I have been holding a one-woman, Sunday vigil (begun on Dec. 13, 2009) for just over one year at what I call the Toronto Slaughter House. Its actual name is Toronto Abattoirs Ltd., with “Quality” Meat Packers Ltd. alongside it off Tecumseth St. The shockingly barbaric and primitive holding-compound (as apt a word as I can find) where the pigs are held overnight, is at the end of two driveways off Wellington St. It is at this latter location where I first began this project.
Let me just say that for me, the French word “abattoire”, does not do “justice” to what goes on there, because in my opinion, there is neither justice nor mercy where the animals are concerned. And the word “slaughter” suggests violent killing on a massive scale. Given there are one hundred and sixty-four, three-tiered transport trucks making weekly “deliveries” (taken from the Latin word “deliberare”, meaning ironically, to liberate, to set free), the name slaughter house, calls this very dark and heavily guarded place (with fifteen hundred employees) for what it truly is, a house of killing for which I believe we all are to whatever degree, responsible.
My vigil takes various forms but mostly it entails meeting the truckers as they arrive, witnessing the unloading of the females of the pig species, (called sows by some, who I call my soul friends and my tribe) and then seeing the truckers (who have no option but to pass right by me, my conscience and I hope and I know, in some cases, theirs) turn out of the driveway on route to wherever home is, to sometimes far-enough-away parts of Ontario.
Most of the time, I just stand there, in whatever kind of weather, for as long as I can last, sometimes three hours… more or less, with both hands over my heart. I used to only use one hand but Harold Brown (a former beef farmer and founder of Farmkind, and a subject of the documentary film ‘Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home’) suggested two hands would be more powerful…so that is what I do. I send as much love and compassion as I can muster, amidst the beatings of the sows and their subsequent screams, (which I never think can get worse but do),and the shouting of some of the truckers… as in: “Move, you stupid f’ing bitch(es)” (similar language with accompanying rage that at times gets sent my way as well), with only a fine, but critical legal line of fear of consequences, separating the treatment of the pigs and the treatment of me, a line that has all too often gotten blurred throughout human history, resulting in genocide and atrocities of one kind or another. That we seem to think we human animals are special in some way and will therefore be spared the brutality we have not spared others of our species and certainly not these remarkably intelligent, non-human animals is, in my opinion, a form of insanity.
And criminals, at least some, however hardened we judge them or ourselves to be, are sometimes offered, on the eve of their executions or we, in our final moments, last rites and perhaps even a special last meal; whereas these sows, representing the female principle of life, have never had any rights…first or last or in-between or maybe just the barest minimum of rights with no or next-to-no enforcement of those rights. They have been deprived of everything that might reflect on them as being the species they are, even to the point of their conception (“con” meaning “with”) achieved today through “artificial insemination” which without consent, is merely technical language for licensed rape.
But I have digressed.
I don’t always or only stand in the same place. I have had deeply meaningful, if not at times, intense interaction with the truckers, “super” visors, security, police, City of Toronto public workers (who share the same driveway), residents from the area, one of the care-takers of the numerous feral cats having sought refuge nearby, passers-by and even on one occasion, a waiter from a nearby restaurant. I’ve heard personal stories and extended hugs to someone who came across me and was moved to tears by what I was doing, but moreover through hearing the cries of pain and terror, of the animals themselves. I have had a slaughterhouse worker scream at me: “Who are you…some stupid, f’ing, psycho bitch?” only to very quietly say moments later: “I have nightmares you know…we all do”.
I have seen the inside of the holding area, the ugly red welts and deep gashes near sensitive parts of the animals’ bodies, their precious behinds fire-engine red and sore. I have seen the pile-up of bodies of those who didn’t survive transport, who I originally hoped might have found some modicum of comfort with each other until the realization set in that they were dead. I’ve run up one of the ladders attached to the holding compound and with my head stuck in a truck, screamed for leniency regarding the severity of the beatings. On at least a few occasions, I’ve lost my composure and done my own fair share of screaming, (I am no saint) raising my voice not in anger but as an appeal for humanity, theirs and mine.
I’ve planted a lot of seeds (maybe I, too, am becoming one such seed). As long as I continue to get feedback, sometimes only in the most elusive of ways, and sometimes directly in the form of overt rage or an unexpected kindness (that has told me there is some understanding on the part of a few, what my purpose for being there is), I am committed to showing up, opening my heart more fully, fine-tuning my responses, trusting that this kind of change I am aiming for, beginning with myself, then through example and conscious presence, affecting outside change, one person at a time, within one system of exploitation and fear at a time, perhaps saving one animal at a time, will take just that…time. The Berlin Wall, after all, finally did come down and when it did, it happened virtually overnight.
There is so much more I could say but I would like to finish with why I started this project in the first place. It is a critical piece of the whole. Please stay with me for just a little longer…if you can.
In 2005, I survived a plane crash. As I believed myself to be seconds away from death, my life flashed before me with waves of resultant feelings. I recalled the cruelty and violence and abuse of my childhood and how hard it was, the struggle to overcome its effects. I felt a deep sadness about this but I also felt enormous appreciation for the pinpoints of quality and light in my life that I had been able to experience and actively create, much of it through the gift of life-long therapy of one kind or another. But what I thought would be my last thoughts, were thoughts about the animals and feelings of profound loss that my life was ending without having done enough on their behalf. Compared to them I had had so much.
Some of what happened during my childhood, took place on a relative’s farm where there were domestic animals, farm animals and two long-houses filled with caged mink. The brutality I witnessed, perpetrated on all the animals and that was held over my head as a threat to remain silent about what was being done to me, left me in a state of devastation. I did what I could to try to speak for them at that time, but it was a lose/lose proposition, alone with no support or protection for myself as well.
Many years later the despair of my childhood inevitably came to a head. At forty years of age, suicide had been a long time coming, albeit unsuccessful. But at least I had been able to say, “Enough!” to the psychological pain that, despite my best efforts to assuage, had become unbearable. That afternoon on the plane, a decade later, at the age of fifty, I felt for all the animals, who were never able to say and still cannot say, “Enough”; who had no recourse then, and all these years later, continue to have no recourse whatsoever in ending their own suffering. Having survived also the plane crash, something tipped the scales. The terror of getting directly and deeply involved with anything that might touch upon that same degree of devastation and loss of faith in humanity and myself ever again, weighed in as less significant than my deepest longing for the urgent alleviation of animals’ suffering. Whereas before, my question had been, “Why me?” it became, “Why not me?” and then, “Who better than me?”
Thus began my journey with pigs and the beginning of my true sanity and the making of amends for the gift of life I have that billions of them have yet to know.
Gwen Dunlop is a raw vegan activist