Part 2 of the journey of a pig to your plate
“This contains images that are disturbing”
Although a day at 5am was agreed, when I arrived at the abattoir I had no idea where to go. It was deathly quiet and the doors were shut, of which there were quite a few. All metal. I walked in circles; the abattoir took up a space between four streets and the lack of definition was confusing. I pressed my ear to every door and finally after about 20 minutes heard some noises behind one. I knocked on it timidly, then with more force. An irate tall Spanish man in a bloodied apron threw open the door and shouted at me. You did not have to speak the language to understand. I did as told and scarpered off.
Eventually I did gain access to the abattoir by turning up on the vet’s day off, and a little later for good measure. The butchers were ready for me. Their manager Arcadio gave me a brief explanation that I vaguely understood and then left me to it. The result is a set of emotive photos, some too disturbing for the intent of this blog.
I have often wondered why so many of the awarding winning documentary stills portray the dark side of this world. Show a gun, a bereaved parent, a bloody corpse or a belly swollen by poverty, and it is a sure winner. I, as a female with a young family, could not travel to these beleaguered zones. Neither did I want to, so I seldom entered competitions.
But now I had my first set of “violent” photos; the most powerful images that I have ever taken. I am proud of them in that they provoke thought. In some odd way, they remind me that nature, all animals, not just mankind, is full of violence. If I had not had a camera to focus on what was in front of me, I would not have been capable of witnessing what I did.
I started with the holding pen, snapping a few pigs, most pink, some tawny and others mottled with both colours. They were waiting, somewhat sleepy and yet trepidatious. Their questioning eyes revealed an emotion I was not able to define. I could not help but think of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Did they tell each other tales of life and death beyond their country compounds?
I saw them led one by one into the abattoir into a tiny ante room where an electric stungun was forcefully clamped on either side of each one’s head while the others crouched oblivious (or not?). This is the only part of the brief process where there was a struggle between man and pig. Oddly the pigs were totally silent, not even a squeal. Had they been sedated? Once each one lost consciousness, a hind leg was hurriedly chained to a hook that was placed on an overhead rail. The rail trolleyed them to a macabre machine with metal spikes that held up to four at a time.
They were plunged head first into this contraption. Sometimes it took a bit of urging and I saw the blood on the workers hands as they led them along. Eventually their heads disappeared as if corked in a bottle, but they were actually just at the back. A means to drain their blood as quickly as possible. Spikes rotated rapidly, drilling for blood. Rivers of it streamed into a metal trough below. Often they started to twitch so more electric shocks were administered. The stunning did not seem to last that long. Their deaths were clearly very traumatising.
When the blood had mostly drained from their bodies, the rail carried them to a separate long room. All the while the movement and the weight of these poor animals caused them to continue twitching as if still alive. Meanwhile the dregs of blood dripping from their mouths said otherwise.
They queued up lifeless in a corner besides a huge cylindrical vat of steaming water. The sight was grim. Just beyond the vat was a kind of roller thing and then a flat area of tubes. The ensemble looked like one huge torture chamber. Once they were boiled they were tossed by means of a broad pitchfork onto the rollers. Actually I think they were. What I do remember it they were spun around so viciously that limbs and ears and head flailed outwards sporadically in an epileptic ballet. I imagined them as drowning humans at sea, unable to escape the downward pull of its sucking tides, raising their bodies, and then being slapped down again.
The rollers stripped them smooth of hair. Maybe it even emptied their intestines, but I didn’t ask. The men were too busy with their various jobs and I probably would not have understood anyway. They razed off any remaining hair with a blowtorch at the end of the torture chamber and also afterwards on the rails again. Some blood still trickled from their orifices and wounds while white flames singed them to perfection.
Finally a hose washed the pigs down as if to cool them. The irony did not escape me. Now, largely blood-free, a worker pushed the corpses along to another section of the room while they jittered on the hooks as if heavy coats on a garment rack. As always, a butcher awaited their arrival. With two long knives and some fancy movements, he slit them open lengthwise with a perfect cut. Then he de-capitated them. It was disturbingly poetic. Guts, heart, liver and other innards spilt like large shiny coils of pale worms and rich jelly.
I can tell you that pig’s blood is very dark and purplish-red. It is much more royal than our own. Amazingly they still look fresh when stripped of all they can be: leeched of blood and life, boiled, plucked and gutted. That is until they are decapitated. How many times in Spain have I seen their heads placed proudly in the centre of a butcher’s window and never thought twice about it?
I was there for about one hour, but it felt much longer. In this time ten pigs were slaughtered systematically. They lined up at the end of the long room, their innards and heads draped like trophies on a dedicated trolley. The blood was containerized and everything was ready for the cutting rooms of the butcher’s shop. A pastiche of blood pools, water and some mud threw patterns across the abattoir floor. As the hosing down of the premises began, I took my leave and drove back up to the finca, hardly daring to breathe.
My camera was also splattered with crescents of purple blood. So were my shoes. I opened the door of the casita and threw them outside. My clothes followed. Then I ran naked across the brick floor and crept into the shower. It was only when I finished and dried myself that the emotions of the morning hit me. I could not help reflecting that there is something very human in a pig in a positive way juxtaposed by something very “pig” about man in a negative way. Think of all the words we use to describe humans unfavourably. He’s a pig, eats like a pig, snores like a pig, the police are “pigs”. A swine. Porky. The list is endless. But who gives pleasure to whom? That is the question.
For more info clock on ways of killing a pig in the abattoirs
Last blog to come – The Cutting Rooms.
For a gallery of more photos click here