Battery: A piece about factory-farming

by janeeatonhamilton

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Here is the piece that was long-listed for the CBC contest and won 2015’s Lit Pop, about which judge George Saunders said:

“I admired and enjoyed the wit, clarity, and compression of this story. It’s fast, funny, precise in its language. The author is really using language as a tool of persuasion. The story also has real heart – the narrator manages to make us sympathize for both chickens and executioners. The details of the operation are chilling and terrific. The story is beautifully shaped and minimal – the writer seems to recognize that the essence of making a work of art is choosing. The story makes us face a certain harsh truth, but without any sense of preaching, and even a sense of wonder. Above all, the story is musical – it zings along, making a world as it goes, with its confidence and its sense of curiosity.”

Battery appeared in Matrix Magazine.

Battery

You’re a chick hung by your beak in a beak-docking machine. Experience is a funnel you slide through. You are too stupid and too new to think unpain/pain. To think free range/battery cage. To think help me.

If you were able to think help me no one would help you. You have no friends at this factory farm, or anywhere, and no relatives, though in fact hundreds of your relatives have been through here, generation after generation. With a thousand thousand chicks beside you, all of whom look exactly like you, you are entirely alone in the world. Every chick is indeed an island. You are an island, a speck of a cog in a huge, grinding wheel towards a goal, which in your case is to produce food for another species. Which in your case is eggs.

You are all here as one heart, riding, riding, fleeting the grey ground currents of the conveyor belt you call home, motion-sick and dizzy. You are only just hatched, barely feathered, barely yellow, and your wings are uncertain things you flap but that take you nowhere, though you go somewhere, borne aloft on a history of oviducts into this grey motherland sky below your feet. Palaver peep until some of you are gone.

In this plant, the male chicks are Sue’s job. Sue is not your friend. She is 46 years old; for Sue, 50 looms hard-edged and cruel in the distance. For a long time, Sue had the notion that things in life would become easier as she aged, but it has not proven to be true. No matter how completely she pays her bills, for instance, every month there are new amounts owing; she never gets ahead. Sue is not married, although she once was. Three years ago, she had breast cancer. She is back, now, and of course has hair again. But she is exhausted. The only thing she likes in her life is going to bed.

Sue is a chick sexer.

She squeezes feces from every chick on the conveyor belt, opening up its anal vent to see if a chick is a female, with no genital pimple, or a male.

Sue is not your friend. She squeezes your anal vent.

You are a female.

Sue takes the males and tosses them into a hopper where they first bash against steel, then fall into a machine called the macerator, where a high speed auger sends them to a grinder, where, quite alive, they are diced into bits for dog food.

You are too ignorant and too new to think male, to think female, to think luck, to think unluck, to think grinder, ungrinder. Since you are female, you keep riding. Riding riding riding, yahoo. Keep those chickies moving, yahoo.

The workers do not imagine you as sentient. If you have any kind of genetic memory, it won’t stretch back far enough to feel the wind riffling your feathers or dust craters under your belly in the farmyard.

The workers’ eyes glaze over from repetition, from the pain of carpal tunnel and tendonitis and tennis elbow. It is just a job a job a job, they think, and really thank god for a job at all.

Jean, who lifts you into the beak-docking machine, is not your friend. Jean is 37, seven months pregnant with her fourth child, and her back is sore. All day long, five days a week, she lifts hatchlings like you into the beak-docking machine, which is similar to hanging a tie over a doorknob. She feels you struggle, such as you can at your weight, which is more or less one ounce; she feels your wing stumps flailing. But when the machine has you by the beak, what can you do? Nothing is what you can do. You hang there like an animate stuffed animal. Your beak is how you interact with your world; unlike human fingernails, it is full of nerve-endings.

Jean is only thinking about what time it is and how soon her shift will be over. Jean’s third child was just diagnosed with Asperger’s. Her husband, Mark, is a mechanic, but now he’s drinking too much, and this means money is tighter and he comes home angry, looking for fights. Five days a week, 8 hours a day, Jean lifts chicks just like you into the beak-docking machine.

Hanging out in the eternal now, you are too ignorant and small to know what’s coming next. You were an egg, you were fertilized, you were hatched and then spilled onto a belt, and none of this had anything to do with anything other than human commerce.

De-beaking prevents feather and vent pecking and the kind of cannibalism you might engage in considering your upcoming, brief life, sandwiched five in a bare wire cage and starved to provide daily eggs. This is a “battery” cage. You are given not as much room to yourself as a standard sheet of paper. You can understand, now, can’t you, why the males were the lucky ones? Why the powers that be might want your beak cut off? Now, older, you can appreciate your circumstances a little better, and it will be clear to you that no chickens are going anywhere. You don’t even know what “anywhere” is. You will never stretch your wings. You will never sit in a nest, or peck for grubs. This is just a fact. What is air? What is sun? What is dirt? What is straw? Your beak stump still hurts like hell—just pecking sends neuromas, that tangle of “phantom limb” nerves, jangling. It is hard to keep a steady mood. Even though you generally see yourself as good-hearted, you might even be inclined to go after Mabel, or Henrietta, those hens. Those goddamned hens.

Thankfully, you have no beak.

After two years, you will sent to slaughter, which means you will be slung into a crate and transported, during which handling many of you will break bones. You will be hung upside down in shackles by Doreen. Doreen is not your friend. Doreen is only 18, but she already has two kids. She is trying to figure out a way to enroll in community college, where she would like to take jewelry design. Right now, she’s living with her boyfriend.

If you asked Doreen, which of course you don’t have the ability to do (and honestly, you have more important last thoughts) this whole enterprise—which we’ll call your life—has been pointless. Her life, too, is pointless. Both make her roll her eyes. Something is born, it struggles, it dies. Like, it’s what happens. Life’s a conveyor belt, a sorting machine, a massive factory farm, and really if you stop to think about it, most of us get hung by our toes one way or the other.

But then, Doreen is a cynic.

From Doreen’s station, here’s where you’re off to:

  1. A) An electrical water-bath stun system, which, if you are lucky, and many are not, sends a current through your body, rendering you unconscious
  2. B) The neck cutting assembly line, which may be incomplete, so that you may still be alive for the
  3. Scalding vat

Your body by the end of two years is so degraded by the deplorable conditions you’ve lived through that you are good for next to nothing—for chicken soup stock or pet food.

But let’s roll it back a bit, my little pullet, my little puisson, you of the soft feathers and dinosaur legs, you of the scratchy feet, you of the peeps, you of the black eyes. Our little egg-bottomed baby—such ability hidden in your oviduct. Chickens are said to be amiable, and friendly, more cognitively studded than either dogs or cats, and with a communicative vocabulary of 30 sounds, although, right now, so what?

Really, so what?

What is a life’s potential when it has no potential?

Still, you aren’t dead yet. You’ve only just hatched. You are hanging with your brethren by your beak from a docking machine.

There are different machines: hot blade, cold blade (including garden sheers), electrical (the Bio-beaker) and infrared; today, at this factory farm, the docker is hot blade. You wiggle and sway as you merry-go-round. When it’s finally your turn, Becky grabs you. Becky is 28. Becky is not your friend. Becky has a nasty cold and ought to be home in bed, but she’s used up her sick days because she played hookey with her married lover, five days of hookey, which today she thinks weren’t worth it at all.

Becky is chronically bored.

She brings the guillotine down.

Describe your pain, chick. On a scale of 1-10, rate your pain. If your pain was a colour, what colour would it be? If your pain was a tree, for heaven’s sakes, which tree? What trees have you roosted in?