Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bearing Witness: We Will Not Forget You

Image courtesy Guelph Pig Save.
"Now and then a visitor wept, to be sure; but this slaughtering machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory."
- Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906)

Bearing witness is the act of seeing something, and then going on to provide evidence for - or memories of - what you saw. It can be a tremendously difficult act, especially when you are witnessing something that involves the suffering of human beings or animals. 

This morning I went with my companion to bear witness at a slaughterhouse. Conestoga Meat Packers in nearby Woolwich, Ontario, is - in its own words - "a processor of premium quality, fresh pork." The company, tucked away in the midst of endless cornfields, with farms as neighbours, provides many jobs in this area, and they have a well-deserved reputation for treating pigs as humanely as a slaughterhouse possibly can. 

These are not the violent, animal-beating thugs you see in shocking undercover exposés of slaughterhouses. By all accounts, the men and women who work at Conestoga are conscientious and caring workers, who move the pigs through as quickly and efficiently as possible, and stun the animals with the inhalation of CO2 before the killing actually occurs.

The process is professional and quick and by the book. It is safe to say that this is how the very best slaughterhouses in North America operate.

Even when slaughterhouses adhere to the strictest of regulations, as this one does, they are factories of death. Make no mistake about it: There is no such thing as "humane slaughter." I experienced the deeper meaning of this profound truth this morning, when I joined my comrades in bearing witness.

My companion and I arrived early in the morning, before 7 a.m. We were the first witnesses there. We found ourselves in the middle of Ontario farm country. We parked on a side road, hidden in a sea of corn stalks, and walked up the road a little ways to get to the production facility. 

We reached the tall chain link fence surrounding the complex and the pair of entrances where the trucks came through. Signs warned that security cameras watched the area around the gates. When we got there, workers were busily emptying a truck and pig squeals rang out across the otherwise serene farmland.

Since my companion planned to write about the morning event for the newspaper where she works, she went off to find for the organizers. I stayed by the entrance and listened to the cries of the animals and the loud, metallic thumping of pig feet thundering on the floor of the vented livestock trailer. 

The sadness I felt standing alone at that gate, listening to those shrieks of terror, proved almost more than I could bear. Yet I remained there, determined to hear it, absorb it, and feel it as deeply as I could.

The activists from Guelph Pig Save soon arrived. They broke out the signs. "We Deserve Respect" (above a pig's picture), "I Am Someone" (same), "We Love You & We're Sorry," "Respect All Life," and "Pigs Are Friends - Pigs Are NOT Food." Eventually, we were joined by the tireless and heroic Anita Krajnc of Toronto Pig Save, who has always been a huge source of inspiration for me. Our numbers would soon grow to just over twenty. 

Before I go any further, let me say that the men and women who came out to bear witness this morning are some of the finest, most courageous, sincere and dedicated people I've ever had the good fortune of meeting. Many are young. They believe in what they're doing right down to the bottom of their hearts and the marrow of their bones. They are all, to a person, humble and regard each another as kindred spirits in the struggle to end the madness that happens inside of these slaughterhouse walls. 

I greeted organizers with warm handshakes. Normally, I am shy and tend to be aloof in social settings. In the presence of these saintly folks, however, I found myself opening up, talking, sharing. Men and women who were veterans of these morning gatherings still got choked up and teary eyed. 

"You have to let yourself feel it," one of the organizers told me. "Never stop feeling it, never stop taking it all in. Always let it make you sad. Don't try to get past the pain or the sorrow. If that's what you're feeling, you're feeling the right thing." 

Truck backing into Conestoga Meat Packers.
Sometime around quarter past seven, we heard the roar of a diesel engine. Another truck arrived, hauling a massive cargo of squealing, stressed-out passengers on their final trip. As it moved past me, so close I could touch it, I saw their eyes and snouts and trembling bodies. Right as the truck passed me, a little frog jumped around the grass. As luck would have it, the frog - like me - occupied a place on the food chain that meant she would be spared from mass murder today. 

Some of the organizers sprinted and kept pace with the truck as it headed toward the second entrance. They took pictures and poured water into the trailer's oval and rectangular openings. 

What I'll remember the most is the smell of the trailer going past me. It gave off the mixed scents of life, of living, breathing beings - their bodies, their feces and all of the odors made more pronounced by the body heat in that small, cramped space.

Once inside the parking lot, the truck looped around so it could back up to the loading bay. In order to do this, it had to pull a ways out of the first entrance, where I stood with several Guelph Pig Save witnesses. The big rig chugged right past me and hissed to a halt, bringing me face to face with the passengers inside. I reached out and petted their fur, touched their snouts, looked into frightened eyes, and apologized for the monstrous crime being committed by my species.

Grinding gears, the truck hissed again, its engine revved and it backed up to the pigs' final destination. It stopped at the loading dock and the driver killed the engine. After that, everything was quiet for a while. Eventually, those painful squeals resumed, along with the sound of countless feet thumping on the floor of that giant wheeled box and the ramp leading into the slaughterhouse.

The shrieks, the cries, each lacerating the heart and the soul, screaming and wailing in a way that made you realize they knew what dark fate awaited them. This was their final walk into the labyrinth of death. I curled my fingers around the chain link fence and listened to the shrill screeches. 

By this time, past 7:30, the sun bathes the farmland in a golden hue, and the soft, cool wind fans the corn stalks. And you notice something. The screaming has stopped. All you really hear at this point is the humming and hissing of machines. The pigs have gone silent, except for the occasional distant squeal that somehow penetrates that fortress wall.

The activists are here for each other every bit as much as they're here for the pigs. We talk. We exchange email addresses. We plan future events. A police car arrives and parks nearby for a while. The black and white circles, cruises past us, and stays put down the road, by a stop sign, watching our movements.

We hate to leave. Somehow, leaving feels like we're betraying those innocent beings that met their end here. But we have to go. We have no choice. We've got lives to live, jobs to go to, family and friends to see, appointments to meet. 
Car doors slam. Tires kick up dust. Soon, the gates where all of these wonderful, spirited men and women gathered fall silent once again, until the day shift personnel at Conestoga head for home.

Leaving the scene around 9 a.m., my companion and I held hands on the way to our car. We talked about what we've seen. The experience deepens our love for each other, watching something so unspeakably tragic together. We've both borne witness on that morning, and bearing witness with someone you love pulls you that much closer to her or him. We will never forget what we saw on the morning of August 7, 2013, for as long as we live. 

After I dropped her off at her house, I drove to my appointments at the university. I tried but could not take my mind off of those pigs. Oddly, as I drove, I began to think of the Hubble Telescope and the stunning images of space that it has given us.

 Believe it or not, the Hubble is connected to the pigs, as all things in the universe are connected to one another.

Since NASA first launched the powerful, state-of-the-art telescope into space in 1990, the Hubble has taught us how vast, how spectacular, how endless our universe is, through the vivid and breathtaking images of stars and nebulae and planets and other galaxies it has sent back.

It also reminds us of how tiny each one of us is in the ultimate scheme of it all.

Those pictures of distant celestial bodies, light years away, drive home an important point. Most of the universe is a cold and lifeless place. Our planet is one of the few tiny specks in the vastness where life has taken hold, multiplied, proliferated, changed, over billions of years.

There is something deeply mysterious about life, and that great mystery begins at conception. Human beings have a gestation period of 266 days, or 38 weeks. For pigs, being in the womb lasts 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. In a cold and indifferent universe, each life ought to matter, and each human being and each pig should be born into a world full of care and kindness.

Instead, so many human beings are born into circumstances of indifference or violence, while pigs are systematically bred for slaughter. In an endless universe where we inhabit one of the precious few life-filled specks (the only one that scientists know of), shouldn't all sentient beings be regarded as precious?

Is it really worth committing murder, ending a life that is not ours to destroy, to consume bacon for breakfast, or pulled pork sandwiches for lunch, or ham for dinner? Bear in mind, the eating of pig flesh - or any other food made of animals - can be measured in minutes and brings only temporary satisfaction to the eater.

Are we going to be a species that continues to exercise such brute force to satisfy our basest of impulses?

Or are we going to evolve to the next stage of our development, cast off the consumption of animals forever, and live by a different, more meaningful set of ethics?

This morning, each of the men and women bearing witness at Conestoga Meat Packers provided a meaningful alternative to the way things are now. Each became, in his or her own way, a warm ray of light in the frigid vastness of space.

In the final analysis, we are all heading to the same place as those pigs. Do we as a species want to mark our fleeting existence by violently ending the lives of sentient beings lower on the food chain? Do we want to be the reason why those trucks pass through those gates full of terrified living beings, only to exit those same gates void of life?

Or do we wish to evolve into a more enlightened species that instinctively preserves life in a vast and cold and indifferent universe?

The decision is ours. Alas, we don't have long to make it.

Guelph Pig Save witnesses at the gate of Conestoga Meat Packers, August 7, 2013.


  1. Ahhh...very hard to read, very hard. Thank you and your companion and each of the humans who made the victims of our brutality not be unnoticed on that day. So many are murdered with no one to witness who cares about their suffering and death.

    Are we not better than this? I really am flummoxed and despairing because of being a member of a species that practices atrocity for "profit".

    But some do not do that...some care, some witness, some feel awful too.

    Thank you all. And my humble apologies to the pigs...we humans continue to prove ourselves less worthy of living than you each time we harm an innocent living being.

  2. So glad that you joined us to bear witness yesterday!! Thank you for writing this heart-breaking story!! You make this planet a better place!!

    With compassion!!
    <3 carmen

  3. I am glad that you joined us to bear witness yesterday!! Thank you for writing this heart-breaking story!! You make a difference in this world!!

    With compassion!!
    carmen <3