Excerpt from Eating Animals

By Jonathan Safran Foer

2. I am the kind of person who finds herself on a stranger’s farm in the middle of the night

That turkey chick I euthanized on our rescue, that was hard. One of my jobs, many years ago, was at a poultry plant. I was a backup killer, which meant it was my responsibility to slit the throats of the chickens that survived the automated throat slitter. I killed thousands of the chickens that way. Maybe tens of thousands. Maybe hundreds of thousands. In that context, you lose track of everything: where you are, what you’re doing, how long you’ve been doing it, what the animals are, what you are. It’s a survival mechanism, to keep you for going insane. But it’s its own insanity.

So because of my work on the kill line, I knew the anatomy of the neck and how to kill the chick instantly. And every part of me knew that it was the right thing to put it out of its misery. But it was hard, because that chick wasn’t in a line of thousands of birds to be slaughtered. It was an individual. Everything about this is hard.

I’m not a radical. In almost every way, I’m a middle-of-the-road person. I don’t have any piercings. No weird haircut. I don’t do drugs. Politically, I’m liberal on some issues and conservative on others. But see, factory farming is a middle-of-the-road issue – something most reasonable people would agree on if they had access to the truth.

I grew up in Wisconsin and Texas. My family was typical: My dad was (and is) into hunting; all of my uncles trapped and fished. My mom cooked roasts every Monday night, chicken Tuesday, and so on. My brother was All-State in two sports.

The first time I was exposed to farming issues was when a friend showed me some films of cows being slaughtered. We were teenagers, and it was just gross-out shit, like those “Faces of Death” videos. He wasn’t a vegetarian – no one was vegetarian – and he wasn’t trying to make me one. It was for a laugh.

We had drumsticks for dinner that night, and I couldn’t eat mine. When I held the bone in my hand ,it didn’t feel like chicken, but a chicken.. I always knew that I was eating an individual, I suppose, but it never hit me before. My dad asked me what was wrong, and I told him about the video. At that point in my life, I took whatever he said to be the truth, and I was sure he could explain everything. But the best he could come up with was something like “It’s unpleasant stuff.” If he’d left it there, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now. But then he made a joke about it. The same joke everyone makes. I’ve hear it a million times since. He pretended he was a crying animal. It was revealing to me, and infuriating. I decided then and there never to become someone who told jokes when explanations were impossible.

I wanted to know if that video was exceptional. I suppose I wanted a way out of having to change my life. So I wrote letters to all of the big farm corporations, asking for tours. Honestly, it never crossed my mind that they would say no or not respond. When that didn’t work, I started driving around and asking any farmers I saw if I could look in their sheds. They all had reasons for saying no. Given what they’re doing, I don’t blame them for not wanting anyone to see. But given their secrecy about something so important, who could blame me for feeling that I needed to do things my own way?

The first farm I entered at night was an egg facility, maybe a million hens. They were packed into cages that were stacked several rows high. My eyes and lungs burned for days after. It was less violent and gory than what I’d seen in the video, but it affected me even more strongly. That really changed me, when I realized that an excruciating life is worse than an excruciating death.

The farm was so bad that I assumed it, too, had to be exceptional. I guess I couldn’t believe that people let that kind of thing happen on so large a scale. So I got myself into another farm, a turkey farm. By chance I’d come just a few days before slaughter, so the turkeys were full grown and jammed body to body. You couldn’t see the floor through them. They were totally crazy: flapping, squawking, going after each other. There were dead birds everywhere, and half-dead birds. It was sad. I didn’t put them there, but I felt ashamed just to be a person. I told myself it had to be exceptional. So I entered another farm. And another. And another.

Maybe on some deep level, I kept doing this because I didn’t want to believe that the things I’d seen were representative. But everyone who cares to know about this stuff knows that factory farms are nearly all there is. Most people aren’t able to see these farms with their own eyes, but they can see them through mine. I’ve videotaped conditions at chicken and egg factories, turkey factories, a couple of hog farms (those are basically impossible to get into now), rabbit farms, drylot dairies and feedlots, livestock auctions, and in transport trucks. I’ve worked in a few slaughterhouses. Occasionally the footage will make its way onto the evening news or into the newspaper. A few times it’s been used in animal cruelty cases.

That’s why I agreed to help you. I don’t know you. I don’t know what kind of book you’re going to write. But if any part of it is bringing what happens inside those farms to the outside world, that can only be a good thing. The truth is so powerful in this case it doesn’t even matter what your angle is.

Anyway, I wanted to be sure that when you write your book you don’t make it seem like I kill animals all the time. I’ve done it four times, only when it couldn’t be avoided. Usually I take the sickest animals to a vet. But that chick was too sick to be moved. And it was suffering too much to leave be. Look, I’m pro-life. I believe in God, and I believe in heaven and hell. But I don’t have any reverence for suffering. These factory farmers calculate how close to death they can keep the animals without killing them. That’s the business model. How quickly can they be made to grow, how tightly can they be packed, how much or little can they eat, how sick can they get without dying.

This isn’t animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Tell me something: Why is taste the crudest of our senses, exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses? If you stop and think about it, it’s crazy. Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. And how would you judge an artist who mutilated animals in a gallery because it was visually arresting? How riveting would the sound of a tortured animal need to be to make you want to hear it that badly? Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.

If I misuse a corporation’s logo, I could potentially be put in jail; if a corporation abuses a billion birds, the law will protect not the birds, but the corporation’s right to do what it wants. That is what it looks like when you deny animals rights. It’s crazy that the idea of animal rights seems crazy to anyone. We live in a world in which it’s conventional to treat an animal like a hunk of wood and extreme to treat an animal like an animal.

Before child labor laws, there were businesses that treated their ten-year-old employees well. Society didn’t ban child labor because it’s impossible to imagine children working in a good environment, but because when you give that much power to businesses over powerless individuals, it’s corrupting. When we walk around thinking we have a greater right to eat an animal than the animal has a right to live without suffering, it’s corrupting. I’m not speculating. This is our reality. Look at what factory farming is. Look at what we as a society have done to animals as soon as we had the technological power. Look at what we actually do in the name of “animal welfare” and “humanness,” then decide if you still believe in eating meat.