When I was growing up, a popular show on television ventured into the unique backyards of kids across the country who lived adjacent to theme parks, chocolate factories, and any other imaginable delight under the sun. I wanted more than anything to be one of those kids with one of those fancy backyards.
Recently, my wife, Rachel, and I took a visit to Toronto, and there we strolled right into a different kind of backyard, one that emitted a putrid scent straight out of a child’s worst nightmare. It was revolting enough to require me to focus on maintaining the contents of my stomach, yet there it was, looming two blocks away from cookie cutter condominiums. It was a pair of slaughterhouses, sending eau de rotten flesh wafting through the slight breeze.
A Real-Life Horror Film?
Eyeing an eerily deserted children’s swing set, I wondered what the producers would have said if any of the neighborhood children had ever applied to appear on the show. While I pondered the thought, we were passed by a long silver truck with brown stains smeared on the exterior and lined with silver slats from which wriggling, furry noses protruded. The animals inside, cows, were soon unloaded into holding pens, where they would remain for hours, immersed in that gut-wrenching scent.
Inside, we could not see. But according to an anonymous worker, “An animal will go down in a chute three feet wide. It can’t turn around. Some rear back on their legs and fall on their back. We have to get a hoist and wrap it around their legs or torso and right them up.” The same worker admitted to seeing thrashing cows rampage through the kill floor even after facing the knife.
What we could see from the road were men at the far end of the facility standing with bloodied shovels, as skins, dripping with blood, were loaded one after another into a truck bound for the tannery down the street. The sight began to remind me of a bloodbath scene from a poorly made ‘80’s horror flick. Then, barrels of heads appeared: skinned heads, hollow eyes, spray painted blue—marked for incineration.
As these heads were dumped onto a truck for destruction, one stray skull came crashing down to the ground. We snapped photos until a worker picked the lifeless head up with his bare hands and casually took it away. The man driving the truck collected the spilled brains and goo from the ground and drove off, leaving only a puddle of blood behind. The face of that cow and the empty eyes in the sockets of her skull burned themselves into my memory. It became a face that will haunt me forever.
Opening Closed Doors
In the United States, the slaughterhouses where the 9 billion cows, pigs, turkeys, chickens, and other farmed animals meet their demise primarily litter the sparsely populated countryside, while bustling city citizens miles away pick up wrapped packages of flesh with little semblance to its original owner. Here and abroad, some metropolises, Toronto included, are exceptions. What we saw, we saw from city property.
Bearing witness to these graphic scenes unfolding was part of a vigil organized by Toronto Cow Save, an offshoot of all-volunteer animal advocacy group Toronto Pig Save. After growing weary of an overwhelming stench in her neighborhood and distressed by the squealing pigs headed day in and day out into a nearby pig slaughterhouse known as Quality Meat Packers, founder Anita Krajnc was compelled to open her community’s eyes to the final moments of life for these animals.
Krajnc’s methodology appears to be making a dent in the surrounding mentality: the group bolstered public discontent toward the plant with weekly vigils up until QMP closed its doors this year amidst an outbreak of porcine epidemic diarrhea. But you won’t see her group lining the streets with pitchforks and hurling insults. “We use a love-based approach, just like Tolstoy and Gandhi,” she told me.
Her words appeared to ring true. The workers at the cow slaughterhouse, who looked washed-out and tired from the less-than-glamorous nature of their work, chatted with us as we held vigil. Krajnc told me they particularly enjoyed the days when they were offered free vegan food, like veggie burgers and dogs, all devoid of animal ingredients. An oversized pickup truck stopped for a few moments, driven by the plant’s owner. “I support Anita and anyone she turns vegetarian,” he boasted to me. “It’s their choice, and I’m happy for them.”
I thought he might actually benefit from a few less cholesterol-laden hamburgers and a few more nutrient-packed vegan meals himself. Krajnc told him so. My wife shared her own breakfast tips with him: “cheesy” tofu scramble and avocado fruit smoothies. He grinned, a huge, jovial grin.
Seeing into Their Eyes
Later in the week, we accompanied Krajnc to another vigil, this time at a pig processing plant called Fearman’s in Burlington, just outside the city. We held signs bearing slogans like “Honk if You Love Pigs!” and “Pigs Are Friends, Not Food” and received an occasional wave, thumbs up, or blaring of the horn from passing cars. My spirits were high until the first truck arrived, and then the name of the facility started to sink in. When the truck squeaked to a stop at the light, we rushed to its side, peering in through the tiny windows, both to coax and to photograph the frightened beings inside. Welcome to Fearman’s, I thought with a knot in my stomach.
I began to stroke the ear of a pig whose eyes locked with my own. Streams of tears cascaded down my cheeks. She blinked, though her gaze never wavered. This is a beautiful pig, I said to myself. A beautiful pig who will die today. She would soon be reduced to BBQ or hot dogs on a plate, but that day, I knew, she was someone. And I was certain I would never be the same having met her.
Fearman’s slaughters thousands of pigs each day. In effort to render them insensitive to pain, the plant employs the use of carbon dioxide stunning. However, the fearful and disoriented pigs often resist being corralled into the gas chamber of such slaughterhouses, and workers at some facilities have been caught beating or shocking them into submission. Many pigs panic and thrash about when the gas enters the chamber before succumbing to convulsions.
More Meat, Higher Toll
The demand for meat in the Western world is astronomically high compared to previous generations, with millions of us consuming too much fat and too many calories. Heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, diabetes—these are leading killers that have all been linked to the consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy.
While this soaring demand wreaks havoc on our bodies, it has also embroiled us in what some have deemed a war against animals and our environment. To keep up, farms have become factories, cramming animals into crowded pens and cages, festering with feces, one of bacteria’s favorite hangouts. The agriculture industry lobbies hard for efficiency at the cost of welfare. Today, 140 chickens can be slaughtered per minute on a single kill line at a plant. The speed is so high, and the stunning method so ineffective, that these chickens are still conscious when their throats are cut. Many are even scalded to death in defeathering tanks. This is all legal.
There are those calling for us to revert back to the days of sprawling pastures and friendly family farms. But at this rate, we simply can’t, I gleaned recently from a new documentary called Cowspiracy. The film reveals that in order feed America’s infatuation with beef through old-fashioned grass-fed farms, we’d need the entire land area of the continental U.S., much of Canada, all of Mexico and Central America, and some of South America—entirely covered in beef farms. No mountains, no cities, no suburbs. Even if uprooting society in the name of steaks was acceptable or even feasible, what about the animals whose lives are at stake?
A Sanctuary for the Few
Rachel and I couldn’t end our vacation on a somber note. Heading home, we wound our way down country roads and yielded to Amish buggies until we finally arrived in Watkins Glen, New York, home to Farm Sanctuary, where hundreds of rescued farmed animals reside. There we met grazing cows, snoozing pigs, and even chickens running freely down dirt roads, curiously resembling waddling babies whose diapers needed changing. Relaxing in the foggy country air with hundreds of frolicking animals, it was hard not to let our sorrows evaporate.
Our guide introduced us to a black rooster named Patchouli with a vibrant red comb and an equally lively personality. As he darted around our feet, we learned that he was rescued from a shipment of chicks from a hatchery that had been marked “return to sender.” About half of the animals in this shipment, labeled as containing 100 hens, perished. It was thought that Patchouli, a male, might have just been thrown in as packing material.
I read recently that chickens are much brighter than most of us have dared to realize. Just after birth, they can, apparently, outsmart a human baby in a game of peek-a-boo, and they even have a rudimentary understanding of physics, displaying a preference for realistic drawing plans over the impossible. But these complex animals have been reduced to a punch line in a joke and, in America, the most-eaten land animal of all.
Finding Life in Death
After the vigil at the cow slaughter plant, a participant confided in me, “I do this because it makes me feel alive.” Instantly, I wondered how the act of witnessing a gruesome death could reinvigorate anyone. Since the slaughterhouse vigils, I’ve had agonizing sleepless nights—nights ravaged by violent imagery and feelings of desolation.
But those nights are what did it. I knew that I wouldn’t ever have nightmares over the processing of the cucumbers in my salad. I couldn’t ever visit a potato factory and feel suffocated by the rotten stench of demise. It was death that woke me up to life: its curiosities, its joys, its frustrations and failures. Frolicking through a field, bonding with a newborn child, sleeping under a sky full of stars—many of us will experience these wonders; most of them never will. A cow and a pig want life; broccoli does not.
At Fearman’s slaughterhouse, we were accosted by a group of teenage girls in an SUV who counted to three and screamed out “BACON!” before erupting into fits of giggles. I only stared blankly back in their direction, aware that these girls had yet to make that connection, to see that bacon had a mom.
The agriculture industry spends millions of dollars trying to ensure that they never will. In over half of all states in the U.S., it has sought to make citizen filming and exposing abuses on farms illegal—even though there is already virtually no government oversight of these farms for cruelty violations. In a handful of states, they’ve been successful with these “ag gag” laws.
With every new “ag gag” bill, every undercover video, every new bacon-themed fashion accessory, I’m reminded by the words of Robert Frost, whispering in my ear that there are still “miles to go before I sleep.” But, today, I can order pizza from a place down the street and ask for vegan cheese and pepperoni—hold the slaughter. And that’s a start, a big one.
Laura Lee Cascada is a writer and advocate based out of Virginia. Her work has been published by the Sierra Club, Honey Colony, and One Green Planet, and she is currently working on her first novel. Follow her on Twitter.