Undercover Investigations

Today a new undercover investigation in to cruel practices on veal farms in Canada hits the mainstream media – the Toronto Star has this story on the front page of today’s paper, and tonight CTV’s W5 will air an investigative report. This is the latest in a string of mainstream media attention focusing on cruel practices that are considered “industry standard” on Canadian farms. Thanks to undercover investigations by Mercy For Animals Canada, a number of mainstream media outlets have run prime time/front page stories about the horrific ways in which farmed animals are treated in this country.

The response from industry has been predictable, that these are “isolated incidents,” and yet mounting evidence pointing to the fact that this kind of behaviour is routine undermines this defence. Workers in this industry have come forward to share their stories, and their testimony makes it clear that there is a larger pattern at play here. In addition, these scenes captured by undercover cameras are strikingly similar to scenes uncovered by undercover investigators in other countries.

The footage obtained through these investigations is, undoubtedly, disturbing. It is hard to look at, and many people don’t want to watch it. “Don’t show me that,” they say, “I can’t stand to look at it.” These abuses take place out of sight and, as the industry hopes, out of mind. This is precisely why film footage and photographs taken during these undercover investigations is so important – they make visible what is otherwise culturally invisible. This also speaks to the important role that visual culture plays in activist efforts. There is a long history of activists using imagery in this way, a history that dates back to the 19th century.

I will be writing more about this for an upcoming column for Our Hen House, but for now I just wanted to acknowledge the significance of today’s breaking news and to thank both Mercy for Animals Canada and the media outlets who are brave enough to run these stories for all they are doing to make these stories front and centre.

NYC Premiere of The Ghosts in Our Machine

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Tonight is an important night for animal rights, the red carpet premiere of The Ghosts in Our Machine in New York City. This incredible film is hitting the big time!

A huge congratulations to all involved in the making of this film, especially the Director/Writer/Producer, Liz Marshall, and the human star of the film, Jo-Anne McArthur. Countless hours went in to this project, and I hope that you are able to sit back and savour the celebrations tonight. I would give anything to be able to be at the premiere celebrating along with you!

This film will have a tremendous impact on all those who see it, and it is such an important reminder of the power of art to change the world. If you haven’t yet had a chance to see it, watch your local listings. Word is there will be more screenings in more locations coming soon. In the meantime, check out the trailer.

Witnessing Compassion

A number of people have sent me the link to this video of an injured dolphin being supported by a number of other dolphins. She was struggling to swim on her own so a number of other dolphins carried her on their backs, ensuring that she didn’t drown. Eventually she stopped breathing and died, but even after her death a few dolphins continued to stay with her body for several minutes.

While of course we can never know the precise reasons and motivations behind the actions of these dolphins on this particular day, it seems clear that they were working together to do what they could to help their injured friend. Researchers like Marc Bekoff have repeatedly demonstrated that when we witness a scene like this it is very likely that we are witnessing compassionate, caring behaviour among nonhuman animals. There continue to be skeptics, people who believe that these kinds of characteristics only exist in human societies, but, thankfully it seems that these skeptics are fewer in number these days.

I think that visual culture has an important role to play in this dynamic. While we need to be careful to not equate video footage or photographs with “the truth” (in its most simplistic sense), there is tremendous power in giving large numbers of people the opportunity to “bear witness” to something like the scene unfolding in this video.

“Do Not Refuse To Look At These Pictures”

The news about the abuse uncovered on an Ohio Dairy Farm by Mercy for Animals has hit the global media. The horrific film footage showing cows and calves being beaten, stabbed and kicked is stomach-turning.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but as anyone who has tried to learn more about where our food comes from knows all too well, abuse of animals in factory farm settings is not uncommon.

There is no doubt that this is difficult stuff to read about, look at, and discuss, but we need to know about it. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me “oh, I can’t look at that stuff. I can’t hear about animal abuse or look too hard into where my food comes from.” These are often well-educated, intelligent people who I love and respect. And yet on this point I must respectfully disagree. If you care about your health, the health of your family, about animals or the fate of our planet nothing could be more important than knowing these sorts of “dirty little secrets” that the factory farming industry would rather we didn’t know.

I’m not saying we should all make a bowl of popcorn and sit down with the family to watch the Ohio dairy farm footage on the big screen TV. And yet, as Ed Burtynsky pointed out during an interview on CBC’s The Current yesterday, imagery is often what brings much needed attention to an issue. Burtynsky was not talking about the Ohio Dairy Farm case but, rather, about another horrific story, the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The point, however, is valid in both instances.

As someone who teaches about and conducts research on visual culture, this point is one that I have spent a lot of time thinking about. Right now I’m doing a lot of work on 19th century animal welfare activism and, in particular, the use of imagery in that movement. The great 19th century reformer Frances Power Cobbe began one of her illustrated anti-vivisection pamphlets with the words: “Do Not Refuse to Look at These Pictures.” She went on to discuss why it was so important for people to see with their own eyes the ways in which animals were treated behind closed doors in medical laboratories. Cobbe recognized that most people would not be granted access to these labs (just as we aren’t easily granted access to factory farm complexes) and, as such, she strongly believed in the power of visual culture to convey this difficult information to a broader public.

Things haven’t changed that much since Cobbe’s day and here I’d like to repeat her plea — “do not refuse to look at these pictures.” We can not keep ignoring what is going on.

Of Rights and Freedoms

On Saturday we went in to see Courageous at the Tarragon Theatre. I’d heard good things about this play and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow account, but in a nutshell it is a clever play that deals with issues of rights and freedoms. The story is told through the lives of 3 couples and, although the two acts were very, very different from each other, they work really well together.

On Sunday we went to the “Follow the Freedom Trail” concert put on by Choralis Camerata and featuring soloist Theresa Holierhoek (for a sample of Holierhoek’s talent, check out this performance from the Ice Wine Festival in Jordan). This was an amazing event that focused on the role of music in the Underground Railroad. As a newcomer to this region I don’t think I realized just how significant St. Catharines was in this history.