Bearing Witness at the Slaughterhouse Gates

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Content warning: descriptions of non-human animal suffering.

In this shortened version of his chapter in Vegan Geographies: Spaces Beyond Violence, Ethics Beyond Speciesism, RAC member Alex Lockwood focuses our attention on slaughterhouses and the acts of solidarity performed by activists towards non-human animals.

For vegan geographers, answering how “useful” it is for grassroots groups such as the Save Movement to bear witness to non-human animals on the way to slaughter can mean a focus on the space itself: the location of the slaughterhouse. Once found in the very centre of urban spaces, slaughterhouses were moved (due to Victorian sensibilities) to less visible locations and have stayed hidden. Slaughterhouses are now on the periphery of city spaces, close enough to deliver ‘meat’ products to consumers, but not close enough so that consumers see the non-human animals who are the sources of that ‘meat’. Civic infrastructures (roundabouts, lay-bys, traffic lights) ensure industrial non-human animal agriculture practices can continue taking place with the same invisibility.

This chapter explores attempts to challenge the invisibility of one (typical) slaughterhouse in the UK: Linden Foods abattoir in Cramlington, Northumberland, where I attend Save Movement vigils. I argue that acts of bearing witness outside slaughterhouses are “useful” practices in troubling the power relations of the slaughterhouse. The Save Movement’s vigils politicise the domination of nonhuman others on the (often literal) verges between everyday life and industrial locations. I connect these spatial analyses to concepts of ethical responsibility to the Other and propose a “useful uselessness” in relation to this kind of activism.

The Save Movement was started in Toronto in July 2010, when founder Anita Krajnc began work to bring attention to the pigs going to slaughter at the Quality Meat Packers slaughterhouse in the city’s downtown. The Save Movement is a growing grassroots vegan activist network of more than five hundred groups in over fifty countries. Central to its activism are the acts of bearing witness to non-human animals as they are transported into slaughterhouses; attempting to relieve suffering momentarily (with water, during heatwaves); and bringing awareness to the issue of nonhuman exploitation and commodification through video footage, imagery, and testimony, with the goal of convincing others to practice veganism.

The scholar Sara Salih explores the concept of a “critical or ethical witness” through three of what she considers “scenes of failed witness” that include vigils. One such “failure” was at a vigil in Toronto. Salih watched as a truckload of pigs was brought into the abattoir, and then again as she was led around the back to peer “over the fence at pigs being prodded off the lorry with electric probes.” She writes: “I wondered what we were all doing there gazing at each other, and when I biked away from the slaughterhouse I found I was in tears once again because all we had done was glimpse the pigs, and now they were standing in their pens freezing cold waiting to be killed the next morning.”

Salih has been asking herself “what it means to turn towards” the non-human animals and if there is any point to it. Like Salih, I wanted to find out “if there is anything in these gestures” of bearing witness or whether, as Salih continues, “as I suspected when I failed to witness, I was merely reacting sentimentally.”

Salih’s sense of failure in witnessing stems not only from the problematic decision to leave the pigs. Ronnie Lee, one of the co-founders of the Animal Liberation Front in the UK, has also derided the movement’s name: “Do they actually save animals?” Yet these vigils, with their love-based manifesto encouraging activists to respond with compassion to human and nonhuman actors alike, have caught the imagination of thousands of people. It is for this reason that it is important for us to study vigils.

Linden Foods is a Northern Irish company based in Dungannon, with facilities spread across the United Kingdom that slaughter up to 1,800 cattle and 4,000 lambs per week. One of these abattoirs is found in Burradon, six miles outside Newcastle in the northeast of England. On most days, cows and sheep are brought to the slaughterhouse, where they are killed and dismembered, often to be sent by truck back to Northern Ireland for processing into packaged “meat”.

The spatial layout of this slaughterhouse is like that of other slaughterhouses found across the planet. The facilities are surrounded by an eight-foot-high green fence, with one automatised gate for entry and exit controlled by an employee in an office who monitors the cameras and intercom for approaching vehicles and arrivals. There are no signs letting people know this is a slaughterhouse; the only sign is high on the main warehouse walls and reads, “Linden Foods”.

There is a verge approximately twenty feet wide outside the gate, on either side of the main entrance. Inside the gates of the slaughterhouse, a concrete space perhaps half an acre in size is divided into: a road for trucks to drive down to deliver the animals into lairage; a car park for workers; some smoking areas; and space for trucks to back up to roller doors on the side of the main warehouse, where they can be loaded with the body parts of cows and sheep in refrigerated containers for transport.

The activists employ several tactics to disrupt the arrangements of the slaughterhouse.

  1. Stopping and bearing witness to the flow of bodies

    The aim of the activists is to bear witness to the suffering of the non-human animals. For some, this takes place only when activists can come into direct bodily or visual contact with the animals – that is, when activists can see the animals, rather than when, as is often the case, the animals cannot be seen because of the high sides of the “livestock” vehicles. For others, to simply be present as the trucks pass by is bearing witness enough. If and when the activists can get the trucks to stop, some attempt to make conversation with the drivers and thank them for stopping, while others approach the trucks and, according to the vigil group’s guidelines, especially taking the welfare of the animals into account, either bear witness or capture footage of the scenes to be shared later online and via social media.

  2. Contesting the physical structures of political economy

    Continuing with this idea, activists include artists and makers interested in exploring the ways in which their art can alter the space around the slaughterhouse. Their performances and creations work with structures such as fences and gates that operate as limits that separate public from private space – challenging those operations, thereby asking others to pay attention to the structures of power that enforce said limits. Each vigil, activists hang a twenty-foot banner on the fence that reads, “Slaughterhouse”, with images of non-human animals along with logos and social media contacts. They have also held special ‘art’ vigils, creating temporary installations using the fence as a physical canvas on which to make images. The first of these was a shower of love hearts made with red cloth, wrapped around, and in between, the gaps in the fence.

  3. Sharing of food and drink

    Each vigil has an emphasis on the sharing of vegan food among the activists who attend. There is a practical element to this, as vigils are held throughout the year in varying weather conditions; both hot drinks in the winter and cold drinks in the summer are necessary to encourage activists to attend and stay for the duration of the vigils. Many activists bring food they have baked themselves to share, and activists will sometimes offer the food (which often comprises “alternatives” to the standard fare) to slaughterhouse workers as they arrive for work or the truck drivers who agree to stop.

Such activist practices do problematise the spatial orientations of the slaughterhouse. This space, along with the acts that take place there, is the point at which activists – and members of the public viewing the acts – either live or later via social media – can get the closest to the killing of billions of non-human animals each year.

But how effective, useful, and impactful can such protest really be?

One of the problems with categorising the act of bearing witness as useless is that it demeans this advocacy by aligning it, perhaps unintentionally, with the broader social construction of domesticated animals as “useless” animals. But most of all, this criticism of uselessness sets up a false dichotomy and an overreliance on measurability in refusing to recognise the unquantifiable value of an animal’s life. The same criticism also separates bearing witness from testimony, which transforms moral witnessing into political witnessing. The difference is that the political witness sets out to bring about change. It is bearing political witness through and with testimony, particularly using footage and photography of the suffering of animals, that has transformed the nature of animal advocacy and that is no doubt – although I haven’t measured it – in part responsible for the rising tide of veganism across the globe.

Bringing attention to the physical acts in space of the activists who bear witness means – to me at least – that such practices cannot ever be only useless, even if, as clearly happens, the specific animals who pass through the space on a given day will have been dead by the time the activists get to work or return home. By attending to the spaces of the cross-species encounters, ethical responsibility shows us that a trust in the “useful uselessness” of standing outside a slaughterhouse is exemplary of the ethical call to action. Yes, it is always already useless. But the call to be ethical should come before any particular suffering; we must remain agnostic in our understanding of who the Other may be, and that includes in consideration of species. Our duty to another comes before the specific relationship with that other, regardless of who that other is (including species). Bearing witness cannot be only useless because it is already the practice of ethics. Recognising uselessness rather than usefulness – or perhaps recognising a conceptual uselessness as practical usefulness – is the only fully responsible ethical stance in relation to immanent, multitudinous, unbearable worlds of pain suffered by animals worldwide.


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