Open the Slaughterhouses

1. IN 1999, as a writer for The American Prospect, I went into a slaughterhouse undercover, with the help of some rebellious employees. The floor was slick with the residue of blood and suet, and the air smelled like iron. A part of my brain spent the whole time trying to remember which of Dante’s circles this scene most resembled.

2. Today, under legislation being pushed by business interests, that bit of journalistic adventure could earn me a criminal conviction and land me on a registry of “animal and ecological terrorists.” So-called ag-gag laws, proposed or enacted in about a dozen states, make, or would make, criminals of animal-rights activists who take covert pictures and videos of conditions on industrial farms and slaughterhouses. Some would even classify the activists as terrorists.

3. The agriculture industry says the images are unfair. They seem to show cruelty and brutality, but the eye can be deceiving. The most humane way of slaughtering an animal, or dealing with a sick one, may look pretty horrible. But so does open-heart surgery. The problem with making moral arguments by appealing to revulsion is that some beneficial and indispensable acts can also be revolting. With gruesome shots of cadavers, a skilled amateur could make a strong emotional case against using them to teach anatomy in medical school.

4. Moreover, the industry says, the activists are trespassers, or, when they’re employees working undercover for an animal-rights group or news organization, they’re going beyond the terms of their employment. Slaughterhouses and confined-feeding operations can be dangerous places. Although the industry surely exaggerates the risk, guerrilla actions are not the safest or best way to spur reflection on how we treat animals.

5. Fairness and safety are real issues. So is transparency, and that is why we should require confined-feeding operations and slaughterhouses to install webcams at key stages of their operations. List the URL’s to the video on the packaging. There would be no need for human intrusion into dangerous sites. No tricky angles or scary edits by activists. Just the visual facts. If the operators felt their work misrepresented, they could add cameras to give an even fuller picture.

6. There are models for this kind of sunlight requirement. For a couple of decades, federal law has required chemical plants to release details of their toxic emissions to the public. Most scholars agree that embarrassment and public pressure have pushed down pollution as a result, without further regulation.

7. At first, transparency would mainly inform consumer choice. The pictures might persuade some people to stop eating meat, or to buy it from a more humane source. Of course, changes in personal attitudes often translate into expanded public debate. People who start out by changing how they eat might end up supporting laws for more humane treatment of farm animals.

8. Open-slaughterhouse laws would not have to go through state legislatures, where agricultural lobbies are strong. Successful ballot initiatives in a few states could change the information environment for everyone. If, say, California put slaughterhouse webcams in place, the public discourse everywhere might change.

9. Slaughterhouse cameras might seem unfair to the operators. The images might still appeal to emotion and prompt visceral revulsion. Fair enough. But we are not going to decide how we should treat animals through cold reason alone, and certainly not if their treatment is invisible.

10. Emotional response is part of moral reasoning, and in this case we need more information, not less. The images need to be supplemented by brain studies and other efforts to understand what animal suffering is like — for instance, whether mammals experience trauma when confined and exposed to slaughter. But the images would motivate us to ask the right questions.

11. Opponents might compare this proposal to bills that require women to view images of their fetuses before having an abortion. The resemblance is misleading. Those laws intrude on intimate, difficult decisions involving a constitutional right.

12. In contrast, open-slaughterhouse laws would not force anyone to look at anything. They would just increase our resources for thinking and arguing. A teenager debating her parents at the dinner table, or a parishioner discussing the ethics of eating meat with fellow church members, would be able to pull out a cellphone or laptop to support his or her arguments.

13. Ten years before sneaking into that slaughterhouse, I was helping to slaughter cattle on the small West Virginia farm where I grew up. I still don’t feel that I know what it means, morally, when an animal’s life ends in exchange for our sustenance, or simply because we love grass-fed hamburger. Supporters of ag-gag laws are right that our treatment of animals is a hard problem that is divisive — and often leaves us internally divided — and too often oversimplified. But if advocates of these laws are sincere about those concerns, they should agree to make slaughterhouse operations transparent.

Jedediah Purdy, a law professor at Duke, is the author, most recently, of “The Meaning of Property: Freedom, Community, and the Legal Imagination.”


About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels.
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22 Responses to Open the Slaughterhouses

  1. mmiddleton1 says:

    Paragraph 1

    The begging sentence makes it seem like only writers for The American Prospect have the opportunity to go undercover into slaughterhouses. The sentence including “..went into a slaughterhouse..” doesn’t provide very much value or credibility to whatever slaughterhouse it is. This slaughterhouse could have been atypical to most other slaughterhouses. The second sentence is just a fact, but because of the first sentence, means a lot less. The final sentence is opinion based comparing the time in the slaughterhouse to the violent hell of Dante’s circles. Seems interesting that the writer spent “the whole time” to forcibly compare the house to a world of inferno.

    • mmiddleton1 says:

      Also, these opening statements do not provide any kind of thesis towards the rest of the essay. Is he arguing the similarity of slaughterhouses to Dante’s circles the rest of the article?

  2. oconne92 says:

    Paragraph 5
    “install webcams at key stages of their operations”
    This solves nothing other then getting people to see what goes on in slaughterhouses. The slaughterhouse doesn’t even need to show their main stage floor, they could have a “staged” slaughter area that makes it seem more humane, and people wouldn’t even know. If they really want to make something change then they need to get the FDA or another large organization involved.

  3. kaileewhiting says:

    9. The idea of slaughterhouses should have webcams is fair. The people who produce our food should have nothing to hide. The images DO, “appeal to emotion and prompt visceral revulsion,” it is not a time where, “might,” should be used. The treatment of animals in slaughterhouses is not an invisible act, any one with internet access can easily view a number of videos taken from inside slaughterhouses. And upon seeing those videos people will make their own assumptions on how they feel about what is going on inside a slaughterhouse.

  4. billykluge says:

    Paragraph 8

    In this paragraph the author is stating the Open-slaughterhouse laws would not have to go through state legislatures where agricultural lobbies are strong. Why wouldn’t these laws have to go through legislature? If they are laws that will be upheld and taken seriously it would have to go through the government. He also states that public discourse everywhere might change if slaughterhouse webcams were put in place. There are already numerous documentaries put up of what happens in slaughterhouses. It is already known what happens to make the food, seeing it live won’t really change the opinion of the public anymore than what is already done.

  5. jodidziedzic says:

    2. Today, under legislation being pushed by business interests, that bit of journalistic adventure could earn me a criminal conviction and land me on a registry of “animal and ecological terrorists.” So-called ag-gag laws, proposed or enacted in about a dozen states, make, or would make, criminals of animal-rights activists who take covert pictures and videos of conditions on industrial farms and slaughterhouses. Some would even classify the activists as terrorists.

    The author states that if he was caught as an employee in a slaughterhouse taking photos of the animal “cruelty” then it would “…land (him) on a registry of ‘animal and ecological terrorists.'” Is that actually what it would be called, under the rule of this so called ag-gag law? It’s only slightly confusing because he continues to say that “some would even classify the activists as terrorists.” So is this criminal actually ruled as a “terrorist” or is it just a popular classification by some people?

    • jodidziedzic says:

      Also, taking “covert” pictures; hidden and discretely documenting something private in a company without the consent of the owner… is that a crime within itself?

  6. primav01 says:

    In paragraph 6 the author makes his point about companies’ pollution control. For decades, chemical factories or plants have been required to release their toxic pollution output. According to the author, forcing these companies into “embarrassment” after releasing their pollution output, has generally knocked down their respective pollution outputs because of the bad publicity.
    -Dan Primavera

    • primav01 says:

      There really is not much of a rebuttle argument to this paragraph except the non-explanation of the companies embarrassment and the not needing further regulation.

  7. tbrody92 says:

    “The pictures might persuade some people to stop eating meat, or to buy it from a more humane source…people who start out by changing how they eat might end up supporting laws for more humane treatment of farm animals.”

    In P7, Purdy explains a possible chain of events that can occur after seeing pictures of animals being mistreated in slaughterhouses. This chain of events begins by seeing the picture, then changing dietary habits, then finally changing their stance on open-slaughterhouse laws. Purdy wrongfully argues that such a such a process occurs even sometimes; according to the Vegetarian Times, only 3.2 percent of adult Americans are vegetarians. If such a process is possible, and the internet is so commonly used, how come such a small percentage of adult Americans are considered vegetarians? And shouldn’t step three come before step two? If someone changes their way of eating after viewing photographs of animal abuse, the person likely changed their diet in the name of animal rights, not the other way around.

  8. adkins70 says:

    3.) Video footage is the greatest proof an activist can use to rally support. Slaughterhouses are inhumane by nature, they are not “humane-euthanasia-houses,” but playing off the brutalities shown in the footage as “deceiving” is in itself an attempt at deceit. The footage is shown in the context of the animals beng farmed and killed for food at a slaughterhouse, not out of context as the author claimed it to be. The author attempts to discredit pathos as a “fair” tactic in convincing a people to support a cause, but they fail to even use logos correctly, flopping on their attempt to convince the reader that even though slaughterhouses “may seem terrible,” so do open-heart surgeries. A better route to arguing against the footage would be to state how much more expensive meat would become once slaughterhouse laws were intensified and the cost was shifted onto the consumer.

  9. justinbaker2007 says:

    In paragraph 3, the author is comparing slaughtering animals to open heart surgery. Slaughtering animals is entirely different than performing open heart surgery which could possibly SAVE a life, not end one. The author is trying to make the point that open heart surgery looks bad as well, as does slaughtering animals, but the author does it in the wrong way. The author should not have compared the two.

  10. clarkn92 says:

    Paragraph two:

    I found this paragraph to be very confusing and sloppy. He claims that he could be put under the registry of “animal and economic terrorists” after what he did in the slaughterhouse. At the end of the paragraph he states that activists who covert pictures and videos of the cruelty would be considered by many as terrorists. I find these sentences to be very confusing. Is this really a terrorist act or is it considered to be a terroristic act believed by many people? The writer backtracks at the end of the paragraph stating that the activists are considered terrorists. This paragraph seems jumpy and hard to follow.

  11. rickc1030 says:

    Paragraph 12- The author suggests that there should be an open-slaughterhouse law where anyone can see whats going on. He states that it would simply increase our thinking and arguing and that no-one would be forced to look at anything. The author simply states that the open-law policy would allow people to use what they see for themselves or find from photos that would exist from this law. The slaughterhouse owners would refute by saying that its motives would be to get slaughterhouses everywhere shut down. This would be either a huge change to the meat industry or a death sentence. The later is extremely untrue. You can run an effective slaughterhouse without unnecessary abuse. We can also find evidence now of slaughterhouse gore and the open-house law does not exist. We can make a perfectly good argument about eating meat without needing to show the grotesque culture that occurs inside the walls of a slaughterhouse.

  12. smithk53 says:

    Paragraph 5
    Paragraph 5 claims that by live streaming what goes on in the slaughter houses would give a less biased view on what goes on in slaughter houses. Having a live stream wouldn’t work for two reasons: the first as Rory said, the slaughter houses could stage a different room that doesn’t show the gory parts happening. The second reason is that having the live streams of the slaughter houses just makes it easier for people to use “scary edits and tricky angles” and then share the video with others.

  13. anthonymatias97 says:

    Paragraph 6: The author comparing his idea of a law that would add webcams in slaughter houses to the laws that are already in place for chemical plants. The chemical plants are required to by law to release information about the toxic emissions that they are creating to the public. This causes public pressure to lower pollution and it has worked without the government having to apply more regulations. Embarrassment alone causes the chemical plants to clean up their act and please the public. So, if a law like this was implicated in the way slaughterhouses were run might cause enough public pressure to make them use less animal cruelty.

    I don’t really know a way to go against this short paragraph. But, a law like this would still keep the events in the slaughterhouses from the public and not let us know what is really happening to our food. Emissions from chemical plants are out in the open and let into the air but, animal cruelty is behind the scenes and has to been seen to know the severity of the event.
    -Anthony Matias

  14. lebano55 says:

    13. This conclusion leaves me scratching my head. The author is attempting to compare a slaughterhouse environment to his own experience slaughtering a cow many years ago. Slaughter of farm-raised animals for personal sustenance isn’t even the topic at hand, so why even bring it up? The author goes on to state that the issue at hand is very complex, and gives the reader the impression that he is having difficulty even finding a side to the argument. Overall, I feel that his conclusion that slaughterhouses should be transparent was a decision that was reached in an unsure manner. How is a reader supposed to come to a decisive conclusion in the author’s favor when his argument is inherently indecisive?

  15. kmbuttari says:

    10 – This makes 3 claims and back none of them up. The first sentence states, “Emotional response is part of moral reasoning, and in this case we need more information, not less.” What information do we need? The morality of killing animals for food, or the conditions of the animals, or putting cameras up? The second claim suggests that images (I assume the images from the webcams that aren’t installed yet) be “supplemented by brain studies and other efforts to understand what animal suffering is like”. Because like all psychology, all you need to do is look at a grainy webcam video to tell if someone is experiencing trauma. Should we even really be concerned about animals experiencing “trauma” a few seconds before they’re killed? It sounds horrible but they won’t have to suffer for more than a few seconds

    -I’ll finish this in a few minutes-

    • kmbuttari says:

      Ok, I’m back. The last sentence “But the images would motivate us to ask the right questions,” is a perfect example of how not to write anything ever. First of all, the sentence begins with “but”, which is something we all learned not to do before we were 10-years-old. He also never mentions what the questions are, or even what they could be about. There’s nothing to go off of to determine what “the right questions” are, or even the wrong questions (or if there even are wrong questions to begin with). In the end, I’m not entirely sure what the author is trying to accomplish

  16. briannewaters3 says:

    4. The author states that the industry believes that activists are trespassers and workers who work undercover for animal activists are “going beyond their terms of employment.” In the employees contracts, there was most likely a clause or two stating that the employees could not take pictures and videos of the slaughterhouse to the media or others. If they do breech that sort of clause, that would be a violation, not necessarily going beyond the call of duty. That would be more like doing more than is required of them in a positive form. The author also agrees with the industry’s thought that slaughterhouses are dangerous for activisits and trespassers, but not to its fullest extent.

  17. kovnat77 says:

    Paragraph 11. “Opponents might compare this proposal to bills that require women to view images of their fetuses before having an abortion. The resemblance is misleading. Those laws intrude on intimate, difficult decisions involving a constitutional right.”

    The author is putting forth an example that many proponents of laws preventing animal slaughter house cruelty use as a comparison for emotional appeal. The comparison between the required showing of images of how meat is slaughtered to the public, is not the same as the required viewing a woman’s unborn fetus before being allowed to have an abortion. The latter is an incredibly intimate, personal, and life changing decision that can truly alter an entire persons life, whereas the first relates to the internal struggle over whether or not that bacon cheeseburger is worth the inhumane way that the animals life was taken. With the viewing of a slaughter houses internal process, you are intruding on a easily misunderstood process that leads many people to hesitate before consuming meat. A large difference between the two bills is that in abortion once the life is chosen to be lost, no one “consumes, deep fries, or grills” the unborn has a deeper emotional resonation, because they are not losing their life for any reason besides the mother not being able to take care of, have a place for the child in their life. There are more complex life altering lash backs to abortion than the consumption of meat. The author is correct in his declaration of the two being completely different and not something to be compared.

  18. jpassalacqua says:

    8. Public discourse would only happen if the cameras were specifically set up in areas of slaughterhouse where the most animal cruelty is present. But the installation of the cameras wouldn’t necessarily cause an immediate public outcry to stop animal cruelty in slaughterhouses. The cameras obviously wouldn’t be hidden from workers, and there is a high chance that the camera installation would be seen by the workers. The workers would then question the way they are specifically doing their job and would more than likely be less brutal in their actions. If they didn’t do this by personal choice to protect their own reputation, the corporations that would have these cameras set up would more than likely force their workers to act more humanely to prevent the corporations reputation as a whole. After say after 10-15 years of the animals being killed and treated in much more humane ways, companies and lobbyists would surely loby to have the cameras removed if their actions in treating the animals are humane.

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