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The question asked at every slaughterhouse
Fear emanates from these dark places. But so does hope.
NOTE: I’m writing every day in memory of Lisa until January 1, who died on October 13. Not every post will be of the highest quality (or sent to the subscriber list for this blog), as I’m focused on getting back into the habit of public writing — and because it’s hard to write something good every day!
The scream sounded like a human child. At first, I thought the boy that I had seen petting one of the animals had been injured. But when I rushed to the barbed wire fence and looked through, I saw something I did not expect: a young goat being dragged by his horns to slaughter at the (misnamed) Orlando Poultry in Orlando, Florida.
It’s been a long time since I visited one of these places. Longer still since I personally witnessed the violence that seemingly seeps into every corner of their physical space. It’s in the blood stained floor; the feathers and fur (and occasional dismembered body part) strewn on the streets outside; in the smell of chemicals and feces and death; and, yes, in the screams of victims in their last moments before death.
The last time I was at a slaughterhouse was for a happier moment: the release of animals by a Bay Area slaughterhouse, at which I have struck up a friendship of sorts with the owner. It’s a perilous relationship for both parties. I am an animal rights activist who believes the owner, “Faheem,” is committing atrocities against innocent beings. He is a Yemeni immigrant who never slaughtered an animal before fleeing poverty and violence to come to the United States. His first job was as a bicycle deliveryman for live animal slaughterhouses, and through years of effort (and a little luck) he eventually became an owner of a chain of businesses himself.
But neither his partners, nor his customers, would be happy to know that he is releasing animals to me on a regular basis. It is an act of mercy, he once told me over vegan soul food in Oakland, that is fitting of someone of his Muslim faith.
There is no such partnership, however, at this slaughterhouse in Orlando. I have only learned a few hours before the trip that this is where I will be. And, after two years of rarely walking into these dark places (indeed, two years of barely walking into any places at all), I’m surprised at what I feel when I arrive.
Darwin believed that all animals are part of the same web of life. That the moral hierarchy that was then established by human beings, and validated even by scientists of his time, was a myth. That all animals are, in a sense, equal.
“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man,” he wrote in The Descent of Man.
By “descent,” Darwin was speaking of our ancestral history. But the other meaning of the word – “descent” as a moral decline – is perhaps just as valid. Because we have taken those creatures who we should love, and we have slowly, one by one, exterminated them from the face of the planet earth.
The slaughterhouse is merely one terrifying example of this violent process. But there is power in being present to witness the terror face to face. And I had forgotten this power in the years since I sat before these trembling beings, before I had heard this young goat’s screams firsthand.
I could only see the goat through a corner of the fence, partially occluded by plant growth along property’s border. I was not quick enough to pull the camera out, and the process lasted only a few seconds. I saw the goat, shaking and staring up into the eyes of the man who was dragging him. Everything about his body and movement was disturbingly synchronized as he was being pulled onto the slaughter floor. The tap of his hooves, trying to pull away. The jerk of his head, as the man above him grabbed his horns. Even the brief pauses in his screams. It was almost as if he was engaging in some macabre dance, a dark dance of terror and fear.
And that fear shot through me like a jolt of electricity.
I stood there, feeling powerless, as he was dragged from an outdoor pen into the slaughterhouse where I could no longer see him. And when I heard the screams stop, I knew his life was at an end.
The animals of this earth, in all their amazing variety, share a powerful and fundamental yearning: the desire to live. This was bred into us by evolution, but as with many cognitive traits gifted (or cursed) upon us by natural selection, the survival instinct now has a life and meaning of its own.
We (like all animals) struggle to survive not just because the gene pool demands it, but because our life has intrinsic worth. It is a calling of not just biology, but of the animal spirit.
The slaughterhouse, in contrast, is the place where the most fundamental of our biological and spiritual yearnings is put to an end.
And for that reason, virtually all animals in the slaughterhouse, like that young goat, will fight. They will fight against hopeless odds. They will fight against giants with weapons far beyond their comprehension and power. They will fight with every ounce of their strength, small and vulnerable though they are, until they draw their last breath.
There was the bunny who was pushing himself back up against the edge of the cage, pressing so far away from the opening where his sisters and brothers were being taken and killed, that his legs were protruding through the wire holes. I could see in the abrasions on his hind legs that this was a struggle that had already taken its toll.
There were the chickens and ducks gasping for air in the heat. I begged one of the workers, a Spanish-speaking individual who looked less than half my age, to give them water. And, much to the surprise of the other activists, he complied, filling the water troughs of all the animals in their cages.1
“I wonder if she knows that this will be her last drink before she dies,” I thought to myself, as I looked at one desperate hen gasping for water.
There is a hopelessness that can breed from this futility and darkness. A truck came driving into the slaughterhouse, with propane tanks inside. And despite the sad faces and peaceful actions of the activists outside, the man driving the truck shouted at us.
“Go back to Brazil!”
He was looking in my direction. Shannon Blair and I looked at each other, confused. Shannon is very obviously white. And while I have been mistaken for many races, Brazilian is not one of them.
“Is he talking about you?” Shannon asked. “You don’t look Brazilian to me.”
The brief moment of misidentification seemed to capture the absurdity of the place. This was a place where nothing makes any sense.
And yet even here, there are glimmers of hope.
There was the customer, who started out laughing at us with a jovial face, but came out afterwards and talked to us about why we were there.
“I understand what you’re about. I could never kill an animal myself. I won’t do it, but I have to eat.”
“But you don’t have to eat those who have been killed,” one of our activists replied.
By the end of the conversation, the man promised to look more into the subject — as much to trim down his waistline, which he said had gained 30 pounds from “too much meat,” as for the animals whose lives were ending just a few feet away.
There was the truck driver who walked out of the slaughterhouse, after emptying cages of animals into the facility. His gait seemed infused with shame. His head was curled over, and body posture was tight and closed up. We saw a dead guinea hen in the front of the truck bed, around the place where the first palette of cages had once been loaded with animals. Just through the metal wall into the back of his truck, sat a pit bull who looked toward his family member longingly and lovingly.
When Shannon was on the other side of the truck, filming the dead bird, the truck driver stopped what he was doing — throwing metal chains across the truck to latch down each of the palettes — to avoid hitting Shannon (and perhaps interfering with her work).
There was the resilience of the activists. A gentle-voiced woman named Angie broke down into tears, at the sight of the animals being dragged, thrown, and beaten just 50 feet away. But she stayed throughout the vigil and refused to allow the suffering to defeat her. Craig, an activist who has supported DxE for many years, and walked with us through the Utah State Capitol building to protest the FBI raids on animal sanctuaries, was taking photographs much better than mine, with a professional-looking camera. And then of course there was Shannon herself, a relentless activist and mother of Vegan Evan, who despite numerous conflicts and frustrations continues to advocate in every way possible for the animals whom she and her son love so dearly.
But the most important glimmer of hope came from the animals themselves. One wide eyed guinea hen stared at me in the eye. Her eyes were locked on mine, as if we were in a mutual struggle for understanding. The rapid blinking of her eyes, suggested fear to me at first. But she did not pull back as I got closer. This was not fear. There was something else in her eyes.
Hope was my first thought, but that possibility was as soul crushing as it was implausible. She had watched, one by one, as her cage mates were dragged off to death. Yearning for water or food was my next guess, but that too did not seem right. She did not move her eyes away from me as I moved my hand. She was not waiting for me go give her food.
What I ultimately decided is that this was curiosity and excitement and even wonder in her eyes. Wonder as to the power and danger and freedom that this strange creature represented.
“You look upon me from up high, outside of this cage. What could you possibly want from me, or from my kind? Your powers are beyond our comprehension; your lives and pleasures beyond our wildest dreams. So why can you, such great and terrifying creatures… why can you not leave us be?”
Look at her eyes yourself, and ask yourself what you see.
Perhaps we will someday know, as we understand the nature of consciousness and communication with increasingly sophisticated technology. But perhaps it doesn’t matter what she was saying.
Perhaps all that matters is what we should say to ourselves, when we witness these beings who tremble in the moments before their death.
Animals transported in slaughter trucks, you see, need only be given food and water once every 28 hours. But among the literally tens of billions of animals transported to slaughter in the last decade, the Animal Welfare Institute found only 10 inquiries into possible violations of the law, and a single referral for enforcement. I have personally witnessed, in the last 10 years, more cases where there was a plausible violation of this law, and related state animal cruelty laws, in the last 5 years of my work as an investigator for DxE. In short, a single person is doing more work to protect animals than the entire US government.
And what happened yesterday was (depending on the source of the animals) one possible violation. The birds in cages were so desperate that, after being provided water, I witnessed them crammed against side of the cages, gasping for every bit they could drink, for longer than 15 minutes.