In this age of Instagram and celebrity TV chefs, we’ve never been so obsessed by what we eat. But nor have we been so utterly disconnected from how all those ‘ingredients’ make their way onto our plates. Take meat. Imagine if we scrutinised that benign-sounding journey from ‘paddock to plate’ with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail we devote to the moment of plating up?
This week, we sought to do just that. We understand that to engage intimately with animal slaughter is something most of us instinctively recoil from. Our aim was to get as close as possible to the suffering and bear witness to it.
On Monday, 3 April 2017, we travelled to Corowa, near the NSW–Victorian border, to a massive facility, which includes intensive piggeries and a slaughterhouse, to stage the first vigil of its kind in NSW. It was not a protest, nor a rally. The intention was simply to stand quietly outside the facility in respectful solidarity with some of the million or so pigs who die in distress and fear there every year. In doing so, we wanted to draw attention to what goes on inside; to turn the high brick walls of the slaughterhouse into walls of glass.
Our focus was pigs and this slaughterhouse because of world-first footage obtained from inside the facility in 2014 and published by Aussie Farms. The footage, and the pigs’ screams that are fully audible from outside, are consistent with inhumane treatment, in the expert opinion of Cambridge University’s Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Science, Donald Broom. The Corowa slaughterhouse gases pigs prior to their killing, a process that is supposed to render them stunned and quiet. Pigs are highly intelligent, sentient and engaging animals. The footage reveals what any expert will attest; pigs are capable of understanding something is wrong, and so struggle and fight to the very end.
The vigil was not, however, just about one company, which is merely one cog in the giant wheel of industrialised food production. We are part of the global Save Movement that is organising peaceful vigils outside slaughterhouses across the globe to highlight the opaque nature of intensive animal factory farming, its systemic cruel and abusive practices, the difficult conditions for industry workers and, the deception of consumers.
A high-profile court case is now underway in Canada where Toronto Pig Save co-founder Anita Krajnc is defending criminal charges for giving water to stressed and thirsty pigs confined on a truck waiting to enter a slaughterhouse. In Canada, as in Australia, farm animals are legally defined as property. As such, Krajnc is deemed to have interfered with something that was not hers. The exploitation of this legal technicality in the Krajnc case is, in our view, a means of criminalising compassion.
As human beings, we enjoy complex relationships with many animals. This complexity is at its most stark when we compare the love and pampering we shower on our pets and the cruelty we allow to be inflicted on animals in food production. Why love one and eat the other? It’s worth recalling that in the sweep of human history it is not so long ago that we defined slaves as property too; something that seems appalling today. This idea of ‘bearing witness’ as a means of driving change might seem like a passive, potentially ineffective strategy, or even simply naive. It’s not, nor it is new. It was a key part of Mahatma Gandhi’s pacifist platform of compassion and nonviolence in India’s ultimately successful independence struggle. And, the Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, put it elegantly when he wrote: ‘When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer… and try to help him’.
Our intention was not to storm the barricades. But we wanted to do much more than sit on our Facebook feeds and share our alarm with the like-minded. We believe Australians are intelligent and compassionate consumers. And we believe that by standing with condemned pigs we can alert more Australians to the legalised cruelty and deception behind their pulled pork and bacon sarnis. That way, more Australians can make personal decisions accordingly.
As our understanding of animals deepens, so too does our recognition of their rights. In 2015, Australia became the second country in the world to elect a representative of a political party formed solely to protect animals, when the Animal Justice Party won a seat in the Upper House of the NSW Parliament. Between 2012 to 2016, the number of Australians who eat an entirely or predominantly vegetarian diet increased from one in eleven to one in nine. And, in NSW, where we are taking this action, vegetarianism rose most sharply, by 30%. The market for vegan food – what we believe is the ultimate solution – is also growing rapidly. We know changes happen in small incremental steps. We believe it’s the right time to bear witness not just to lives, but the deaths, of Australia’s pigs.