Frozen to the side of a truck
Hey, thanks for reading. I'm sitting in my apartment, inhaling dust (they just tore the kitchen ceiling down), thinking of you out there in Winnipeg. Toronto isn't so far away, really. Two hours by plane, a couple days by bus. I'm trying to sandwich space and time so I don't feel so damn lonely. This is a letter that I've been writing you in my head for a long time, but I'm struggling where to actually start, because I have so much to say and I'm worried that I'll forget something.
It means a lot to me that you are open to reading this. Sometimes I wish I could tell you more about these thoughts, but I fear that if I open my mouth I'll just scream and scream.
There's a collage of pictures on my wall in front of me, taken by the group Defending Farm Animals. I got it at Animal Rights 2000 last summer in Washington. I met the women that took these undercover photographs, as I flipped through photo album after photo album. Even my hardened animal rights friend left the room crying.
They showed me the miniature video cameras they used to capture the pictures because they aren't officially allowed to tour the facilities and stockyards and document what they see. Although these pictures look strange next to pictures of my family and friends back home, I keep them on my wall above my desk to remind me why I do what I do. (It's not that I forget: I just want to keep it where it's harder to look away. Have you ever heard the expression, "What they eyes do not see, the heart does not weep?")
Some of the pictures are of downed cows. Downed animals are those animals that are too sick, weak, or injured to walk. They are often dragged and bulldozed to slaughter, or left to die. There are pictures of pigs in gestation crates. There are chickens who live their whole lives cramped in cages, unable to turn around, laying eggs until their bones break when they're finally torn from confinement, considered "spent" and useless. Their feet often twist and grow into the metal of the wires, their eyes stinging from the ammonia that leaches from the excrement, waste that falls through the holes onto their brothers and sisters below them.
Seventy per cent of hens in the United States live their entire lives in steel cages. After a laying hen spends the 17 or 18 months of her short life producing an unnatural number of eggs, she may be kept ("recycled") for another round of laying. Yet, chickens can live active lives of up to 15 years. In Canada, the battery cage is legal, and there are no welfare laws regulating its use.
Every night I lie on my back feeling cozy and warm, wondering about the animals currently being transported to their deaths, often without adequate water, food, or proper ventilation and climate control. Every time I wrap my scarf around my neck, I think, man, if I'm cold, what's it like to be shipped for hours, frozen to the side of a truck, trampled and mutilated, as an electric prod forces me down a ramp. I'd like to say this kind of shit doesn't happen in Canada, but it does with so much complacency and ease that it doesn't even seem real. The myths won't help me, though - like the one that says that if things were really that terrible, something would be done about it.
There are questions that you and I weren't supposed to ask. The day I learned what "factory farm" means was like the day I learned what "patriarchy" means. Or do you remember me telling you about the day my Introduction to Women's Studies class learned the definition of "transnational corporation"? I was shaking in my desk, yanking at my sweatshirt, exclaiming, "What about this shirt? This pen? What about this goddamned desk?" The blood wasn't dripping off my hands, it was pouring.
We learned the same myths. "Ah, sure, I agree with feminists, I just don't like all that man-hating stuff. And what's the big deal about calling God 'He,' anyway?" I guess I am one of those vegans that used to say, "Oh, I could never give up dairy. I just love my cheese." Besides not being encouraged to ask under what circumstances milk is obtained, I didn't want to ask.
When I feel myself shut down and sink into that soft denial pabulum, I have to shake myself awake. Once you start asking questions, it's hard to gag the gnawing voice that says, maybe you've been taken, maybe you're doing exactly what they want you to do. Maybe they've convinced you that your "comfort" and their profits are enough to pretend everything's all right.
Up to 25 per cent of workers in Manitoba's meat-packing plants suffer work-related injury or illness. The dairy industry and the meat industry support one another. Baby cows are taken from their mothers and live their entire lives in crates. They are anemic, fed partially or entirely on a liquid diet and end up as "veal." Growing up, I never questioned why cows kept continually producing milk: repeated artificial insemination.
Every time I believed in the four food groups, I ate a little piece of the lie that was sponsored by the meat and dairy councils. We have participated in a system that hurts animals, human workers, the environment and our own health.
That propaganda machine is so powerful that we actually told ourselves that it was good for us. But as powerful as this system is, it can not destroy our ability to think critically and resist. Sometimes I feel as if I am looking into a painfully bright light at the end of a tunnel. It's not death. It's my ignorance being repeatedly shattered.
My approach to animal rights goes like this: We can sit here and have a philosophical discussion about human/animal relationships, about what it means to be human in the 21st century (and how much of that is determined by contrasting "human" with "animal"), and rights-based versus utilitarian arguments for animal rights.
As much as that might be helpful, as much as that might mutually challenge our perspectives, nothing really changes for those imprisoned animals. I think people need to really look at factory farming and slaughterhouse practices when they go to a grocery store to buy their Saran-Wrapped flesh; they consciously say, "I vote for this" every time they put their money down. Besides the environmental damage, the questionable labour conditions, the amount of suffering incurred, each dollar says, "I agree with the methods and practices that make this product possible, so much so that I am willing to give this company my money to ensure that it will continue."
I also figure that there are three likely responses to taking a tour, seeing pictures, or viewing a film. The first is that a person might be completely astounded and deeply saddened by what he or she has witnessed. This person will likely immediately become vegetarian or vegan.
The second possibility is that a person might be dismayed by what they've witnessed, but not enough to change their consumption patterns in any drastic way. He or she might start buying organic meat from small farms, or purchasing eggs from a free-range operation. Baby steps. The point is not to jump into something, hate it, and then give up entirely. Do what you can. Ask questions. This isn't about being deprived, or living off lettuce and carrots.
As far as persons number one and number two go, I applaud you. You have just voted for compassion. You have just made a choice to do the least harm possible.
The final person, good old person number three - he or she looks at exploitation and just doesn't give a damn. Person number three looks at factory farm conditions, the terrible transportation system, and the slaughterhouses and says, "Yup, it looks bad, but really, I just don't care. It doesn't affect me."
I'd like to say this person is only found on the right wing of the political spectrum, but they are everywhere. Some of my lefty friends and acquaintances seem to think that compassion is a limited resource, and they couldn't possibly care about what happens to animals, too, when they're so busy fighting for the revolution - er - the human revolution. But as the revolutionary saying goes, no one's free until we're all free, right comrades? Who counts in your revolution?
Every day I ask, what is my responsibility? Who do I have to answer to? Part of my answer rests with the millions of animals who die in Canada every day because of the high demand for meat. Part of the answer rests with Olga, who worked on a gizzard-harvesting machine for 19 years, and who suffers from sores and warts that won't heal because of bacteria from the chickens and the cuts from the scissors slipping. She has a permanent forward stoop and chronic misalignment of her spine and neck because of the design of her workstation. I have to answer to her and the thousands of other workers afraid of losing their jobs. And, I have to answer to you, because you know that even when it is alienating and uncomfortable, it is worth the fight.
So I'll keep chipping away at my piece. I thank you for chipping away at yours.