The Kill Floor

Floor worker 'Dan' poses in front of the bleeding wall. Caught for a quick moment to make this portrait, he was rushing to clean the walls and floor before the next run. The abattoir must adhere to strict hygiene practices and within 3 minutes this area was spotless. © Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

Floor worker ‘Dan’ poses in front of the bleeding wall. Caught for a quick moment to make this portrait, he was rushing to clean the walls and floor before the next run. The abattoir must adhere to strict hygiene practices and within 3 minutes this area was spotless. © Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

As I drive up the dusty cobbled road lined with the scrappy gums native to country Victoria, and the abattoir comes into view, my breath is slowly taken away. Not by the ageing corrugated iron buildings, grinding machinery, languid country accents, and a fleet of trucks jostling for position, but the smell. It wrench’s at your gut like a dentist does teeth. A vile mixture of blood, faeces, ammonia and eucalyptus, the stench almost has its own soul. An evil one.

It is at this moment, when I turn off the ignition and the trailing dust settles around the still warm station wagon, that the realisation dawns on me, the consequence of my decision, to photograph the inner workings of a fully functioning slaughterhouse. One that can and does, process up to 6000 sheep into plastic wrapped, ready to roast, consumable meat packages. Is that what I am about to commit to film that will truly terrify me.

The meat industry is one that contains many mysteries that have been solved yet we care not to confront. Sausages for instance.

We are all aware of the events that take place within the walls of an abattoir, but like sausages, we are happy to accept the process if the end product pleases us and thinking about it isn’t too painful. Australia has a huge appetite for meat and a huge industry to provide it. Australians, on average, consume 10 kg of sheep meat per person per year alone. That figure does not include chicken, beef or fish.We even export sheep meat to our fellow carnivorous friends the United States (20%) , however the middle east has now taken over as our main Lamb export (29%). The lamb industry employs over 100,000 workers and the gross value of production in 2012-13 was $2.3 billion. It accounts for 32% of all farming in Australia and the export market of 48% is worth around $1.6 million.

 

The Kill Floor

Line workers inspect the animals before they hit the skinning line. © Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

The recent debates over live exporting has brought the slaughterhouse and its methods to the forefront of daily news. It forced its way into our homes and our thoughts. The immediate response was to ban the export of Australian cattle to Indonesian abattoirs. A move which for most, seems like the correct one, but to those who work in the cattle industry, one that endangered their livelihood. Farmers, butchers, truck drivers, breeders, classers and abattoir staff are just some of the workers in the cattle industry that were affected by the ban.

Having grown up in the country and experienced farm life through family friends, it was not with total naivety that I drove up that dusty road. The vision of a recently killed lamb, strung up in a farm shed, hanging high enough so the farm dogs couldn’t get to its carcass, but could lick the rapidly dripping blood off the dirt floor between kicks in the ribs from their owner, has always been a vivid memory. One that up until now I wish I had kept my hands shielding my eyes.

My laconic abattoir guide Cookey led me to the packing room firstly, probably wisely, introducing me to the area of an abattoir and its process that looked most familiar. The saws with a diameter of just under a metre and razor sharp teeth, the boners with bloodied aprons and knives shaped like scimitars resembling Saladin and his warriors during the crusades made me slightly uneasy and showed that this is a profession that is incredibly dangerous, and why the young boning room manager beamed with pride whilst informing me that ‘he had never had an incident since he’d been in charge’. It is in this room where the animal ends up looking just like it does on the supermarket shelf. Perhaps it is seeing this familiar package that triggers the questions I ask of the abattoir experience and the reality of what I am destined to see enters my thoughts, my anxiety grows immediately to an uncomfortable level.

© Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

© Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

Maybe sensing my uneasiness, Cookey leads me to the holding pens.All that is visible is a sea of sheep. They seem to move as one across the steel floor in a cloudlike blur,responding to the calls of the men herding them towards the last corral. Maybe it is this lack of individuality that makes it easier for us to not ask questions of ourselves. The ‘run’ or chute is a narrow ramp made of welded steel into a V shape to minimise the backward movement made by the animal. Some, designed by American animal rights activist Temple Grandin, are shaped in a curved and winding S, said to minimise the stress on the animal. She hadn’t got to country Victoria yet. The sound of hooves’ on the chutes base and the intermittent yell of the workers to ‘git up dere’ precedes the conveyer belt like apparatus that clamps the beast before it gets to the stun gun and ultimately the Kill Floor.

The current Australian standards for the slaughter of meat demand the animal must be stunned before the jugular is slit, known on the floor as ‘sticking’. The most common form of Halal slaughter complies with this standard. The difference between this method and the conventional, is that the stunning of the animal conventionally is irreversible. Halal slaughter outside of Australia may not permit the stunning at all, which is the key difference between Australian slaughter and that in other countries. In traditional Islamic fashion before halal slaughter, the invocation of Allah’s name over the animal is required. Halal slaughter in Australia may differ from halal slaughter overseas because of the differing interpretations of the Quran, but during my visit I was informed that the only ‘stickers’ at the abattoir where of the Muslim faith.

© Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

© Chris Hopkins/The Insight Press

 

To say that my childhood farm memory was blown into insignificance both visually and mentally by my time on the Kill Floor, would be stating the glaringly obvious. The floor provides an experience which ultimately is a test for the senses, but one that passing grades are hard to attain. “The noise is a mashing of saws, shears, conveyer belts, ripping hides and a language spoken only by the Kill Floor workers”. Always illegible, it came in sporadic, unnerving verses. Accompanied by my guide, I would catch knowing smirks on their faces, and try to decipher their song as the bleats of the sheep became dimmer. This industrial symphony was the soundtrack to the brutal aroma that I smelt upon arrival, but was tenfold inside. Upon opening the door it takes a moment to catch your breath, and I commend the men who work here for their fortitude. Mostly locals but ranging in age they all seem to have a wonderful sense of humour. The last thing expected of a man who strips the hide off a still warm sheep carcass, is to have a burger for morning tea, yet a small bunch thought it in good humour for me to get a picture of Greg chowing down. With easy going and good natured attitudes it dispelled the myth I held of the disturbed, transient ex-criminal abattoir worker. (Although I was reliably informed that this is not a myth in some quarters) Initially, the Kill Floor is too busy to focus on any one thing in particular. The fluorescent green hue, through which bursts of steam used to wash the carcasses appear, casts an unhealthy haze across my lens. This green hue acts as a filter through which, the vivid red of the blood stained everything is seen, and proves that the old adage of red and green should never be seen is not just relevant to the fashion world. There is no escaping or hiding from what is happening in this room, no respite. Shadows on walls, pools of blood, a bin ready for the offal trailer all bring the focus back to the purpose of the abattoir and make it impossible to find a happy place mentally. It forces you to confront any thoughts you might have pushed to the bottom of your psyche and commit to memory the reality of the processes involved in enjoying mums Lamb roast.

After washing down and exiting the Kill Floor I exchange pleasantries with Cookey and walk to my car. I sit for a moment and ask myself whether, seeing what I have, will it change me? Will I eat meat again? I do, but the inquisitiveness that got me here I question. When I choose a movie, watch T.V or view any form of media, I ask myself do I really need to see this. The answer is yes. As confrontational as the Kill Floor was, the realisation that the truth can only be truly seen if questions are asked and life is viewed, un-censored was the lesson learnt. I kick over the engine and drive back down the track. I don’t look in the rear-view mirror, as the images I have in my head provide me with all the answers I need.

Chris Hopkins

 

 

 

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