Vigils and witnessing in animal rights activism

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Research Advisory Committee member, Dr Stephen Cooke, explores the ethics of animal rights witnessing and slaughterhouse vigils.

One form of animal rights activism that has puzzled me for a long time is the slaughterhouse vigil. During these vigils, activists gather to ‘bear witness’ as animals are driven through slaughterhouse gates. As trucks stop, they speak comforting words to the animals, take pictures, and speak with drivers. Sometimes they attempt eye contact with the animals and offer water. The Animal Save Movement, who use slaughterhouse vigils as their primary form of protest, regard bearing witness to the suffering of non-human animals as a moral duty of veganism.

When I first encountered this form of protest, my instinct was to write it off as pointless and self-indulgent. Vigils rarely, if ever, directly save the animals whose transport to slaughter is witnessed, and the idea of gathering to mourn seemed only to offer comfort to activists themselves. But, thinking carefully about it has helped me realise that my intuitions were wrong.1

Bearing witness is part of what is known as ‘the politics of sight’, a term coined by the political scientist Timothy Pachirat in In Every Twelve Seconds. In that book, Pachirat gives a personal account of working in a slaughterhouse, describing how industrialised slaughter is organised to compartmentalise and conceal wrongs. The politics of sight are political acts aimed at bringing attention to practices hidden from public view. By revealing wrongdoing, the hope is that people will become motivated to resist it. Because so much of animal agriculture is kept from view, the politics of sight has always been an important part of animal activism.

But bearing witness is about much more than merely revealing uncomfortable truths. It also serves as a way of making ethical claims, that draws from longstanding traditions in humanitarianism. For example, refugee support groups often use vigils to publicly mourn migrants who have died attempting to cross borders. By framing their protests as form of vigil, activists signal that slaughterhouses should be places of mourning, that it is fitting to grieve for nonhuman animals. In other words, grief acts as way of showing that the lives of those lost mattered. When we grieve for nonhuman animals, we implicitly make a claim that wider society has not valued their lives in the right way.

The two elements above make the practice of bearing witness at the slaughterhouse vigil a powerful form of protest. At the same time, Animal Save’ conception of witnessing is extremely broad and very demanding. Because it is so broad, it loses explanatory power, and because it is so demanding it puts itself out of reach of most activists.

Animal Save takes much of its inspiration from religious figures, like Martin Luther King and especially Leo Tolstoy. From these, they draw upon a Christian conception of witnessing that requires a loving attitude and that can potentially include all forms of non-violent protest. Indeed, the movement’s founder, Anita Kranjc has written that in its fullest form bearing witness ‘involves truly freeing the animals’.2 The reason for this is because the Christian tradition, from which Kranjc draws, regards witnessing as a form of testimony. Understood this way, bearing witness is a way of proclaiming the truth and values of Christianity. By living according to Christ’s teachings, the Christian serves as a witness to the truth of her faith. Thus, Tolstoy writes: ‘A Christian who knows the truth must bear witness of the truth to those who know it not…testimony can be made manifest only by example’.3 Conceiving of witnessing in this way helps explain how Animal Save can claim that bearing witness is a duty of veganism, and how it can regard so many different acts as forms of witness.

Whilst there is much to commend in this form of activism, my own view is that, aside from including too much, it asks too much of activists. Expecting activists confronted with sustained, deliberate infliction of serious and wrongful suffering to respond with love makes activism an almost heroic endeavour. Most of us aren’t heroes, we’re quite ordinary people. Nor should animal rights activism require any spiritual or religious conviction behind it. Even if loving were possible, we might think that holding positive attitudes to serial wrongdoers is a little strange. In the face of injustice, anger, disgust, outrage, and sadness often seem more fitting.

Reconceiving bearing witness in less spiritual and less demanding terms makes it a form of activism available to a greater number of people. Even conceived in secular terms, bearing witness remains a powerful form of protest: it draws attention to wrongdoing and signals that the animals killed were worthy of mourning. At the same time, to deliberately witness suffering carries a psychological burden. Those who choose to carry that burden deserve praise, but we should not expect it of all. There are, after all, many other effective forms of activism. Thus, bearing witness should not be thought of as a duty of veganism.

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.

[1] Steve Cooke, “Bearing Witness, Animal Rights and the Slaughterhouse Vigil,” European Journal of Political Theory, December 14, 2023, 14748851231220552,

[2] Ian Purdy and Anita Krajnc, “Face Us and Bear Witness! ‘Come Closer, as Close as You Can...and Try to Help’: Tolstoy, Bearing Witness and the Save Movement,” in Critical Animal Studies: Toward Trans-Species Social Justice, ed. Atsuko Matsuoka and John Sorenson (London ; New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018), 48.

[3] Leo Tolstoy, My Religion (T.Y. Crowell & Company, 13 Astor Place, 1885), chap. 2.

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