Frances Moore Lappé, author of many books but perhaps most famous for her book, Diet for a Small Planet, describes how she felt when first learning about U.S. agriculture in late 1969: “Like the little boy in the fairy tale who cries out, ‘The emperor has no clothes!’” After realizing that, “over half the harvested acreage goes to feed livestock and only a tiny fraction of it gets returned to us in meat on our plate,” she, “could barely believe what I was learning, because it flew so totally in the face of conventional wisdom.”
It’s been over a year now since I became a vegan, and I can relate to her description very much. I often feel as though I’m a spectator in a parade, watching as the human race talks of its progress and humanity all the while no one is pointing out the obvious: our current economical and political structure is simply not working. If we are so civilized and advanced, why are people still dying of hunger and malnutrition? Why are there so many people still living in poverty? Why are we still promoting meat, dairy and eggs as healthy while millions of people struggle with obesity, heart disease and diabetes? Why do we carry on with this pompous charade day after day?
After spending this past year reading, watching and learning all that I can about food, health and animal rights, my world has been pulled apart like saltwater taffy, reshaped and then pulled apart again. And even though I know there is still so much more to learn, I’ve had a growing desire in me to do more. Head knowledge is great and a perfect starting point for any new learning. But I had been feeling that perhaps it was time to dip my toe in the water I’d been reading so much about.
So last Friday morning, during the Christmas break, I went to visit a slaughterhouse. Not inside, no, but outside, watching the trucks come in full and leave empty. Anita Krajnc, the co-founder and co-organizer of Toronto Pig Save (and by extension Toronto Chicken Save and Toronto Cow Save) organizes weekly vigils every week at various slaughterhouses in and around Toronto. I almost went to a pig vigil in May 2014 but lost my nerve on the day of. This time I was determined to go.
That Friday morning actually consisted of two vigils: from 9:00-10:00 at Maple Leaf Foods here in Toronto (a chicken slaughterhouse) and then from 10:00-11:00 at St. Helen’s Meat Packers and Ryding-Regency slaughterhouse which is just across the street from St. Helen’s. Both St. Helen’s and Ryding mainly slaughter cows and calves but also sheep, lambs and goats. According to Toronto Pig Save’s website, Maple Leaf Foods slaughters about 65,000 chickens a day while St. Helen’s and Ryding kill about one thousand cows and calves per day.
My only experience first hand with slaughterhouses up until then was a J.M. Schneider’s plant in Kitchener, Ontario where I grew up for most of my teen years. The plant is still running today and is located downtown. My high school at the time was also downtown and I still remember the smell that would occasionally waft over to the school, particularly on hot days when it more or less permeated the air. Everyone knew what the building was but like so many things you grow up with as “normal”, you learn not to question it or even give it any thought after a while.
As I got off the bus on Friday morning, a good 4 blocks away from the chicken slaughterhouse, the first thing that hit me was that unmistakable smell. And this was a cold day in January. As I walked towards the first vigil at Maple Leaf Foods, I took in the surroundings. It was not the barren, industrial landscape I thought it would be. No, I walked past a gas station, a Rona lumberyard, a liquor store and several other big box stores and retailers. Some people were already shopping, walking towards the entrances from across the vast parking lot, Tim Horton’s coffee in hand. And all with a slaughterhouse a stone’s throw away. It was bizarre. And I was definitely seeing it through different eyes than the ones I saw the Schneider’s plant with as a teenager.
I met up with the six others who were also participating in the vigil and was introduced to everyone. I didn’t really know what to expect and, as I learned, a vigil is an opportunity to “bear witness” and to see firsthand what really goes on in slaughterhouses. Anita had a sign with a picture of a kitten and a baby chick that read, “Why love one but eat the other?” and we took turns holding it so the cars passing could see. We were also free to take pictures as long as we didn’t trespass. I saw where the chickens would come in on the truck (about 5,000 birds per truck) and are hosed down because they are so filthy with feces, urine and vomit because of the conditions they are “raised” in. I saw their next stop (out of view) where they are unloaded, shackled and hung upside down, run through an electric bath, not-always-successfully stunned, have their throats cut, are dumped in boiling water so their feathers are easier to remove and then eviscerated by a machine and then packaged into little Styrofoam trays to be shipped to stores for sale and consumption. I watched as the now empty truck was hosed down of excess feathers, missing feet (chicken’s feet are often torn off as they are yanked from the crates they are transported in) and feces. I watched as the refrigerated truck pulled up to load the finished “product”. This all happened in less than an hour. Some of the photos I took made the whole thing seem so innocuous.
We headed over to the next location, about a ten minute drive from Maple Leaf foods. The group staked out their corner and a couple more people arrived. We took turns holding the sign (this time with a puppy and a calf) and a few cars even honked their horns and gave us a thumbs up, which I wasn’t expecting but immediately gave me hope. A couple of people who’d attended several vigils at the sight took me around the buildings and explained what area or loading dock did what. They pointed to the hundreds of seagulls, hoping to find a scrap or two, as they perched on top of a section of the building where bones and other animal parts were being dropped out of a chute into a huge dump truck to be taken away to be made into “ingredients” for any number of things from cosmetics to pain medication. They showed me where you could see a portion of the conveyor belt that carried the skin of a recently-killed cow.
I saw workers come out with their hard hats and hair-nets to have a smoke or get a drink from the coffee truck. The security guard smiled at our little group and Anita told me that after awhile, they get to know some of the staff and security guards. Although I don’t think it’s been without tension from time to time, it was important to me that I bear witness to what the workers have to go through too. I know not all activists would agree with me but I don’t think they are personally the problem. Yes, they are participating in the killing of animals by working in a slaughterhouse and I’m not saying they don’t have some choice in the matter. But I believe they are also part of a very broken and corrupt industry that is exploiting them too and the workers are just trying to survive like the rest of us.
The hardest part of the day was seeing a truckload of live cows come in and then have to wait in the cold until they could be unloaded. I could only see them from a distance but I watched as they slowly left the truck to endure a terror I’m not sure I can even imagine. A few minutes later, the empty truck pulled out and drove past us and the unmistakable sign of sick and diarrhea was on both the interior and exterior of the trailer. It was one of the more heart-wrenching moments I’d had in a while.
What struck me about both St. Helen’s and Ryding’s slaughterhouse is, like Maple Leaf Foods, they seemed so innocuous. The buildings weren’t that big in size and other than the distinct smell (which took 2 days to get out of my coat and scarf), from the outside, they could have been any other factory business. And just like Maple Leaf foods, they were about a block away from a plaza that had a Starbucks, a bookstore, restaurants…it was once again like being in a parallel universe.
Not twenty minutes later, just as we were getting ready to leave, one of the people in the group pointed and yelled at a dump truck that was leaving one of the docks: “SKINS! SKINS! SKINS!” And that’s exactly what it was. A dump truck full of cow’s skin, so raw that as we were walking back to the car that was parked where the truck had driven past, we saw a huge trail of fresh blood drops that ran the length of the street. So fresh that I swear had I touched it with my finger, it would have still been warm.
For anyone who still believes in such a thing as “humane slaughter”, well, trust me – there is no such thing.
What stayed with me most from those vigils were the cows I had watched in the truck. I knew they were now dead. But my mind…my mind that had watched them standing in the truck a mere few hours before wanted to tell me otherwise: They can’t be dead! You just saw them! They were standing and breathing and you could see them! Surely that wasn’t their skin you saw being carted away or their blood on the pavement! That turned over and over in my mind for most of the weekend. That was definitely the hardest part.
It was an experience I will never forget and one I would do again. It was painful, positive, uniting and dividing. All at once, I felt connected and removed from the very city I live in. I felt both deflated and motivated. It makes no sense, I know. But I was grateful for the opportunity. Thank you to Anita Krajnc and everyone at Toronto Pig Save and to my friend who told me about their work in the first place.
As I headed home, past the big box stores and people going about their day, I felt very much like yelling, “The emperor has no clothes!” It seemed absurd to me that all of this violence and death was taking place right under our noses, right in our city, in the middle of the day. But it strengthened my resolve to do more, see more and say more on behalf of farmed animals. If enough of us begin to do that, perhaps the rest of the crowd will begin to see the absurdity too.