Blinders, Barriers, and Bearing Witness

This morning around 7am a truck carrying pigs to their death tipped over outside Fearmans Pork Plant in Burlington. Media outlets are reporting that some of the pigs died in the crash and many others were injured. Those pigs who were able to walk were marched in to the slaughterhouse to meet their death.

Activists arrived on the scene soon after the incident occurred, and over the day their numbers grew. Tensions between the workers, the police, and protesters continued to escalate while the squeals of terrified, injured, and dying pigs filled the air. Steve Jenkins from Happily Ever Esther was on site pleading for mercy for the pigs, and offering to take some of them to his sanctuary, but his requests were denied.

I was not in Burlington this morning, but was watching this unfold via social media. My heart was heavy and tears streamed down my face. This was a horrific scene, but let us not forget – this is only in the news today because a traffic accident took place. Each and every day, truckloads of terrified and injured pigs arrive at this location except, most days, only those who have chosen to bear witness as part of the Toronto Pig Save vigils pay any attention. The routine suffering that happens at this location is not normally deemed newsworthy.

Perhaps the most striking part of today’s incident were the reports that workers were holding up barriers in an attempt to block the pigs from the view of people who had gathered at the scene. They must not be seen. To see the suffering, fear, and confusion these animals were experiencing would be upsetting for most people, so those who were in charge of the scene took steps to try and prevent people from seeing what was happening. Let’s get something straight – this is upsetting. Whether we choose to look at this or not, suffering is taking place.

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A tarp being held up so that the scene of the accident was blocked from view. Photo by Rara Subramanyan

One set of pictures taken by activist Andrea White appears to show an injured pig being comforted by another pig. It was not long, however, until workers were holding up large pieces of cardboard to block this moment of tenderness and compassion from the sight of cameras and prying eyes. We must ask ourselves why this kind of scene was perceived to be so threatening. What would happen if people witnessed this exchange? Would they, perhaps, begin to rethink their own complicity in this scene of suffering?

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A pig comforts another pig who is injured and can not stand up. Photo by Andrea White.
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Workers hold cardboard barriers to keep the injured pigs out of sight. Photo by Andrea White.

This overt attempt to block witnessing and taking pictures is a very significant part of this story. It strikes at the heart of what Timothy Pachirat has referred to as the “politics of sight.” In other words, our contemporary food and agricultural systems in North America are sustained by carefully regulated systems controlling who gets to see what. Out of sight, out of mind. If you don’t see something, it is hard to question it.

I have a series of photographs on my desktop of a pig running for freedom. These images were not taken today in Burlington but, rather, in 1945 in St. Catharines, a city about 36 kilometers down the road from Burlington. This pig escaped from the truck that was carrying her to slaughter, and she spent some time running around Ontario and St. Paul Streets, two major streets in St. Catharines, before she was eventually caught and returned to the truck for what was described as “the last lap of her ride to the meat rationing counter.”

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A pig who escaped a transport truck runs along Ontario Street in St. Catharines, Ontario in July 1945. Photo by St. Catharines Standard.

I have frequently walked down the streets that this determined pig who lived and died in 1945 travelled along and, as I do, my mind often turns to this photograph, and I think about the pig who tried to get away. I wish with all my heart that she had. The article accompanying the photograph tells us that as she was running around she spotted “some luscious grass” in a nearby park and began running towards it. While my heart breaks for this pig I never knew, the tone of the media reporting of this incident is such that this pig is granted a sense of agency. Sure, there is still a struggle between the pig who wants her freedom and those who want to eat her (she had a narrow escape, we are told, from a driver who had “a hungry look in his eye.”), but the pig here is recognized as a sentient being, one who has tried to change her fate – “This Little Pig Didn’t Stay Home,” the headline proclaims. While things didn’t work out in the pig’s favour, she is still recognized as an individual with preferences and determination. She wanted to get to that grass!

There is a decidedly different tone to the reporting going on with today’s incident at Fearmans. There was an active and deliberate attempt to shield the pigs from view. Activists were kept away “for their own safety,” we were told, and yet, was that really what this was about? How is being denied the sight of one pig comforting another going to help anyone be safer? What seems instead to be going on here is a deliberate attempt to suppress any recognition of agency or emotion in these animals. It is for our own good, we are told. You don’t want to see that. And yet if we don’t look or aren’t permitted to see, how can anything change?

The question of animal sentience is increasingly being explored in books, films, and articles in the popular press, and yet, paradoxically, there are ever-tightening restrictions on who gets to see the animals who live and die in our food production systems. From the so-called “ag gag” laws in the United States, to the makeshift cardboard barriers that workers held today in Burlington in an attempt to prevent the suffering of pigs being made visible, there is a deliberate and concerted effort to make sure that these lives and deaths remain culturally invisible.

Tonight I am thinking about the pigs who died today in Burlington and, indeed, of all of the billions of animals slaughtered for our contemporary food system. It does not have to be this way. If the footage of today’s accident outside of Fearmans upsets you, please do not turn away. As Dr. Seuss’ character the Lorax reminds us, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

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