Bearing Witness: A powerful experience with Toronto Pig Save
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I spent the summer in Toronto visiting my family, especially my elderly parents. I was reluctant to leave Vancouver for several reasons, one of them being that I would miss our Friday Chicken Slaughterhouse Vigils at Hallmark Poultry Processing at Commercial and Hastings. Fortunately we have such an awesome team of regulars who kept the vigils going strong in Vancouver while I have participated in Toronto’s Pig Save, Chicken Save, and Cow Save vigils.
The purpose of these groups is to “erect glass walls in slaughterhouses” and expose the truth about the suffering of the animals who are delivered there. They do this by holding vigils several times during the week, all-day vigils every once in awhile, leafletting on busy downtown corners, and other special events.
I was given an early introduction to the Pig Save experience during my drive from Vancouver. Passing through Manitoba on the Trans Canada Highway, I stopped for a break at a rest stop on the side of the road. Coincidentally, a double-decker truck full of pigs had stopped there too. At first I was terrified to get out of the car but I knew I had to do whatever I could to offer those innocent little creatures some comfort. I patted their noses and spoke to them gently. I wish now that I had had some water for them. I took several photos before the driver came out of the washroom. I expected him to yell at me and tell me to get away from the truck but instead he looked kind of sheepish. I told him that I found it very sad. He said they were fine and went over to touch one of them saying, “You’re okay, aren’t you guys?” I asked him if it didn’t get to him just a little bit. He shrugged and said, “Not really.” I said one last goodbye to the pigs as they drove away–3 more hours–the driver said. I’m not sure how far they had already come.
This had been the third time I’d driven across the country. I’d never noticed those trucks in the past–I guess because I hadn’t been vegan then. After this I was amazed at how many more trucks I saw on the highway.
My first experience at a Pig Save vigil wasn’t at their usual spot–“Pig Island” at Lakeshore Boulevard and Strachan Avenue, just outside the Princes Gates at the entrance to the Canadian National Exhibition site. The Indy car race was in town and the roads were closed. Instead we met at the actual entrance to the Quality Meat Packers slaughterhouse at 677 Wellington Street. The fence outside the slaughterhouse was used to post several large pictures of pigs inside transport trucks, photos taken by various members of Toronto Pig Save. We held posters ourselves and handed out leaflets to passersby. While pulling into the yard, the trucks loaded with pigs did not stop for more than a second so we did not get to see much of the pigs. But as they backed up to the unloading dock , we could hear them squealing and could see the driver hit the side of the truck with his paddle to hurry them along. Suddenly it hit me that this was indeed their final stop and I began to sob uncontrollably. I was comforted by Agnes Cseke, one of the TPS regulars, and by Jo-Anne McArthur, the photographer featured in the documentary Ghosts in Our Machine.
Since that first vigil, I saw dozens and dozens of trucks go by and didn’t feel the need to cry, just an overwhelming sadness as I would pat as many pigs as I could and offer them water. The first time I saw a pig struggle to drink from my water bottle, I couldn’t help but see my dogs Stanley and Daisy doing the same thing when we go for walks. During the heat wave in Toronto, several vigils were held and many dedicated, caring volunteers came out to bear witness and offer water and watermelon to ease the suffering of the young pigs.
Many activists broke down in tears as they worked. One day the police were called when one of them threw a bucketful of water into one of the trucks. I guess it had been interpreted as an act of violence towards the truck or driver. We were told to leave the ‘island’ which we did for the day only to return the next day.
I began to spend most of my time on the other side of the street from “the Island” doing what we in Vancouver do best–holding a sign and waving enthusiastically at the drivers passing by! I stood in a place where I was the first person to get their attention and hoped that they would be alerted to the signs ahead. As in Vancouver, many people wave, nod, smile, or honk in response to the waving. When a truck full of pigs comes along I would just stop and point. I must admit it was hard to smile and wave right after a truck had passed…I had to talk myself into converting all that sadness and anger into reaching the public in a positive way.
I was asked a few times why I wave and how it helps the cause. Most basically I believe that sending any kind of positive energy to other human beings is good for the world. Who knows what it might inspire, whether it be for animals or some other issue? As far as spreading the message about animal rights, I hope that people will be able to relate to a friendly greeting and be open to at least hearing what we have to say. If they respond with a wave or a smile, I feel that we have a little foot in the door and the next time they find themselves confronted with the issue they might let us in a little further. If they don’t respond or respond in a negative way (as only a very few do) then at least they go away with an image of us as friendly, positive people, not irrational angry radicals! And lastly, every positive response reinforces my belief that we can reach people and make a difference. I am encouraged to keep working even harder to reach as many people as I can. A few people even blew kisses which brought tears to my eyes and hope for the animals!
My experiences at Cow Save and Chicken Save were mostly about bearing witness, as they are not located in high traffic areas where the public can be easily reached. St. Helen’s, Ryder-Regency, and Genesis meat packing plants are all located on Glen Scarlett Road, just a few blocks away from Maple Leaf Poultry Processors at 100 Ethel Avenue. Recently the group started splitting their efforts between bearing witness at the cattle and poultry slaughterhouses and leafletting at St. Clair Avenue West and Keele Street, the nearest main intersection. The first time I looked into a truck full of poor cows, I cried, knowing that at that moment there was nothing I could do to save them. As with the pigs, we offered them words and water. These particular cows were from a small, family farm. It made me realize that no matter where or how these animals are raised, their final days are spent in misery, fear, and confusion.
My sister Catherine accompanied me on a couple of occasions and was a great support (as well as feeding me great vegan food!) One day the police arrived in response to a complaint from a security guard that we were giving the cows something to drink and he couldn’t be sure it was water. My sister assured the officer that it was indeed water and when he asked her to drink some she agreed and took a swig! That was all he needed and they left.
The Maple Leaf Chicken slaughterhouse at 100 Ethel Street, a few blocks from St. Helen’s, is unlike Vancouver’s in that the trucks full of chickens often wait outside, even in the winter. One day the door to the production line was left open and we were able to use out zoom lenses to get photos of the birds being hung up by their feet and then moved along to the throat slicer. It was heartbreaking.
Video by Michael Sizer, August, 2013
I met many amazing people in attending the events here in Toronto. First and foremost is Anita Krajnc, the founder of the movement. She is amazingly dedicated and has built a powerful medium that has spread worldwide. Of course this is where the inspiration for our Vancouver chicken vigils. Anita and her team have done a great deal of research into the various slaughterhouses. They know exactly what goes on in each department, what each truck is for, and what each worker does. They have found this information through their own investigations (climbing onto the railway tracks behind the pig slaughterhouse for example) and through the book Slaughterhouse by Gail A. Eintz. They have made beautiful posters of the animals in transport trucks and created some excellent information leaflets.
The most important thing I have learned from Anita that can make our Vancouver vigils even more effective is to get as much photo and video footage as possible and post it after every vigil. The library of footage Toronto Pig Save has is incredible, and much of it–especially the footage of offering water to the pigs–has made the television news and gone viral on the internet. Anita does much of the photography herself, but is assisted by many of her team, including Agnes Cseke and Michael Sizer who is working on the documentary film Cow Save. Of course it doesn’t hurt to have Jo-Anne McArthur as a regular at the vigils!
Another special person I met here was Ross Tapp. Ross is a former worker at the Maple Leaf Poultry plant where his job was hanging the birds upside down in shackles. He received a leaflet from Anita on the street one day and has since become a powerful and dedicated animal rights activist! He is a great resource into what goes on inside a slaughterhouse and the minds of the workers.
One more episode had an impact on me. I stood across the street from the chicken slaughterhouse as several of the activists got into an argument with a couple of workers. Soon things got out of hand and insults were hurled. I spoke to one of the activists who had been involved and told her I didn’t support that kind of behaviour. She was very open minded and willing to examine the actions of the group critically. Then I spotted my sister speaking to one of the workers who had been attacked. He was very upset and said that he didn’t appreciate being called “fatso”, among other things. She told him that she did not support that kind of behaviour either.
I spoke to him as well and what he said really hit home. He said, “You people preach compassion – I don’t see it.” I told him that we would do our best to encourage others not to repeat the incident. He thanked us and waved when we drove away. I spoke to a few other activists who had also not been comfortable with what had occurred. Later I received an email from a TPS member apologizing for her part in the incident. I found this very encouraging because I know how easy it is to get carried away by emotions and passion and how important it is to acknowledge this and take ownership for it.
The following week I returned with a letter for the worker and a slice of home made vegan banana bread (made by my sister!) He was not there when I arrived, so I asked an office worker to deliver it to him. She was very pleased when she heard what it was for. I came back when he was there and asked if he had received our little gift. He smiled and said he really appreciated it. A few other guys were with him at the the time and overheard our conversation. Obviously, I do not like what this man does for a living but I don’t believe we can win respect for the animals if we don’t show respect for humans. I worry that antagonizing workers could lead to them taking their anger at us out on the animals. I can only hope that by treating this man with respect there is a better chance of him making compassionate choices in the future. Who knows? Maybe there is another Ross Tapp inside him!! And hopefully he and his coworkers will share this story with others.
On my way back across the country I saw many transport trucks full of animals, one day 20 trucks full of cattle. I saw a truck pulled over at a rest stop and turned in to visit with the 1000 lb steers inside. Just as with the driver of the truck I met on my way east, this one was somewhat sheepish and very friendly. He admitted that he has been ‘put off beef’.
Now that I’m back in Vancouver I miss all the wonderful people I met through Pig Save and I look forward to seeing them again someday. I learned a great deal about the power of bearing witness. As an activist I believe it’s important to remind myself exactly who I’m fighting for and to be able to describe the situation to others from first hand experience. For the animals, I think it is important that they experience at least a tiny bit of love and compassion in their short lives. For the public, we invite them to bear witness, through our signs and literature, and hope that they, too, will choose compassion. Thank you Toronto Pig Save for everything you do and for inspiring me to keep the spirit alive in Vancouver!