chickens 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, Nature Stories, VB40

‘Don’t tell me that, I’ll never go to Nando’s again’

Or why did the chicken cross the road…

As said by Nicky Campbell, Radio 5 Live DJ and “animal lover” this morning at around 7.56am. It was in response to an item on the Radio 5 breakfast show when the director of Omlet, the company behind the eglu and now a hi-vis jacket for chickens crossing the road, was asked what type of companionship chickens provide as pets.

‘You’re doing the chicken a disservice,’ said Johannes Paul, the director of Omlet, who make the jackets. ‘Chickens are great companions, they’re sociable, they come to the sound of your voice, they…’

Not hearing the voices

‘Don’t say that!’ shouted Nicky. ‘I’ll never go to Nando’s again.’ He then actually went ‘La La La La La…’ so as not to hear anything else the Omlet director said about the intelligence, sociability and sentient behaviour of the chicken.

And there it was. The meat eater’s response to the knowledge of cruelty and injustice: I don’t want to know. La la la la la. Rather than listen, and face the terrible knowledge of who, not what, these nonhuman animals are, it’s so much easier to maintain the dissociation.

It’s a strange one for Nicky Campbell. On his Twitter account, he calls himself an “animal lover” and retweets the stories of animal abuse from other Twitter followers.

If you are an animal lover, Nicky, I’d like to challenge you to think about the chicken in the way you think about your dog or cat. Just for five minutes. Think about the reasons not to eat chickens. Can you do it?

For many it can take strength of will to overcome all those obstacles to knowing–and feeling–what happens to the animals that are consumed for food and products. It is difficult, for so many reasons. To begin to face the truth about nonhuman animals, particularly those used for food, is to acknowledge your role in their ill treatment and abuse, before turning to a plant-based diet. That can be an emotionally traumatic process.

But small steps. As Johannes Paul pointed out, chickens are now in the top 10 pets kept in the UK. They are kept for companionship as well as by those people who want to harvest their eggs, often as a way to bypass the cruelty or antibiotics that are inherent in the egg industry. That means more people are living with chickens and seeing their personalities and having to face, perhaps, the choices of eating chicken, perhaps the most hard-done by of all the farmed animals we as a human species consume.

(By the way, the hi-vis chicken vest is not a new story – most other media outlets ran this story back in October 2013.)

Finding voice

After hearing Nicky Campbell do the ‘la la la’ to maintain his cognitive dissonance, I picked up my phone and wrote out a text to Radio 5 to comment on what had happened. And then I deleted the text, and carried on with my morning.

It was the same yesterday, when I posted on Facebook challenging people to ‘carry on, you have your bacon sandwich’ after reading about the tragedy of the pigs who are being live transported to the slaughterhouse in Toronto in the polar vortex that’s hitting North America, of temperatures as low as -23C.

There was the witness account of one pig having to be scraped off the side of the metal truck to which it had frozen with a big wooden panel. This pig was still alive. Most of the pigs had chilblains and purple frostbitten ears. The witnesses of Toronto Pig Save ran to the slaughterhouse to hear the worst screams from the pigs they had ever heard. Pigs who are as social and as intelligent as a three year old child.

And I wrote all this in my post on Facebook to share the story. And then I deleted it. La La La. Let people carry on with their bacon sandwiches.

Why did I delete both? Because I’m wary of being the vegan killjoy. I’m tired of living in a world of meat eaters who will not show compassion towards these nonhuman animals with needs, desires and a will to live, and who clearly suffer a great deal of pain at our hands.

Or rather, I was tired yesterday. Just very tired, due to work, starting running again, getting into a routine. And I do care what people think of me, and don’t want to alienate people. I want to ‘save face’. And am also, I suppose, coming to the knowledge that such anger is not productive in changing people’s attitudes. But it’s something I feel rise up now and then.

It all goes into the pot to think about, and help me answer the important questions. What can I do to stop this? What is the maximum impact I can have?

I thought that I was being less courageous. But silence isn’t always about losing your voice. It can be about having patience, and finding the right voice, much like a writer needs to sometimes not share what she is saying, to speak only to herself, hear the voice in her own head first, and then speak.

(A shorter version was published on the Animal Welfare Party’s website this morning)