31. Bearing Witness

World Day for Farmed Animals, just around the corner, on October 2nd, offers an appropriate setting for revisiting what’s at the core of our animal rights crusade – the actual killing of animals for food. Bearing witness to the huge trucks bringing terrified animals to a slaughterhouse is a deeply emotional and truly transformative experience. But then, it gets worse.

The Slaughterhouse Concept

The horrific conditions prevailing in America’s slaughterhouses were first brought to the public attention in 1905 by The Jungle, a book by social reformer Upton Sinclair, designed to publicize the terrible working conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouses. The working conditions have not changed substantially since then, but the book led to enactment of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and eventually, to formation of the Food and Drug Administration.  

After decades of consolidation, there are now about 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the U.S. employing a half million people. However, a much smaller number in a handful of states account for the vast majority of production. Most are owned by JBS Holdings, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and Cargill Meat Solutions. The largest slaughterhouse, owned by Smithfield foods in Tar Heel, NC, kills 2,000 pigs per hour.

Most of us drop animal flesh from our diet because we abhor the concept of subsidizing the killing of animals for food. Beyond that, actually bearing witness to the huge trucks bringing terrified animal to a slaughterhouse gate is a deeply emotional and truly transformative experience. Farm Animal Rights Movement employees and volunteers have been visiting slaughterhouses since the late 1980s to help us actualize and energize our advocacy work.

Visiting Slaughterhouses

In 1986, we decided to venture outside our Washington comfort zone and visit a sheep slaughterhouse in Timberville, VA, a couple of hours away.

Our preliminary inquiries indicated that the slaughterhouse was struck by union workers. So, we rented a large pavilion in a nearby park and invited them all to a vegan picnic, where we shared our views on killing animals for food.

Three years later, we traveled to a pig slaughterhouse in Smithfield, VA, where we staged an-all-night vigil. At dawn, five of us got arrested for blocking pig-laden trucks from entering the plant. We went back to Smithfield three more times. At the 2015 blockade, I was almost run over, as I sat on the ground in front of a truck. On a couple of occasions, we also conducted vigils at the Perdue chicken slaughterhouse in Salisbury MD.

On the West Coast, we staged the first ever vigil at the Farmer John pig slaughterhouse in the Vernon neighborhood of Los Angeles. That vigil began with an assembly at the Vernon police station with a speech by TV Guide columnist and media superstar Cleveland Amory. He then led a march through Vernon to the slaughterhouse. We visited Farmer John several more times in ensuing years.

After one of those visits, we were contacted by a driver with a newborn son who saw a connection with the pigs he was driving to their deaths. That led Shaun Monson to produce a documentary of the driver and film star Joaquin Phoenix driving the last load of pigs in a van rigged with cameras.

In 2015, Toronto animal activist Anita Krajnc was criminally charged for offering water to pigs on a stopped truck at a nearby slaughterhouse. Although the charges were eventually dismissed, the extensive publicity that ensued led to the formation of Animal Save, a world-wide movement of groups conducting local slaughterhouse vigils.

The Slaughterhouse Hell

None of my slaughterhouse vigils and arrests prepared me for the 1997 book The Slaughterhouse by Gail Eisnitz. Gail had spent a couple of years befriending and interviewing slaughterhouse workers in nearby bars and restaurants throughout the U.S.. Long before recent undercover investigations by animal rights organizations, Gail’s book revealed dozens of blood-curdling testimonies from slaughterhouse workers she had met. [An updated 2006 edition is available from Amazon.]

“To get done with the [dairy calves] faster, we’d put eight of them in the knocking box at a time. You start shooting, the calves are jumping, they’re all piling up on top of each other. You don’t know which ones got shot and which didn’t. They’re hung anyway, and down the line they go, wriggling and yelling.” (p. 43)

“If you get a hog in the chute that’s had the shit prodded out of him, and has a heart attack or refuses to move, you take a meat hook and hook it into his bunghole… A lot of times the meat hook rips out of the bunghole… I’ve seen intestines come out.” (p. 82)

“If the hog is conscious, it takes a long time for him to bleed out. These hogs get up to the scalding tank, hit the water, and start kicking and screaming… I am not sure if they burn to death before they drown, but it takes them a couple of minutes to stop thrashing.” (p. 84)

I cried non-stop as I read Gail’s book. And I re-dedicated myself to devoting the rest of my life to ending such atrocities.

The views expressed here are of the author and do not necessarily
represent the views of the Farm Animal Rights Movement

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