Bearing Witness

Bearing Witness

BACKSTORY

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A Facebook post: Tomorrow, I have a rare Friday off and I’m going to bear witness to animals being delivered to this slaughterhouse in WA. I’m going with Portland Animal Save. I’ve never done this before. These are animals who fall under the heading of free-range, humane, etc. and small farms. No matter their beginning, the end is the same. 😞

I honestly dread doing this. I’ve had a knot in my stomach since I decided to do it. (I’m also a big crier, so that’s not gonna be helpful.) Mostly, it feels morbid and perhaps unnecessary; I’ve done enough research to know what is happening there.

The purpose is to comfort these sweet beings. Some water. A kind hand. From reading the book by the founder of Mercy For Animals, I know that for many, this is the only moment of kindness they get. We can’t be too kind to the ones we send to slaughter, lest we get soft. 🙄

I must admit: I do feel it is too little too late. What is one minute of kindness after the hellish duration of their short lives? Most of them are just babies, and I’m a human, and we will be separated by the metal walls of their livestock truck–how can I comfort them?

So yes: I’m skeptical. Also, it’s going to be raining. Also also, the crying thing.

But I do believe in primary sources of information. I want to see for myself and share what I see. To be a primary source for whoever will look at my photos. I know, that sounds arrogant and naive, like I think anyone will read any of this or obvs, want to see it. Maybe. But if I’m your only weirdo animal activism friend, I kinda feel responsible.

****The Dumb Numbers****
56 billion farmed animals are killed in the US every year (this number excludes fish). Globally, this number is 150 billion, or 3,000 every second.

I know, these numbers seem insurmountable.

But since going vegan 32 months ago, I’ve avoided using 1,071,377 gal of water, 38,800 lbs. of grain, 29,100 square feet of forests, 19,400 lbs. of Co2…and avoided eating 970 animals.

And yes, I know it’s a dust spec on the screen of the animal death calculator–and the death clock for the planet.

But I inspired Zach to go vegan, so those numbers doubled with him. We inspired another couple to go veg—now her parents are considering it. A childhood friend was inspired, and she’s now inspiring her family. A college friend asked about it. I now see another friend posting about making changes for her and her family. I see people sharing news stories talking about these issues.

This idea is so important. It’s life changing. And liveS changing. And future changing. I hope it’s inspiring others to consider their numbers and see how it’s possible to do more.

More tomorrow.

THE VIGIL

THE ARRIVAL

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At the slaughterhouse, there are three types of trucks. The cows arrive in one kind and they leave in two others.

The arrival truck is a livestock truck (and when you think about it, the word “livestock” is pretty gross; it definitely portends there is a different state in the future of these animals). These trucks range from big to small. Some massive ones carry 50+ cows. Others carry maybe 8. It’s interesting to read how cattle ranchers talk about trailers and how many can fit—profit is their number one concern, not welfare.)

We see the trucks arrive. And I’ll I admit it: I didn’t understand the details of what this activism was about. I brought a sign and coffee and wore loose rubber boots for the rain. The organizer asked me if I wanted to run after my first truck and I was like, “no, that’s ok?” and it turns out this is run after trucks, get up close to the shit-spattered trailer, risk your safety as the truck isn’t stopping type activism. I understood by the 4th truck. But there weren’t many trucks to make up for my naivety.

The slaughterhouse has a set up that keeps livestock trucks idling on the road for as short of time as possible. They do not want the activists to have the time to approach the truck on public property (the road) and see what is inside—and most importantly, film what is inside. Sometimes the cows are down (I clearly saw a cow who’s face was covered in blood, but the video is too fast to capture it).

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I don’t think their secrecy is limited to activists. I don’t think they would want anyone seeing what is in their trucks.

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When a livestock truck approaches, it honks at the gate. If they gate doesn’t open immediately, the truck seeks refuge in the private lot across the street. Here is a guy, discussing how to get in quickly.

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When trucks finally do enter, they go through one of two gates. They try to fool the activists by opening both gates so we don’t know where they are going. We race to catch it.

The livestock trucks are smattered with cow shit. There are too many faces looking out. It’s raining. I can’t focus on a single one as the truck is moving too fast.

THE WAITING

Half of the time is spent in front of the entrance gates, waiting for more livestock trucks. The main point of this activism is time with the live animals. The other half is spent on the backside of the slaughterhouse, where you can see them unloading live cows at a distance and, later, their bodies coming out.

The front is where the workers are; they regularly leave the gates to cross the road for lunch or a smoke. The head guy stands behind the gate, hurriedly closing it so we can’t see in. The fence here is lined with green slats. He waves occasionally to us. He is not unkind. We try to talk to him  He doesn’t speak much English. My 8 years of Spanish is rusty and limited to present tense and maybe 100 words, surprisingly none of which are applicable to a slaughterhouse scenario.

The majority of workers are kind. Those that aren’t kind aren’t explicitly so—I mean, there was a lot less glaring than I thought there would be. We were just ignored, which is understandable.

They are young. Mostly Hispanic. Few spoke English. The activists make sure not to target them. Everyone needs a job—and those who work in the meat industry are the most vulnerable—they are people with few options. Migrants, illegal immigrants, felons. People who make little and cannot complain about poor working conditions or injuries. And turnover is high—there’s always someone else who is desperate and in need of work.

The activists are out many times a week, so they know these guys, specifically the managers—there have been run-ins with one manager who is apparently a hard ass about where we can legally stand (and who wouldn’t be? You got picketers who make the news). One woman caught a video of a downed dairy cow being picked up with a forklift—when they saw she was filming, they put her back down. (One worker thought an activist was recording him as her hand was in her pocket; to his surprise, she pulled out an apple, not a recorder.)

We have to stick to the narrow shoulder of the road. It’s pouring down rain. There haven’t been many trucks. This is a good thing and also makes it so we’re just standing around, trying to talk to the workers. How do you like your job? It’s ok. How long have you been here? A few months. Is it ok for the cows? It’s quick. Is it a lot of cows? Yes, a lot. Is it a lot of cows, very quickly? Yes, very very fast. How many per hour? 100 cows per hour. Is it hard work? Yes. Do you like it? I have kids I have to feed.

My Spanish fails me when it comes to the important words: Are the cows scared? How do you feel about this? How does it feel to do your job?

THE AFTER

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After the trucks arrive, they sit in the inside-the-fence parking lot until it’s their turn to unload. Today is 53 degrees and raining. The cows stand (or lay) in their trailers for hours, waiting to go.

We watch from a distance, on the highway. We watch as a truck is unloaded. But even at this distance, being observed is a threat. They move an empty livestock truck in front of the cow chute, but not before I capture a video of a man hitting the cows to get them to move through. Other activists say they do that lot—the hitting and the blocking. They don’t want people seeing.

For a short bit, the only movement is steam from the tall carbon dioxide tank. The activists point for me—there is activity at the chutes.

There are three chutes that exit the facility—small, medium, and large. The slaughterhouse has worked to shield the chutes from onlookers, but there’s a drop from the chute to the enormous 40-foot trailers below. The one expelling the brown goo has a dirty yellow flap on it. The one dropping the biggest parts, bones, is shielded by a sagging black tarp. But you can still see. The big parts pile up higher than the bin.

As I mentioned, there are three trucks. Cows arrive in shit-spattered livestock trucks. They leave in two kinds: Sleek, white refrigerator trucks (suitable for human consumption) and what I can only describe as giant tarp-covered troughs, i.e. the bins, which the chutes dump into. Their skin, organs, bones. The air smells of burnt hair.

It happens so fast. I hardly have a moment to register they are the same cows I’d just seen at the front gates.

THE AFTER AFTER

Soon, the activists were done. They do this all the time. It was cold and raining. It was time for them to head home. They took me back to my car and I sat there for a moment and thought about what I’d done: I’d seen cows arrive. I tried to befriend some slaughterhouse workers to varying success. I’d tried to keep it light with the other activists. Learned how long they’ve been doing this, what it’s like for them to be vegan in a non-vegan world, how they keep themselves going when everything seems so bleak. Seems there is a big need for vegan psychiatrists.

But the whole time, I hadn’t cried. My biggest fear was being a sobbing mess. But I realized that was because I hadn’t taken the time to think about what I was seeing. I was taking photos, yes, I was analyzing everything—what’s that truck? What is happening now?—but I hadn’t allowed myself a moment to think about what was really happening.

So with my phone at 5%, I drove myself back.

For two hours, I stood alone on the back side of the slaughterhouse. Holding my silly sign. I noted three trucks waiting to unload. I will wait for them, I thought. That would be my end game. I would stand with my thoughts and I would witness and I would… I don’t honestly know. I was trying to tell myself this wasn’t a crazy thing to do, to essentially, solo-picket a slaughterhouse. I knew the organizer of this activity said she’d done this herself. However, she did it up front, seeing the cows, aiming to photograph them up close. I wasn’t witnessing any more—all the trucks were here. I wasn’t sure if witnessing counts at a distance of 250 feet.

But I stood there. Each time a truck started up, I honestly prayed it would just leave. But every truck pulled forward and backed up to the chute. I found a place where I could stand to see. There was a foot-wide gap and I saw their shadows pass. One after another after another after another after another after another after

I found myself apologizing to each one as it crossed that narrow gap, slouching down into the metal chute. I could see their ears back, then the mass of their body, then a tail tucked, and before she left my view, another came.

At one point, I said out loud, “How many more can there be? Why are there so many?”

And I held my sign for cars passing. Every time I had to tear my eyes away from their passing shadows, I remembered it was people who put them there. And I can’t change what is already in motion for these beings. I can only reach out to people. So for every car, I turned, I smiled, and I waved. And I found most people can’t resist a wave back.

Most.

There were three people who flipped me off. Two people told me to go back to Portland. I waved and smiled, and then turned back to the task at hand.

Three people stood between the final two livestock trucks, shooting the breeze. They had a puppy they were playing with I imagined how surreal it must look, to see me up on the hill, standing almost motionless with a giant sign, just staring. The woman tried to walk out of my view. I moved so she still could see me. I waved. She got into her truck. I stayed where she could see me in her side mirror.

There were was nature on the edge of the slaughterhouse. An oak grove. Starlings flocked from tree to the power lines above me, and back to the trees. Two bald eagles perched on a dead snag, occasionally swooping down to catch something. For a moment, one walked around on the grass, looking like a giant turkey. There were bee hives across the road. Most of the time, both me and my sign were covered in bees. They didn’t sting. I liked watching them crawl on my rain jacket, their bodies flexing as they walked. And, of course, there were the seagulls and crows, feasting from the bins.

The song, Somewhere Over The Rainbow became an earworm. The lyrics made me think of the cows, walking so reluctantly from trailer to chute, having no choice. I thought of the birds overhead, and all their ecstatic joy of being alive. It was too much.

And that’s exactly how I imagined a slaughterhouse to feel.

WHO WE SAW

Many of the cows we witnessed arrive were spent dairy cows—cows who’ve had it the absolute worse. They’ve been repeatedly inseminated (not naturally, for the most part) and have given birth to calves who are immediately taken from them. This might seem weird, but calves have to be taken away so they don’t drink up the mama’s milk (that’s for people, silly!). Females become dairy cows themselves. Males are used for veal or beef or immediately slaughtered. This is especially true for jersey cows, who cannot gain enough weight to be profitable. After giving birth 2-4 times, their milk yields are down, and they are also no longer profitable—and they end up at slaughterhouses. The cows we saw today were likely 4 years old. Cows can live naturally to 25 years old.

Walt’s Wholesale Meats processes 400 cows every day.

WHAT CAN I DO?

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For easy, affordable recipes without the use of animals, check out The Minimalist Baker.

Or, take the 22-Day Vegan challenge.

Thank you for reading.

Your friendly neighborhood vegan

Your friendly neighborhood vegan

Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 11.17.38 PMMy neighbor down the block has a tree strung with ribbons and, spinning at the end of each ribbon is a laminated New Yorker cartoon. They switch them out often. Someone told me the house is owned by a librarian and the neatness of every punched hole and addition of weights to keep them from spinning into knots–that’s the detail of a librarian. It’s the ultimate destination for an evening stroll.
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