Bearing witness to slaughter


Photo by: Rosemary Szponarski

At the end of December I became an animal rights activist.

I attended a slaughterhouse vigil to bear witness to the animals’ last painful minutes alive.

I didn’t understand how bearing witness would matter to animal welfare. Having seen photos of activist holding up signs protesting the slaughter of farmed animals, I thought the point was to help change the minds and hearts of people who were still eating and using animal products.

Bearing witness is more subtle but no less profound. After my vigil I cannot be silent about what happens to farmed animals. I will not stop trying to help them.

A group of about 25 of us met on a cold, wet afternoon outside Conestoga Meat Packers in Breslau, Ontario.

As I reached the gate to the slaughter yard, I heard a pig squeal. The sound was keening, piercing. I moved straight to the transport truck to see the pigs inside. They fell silent as I approached and stuck their noses out the air vents sniffing me. Through my tears I told them that “the world is beautiful and that what is happening is not fair or kind.” I stroked their faces and promised that we couldn’t help them but we would never stop working to make this horror end for other pigs. Those gentle, intelligent animals just minutes from their own death were quiet, but never stopped moving, never stopped shuffling and shifting in their agitation.

We were asked to leave the property and stay behind the marked line on the driveway “so that no one would get hurt.”

A truck loaded with pigs rolled up to the receiving dock to be unloaded.

The endless squeals of the pigs filled the air. They screamed and screamed and screamed in terror and pain as the men unloading them goaded them with electric prods.

The entire truck – an 18 wheeler weighing 80,000 pounds when it’s empty- was rocking back and forth from the violence taking place inside. Hellish, flickering light streamed from the air vents as the men inside the trucks chased and prodded the pigs.

Enraged, I watched and listened and could do nothing, helpless to make the nightmare stop. As soon as one truck was unloaded, another rolled up and the gruesome process started again.

One of the truck drivers casually leaned against a car smoking and watched another worker, prod held high, climb into the truck to move a stubborn or possibly injured pig off the truck. Something was going very wrong because a forklift driver came out and strategically kept moving his vehicle so we couldn’t see what was happening. What did they have to hide? What did they do when there was no one there to see their brutality?

None of the men in the slaughter yard made eye contact with us. I thought, I hoped, it was because somewhere inside themselves they felt shame or grief for what they were doing.

No. This was just a day’s work for them. We were simply annoying.

As the sun set on that cold, muddy slaughter yard where pigs screamed endlessly in trucks that were rocking from the violence inside, a worker strolled up holding the hand of a young child. The man stood talking and smoking with the drivers and handlers and the little boy simply stood and stared at us, then looked at the men, but never once at the trucks. The group in the slaughter yard seemed oblivious to the death and violence all around them.

How will that child escape this numbing, joyless bondage? How can we move to a better future when future generations are being indoctrinated into a lifestyle where pain and violence are considered normal and necessary?

I don’t know. But I won’t stop trying to help the animals… and the little, lost children.

As our cold, sorrowing group disbanded, another truck loaded with frightened pigs for slaughter came rolling out of the gloaming and into the slaughter yard.

NOTE: Every week 24,000 pigs are slaughtered at Conestoga Meat Packers; that’s 1.2 million animals each year in just one slaughterhouse.

Permission from a pig

EstherAnyone who knows me knows that I have fallen in love with Esther the Wonder Pig. This social media superstar is a real pig – who, just three years ago, as a tiny piglet, somehow escaped the horrific factory farm system and made her way to Steve and Derek, two men with hearts as wide open and big as the sky.

Steve and Derek quickly realized a couple things:
1) Esther was no family-pet-style mini-pig. She was a commercial pig, bred to grow quickly and become food.
2) Esther was not food. She was family, part of the brood of pets in Steven and Derek’s Toronto home.

Because she was not food, Steven and Derek questioned what else they had considered to be food.
They knew the dark side of the world’s industrialized factory farming, but had never really delved into it. Now they did. Within weeks of Esther joining their clan, Steve and Derek became vegan. Esther and all animal-based foods were literally no longer on the table.

And then Steven and Derek, affectionately called the Dads, did all manner of brave and outrageous things.

Esther became the “spokes pig” for their message of veganism and kindness to all creatures on earth. The Dads began to share photos of their giant house pig (Esther is now 700 pounds) along with witty, heartwarming and engaging comments on social media. Esther now has an ardent global following of almost half a million people and has inspired many people – me included – to adopt a vegan diet.

Keeping Esther in her Toronto home was a municipal violation. So the Dads decided to open an animal sanctuary called Happily Ever Esther. They crowdfunded the purchase of a farm and raised far more than the $400,000 they were asking for – all from strangers.

Esther and her dads have been in the news and on the news all over the world. Celebrities have come to visit her. People flock to see her, make donations and passionately share her story.

I’ve wondered often what has made Esther the Wonder Pig such an incredibly popular phenomena. After all, there are loads of cute animals on social media. There’s a ton of funny stuff too, and vegan recipes and calls to action against animal cruelty abound on the internet. So what is the magic of Esther and her Dads?

I believe it’s the permission they give us. The permission we rarely are given (or take!) to be ourselves.
To love openly.
To be vulnerable.
To ask for help.
To be kind and generous.
To care desperately.
To be authentic.
To be different.
To be brave.
To dream.
To challenge the status quo.
To embrace and welcome others.

It’s a marvelous gift. And when you receive it and open it up, you automatically pass it on to others.

So wave your freak flags, love and shine on!