48 Hours in Christchurch
48 hours in Christchurch: 2 pigs farms, a battery hen farm, a broiler farm and 2 slaughterhouses
For images from Christchurch click here.
A month ago I was in Christchurch to help two womyn with a film project for their Masters Degree and wanted to show them as much of the meat industry as I could in two days. It was straight down to business; I stepped off the plane on Friday afternoon and went literally straight into the stockyard at a Christchurch slaughterhouse.
At the slaughterhouse, we were first met with a truck carrying containers of skins and blood. The skins, formerly belonging to many cows, were heading to a tannery near Omaru and the blood to a nearby blood and bone factory.
We spoke to a worker who was stacking the containers of blood on the truck who told us the building to our left was the ‘venison’ (deer) line. It was empty while we were there but we could see where the deer would be herded from the truck into the stocks and up to the kill floor.
He directed us to the ‘beef’ which was currently receiving stock and killing them.
One of the womyn I was with commented, “We moved onto the stock loading yard. Even though this is what I had come to see, my heart dropped when I saw the whites of wide eyes staring out through the slates.”
We met the stockyard manager, Colin, who let us have a look around and told us tales about what he did, things he had seen and took us to the point of stunning and slaughter.
We climbed in through slippery shit onto a series of platforms that look down on the stocks. Below us were tens of skinny (with their hip and rib bones protruding) shivering ‘spent’ and ‘empty’ dairy cows; the sprinklers turning on and off. Colin commented that dairy cows did not seem to like the water and that it was not at all uncommon to come to work in the morning and find dairy cows who had died over night because of it. It must happen a lot because there was even a notebook in the office called ‘Dead on the Floor’.
Colin commented that ‘the skinny dairy cows had done their work; been milked to death’. He was referring to the ‘spent’ dairy cows who are heifers (females) of about five years of age that are no longer producing as much milk as they once were. When the production of dairy cows drop, the farmer sends them to the slaughterhouse and replaces them with younger female calves.
The ‘empties’ on the other hand are any dairy cows who fail to become pregnant. To produce milk, a dairy cow is made pregnant every winter. Those who fail to become pregnant do not produce milk and are seen as a drain on resources. A farmer does not want to pay to feed them through winter if they are not going to get any milk at the end of it; financially it does not make any sense to them. The stockyards at this slaughterhouse were filled with many young dairy cows who were empty.
As we were talking with Colin about the cows, a couple of bulls arrived and were unloaded, 1.3 tonnes each Colin estimated and almost too big to fit though the equipment at this plant. The bulls are made to walk down shit covered steps which I half expected them to fall down on. On Sunday, Colin told us that accidents do happen and he has seen cattle slip down them.
The bulls are then kicked, yelled at, poked, prodded and electrified with a cattle prod. We were surprised by how violent they were with us there and can only imagine what the bulls would have been subjected to if we weren’t. A quick look around the stocks revealed several cows with open sores from being hit.
One of the bulls was lame, the vet would check him later we were told. Colin knew this was important. He had a certificate from a two day course on the wall of his office that told him that. He spent most of the weekend drinking during that course he told us. But that certificate means he can run this place.
As Colin led us to the kill floor we went past the ‘cow wash’. Nose to tail, about five would fit into a full enclosed tunnel, where the cows are hit with water from all angles to clean them. They work their way up to a man who pushes ‘the button’. Their head is clamped in place and a stream of water saturates their head to convey electricity better. An electric plate lowers onto their face. It’s the amps that does it, not the volts Colin says. The dairy cow is now ‘stunned’. The wall next to her falls out and so does she. I can see her lying on her back with her legs curled up around her udder. It is at this point that I wonder how anyone can ever say that there is no suffering and death involved with drinking milk. Tell that to the cows I saw murdered that Friday in Christchurch.
She is unable to move but aware of what is going on as a man appears, the Pakistani he is called. His big knife slits once, twice, three times to be sure. But can you be sure that she is dead. I have just finished reading a book called ‘Eating Animals’ that detailed several times how animals on slaughter lines in the States have been alive and fully conscious while their legs are cut off and their skin is pealed. The book also commented how it is quicker and easier to bleed a cow when they are still alive. Why would it be different here? It isn’t.
She is hung up by one leg and still kicking as she is bleed out and they begin to ‘process’ her. The udder comes off first with one slice with a big knife. Could she still feel this? A month or so earlier I had witnessed the dissection of an entire cow under (for footage click here) I had wondered how they got it but now I know.
That’s your MacDonald’s Colin tells us. It is not my fucking MacDonald’s Colin, I think to myself.
The next day we are up early and on the road to Sefton. This time we want to visit a pig farm. We see workers when we arrive and choose to look at a more remote part of the farm; six small open air barns in the middle of the paddock. These are quite different to the rest of the farm which looks just like every other commercial pig factory farm several long sheds.
While they might have had limited fresh air, and a lucky few some hay, what we saw was no different to that of fully enclosed fattening pens. There were three pens of cute baby piglets and three with larger pigs. Several of the pigs in the larger barns had hernias and one had a very red, swollen eye.
We went into the final barn and despite the limited airflow we nearly gagged because of the high level of ammonia and the heat. It is hard to imagine what living in this would be like, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We notice a pig who is dying; he is on his side unable to move despite other pigs running over him and he only follows with his eyes. Unfortunately we had no home for him and felt very helpless with no means of helping him. We sort some advice and decided to call the SPCA to help. The SPCA was terrible to deal with and as a result we have lodged a complaint with the head office. Please read this here.
As we filmed and photographed the pigs, others would come up behind us and untie our shoelaces, pull at our clothes and all but lick our cameras. They are so inquisitive and were so interested in us. In the book ‘Eating Animals’ there is an interview with a slaughterhouse worker on a pig line who said that he had several experiences of pig coming up to him and nuzzling at him just like a dog, he found them really cute and a minute later killed them. I do not understand how someone could do this.
While fielding the endless calls for the SPCA we drove to a second pig farm, this time in Rangiora. We first see a dead piglet just left lying outside a shed; life on these farms is not precious. The fattening pens are close by. We enter one room that is fully enclosed and has the appearance (but not the temperature) of a refrigerator room. It was unlike any other fattening pens I had seen before.
While patting the pigs a guy who was with us, a meat eater, comments how much they are like dogs who want endless attention and companionship. The dots, I think, are starting to be joined. He saw everything we did at the slaughterhouse and accompanied us the whole weekend becoming exposed to more than many other meat eaters and animal activists will ever be.
We finished the day with a visit to a broiler (meat) chicken farm in Rolleston. We approached the farm at about 6pm, it was dark and cold. Before entering the shed we first had a look through the fans. We were standing in front of them when they turned on and we were hit with a wall of hot, dust air that smelt so strongly of ammonia that one of the womyn nearly threw up. It is hard to imagine what it must be like for the chickens who were trapped in this shed having to endure this ammonia and dust 24 hours a day seven days a week without a break.
We approached the door and to our surprise it was open but it all felt a little easy so one of us went up to the house to see if anything was happening. We could not hear it from the shed but an alarm was going off in the house and the farmer came out with a torch to find us. Understandably, we decided to leave this one for the day and ran off to the car laughing.
Sunday morning started with some coffee and vegan baking (Christchurch seems to have lots of vegan baked goodies – yum) before we headed off to see Colin again at the slaughterhouse. We had some more questions and thought we would see if we could film a little bit more.
When we got there, Colin seemed a bit surprised to see us but nevertheless seemed happy to tell us more tales about life and death at the slaughterhouse. Colin laid out all the guns and bullets on his desk and told us about what they were for and more importantly how quite often they did not work. While they have shifted to the use electricity to stun the cattle, sometimes they do use the guns or a captive bolt pistol and in the ‘old days’ that was all they used.
Colin told us about how cattle used to get lose on the kill floor because they were not stunned properly and how when these sorts of things happened it was his job to go down and shoot them. These comments again reminded me about how many cattle will move through the kill floor and still be conscious as they bleed, having their legs removed and skin peeled off.
More dairy cows were unloaded while we were there; today the kill floor was not operating but they were receiving cattle who, if they made it through the night, would be slaughtered on Monday morning. After watching one truck of skinny, confused, scared dairy cows be unloaded we left and headed back to Rolleston.
I have been to Christchurch several times over the last few years and it has never been without a drive past Weedons Eggs on Maddison Road. I think it is mainly for nostalgic reasons, namely shovelling shit there with Suzy in 2007. The battery hens used to be kept in thin two-tier sheds. They were pretty much falling down and at the rear of the site were two half-round barns with ‘free range’ hens. I remember reading an article about Weedons Eggs being prosecuted for selling battery hen eggs as free range for a while; I guess this is not surprising really.
This time when we were there, the old sheds were not in use, most likely because the cages do not meet the new standards in the Layer Hen Code of Welfare. Instead, the hens are now kept in a five tier shed, well at least I thought it was five tiers. What we saw was sadly typical of all battery hen farms. Thousands of hens cramped into cages where they can not stretch their wings, dust bathe, nest, run, scratch or form social hierarchies.
While we were in the shed, a farm worker saw us but just left us to it. As we were leaving, we bumped into him and asked if they had a hatchery on site. He said that their chicks are delivered at a day old and that they raise the pullets on site and then transfer them to the battery hen cages. Then someone looked up. The shed was two storied and was actually about ten tiers high, not five. It is the most fucking insane thing I have ever seen. It was impossible to take a picture or video footage that could show you what a ten tiered two story battery hen shed actually looks like. It is something that has to be seen to be believed I think.
We left this shed and stumbled into a pit of rubbish which I ended up falling into. As we looked closer we noticed eggs, then we noticed chicken feet lying on the ground next to it and then we realised that the pit was actually filled with dead battery hens. It was sad but you could not help but wonder after just seeing the live ones trapped and going insane, were these the lucky ones?
We found the small pullet sheds. The cages were like larger battery hen cages with heaps of little pullets who were just getting their brown feathers. By the time they are ready to go into the battery hen cages, there will be no room to move about in their current cages.
We left the farm and cheekily thought we would try the broiler farm again, being that it was just down the road. As luck would have it, the farmer was out so even if the alarm went off it would not matter greatly but as it turned out the door was not only unlocked but the alarm was off so we were free to go about our business.
This shed was like every other broiler shed I have been inside; wall to wall chickens, ammonia, chickens who can only walk for a couple of steps before they have to sit down again, leg deformities, constant eating and dead chickens. This is the chickens’ life for six weeks until they are caught by their legs, having several bones breaking in the process, and are sent to the slaughterhouse. 87 million chickens in New Zealand are forced to endure this existence every year. It is the largest meat industry in New Zealand, in terms of individuals made to suffer and die every year and there is very little awareness about how people’s KFC, chicken burgers and roast chicken makes it their plates.
With time to spare before my flight home, we visit the nearby Brinks Slaughterhouse. Brinks is the third largest chicken meat company in New Zealand after Tegal and Inghams. They have several farms around the country and have a slaughterhouse in Auckland and Christchurch. They were not processing that day but being that I have never had a look around a meat chicken slaughterhouse it was not an opportunity to pass up.
The layout was similar to that which I had seen at Henry’s Poultry in December last year (they slaughter ex-layer hens). The crates of chickens are unloaded onto a conveyor belt which takes them to someone who will shackle them by their feet; they then go through a bath of electrically charged water which is supposed to stun them, if they don’t lift their heads up. They then have their throats slit, their feathers removed and then they are ‘disassembled’ based on what products they are destined to become.
The final piece of footage that we wanted to get was a calf and mother nuzzling and being together. It is not calving season at the moment but we thought we would just go see if there was anything of interest. We drove around the Lincoln University farms and could not find any calves, but we did find two cows who looked as though they were part of some kind of eye experiment or something. One looked as though she had had her eye removed and the other hadn’t but they both had infections. It looked very painful.
After spending sometime with them we left, ending our 48 hours in Christchurch. It was an epic weekend in which we experienced many different aspects of farming in Christchurch. I am sharing these experiences with you to show how much pain, suffering and death farmed animals are enduring every day throughout New Zealand. What we saw in Christchurch is not uncommon or remarkable. It is typical of the agricultural industry and for the most part, it is legal.
Wherever you live in New Zealand, you would able to see everything we saw in just one weekend if you know where to look.