley about the new meat industry focus on transparency. She is also the Animal Welfare Liaison for the AMI and has worked extensively with Temple Grandin over the past two decades. As she explained to us, one of the reasons for transparency is that many animal activist undercover videos of slaughterhouses show the animals’ hind legs kicking and claim that these are live and sentient animals. However, these movements are autonomic reflexes that occur after an animal has been rendered insensible to pain and is unconscious. What is important is to look at the head to see that the eyes are open in a wide blank stare, that the tongue is distended, and that the head is floppy.

I asked Janet to explain how the transparency video project was initiated. She said, “For so long we’ve heard Paul McCartney make his claims that if slaughterhouses had glass walls [everyone would be a vegetarian], but I started to say, why don’t we test that?”  She told us that the response to the video has been very positive and that there are now over 25,000 views.  The AMI also sends free DVDs to educators who want to use the video in their classrooms.

Janet also took the time to show us the AMI insensibility grid that she personally developed: Signs of a Properly Stunned Animal by Stunning Method. The grid looks at all of the signs of insensibility based on species and stunning systems. Species included are cattle, pigs and sheep. Stunning methods included are captive bolt, electric, and CO2.

“There are really good reasons to ensure humane treatment,” Janet explained. “Everybody feels better in a plant where animals are respected. And typically, if you respect animals, you respect people.”

Ethics of Humane Slaughter with Bernie Rollin

We met with the philosopher, Dr. Bernard Rollin, an internationally respected animal ethicist, to discuss the treatment of animals at the time of slaughter.

Dr. Bernard E. Rollin is Colorado State University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and University Bioethicist. He has dedicated his life to improving animal welfare in veterinary schools, medical schools, research laboratories, and agriculture. He is the author of more than five hundred articles and seventeen books. His latest book, an autobiography about his work on animal ethics, was just published in 2011: Putting the Horse before Descartes: My Life’s Work on Behalf of Animals.

We met with Bernie at his friend’s farm on Tuesday, September 11th, outside of Fort Collins, Colorado. Since we have been filming a lot of slaughter over the past two years, we knew it was important to get his philosophical perspectives on methods of stunning. The science involved in determining insensibility is critical, of course, but not worth practical consideration without coming at it from an ethical position. The person best equipped to answer our questions was Bernie.

He is the quintessential animal magnet, which humorously made it a bit difficult to get our interview off the ground.

It took us some time to realize that we should conduct the interview standing up with the horses inside of a corral.

We gained some valuable perspectives on pain and sentience from speaking to Bernie at length about his thoughts on stunning practices (captive bolt gun, gas and electrocution). First of all, we learned that he does not like electrocution because he believes that the animal feels it for a while. He also is opposed to CO2 gas stunning. He argues that the animals experience suffocation and that it can take up to 40 seconds to lose consciousness. With a captive bolt gun, he said that there might be a microsecond of pain on impact, but then consciousness is ablated immediately.

We also knew it was important to get Bernie’s perspectives on kosher and halal slaughter, which do not permit stunning the animal prior to bleed out. He is very clear about his position, as he says, “There is no question in my mind – zero – that it’s gonna hurt more than being stunned ideally with a captive bolt.”

Before Bernie headed home, we asked him what he thought about the public’s role in advocating for humane slaughter.  He said, “The only way we’re going to get the sorts of improvements that we’ve been talking about is for the public to demand it.”  I responded by saying that consumers don’t want to think about slaughter. With the kind of wisdom I would expect from him, he replied, “In my experience, it’s not that consumers don’t care. It’s that consumers don’t know.”  Yet another reason for slaughterhouses to have glass walls. . .

Bison Processing with Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin teaches us about the humane slaughter of bison

On Monday, September 10th, we were honored to have Temple Grandin give us a lesson on the humane slaughter of bison at Double J Meatpacking in Pierce, Colorado. She explained to us that bison almost became extinct, but fortunately now people are raising bison and they’ve really made a comeback. People are especially interested in preserving the wild type bison. The bison that we saw slaughtered came off the range.

As Dr. Grandin explained, “The only way we can preserve species — we’ve got to make them economically valuable enough so that people are going to want to take care of them.” It was a beautiful fall day as we stood outside of the holding pens and listened to her tell us about these amazing creatures.

Since bison are very majestic animals with a sad history in this country, I was ambivalent about how I would feel seeing them slaughtered. But Dr. Grandin went with us each step of the way and told us about all of the precautions that are taken to assure that they are treated and slaughtered humanely.

In this particular plant, since bison have a very heavy skull,  they stunned the animals using a 357 magnum rifle prior to bleed out. The captive bolt gun, which is used on cattle, would not be effective with bison.

Although it was very dramatic and startling to see the bison being shot at such close range, we knew that they would be insensible to pain instantaneously. It was impressive to see the skill level of the workers at the Double J plant.  They were obviously well-trained and serious about humanely transitioning these animals to meat. Even though these scenes are an every day routine for them, they are not desensitized to the animals’ sentience. I’m sure it isn’t easy firing a rifle point blank at an animal looking right at you, but it’s important to retain the perspective that if people are going to eat meat, this needs to be done, and done as humanely as possible.

Dr. Grandin took the time to explain the details of how to determine if an animal is being slaughtered humanely. First, she had me feel the eyeball to see that it is unresponsive – an indicator of insensibility. As I moved in to touch this bison’s eye, I could immediately tell that she was unconscious.

Dr. Grandin also showed us the location of the shot in the skull. It was in the exact place it was supposed to be to assure that the bison lost consciousness immediately.

All of these details, although emotionally difficult to consider, are essential for the humane slaughter of animals for meat. I realize that many people would prefer not to get this close to meat processing, but I truly feel that the transparency is important. We owe it to these animals to know how they become our food.

After we were finished watching the process on the kill floor, Dr. Grandin took extra time to go over some footage with us to explain more about the skills involved in humane slaughter.






A visit to White Oak Pastures

Why Will Harris Holds the Key to Eating Meat Sustainably

Last week we visited White Oak Pastures, Will Harris’ fourth-generation farm in Bluffton, Georgia. Will raises cattle, sheep, goats, chickens turkeys, and geese. In the near future he plans to add rabbits and hogs as well. The farm is exemplary in terms of both land stewardship and humane animal handling.

Will Harris
This 2,500 acre farm is the largest organic farm in Georgia and the only farm in the United States that has both a beef and chicken abattoir on the property. Will’s farming methods are based on pasture rotation modeled after the natural animal migration patterns in the Serengeti Plains of Africa. At White Oak Pastures the cows graze the grass, the sheep eat the weeds, and the chickens peck at the grubs and insects. All the species naturally fertilize the land and participate in a sustainable and symbiotic ecological cycle.

White Oak Pastures
As Will explained to us, he strives to work with nature, rather than working against nature and trying to outwit nature. He says, “Nature produces no waste,” quoting George Washington Carver. On White Oak Pastures all of the fertilizers for the organic crops are made right on the farm from the natural byproducts of raising and slaughtering animals.

Will Harris, Chickens, White Oak Pastures
We asked Will if raising animals was essential for sustainability, and he feels strongly that it does, saying “sustainable agriculture is about emulating nature. . . and if you’re emulating nature, animals are part of that. Nature abhors a vacuum. Nature abhors a monoculture. Nature despises one species of plant or animal occupying a space exclusively. They want a symbiotic relationship.”

Cows, White Oak Pastures
It’s no wonder that White Oak Pastures received the Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award for Agriculture from the State of Georgia in 2011. Given all of Will’s efforts toward sustainability, in addition to recycling each plant and animal byproduct on the farm, White Oak Pastures has its own water treatment plant that reuses the wash down water from the abattoirs to irrigate the crops. A 50,000 watt solar voltaic array is used to heat the water in the abattoirs and provides some of the electricity to power the processing plant.

As Will drove us around his lush, green pastures in his Jeep, he told us passionately that he’s “a land steward and a herdsman.” We saw how respectful he is when it comes to the animals. At one point in our day he carefully picked up a laying hen and handed it to Audrey, who was excited and tentative at the same time.

Audrey Kali and Will Harris
Will shared with us that when he first started to sell his meat from his farm directly to customers, he’d be asked how he can raise a calf or a lamb or a chick, from the day it’s born or hatched, feed it, care for it, nurture it all its life, and then kill it and skin it and gut it and eat it. His answer always was, “It doesn’t bother me a bit. This is the way things are. This is what happens.”

Will Harris hands Audrey Kali a Chicken
But he realized, “this is an unacceptable answer even though it’s true, because it sounds flippant. And it doesn’t really help that person understand the disconnect.” He thought about this reply a long time and came up with a better answer that would help connect the disconnect:

Will Harris and Audrey Kali among Turkey's on White Oak Pastures
“As a herdsman, I love my herd as much as you love your pet. Just as much. But I love the herd, not the individuals in the herd. And it is absolutely essential that we slaughter these animals for nourishment in a respectful and humane way, so that another generation can be born. It’s a river not a lake.”

White Oak Pastures Cattle
As we toured the farm, Will explained that cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens have become food animals, and that the “most noble positioning of those animals, is to be in herds, on this farm, feeding the land that feeds them, and feeding the people that care for them. It’s a beautiful system!”

Will Harris
Will pointed out that the more organic a farm becomes, the more flora and fauna you will have on the farm. This frog we came across was described as “a good sign” by Will. He said that when he quit using pesticides, one of the surprises was that species of plants and animals that he remembered as a kid, came back. Every day, as he transformed his farm to an organic system, he saw something new that he remembered from forty years ago.

Frog on screen door
Insects, too, are a special part of Will’s polyculture. This multiple-species habitat, in perfect balance with nature, makes the farm thrive in a way that monoculture farms controlled with pesticides and herbicides cannot. Will showed us how dung beetles dig down 18 inches to lay their eggs. Dung beetles, that help the decomposition of animal manure around the world, consume large amounts of dung as adults and larvae. They reduce pasture fouling, add nutrients to the soil, aerate the soil, and compete for nesting habitat and food resources with flies (particularly the face fly and the horn fly). Face flies can irritate cattle to the point that they lose weight from not wanting to graze. Horn flies can cause painful bleeding sores, also causing cattle to not want to eat. We’ve seen a lot of cattle over the past two years of filming, and have never seen such a large herd at this time of year without faces full of flies!

Digging for Dung Beatles
We got to see the cattle (and, of course, all of the other animals) up close and personal. Will explained that all of his animals have no idea that a human being is capable of hurting them. They’ve never been hurt by a person and so they are all so trusting.

But Will clarifies that as much as he loves his herds, they are not pets. They are food animals, which is why he stresses that slaughter is an essential element of what he does. As he explains, “If you raise an animal and you can’t turn it into meat, then it’s just going to become an old and infirmed animal. And who would be benefiting from that? These animals are killed right in the prime of their life — they don’t volunteer to make that sacrifice, obviously — but what’s so wrong about that? They never suffer a day. . . they express instinctive behavior, all day long, every day. . . my food animals have a better life than most people’s pets.”

White Oak Pastures Meat Packing
The end product of all of the efforts at White Oak Pastures with the animals is, of course, meat. The handling of meat as it is being cut from carcasses at this well-managed and pristine cutting and packing room is a sight that people are familiar with from trips to the local supermarket.

White Oak Pastures Grassfed Beef Box
Before meat is packaged into a box like the one above, which in this case would be destined for Whole Foods Markets, the animals need to be humanely slaughtered in a USDA-inspected abattoir. Both of Will’s abattoirs, one for chicken and the other for beef, were designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, a highly respected advocate for humane handling and slaughter of farm animals for the past twenty years. Will, a true spokesperson for transparency when it comes to understanding where meat comes from and how it is processed, let us see and film in both processing plants.

Abattoirs on farm at White Oak Pastures
For many people, the abattoir is the missing link between pasture and plate. White Oak Pastures, by having the abattoirs literally connected to the farm office, storefront, and restaurant pavilion, is a testament to how important it is to bridge the disconnect that has kept so many from the full cycle of meat production. From the dung beetle, to the frog, to the cattle grazing among the chickens, sheep and turkeys, to the humane killing of the animals, to the animal byproducts fed back into the land for the vegetables — it’s all as Will says, “a beautiful system.”

Stunning Chickens at White Oak Pastures on-farm Abattoir
Will showed us the chicken abattoir. This facility is state-of-the-art for humane handling and slaughter. Although poultry is excluded from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act in the United States, and it is therefore not mandatory for them to be rendered unconscious by stunning before being cut to bleed out, White Oak Pastures skillfully stuns each bird with an electrical stunning knife so it will not feel any pain. The lights are kept low in this section of the abattoir in order to keep the chickens calm. The manner in which they slaughter and process chickens at White Oak Pastures has earned their chicken a Step 5 rating from Global Animal Partnership.

de-feathering chickens at White Oak Pastures on-farm abattoir
Another important part of humane animal handling is the transport, unloading, and holding pen areas. As part of Dr. Temple Grandin’s design, this unloading ramp and holding pen for cattle assured that the animals stayed calm throughout the process.

unloading cattle at the White Oak Pastures on-farm abattoir
The chutes that lead from the holding pen to the kill floor inside, also designed by Dr. Temple Grandin, keep the cattle from being afraid of outside distractions with the high walls. The workers were all gentle in coaxing the cattle through the chute.

cows in holding pens at White Oak Pastures
Dr. Temple Grandin says “We’ve go to give animals a decent life, and when it’s time to die, a painless death. And we’ve got to give them a life that’s worth living.” Will Harris stays true to these humane standards every step of the way. This is just one of the many reasons that all of the meat from White Oak Pastures is approved by Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved. It is also part of Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards program.

abattoir kill floor
When we saw the kill floor in the beef processing plant, Will carefully explained all of the details of both food safety and humane slaughter. Getting a better understanding of how slaughter is done here and being able to see the process first-hand, illuminates how Will respects the animals. This respect, as we learned throughout our time at White Oak Pastures, reveals the special character of White Oak Pastures and everyone working there.

pavilion at White Oak Pastures
During lunch time we joined Will and his workers at the Pavilion, where employees are served a hot lunch consisting of fresh vegetables and beef or chicken which was raised and processed on the farm. Your plate can’t get much closer to the pasture than having lunch at the White Oak Pastures pavilion, and true to their corporate ethos, regardless of whether you’re a manager or entry-level worker, everyone waits their turn in line for lunch. In every way, White Oak Pastures provides a living example of the future of sustainable agriculture, humane animal handling, and positive work environments, all components of an integrated whole, bringing us back to harmony with nature.

Calves on their Way to be Veal

We accompanied three calves en route to the slaughterhouse.

Early on Tuesday morning, August 7th, we accompanied Terri Lawton as she transported three calves and a steer to a slaughterhouse out of state.  It was about a 50-minute drive.  The calf chewing on my shirt on the July 15th post from the Lawton Farm is the one in the middle of the three pictured here in the barn waiting to go onto the trailer.

It was fascinating to watch Terri and her father set up a gated pathway from the barn to the trailer. The efficiency with which they worked made it obvious that they had done this many times before.

After the gate was secure, Terri gently nudged the calves out of the barn, and since the trailer had a nice supply of fresh hay, they climbed on board without a moo!

Even though they had never been on a trailer before, they were relaxed because they are so used to being around Terri on a daily basis. They trust her. She has kept them healthy. And even in these last moments, they were treated with respect. They were also used to being around each other, and even had worked out their special food pyramid!

Terri’s delightful 10 year-old son Joseph was added help throughout the morning.  He has a healthy understanding of his mother’s dairy and veal business, and even explained to us that this newly born girl would be beef at the end of her milk-giving career. Some might say that this is being desensitized, but I would argue that it’s actually being sensitized. Sensitized to one of many of life’s contradictions and paradoxes. Sensitized to life and death being cyclical and reciprocal. Sensitized to being connected rather than oblivious to the origins and processes involved in one’s food supply. Sensitized to that fully human feeling of being happy and sad at the same time instead of forcing contrary emotions into false or arbitrary compartments. Watching this calf suck Joseph’s finger can bring out such nuanced reflections. . .

For some reason Terri’s rearview mirror ornament made a lasting impression on the way to the slaughterhouse.  Perhaps this also reflects the courage to hold two conflicting ideas in one’s mind and heart at the same time. Peace and violence. And while some in the meat industry might take issue with the connotations inherent in the word violence, slaughter is violent. It has to be. But the violence of it doesn’t in itself make it immoral. The word violent is actually from the Latin – violentus – which means strength. The literal definition of violent is “something that involves extreme force or motion.” The word itself is morally neutral.

After we arrived at the slaughterhouse, we waited for a while in the parking lot until there was a space to pull the trailer up to the holding pen outside. It was a busy morning, and several trailers were ahead of us. As we peered in at the calves at this point, they were still quite unaffected, even after a long drive. One could probably say, “If they only knew what was about to happen. . .” But they don’t know. Is not knowing really so bad?  In terms of animal welfare, they had neither stress, nor fear, nor pain. In regard to animal rights, that’s another discussion in another context.

When it was our turn to unload, the calves were very, very happy to get out of the trailer. These little guys can really move! And of course there was a lot of water waiting for them to drink on this rather warm morning.

But while the calves were very fast and agile getting out of the trailer, the steer was quite wary about taking a step up. He had never seen a concrete step before, and didn’t quite know how to negotiate that challenge.  The scene reminded me of when I brought my adopted, retired greyhound home on that first day. He had never seen steps either, and I had to literally place each one of his four feet in front of the other to get him up the stairs. With a 1200-pound animal, it’s a different story, so we had to coax him out of the trailer with a grain bag!

When all of the animals were out of the trailer, the last order of business for the morning was to explain the order of meat cuts and what organs were wanted back. While I’m still not used to talking about loin chops, shoulder steaks and ground meat from a still live animal, it’s all in a day’s work for Terri.  This is how she makes a living and she has to know by looking at the conformation of live animals, what kind of meat cuts can be derived from them.

Before we left, I stood and took one last look at the calves. This one, the one who took pleasure in chewing on my shirt a couple of weeks ago, was the one who looked back at me.  Coincidence, perhaps. But I’m a sentimentalist and felt a pang of sorrow saying goodbye. The next time I see him will be when he is back at Terri’s Farm in a variety of packages. She will know which packages are him. And I will buy some of the meat and think about him honorably and thankfully when I eat.  So many people don’t want to know the animals on their plates. They would rather sustain the disconnect and the anonymity. I used to, but now that I know how it feels to embrace the wholeness, I won’t feel right to eat from a nameless, faceless, cellophane package of meat. At the very, very least, I now need to know which farm it is from. . .

Fencing and Farming with the Shelley Family

When Eric Shelley is not teaching about humane slaughter, he is caring for animals with his family on his farm.

We visited Eric Shelley and his family on his farm in Cobleskill, New York, on July 14th 2012.  We wanted to learn more about what he does when he is not teaching students about humane slaughter, cutting and packing. On this very hot July Saturday, the main task was to put up new fencing for the lambs and sheep, and move them to another pasture.  This daunting task was performed by Eric, his wife Melissa, his sister Cindi, and his sons Beau (age 4) and Duke (age 2).

Eric’s farm is absolutely gorgeous, with the quintessential and iconic (yet unusable) silos framing the scene. Somehow, a farm doesn’t appear to be a farm unless it has a red barn and at least one silo!

It is quite the shift in perspective to see Eric working with his family on this farm after spending so much time watching him harvesting cows, pigs, goats and lambs in the Meat Lab at SUNY Cobleskill. But death and life are not as much opposites as they are reciprocal. Seeing how Eric cares for his animals on the farm is surely a vote of confidence for how he is with them in the slaughterhouse. And this version of animal husbandry has surely rubbed off on his sons!

To say that Duke and Beau are fond of these animals is an understatement. Yet their fondness is not tarnished by their knowledge that these animals are raised to supply humans with food (milk or meat).

It’s obvious to us that Eric, Melissa and Cindi take the time to explain all of these “facts of life (and death)” to Beau and Duke.  Perhaps shielding children from the origins of meat and milk creates neurotic adults rather than well-adjusted omnivorous citizens. It’s quite delightful to watch Eric with his sons as they traverse the dangerous terrain of the barns!

One of the high points of the day was to put goat milk into a cup – directly from the goat’s teat – and drink it at it’s delectable 102 degree temperature.  It’s amazing how easy it was to do, after never ever doing it at all – being both an urban and suburban dweller. Duke, in his wise two years of life, was sure to be right there and assure that everything was being done correctly.

In addition to being supervised by Duke in goat milking, Beau was sure to teach me all about the goats in the pasture. These animals are bigger than he is – yet not a fiber of fear is on this child!

As fascinating as the goats and lambs were, seeing the cows and calves took on an entire different dimension. Beef is such a mainstay of our culture, and seeing these “beef” animals in their natural and nurturing environment was breathtaking. They are lucky to have Eric, Melissa, Cindi, Beau, and Duke as their custodial humans. What a sight it was to see these cows and calves jogging across the pasture when called to get some water at the other side of the farm.

I guess I never saw, or even thought of a cow having twins, but since I am the mother of twin daughters, seeing this cow with twin calves was absolutely amazing.  She seemed to handle it all in stride.

Seeing calves being able to nurse with their mothers in this “beef” herd was quite different than seeing the calves that were not able to nurse with their mothers on Terri’s dairy farm. But this difference does not appear to be better or worse — it is only different. Terri’s calves are healthy and happy and are content to be bottle-fed.  I guess at this point it’s important not to anthropomorphize.



Milk Cows and Veal Calves at Lawton Farm

Getting to know the symbiotic relationship between dairy and veal

On July 11th we visited Terri Lawton on her farm in Foxboro, MA. This three hundred year-old farm, which has been in the Lawton family for generations, is a welcome anomaly in the vicinity of Gillette Stadium.

We were privileged to be invited to watch her milk her Ayrshires, a breed quite suited for dairy that originated in Scotland. Getting a closer look at the cows, how they produce milk, and how veal and dairy are two sides of the same coin, brought new perspectives and appreciation.

In addition to being devoted to the welfare of each cow, Terri is hyper-diligent about food safety.  Before milking, each teat must be sanitized thoroughly.

It was fascinating to watch the milking process and how carefully each of the mechanisms were placed on the cows’ udders. The cows were completely comfortable and relaxed through the whole process.  No mooing or fussing at all!

I’m sure the cows were relieved to have the milk gently pumped from their full udders. Watching it flow into these tubes was absolutesly fascinating!

Terri’s cows are milked every morning and evening. The process continues for each cow for about 12 months or so. They are then impregnated again through artificial insemination so they can give birth in order to give milk again.  Terri has full control over the genetics of her cows and calves by being able to keep bull semen in a canister with liquid nitrogen. This “bull pen” is actually safer for the cows, since live bulls can cause quite a ruckus in a pasture!

After the calves are born, the males will become veal and the females will most likely stay in Terri’s herd. Whether male or female, these calves are never crated and are allowed to move around freely in pastures. It’s unfortunate that veal is associated with confinement, since so many other farmers, like Terri, would never, ever think about confining their calves in crates. We also learned that the reason calves from these cows are taken away at birth and don’t nurse from them is because of the threat of bacteria transfer to the udder.  It’s no problem for calves to nurse directly from their moms if they are being raised for beef. This is why Terri’s calves are fed with a bottle. They moms are our dairy cows.  This little three day-old female Ayrshire will hopefully become one of Terri’s herd.

It was quite obvious to us that Terri’s daily personal contact with her cows makes them happy and easy to be around.  They are so curious and friendly. They seem to like people with cameras, as you can see how this one was with David!

Even the veal calves were comfortable, curious and friendly. At only four months old, I suppose they are too young to understand that they shouldn’t eat shirts. This calf will be veal before the end of summer.

In addition to selling delicious veal through farmers’ markets in the metropolitan Boston area and her storefront, Terri sells raw milk and cheeses from her cows.  Terri’s background in animal science helped me to understand the physiological benefits of raw milk.

When people think about dairy, they probably think about the beginning of life, comfort, purity, and birth. But Terri, too, needs to be able to find suitable abattoirs for both her veal calves and cows who are too old to continue giving milk healthfully. Birth and death, as dairy and veal, are two sides of the same coin. This is why, as a former vegetarian and vegan, I don’t feel comfortable eating dairy without also eating veal.


Sausages and a Turning Point

While observing how sausage is made, filmmakers discover new understandings

Perhaps the ultimate metamorphosis is for an animal to go from being a living being to being a sausage. Nothing about a sausage looks like flesh or bone. But Eric Shelley tells us that “we can’t stop thinking about the fact that this was once a living being four days ago.” A pig. A pig that is now sausage. Perhaps we started this film thinking that the meat industry necessarily disconnected from the animal origins; however, today we learned that this is far from the reality. All of the students we spoke with were sincerely cognizant of the fact that the contents of the sausages were once living animals and that these animals are now part of human nourishment. The makers of meat, whether local and small or commercial and large (truly a false binary), all share a common understanding of the transition of animal to dinner plate.  It’s the consumers that need to embark on a similar journey to this transparency of what is entailed in making meat protein available for human nutrition. Moral arguments of vegetarianism and veganism aside, we reflect on the people and institutions that consider the animal in the plastic-wrapped package, and for that animal to deserve a painless death. Local, small-scale, regional, industrial, commercial, and any other terms that create false segmentations in the meat industry, create a fog over what we need to explore: What is it that we can do to alleviate the suffering of animals when they are harvested for meat?  That being said, seeing how sausage was made at the SUNY Cobleskill Meat Lab was quite the experience!

One thing about sausage is that it enables us to use parts of the animal that otherwise wouldn’t be desirable as prime meat cuts.  We hadn’t expected to think of sausage as respectful in terms of the animal it came from, but it really is!  Using every last bit is commendable. And although it was hard for us to wrap our minds around the fact that pig parts were being stuffed into pig intestines (for the casing), there is something noble about confronting that fact head on.

The pig intestines are pre-ordered from a company in Pennsylvania that places them in red plastic devices to make them easier to work with. We were quite amazed to feel the tissue of these intestines, which is remarkably strong and resilient.  It made us think of our own bodies and how wonderfully they are made!

It was quite fascinating to see the sausage coming out of this device tightly packed in the casing (intestine).  Even more remarkable was that we were all able to talk about the pigs that were harvested for this sausage. These students who were grinding this meat and making this sausage, all participated in the slaughter of the pigs. There was no disconnect at all.

Looking more closely, you can see the tightly packed meat and the strength of the intestinal casing.

Another highlight of our day was to show a work sample of Abattoir Rising to Eric Shelley and the Meat Lab students.

Being able to hear their comments, questions, and concerns enables more understanding through collaboration. We were honored to be there with them to hear their thoughts.


Teaching Humane Harvesting at SUNY Cobleskill

Eric Shelley teaches about harvesting goats and electrical pig stunning

David and I visited Eric Shelley at the SUNY Cobleskill Meat Lab again today and learned more about humane slaughter. He spent a lot of time explaining to his students how to determine if a stun has been done correctly and if an animal has lost consciousness.

We had never seen the slaughter of goats before and hadn’t even considered that this process is quite common in the United States. Of course one can’t just go to the supermarket and readily purchase a package of goat meat.  But since goat cheese and goat milk have become so popular, it makes sense that unusable male goats and older female dairy goats would ultimately be processed for meat. Eric showed us the goats in the holding pen that were waiting to be slaughtered.

Since the kill box at SUNY Cobleskill is designed for larger animals (cattle and hogs), the goats were stunned outside of the box. Eric straddled them so they would be secure while a student proceeded with the captive bolt gun to stun them prior to being bled out. It’s amazing how quickly everything happens.

After working on this film for almost two years, we had never seen electrical stunning. Today at the Meat Lab they needed to stun a pig electrically because the customer wanted to roast the pig whole with the head still attached.

Stunning with a captive bolt gun would, of course, damage the head. Electrical stunning is very effective with pigs, as we understand, and Eric did a fine job rendering this pig insensible to pain.

When we had seen pigs processed before at the Meat Lab, the hides were removed. But since this pig was to be roasted with the hide still on, it was essential to remove the hair on the skin.  This entailed putting the pig into a scald tank to loosen the hairs.  We were impressed with how Eric and his students were respectful and gentle with the pig, even though it was no longer alive.

After the scald and manually scraping the hair off of the skin, Eric applied a torch to remove all remaining small hairs.

Every step of the harvesting process, from the time the animal comes off of the truck until the time the animal (now a carcass) is placed in the cooler, takes an extraordinary amount of knowledge, understanding, skill, and patience.  Programs like this one at SUNY Cobleskill are essential for training people who want to work in any facet of this industry.