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This morning I set my alarm for half past four, and was out of the house before dawn. Not for work, but to go to a slaughterhouse in East London. I was going to bear witness to a truck carrying a cargo of broiler chickens.
After a fair bit of waiting around, the truck was seen on the main road at about half past six; it then disappeared for almost an hour and a half. The driver, upon seeing the group, had passed by and called the police; he waited until they arrived before finally pulling in at almost 8:00.
The driver, a regular who was recognised by many of the activists, stopped outside and told the police he was going to wait there for a few minutes to allow us some time with the birds. This was my first surprise. I was amazed at how peaceful and calm it all was. The police stood back as the driver started unclipping the tarpaulin and pulling it back to allow us to see underneath.
Here are my thoughts and reflections on what happened.
The truck housed a mountain of yellow plastic crates. The back few columns seemed to be empty, but the ones at the front each contained four or five chickens. The floor of the truck, a couple of inches below the lowest crate, was covered in shit—shit that was from birds in the bottom row, the top row, and all the rows in between. Shit that didn’t look healthy, often red or yellow in colour. And shit that stank; the stench was awful.
The chickens themselves were quiet and passive, and it was hard not to anthropomorphise them. Chickens, like all animals, have their own unique personalities. An activist I spoke to on the train home talked about her pet chickens and their little quirks: one who wouldn’t go to bed without a cuddle, another who was less bothered by human interaction but was quite obviously the boss of the rest.
It was hard to imagine these chickens having personality; they looked broken, defeated. They cowered. Most didn’t have the energy or willpower to stand. What could they do if they did? They had bald patches, feathers missing, and so many of the feathers they did have were ragged and matted with filth.
I’d seen pictures before, but nothing prepared me for seeing live chickens inches away, in four dimensions. I am usually more of a “delayed reaction” kind of a gal, so I was shocked when the tears started falling hard and fast, almost without warning. I moved away to let the people behind me have some time, and as I did, I felt reassuring hands on my arms. It is not about the pain we feel, but it was comforting to know that the people around me understood.
Eventually, the truck driver began to pull the tarpaulin back down and returned to the cabin of the truck. This kicked the police back into gear and, naturally, the mood had shifted somewhat: grief and anger will do that. There wasn’t any real violence, just a little pushing and shoving as the driver tried to manoeuvre the truck in reverse, through the gates. It was a tight fit, with or without us there.
It was as this was happening that a number of the more seasoned activists began communicating with the police, asking them why they were defending this practise, asking them to examine their own morals and values. In response, one policeman answered, “We don’t deal with morals, we deal with the law,” and this just compounded my thoughts on the whole process.
Trucks are driven to slaughterhouses under the cloak of darkness, arriving in the early hours of the morning. I’m sure this is partly to do with deadlines—quotas of animals that need to be slaughtered in a day—but I’m equally sure it’s to avoid them being observed by the general public any more than is necessary. Cognitive dissonance is harder to maintain when you are faced with the reality. To me, the secrecy shrouding the industry is just one admission of guilt.
And that policeman, highlighting the disparity between morality and the laws we abide, is another. It doesn’t matter if what goes on behind the walls is morally abhorrent, what matters is that we don’t get in the way of letting the business run. Why is it so ok—more than ok, standard practise even—to turn our backs on what is right?
Why do we bear witness?
Bearing witness is a psychological term. It is the process of sharing our experiences with others, usually when communicating about traumatic experiences. We do it almost every day, sometimes consciously and with explicit permission, but often subconsciously too. It is a very human thing; it bonds us through empathy and understanding, allowing us to support, and be supported by one another.
Bearing witness with animals is obviously slightly different. The victims have limited understanding that they are victims at all. Don’t get me wrong, I am convinced they are aware of their suffering, but they are not — as far as we know, anyway — able to contextualise their experience. Animals are the masters of mindfulness, living and reacting to the here and now. Therefore, it’s most likely that they don’t know what’s about to happen to them, or that we are there to channel their suffering to fuel our passion to fight on their behalf.
As Jo-Anne McArthur says, bearing witness “creates fire in our hearts, and a desire to change that suffering... When you connect with those who suffer, you have to act.”
This is not Chicken Run. Animals are the voiceless. They are powerless in the face of humans’ systematic exploitation of them. They cannot fight back, so we have to fight for them. We have to. Bearing witness really does fuel that fire. I have seen so many images, so many videos, but nothing compares to being faced with a big, fat dose of reality that, quite literally, stinks of shit.
The impact of bearing witness
The thing is, bearing witness is a difficult thing to do. Following the vigil, I am exhausted and at a bit of a loss with what to do, say and feel. This is why I write.
I feel powerless. Seeing the suffering with my own eyes is one thing, not being able to do anything about it is quite another. Knowing that this happens day in, day out is soul destroying.
It’s traumatic, being faced with this reality. Dr. Casey Taft talks about this in his book, Motivational Methods for Vegan Advocacy, and Clare Mann, a vegan psychologist, coined the term Vystopia to explain the feelings associated with being vegan in a non-vegan world. As vegans, we have to be careful about how much witnessing we can bear. Because if we burn out, if we are, “incapacitated with sadness and grief,” due to the trauma induced by bearing witness, we lose our ability to stand up for the animals.
You see, for me, once I saw the horrific footage of the way nonhuman animals are treated, I couldn’t unsee it and the images pop into my brain without invitation. Therefore, I bear witness every time I am faced with someone sitting opposite me eating animal products, every time I open a fridge and see a carton of milk. It isn’t a choice. And this is something it’s taken me a long time to adjust to. So much so that I now almost have reverse cognitive dissonance: to protect myself, I imagine that beef burgers are plant-based and my friends’ coffees are oat milk.
However, today was a choice. And one I am ultimately grateful I made.
And then what?
I am left with questions though. The chickens this morning were transported from Scarborough. That’s a 240 mile trip, that takes around four and a half hours. Why? Surely there are slaughterhouses closer that would involve less traveling? When I think about that time period and—honestly—the additional hours spent waiting for the police, I am filled with pity. It was cold and those crates were miserable and filthy. But, really, were they any worse than where they were brought from?
Those poor individuals, who were babies—probably no more than a few weeks old—are no longer alive. In a weird way, I am almost relieved about this; at least they are no longer suffering. But what about the ones due on tomorrow’s truck? And next week’s? And in the months and years to come? How do we even begin to deal with the magnitude of that?
Across the road from the slaughterhouse were blocks of flats, from the higher storeys you would be able to see over the walls and inside. The area is being redeveloped and, apparently, people who live in the flats have complained about the slaughterhouse. I can’t help but wonder how many of them are vegan, or if they’d rather just not have the reality of their choice to consume chicken within eyesight. As Paul McCartney said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be veg[an].” (Sorry Paul, I’ve updated your quote…)
Hope (and Glory)
The wonderful thing about today, though, was knowing that there is a whole community of people who are fighting everyday to bring compassion to the forefront. People who reach out in solidarity and offer up hugs when you’re feeling distressed. People who bombard the WhatsApp group with videos of chickens who have been rescued, who are now healthy and happy and enjoying every second of their lives, letting their personalities shine through and giving and receiving so much joy. Even the bullishness or off-guard sadness of some of the police officers; gleaning that these are likely nonverbal admissions of guilt as they, too, were faced with seeing the animals in their shit-covered crates. Knowing that they are protecting a practise that is lawful but immoral. These small glimmers of hope are what we have to cling onto.
Because there is a palpable shift happening at the moment. In the four and a half years I have been vegan things have changed dramatically. The number of people becoming vegan is growing exponentially, the number of plant-based products on supermarket shelves is too. Many people are starting to question the need for animal products in their life and looking to find alternatives.
This is what I cling to. Hope. Hope that, one day, this will be a thing of the past. And, in the meantime, there are people willing to fight for that eventuality on behalf of the animals.
Jo-Anne McArthur Photography, joannemcarthur.com/.
“Bearing Witness - A Guest Blog by Anita Krajnc, Co-Founder of Toronto Pig Save.” We Animals, weanimals.org/blog.php?entry=168.
Mann, Clare, and Philip Wollen. Vystopia: the Anguish of Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World. Communicate31 Pty Ltd, 2018.
“The Power and Strength of Bearing Witness.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meaningful-you/201312/the-power-and-strength-bearing-witness.
Taft, Casey T. Motivational Methods for Vegan Advocacy: a Clinical Psychology Perspective. Vegan Pubishers, 2016.
“Vystopia Definition.” Vystopia, vystopia.com/vystopia-definition/.