animal rights Archive

Activism, Animals, Blog, Churchill 2014

Forty-five days

The chickens are 20 to a crate, and the crates are moved in piles of 2 x 5 by a fast-moving forklift truck driver in dark blue overalls and a thick white mask over his mouth and nose. We’re in the (public) lane between the two buildings of the chicken packing factory at the corner of Hastings and Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. The building on the right as we look up the lane is the warehouse where stacks of crates, some 20 or 30 high, are kept in holding. On the left is the slaughterhouse.

warehouseThe forklift brings 40 or so crates from the towering columns to the open door of the warehouse, and from here he maintains a steady speed of loading the 2x5s onto the automated conveyor belt on the other side of the lane, into the open end of the slaughterhouse. The chickens are now minutes from death. They are 45 days old.

“Just babies,” said Mary-chris Staples, a maths teacher and organiser of the weekly vigils outside the slaughterhouse. She holds up two fingers to the birds in the crates as they are transported between the two buildings, a victory sign. “Bye babies,” she says as we take their pictures. The thought flashes through my mind that the ultimate sponsor of my trip, Winston Churchill (on this Churchill Fellowship), also used, became famous for, using this V-for-victory sign, long before victory was ever in sight.

*

A truck loaded with chickens will travel hours from the many broiler farms around Vancouver and beyond to this chicken processing plant. Earlier we watched one turn off Hastings into Frasier, but it looked empty. While we’re in the alley another, presumably full, pulls in, ready to unload. I’m with the 2×5 crates, the 200 chickens, that have just been loaded onto the heavy duty conveyor belt. Taking pictures. Mary-chris points past it.

chicken crate“In a minute that one will tip up 45 degrees and empty them all out into the processing line,” she explains. A moment later that’s what happens. The 200 birds are unceremoniously dumped out of the crate – and disappear from sight. The floor of the conveyor drops, the crate is rolled back and moved out of the way back to the open side of the space, so the forklift can come pick it up and return it to the warehouse, where it can either be repaired, or loaded back onto an empty truck and taken back to the broiler farms, for repacking. The other crates, still full of birds, move one space along in the line. The chickens I have been taking photos of, the ones I have been watching, slip slowly to the side, slip slowly away on the floating, buzzing machine.

Behind me the forklift driver quickly drives across the lane and loads up another 2×5 in the empty space. The next 200 chickens, to make sure the processing does not stop.

“Be careful,” says Mary-chris. “He won’t slow down for you.”

If this is the input line, round the corner, where a large refrigerated lorry container is fixed to he building, is the output. And the door adjacent to where we’re standing is in effect the garbage chute. The garage-style door is open and we watch as a huge container is loaded with animal slurry, chicken-flesh pink, pouring down funnels and pipes, some into the container, much of it simply onto the floor.

slurry guyWe take videos and photographs until the container is full, the waste products bound for dog food or some other product with standards lower than what is expected for human consumption, and the slaughterhouse worker shuts the roller door, Mary-chris still filming until its fully closed. I wonder why the forklift driver wears a mask but the slurry guy doesn’t. In the lane it smells but not as bad as I’d imagined.  The smell is not the worst thing. Even the confusion and fear in the eyes of the chickens is not the worst thing. The worst thing is the mechanisation. The numbers. It’s the first time I’ve seen it up close. I want to cry and I also don’t want to cry. I do not want to seem as if I’m shocked.

*

Earlier I’d joined Mary-chris on this regular Friday vigil at the corner of Hastings and Commercial Drive, where every week she and others from Liberation BC and the other animal rights groups in the city meet and bear witness so that others also might not forget what happens behind the walls of this nondescript building, hidden on the slope down to the traffic lights by 12 broad-leaved trees. A dozen placards are tied to lampposts and electricity boxes so the commuters on their way to work can see the messages: “Honk to stop the abuse”; a picture of a dog and a chicken with the now well-served slogan “Why love one and not the other?”.

Mary-chris stands with another placard around her neck, smiling and waving at the passing traffic. “It’s an invitation,” she explains. “If you don’t make eye contact with the drivers and passengers, they don’t really respond. But if you smile and wave, it’s an invitation. People can see you’re not here to shout at them. They can see that, ‘look, here’s a happy person doing something for the animals’ and that’s the invitation, to see what we’re saying. There’s a place for all types of activism.”

mary-chris

This one clearly works. While we’re talking Mary-chris keeps smiling and waving and she gets plenty of people smiling and waving back, and a regular orchestra of honking horns. She tells me about one young boy whose car had stopped at the lights, who read the placard and then whose eyes lifted to the building, and she could see something had happened in his mind.  “Even if it’s just one person…” she adds.

And then it’s my turn. “Can you hold this while I run to the washroom?” she asks, taking off her placard and handing it to me. Of course, I say. And then she runs up the street, leaving me standing on my own. I’m too self-conscious to wave. But I stand there and I face the traffic. No one honks. I’m not smiling, so no one smiles back. But then a bus driver, who pass by here every day, raises his hand to me, and I think, yes, okay.

When Mary-chris gets back she thanks me for doing my bit. It’s nearly 9am now, and Mary-chris is off to join the striking teachers on the picket line, defending Canada’s free education. She tells me that in fact as of today she’s officially retired. She wanted to retire early so she could spend more time on her animal rights work. We collect in the placards from along the street, and load them in the back of her car. The boot is covered with animal stickers, the back seat already down and the car half-full with other posters and the paraphernalia of an activist’s cause. Some of the pictures are of the abuse uncovered in the Mercy for Animals investigation last week at the Chilliwack Cattle Sales.

Before Mary-chris heads off to her picket line she gives me a hug and tells me that coming out here in the rain, all the way from the UK, has made her day, already an emotional one, even better. As she drives off I change into my running gear. Landed only last night, I don’t know my way around the public transport, so the best way, anyway, to discover a new place is always to run through it. I’ll leave here and do another 11 miles around the beautiful Stanley Park and English Bay.

As I leave I cross the alley again and look up. The forklift is still crossing back and forth, back and forth. The cages empty, full, full, then empty. This is what he will do all day. It is hard labour, and Mary-chris, as with Timothy Pachirat’s book Every 12 Seconds, about his year as a slaughterhouse worker, is at pains to point out, the activists’ vigils and protests are not aimed at the workers, but at the system.

As I’m watching two crows swoop down the lane and one dives and picks up a small morsel of escaped chicken flesh. The other crow bombs its back with its talons, hoping to make the first bird drop its prize. And rather than think how awful this is, I’m thinking why don’t people eat crow instead of chicken, or seagull, or eagle—the eagle I saw a few hours later surrounded by crows out at the very tip of Stanley Park. Why is it the chicken—the hundreds of millions of chickens—are the ones who only get to live to be 45 days old?

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Activism, Green Feeling Archive, Momentary Affects, Writing

Sharkwater

The local Cinema Politica group put on a showing of Rob Stewart’s film Sharkwater. It’s a big audience for an environmental documentary—perhaps fifty or so people on a cool Thursday night in the North East of England.

The film is Stewart’s love letter to sharks, and his attempt to redress both the myths we hold about sharks and to do something about their impending mass extinction at the hands of humans. Shark populations have fallen by anything between 90%-98% and there are no international regulations limiting or banning shark fishing. It is, according to many of the sources in the film, the greatest global biodiversity catastrophe waiting to happen. Sharks have been around for 400m years, and have shaped the entire ecosystem. Their removal will also shape it.

The film is in places graphic and hard to watch. It shows fins being cut from sharks, and those sharks, mostly dead, but sometimes still alive, being cast back into the water. It shows the billion pound shark industry that spans the globe for a tasteless soup that is a sign of privilege in Asian societies, and for herbal medicines that do not work. It shows the corruption of governments and the desperation of poor people who have little, except this unbounded resource at the edge of the shore as a way to lift themselves out of poverty. It shows the self-importance of stupid humans who are utterly unable to recognise the importance of sentient animal life.

I see C wipe away a tear at one point. I sit as monumentally as I can, thinking of Caravaggio’s sketch of St Matthew as he turns away from the man-made gospel he has just written, thinking: what have we done? Not to be overwhelmed. Why I try so hard is not clear to me.

The first comment, from one of the Cinema Politica organisers, is that although the subject matter is obviously serious and tragic, she felt its treatment was at sometimes ‘crude’ in its manipulations of the emotive nature of the story. From the other side of the room, a small voice confers: ‘agree’.

Two experts from the universities Marine Science Department are invited up to help begin a debate. Both manage the debate excellently. Fair, polite, knowledgeable, and pragmatic, they also negotiate through to the core of what’s being discussed: the emotive nature of what we’ve just witnessed. Without taking sides, they re-emphasise the facts, contribute additional information, bear witness to the contribution that people can make if, as Paul Watson, of Sea Shepherd, in the film suggests, we choose to devote our lives to solving these problems.

I dig myself out of the frustration I’m feeling at those two first comments to try and model the experts: how they are handling this, even though I want to ask those first two contributors why they think the sanctity of their emotional freedom is the important thing to be discussed here. Why first comment on the mechanisms of film-making? Didn’t they just see what I saw? Why do they have to detach themselves from the content because they are uncomfortable with the form? Why can’t they just feel, and act?

A reasonable debate gets going. I think it is the same girl who said ‘agree’ who later asks the experts if they think Sea Shepherd’s tactics might turn people against conservation? Expert N is polite and considered in his response. It’s a tough question. But is it? In a world of seven billion people, there is one ship, with perhaps 50-200 people within his organisation, patrolling two thirds of the world’s surface, against the illegal activities taking place, where obvious government and organisational complicity and corruption obstruct them at every turn (Both experts agreed the corruption in the film was credible; from my own time as ELDIS/ID21.org editor on global issues, including illegal fishing, I know this is the case).

What is wrong with this person that she cannot take a step back and do the maths? One ship, perhaps 200 people in the Sea Shepherd organisation. Is it really even worth asking that question? Did she not listen when Paul said his organisation was not a campaigning organisation? Does she know the history of direct action and indirect action? Did she not believe the figures of shark loss, which Expert S has just confirmed, and actually said are often worse?

The last comment of the night: a woman in the row in front, who carefully, softly, expresses what we were, I think, both feeling; a need to respond to those first commenters who felt the film ‘crude’ and ‘too emotive’ – that she didn’t mind that it was emotive; that due to the seriousness of the situation, it needed to be blunt, a slap in the face. I’m glad it was her who said it and not me. I would have been much more antagonistic. All I could think about were the words of Thich Nhat Hahn I’d read earlier in the Ecologist magazine, that perhaps humans would be extinct in 100 years, and that we should begin with those first couple of people who made comments tonight.

I go home. I sign up to the United Conservationists’ email list. I order Brendan Brazier’s book Thrive, on how to combine a vegan and sports lifestyle. I talk to C later about uncertainties and about designations. We don’t talk about the film. The next morning I think about why I fought so hard against being moved. I think about if there is any real difference between my end of the spectrum (the self-dissolving end) and the other end (the self-centred end) where I immediately, ‘crudely’, judged those two girls to sit. It’s differences along that axis that are were the central division between myself and C, but if it just comes round and meets at the two ends anyway…?

This isn’t a long-thought out argument. I’m sure there are holes in it. I’m just fed up with humanity. It’s not that our emotions are manipulated by such films as Sharkwater that are the problem. It is that they usually have to be. Modernity has privileged the self. Self-awareness, self-actualisation, the great Romantic project, has found its self-centred apogee in the industrialised deracination of the planet via the mechanisms of capital production, particularly inequality and poverty. In other words, we’re selfish, and we fuck things up—for other humans as well as animals and plants. And that’s the corrupt governments, the greedy businessmen, and the self-indulgent graduate student whose emotions have been affronted. And I shamefully include myself in that categorisation.

What is ‘crude’ is that our emotions have become more important realities to us than the lives of hundreds of millions of intelligent and beautiful sharks. Instead, in Rob Stewart, and Paul Watson, and those who act, we have models to follow where emotions are in the service of the world, not above it.