The following is my account based on a vigil at a stockyard and market in rural North Carolina, where animals are kept for a short period in their journey from “farm” to slaughterhouse. While there, activists offered water and a moment of kindness to spent sows, and documented their conditions to raise awareness of the lives of the animals many call “food.”
It is the smell that first overtakes me – the acrid odor of liquid feces saturating the air and tangling in my lungs. It emanates from a wooden stockyard at the edge of a dusty lot, a dilapidated structure that sags in the humidity and heat of the early morning sun.
My experiences with bearing witness have previously led me to stand in overgrown right-of-ways outside of the most depressing of establishments – slaughterhouses – waiting for that brief and lucky moment when a loaded transport truck pauses to stop. It’s there that adrenaline and fervor kick in, a group rushing to the side of the truck with water in hand, our mission to ease the thirst and suffering of as many animals as possible before they continue to their destination. They are lives that are there and gone in a moment – only enough time for a brief glimpse into their eyes, and never enough to apologize for all that humanity has done to them.
At the stockyard, we find sows waiting to be taken to slaughter.
The stockyard is different. Its current inhabitants appear to be spent sows, female pigs whose sole purpose has been to reproduce litter after litter, never having the opportunity to spend more than a few weeks with any of their young. Past the peak of their breeding lives, the stockyard is a pit stop on their final journey; they are brought here from nearby farms and left for a few days, held until the next truck arrives to take them to slaughter.
The yard is a rectangle of loosely-covered pens, a box of weathered wood covered with tattered canvas sheets. Its inhabitants are obvious from a distance, their snouts and flanks visible beneath the shroud that shadows them. I approach with a small group of others, preparing myself mentally for what we are about to see. We move slowly here, not wanting to startle or stress the animals. As we draw closer, we hear the soft, vocal grunts of the sows emanating from within, and the smell of the pens becomes overwhelming.
Sows struggle to stand and walk; many are covered in scratches and cysts.
Lifting the veil of canvas exposes dozens of sows. The source of the smell is apparent, as they are lying not in clean mud, but a pool of their excrement that has saturated the soil and has no place to drain. Every sow is filthy, their exhausted bodies caked in the dark and dried liquid, their backs painted with garish pink and green stripes that mark them for slaughter. Many are covered in raw, bloody scratches, likely due to the overcrowding of their pens. Others struggle to stand and walk, hobbled by the heavy weight of their oversized bodies and large cysts that overtake their legs. Yet they respond to us with a gentle but wary curiosity, reaching through the wooden slats to sniff our fingers. It isn’t long before they grasp at the water bottles we offer them, seeking relief.
At the far end of the pens several sows are separated from the others – they are clearly “downers”, meaning that they are unable to walk the steps to the truck that would otherwise take them to slaughter, and that they will ultimately be destroyed. This also means that they are unable to walk the steps to their food and water troughs, which are full of a liquid the color of motor oil. I find myself kneeling and crying with other activists over two sows – one who seems unable to bear any weight on her back legs, another who lays nearly lifeless, her uterus and rectum both prolapsed, the wounds open and covered in flies and dirt.
We provide fresh water for three days, but we are too late to save them.
We give them water. Help them drink. Carefully stroke their bellies. The stockyard gives me the opportunity to look into their eyes for longer, and their desperation and pain is palpable. It feels like hours here, kneeling in the dirt. My hands and heart tremble as I try to impart love to these beautiful beings, while inside, it is all I can do to keep from screaming. After several bottles of water, the sow with the prolapse lifts her head to nudge my hand when I stroke her cheek.
For three days, activists returned to visit these sows, providing the only fresh water in the 90-degree heat. Their wounds remained exposed, their environment filthy. At least one sow lay dead among her peers, her body pale and upturned. We contacted workers, vets, and animal advocates, desperately hoping to save even one of these animals. Ultimately, we were unsuccessful. Those sows able to walk were loaded screaming into a truck for a final trip. Those sows too broken to move were shot and disposed of.
Bearing witness allows us to see animals as individuals, capable of suffering.
My lessons from bearing witness are this: animals are individuals with a capacity to express intelligence and emotions that we do not yet fully understand, but that we are learning more about every day. We know that pigs share common genetic traits with humans that may reference a shared evolutionary history. We know that like us, they feel both fear and pain. They exhibit frustration and anger, happiness and joy, comfort and curiosity, and even empathy and gratitude. They long to live. Yet our global demand for animal products and animal bodies contributes to the suffering of millions of animals each day. The conditions of the sows at this stockyard are not new, or rare. In fact, they are a common sight in animal agriculture, so common that only 50 yards away from the stockyard is a bustling outdoor market where locals stroll, seemingly oblivious.
Yet it is possible for each of us to lift the veil on animal agriculture and open our eyes to the experience of farmed animals, and more importantly, consider our role. The suffering of these sows is only a tiny portion of the immense pain that farmed animals are going through on a daily basis, and only for our momentary pleasure. It is up to us to consider the ethics of our everyday choices, and to confront the truth of their misery. It is up to us to act to end their suffering.
North Carolina Farmed Animal Save (NCFAS) is a chapter of the global Save Movement. Activists from across the state meet at least twice monthly to hold vigil and bear witness to pigs and chickens on their way to slaughter. To get involved with this chapter, please contact [email protected]. If you are interested in starting a chapter of your own or finding one in your area, please contact [email protected].