Never in my life would I have expected to find myself at a slaughterhouse. But there I was, trying not to step in blood or count the number of hooved limbs I saw lying on the ground.
“I want to show you something in the back,” my friend told me. An ominous thing to say to someone standing in front of a slaughterhouse. John is a lamb rancher in Oregon, a man who’s done everything from cleaning the Golden Gate Bridge to now running a community development nonprofit in Kenya.
We were in Elburgon to tour a condemned slaughterhouse and the new facility our Rotary club would be funding.
I’d been a vegetarian since I was a tween, back when the word ‘tween’ didn’t exist yet and few knew what a vegetarian was exactly. I wasn’t sure I could handle what I knew I would see behind the proverbial woodshed. But I felt like I owed it to the animals since I had agreed to be a signatory on the grant that would finish the construction of the new abattoir — a bigger facility with electricity, drainage and a wastewater system. And I was ready to dissociate from my deep feelings so I wouldn’t cry or faint and be a liability to the two nonprofits I was accompanying.
I took a deep breath and followed John behind the slaughterhouse, an open-air stone building with cement floors. Animals carcasses hung from meat hooks running down the center of the ceiling, their blood draining onto the floor. I couldn’t tell what they had been.
The reality is that the project was a no-brainer. People eat meat. Demand is so high neither the slaughterhouses nor the butcher shops have any refrigeration. Animals are slaughtered in the morning and the beat is sold the same day.
The people in this community had continued eating meat from a slaughterhouse the government had condemned years prior. The new facility would streamline the slaughter process while minimizing the environmental damage from processing the waste is better than a condemned facility that pollutes a communal water source used by more than 5,000 people. The meat would be cleaner and so would the river.
The Molo River is already threatened by everything from erosion, industry effluents and agricultural chemical runoff to pollution from washing cars and clothing. The communities that depend on it are at a high risk of contracting typhoid.
We walked past a catchment basin for the run-off. It was full of blood from that morning’s slaughter. It looked like paint. It was so primary red, elementary school art class red I couldn’t believe it was real. Animal skins were piled in three different stacks. It was an incongruously beautiful late morning in August.
We walked around the side of the building and it unexpectedly opened up into a larger plot of land. Sheep and goats grazed on the five-o’clock shadow of grass that remained. They were calm. One ram kept trying to antagonize someone to spar but the other animals were disinterested and continued lounging.
Some were spraypainted with a green or blue line on the back of their necks. I didn’t ask what the different marks meant. This would be their last experience. This place is the last thing they’d see in this world.
I felt an unexpected relief, a ghost leaving my body. This was everything a factory farm is not. They were lounging in the open air under a sun that didn’t blister. There was no chaos, no overcrowding, no hormone injections, no terror.
My friend knew that even a vegetarian would be pleased that the animals enjoyed their last days in the sunshine without a care in the world. They were free to roam about or nap or spar.
Their lives are the livelihood of some 500 local residents who formed a cooperative when the county council seized the land the federal government had granted them for the new slaughterhouse. They pooled their resources and raised enough money to buy a different plot of land. Livestock ranchers, shepherds, transporters, butchers, retailers, wholesalers and middlemen all depend on this trade for their income.
While the animals would meet a certain death their life up until those last moments seemed peaceful. I smiled. We got back in the vehicle to drive to the new slaughterhouse.