Bearing Witness

My husband, Julian, and I just returned from two weeks vacation in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  We spent the time with family catching up, going on a few outings, sharing great meals and noodling around the city.

One day my dad suggested we go up to Grand Forks, North Dakota, which is only about two and a half hours away from where he lives.  I hadn’t been to the United States in years and it had been awhile since I’d gone across the border in a car. The drive to and through North Dakota was much the same as the drive from Ontario to Manitoba: long, flat, straight and, well, kinda boring after a few hours. But it was a road trip and a great way for us to spend the day together.

The sun was shining that day, although it had to fight through clouds once and awhile.  It was a pleasant but crisp day; a light jacket with a sweater underneath and we were comfortable.  Not much changed from Canada to the U.S. except for the sudden increase in billboards for the National Guard and the Marines.  But the landscape was not so different – a lot of farmland and crops and wide open spaces with the occasional smell of manure in the air. Trucks and cars passed along the two-lane highway and it was nice not to be surrounded by buildings for a change.

I’m still a new vegan – almost a year now – and despite everything I’ve learned in the past year about how my meat and dairy food had been made all those years prior (and continues to be), I am still largely disconnected from not only images of factory farming but from the animals themselves. I think that this is one of the huge obstacles the animal rights movement faces: people see dogs and cats, pigeons, squirrels but unless they go to a zoo or (better still) an animal sanctuary, it’s difficult for people to connect a cow or a pig as having individual personalities in the way that they so easily do with dogs or cats.  That’s why I do believe – at some point – one must not just read about what goes on in slaughterhouses or fur farms or dairy farms, one must see it too. Even if it’s just a 30 second clip on YouTube, I understand now why activists encourage people to “bear witness” to the suffering because that’s when all the literature and statistics truly hit home.  Too much of one or the other and there is an imbalance that may not serve anyone well in the end. But a bit of both I think cements the text and visual knowledge together.

Having said that, bearing witness is difficult especially when A) you aren’t expecting it and B) you now understand what you are really seeing.

As my dad drove along the highway in North Dakota with me in the passenger seat and Julian in the backseat, leaning in between my dad and I so we could all hear each other, I looked ahead out the front window.  As I continued to take in the sights around us and we all continued to chat, I suddenly saw up in the distance the tell-tale sign of a truck going to a slaughterhouse.  The silver and metal trailer glistened in the sun and even though we were still some distance away, I could see the slats that is typical of those signature trucks.  I froze inwardly, my eyes pinned to the truck ahead, and inside all I could think to myself was, “Please be empty, please be empty.”

Because Julian and I live in a big city, we are fortunate to not have to own a vehicle. From time to time we rent a car but don’t go far outside the city.  What this means is, it has been years since I’ve seen a slaughterhouse truck in front of me and certainly my first since becoming vegan.  All my new-found book knowledge of the awful conditions in which animals are transported only to have the end of their trip be the worst suffering yet could not fully prepare me for what we were fast approaching directly in front of us.

As my dad continued to talk, he got closer and closer to the truck. I didn’t want to look but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Then suddenly I could see it: the unmistakable whitish-pink flesh of a pig’s ear hanging through one of those metal slats, whipping around on this not-exactly-summer day at not-exactly-leisurely speeds.  As we got closer still, I could see crowded movement, then a brief glimpse of a snout passing over the slats.

Like most drivers, my dad does not like to be behind trucks. So he got as far ahead as he could behind the truck before changing lanes.  As he passed, I looked out my passenger window, head and hands practically pressed up on the glass.  Just as my dad veered left to change lanes and started to pass, I saw them: six baby piglets all huddled together on that cold, moving metal floor, taking them to their deaths. One of them lifted their head as we were passing and I looked right at his little, terrified face.

Then they went out of view and soon we were passing the side of the truck, where I saw more pink flesh, huddled yet moving with ears, snouts and the white, wiry bristles of a pig’s sensitive skin poking in and out of the slats intermittently.

As we passed the driver, I looked right up at him and he must have wondered who this woman was, staring up at him from a car with Manitoba plates wearing a look on her face that probably screamed, “I want to hijack your truck and take it in the other direction!”

It shook me up.  And I choked down some tears.  My dad continued to talk, unbeknownst that I was upset at this point. Julian, in the way a good companion senses, knew right away and gently squeezed my shoulder from the back seat (which of course made me want to cry more).  My dad then noticed something was wrong and I said seeing the slaughterhouse truck was upsetting. He didn’t say anything but instead just waited, and let me have my moment.

No sooner had that happened when an ad for a restaurant came on the radio, featuring their “famous pulled pork” and I wanted to rip the stereo out of the front panel.  I must have been holding the car door handle like Francesca Johnson, the character from The Bridges of Madison County, wanting to leap out and make a break to change a situation that really couldn’t be saved in the end.  I envisioned myself begging my dad to pull over so I could flag down the truck and then offering the driver all kinds of money to take the pigs to a sanctuary.  I pictured the three of us following the truck all the way to its destination and then trading vehicles when we got to the slaughterhouse. I had visions of me taking those piglets home (across the border back to Canada? Sure. Can you imagine that conversation with the border guard? Anything to declare, ma’am? “Oh, not much. Just these baby pigs I came across on the highway.”).  I imagined flagging down the truck and opening the back, letting the pigs run free across the fields because if they had to die, at least it would be outside. I wondered things like, What would the Animal Liberation Front do in this scenario? My mind was racing with thoughts and not one of them a solution to helping those pigs avert their journey.

I thought about the pigs in that truck all day and was acutely aware of other trucks like it on the highway as we drove home.  As hard as it was, and as helpless as I felt, I knew I was bearing witness to the horrific plight millions of animals face every day, every hour, every year and it made me all the more determined to see them, to notice them, to speak for them.  Weirdly comforting was despite the pain I felt at seeing them was knowing that my pain was still only a fraction of the pain they were feeling and it strengthened my resolve.

I remember as a kid seeing those trucks on the highway with the animals inside of them.  I remember asking my parents where they were going.  My parents would truthfully tell me, “the slaughterhouse,” and it was one of those moments as a child where you know that’s bad and you’re not sure why but you also get the sense not to ask anymore about it. So you never do.  Until you meet someone who has, or you watch something that shows you or read something that tells you.

The time for childish ignorance and naive belief is over.  It is time for us as a society to look – in the face – at the reality of our food.


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