Sunday, June 9th, 2013 is a day that will be remembered by many as a turning point in their lives. At the 3rd annual National Animal Rights Day in Los Angeles, CA, activists from far and wide came together for a historical demonstration of compassion, remembrance and solidarity. It was the first time a demonstration of its kind had ever been done on U.S. soil. A demonstration that had made a life-altering impact on the people of Spain, Australia, Israel and others before, and sent shock waves around the world in the form of social media and word of mouth powerfully telling the world “we demand equality for animals NOW”.
I was so deeply moved and inspired by the commitment and strength of my vegan brothers and sisters, standing united under the cause of animal rights, paying our respects to the animals we held in our hands. Animals who had every right to be alive but had been deprived of that right by the greed, gluttony and vanity of humankind. We broke down, we cried on each other’s shoulders, we held each other up — we came together. We were one.
For me, it was the culmination of months of emotionally trying work that had finally reached its transformational conclusion. Acquiring animals from slaughterhouses for the ceremony, carrying the physical and emotional weight of their deaths back with me at work and at home was no easy task but it had to be done and I am so thankful that I was able to fill that role. During the ceremony, as I walked back for another animal to hand to the activists, feelings I had tried so hard to keep bottled up for so long had grown to such intense proportions that when the levee broke and I could hold them in no longer, they hit me all at once like an flood of pure emotion in waves of sorrow, gratitude, awe and relief so intense I almost fell to my knees. To see on the faces of fellow activists the impact this event had on them moved me to tears. To look at them looking down at the animals clasped in their hands with tears streaming down their faces, a mix of sorrow, pity, shame, despair, anger and resolve. It was beautiful and profound in its bottomless sadness. As I handed animals to Brenda Calvillo, Eva Gutierrez, Jessica Schlueter, Carol Glasser and others, I thanked each of them for their strength and dedication to the animals and for sharing such a powerful moment with each other and the world.
Nothing would have been accomplished if not for the hard work and dedication of all of my fellow organizers who for the past five months have been diligently and uncomplainingly working to make this event possible. Aylam Orian, Vida Jafari, Brenda Calvillo, Dave Simon, Robyn Hicks, Jill Ryther, Christine Hess — these people did the lion’s share of the work and deserve a medal for their hard work and dedication.
As for myself, the little I had any part in was primarily acquiring dead animals from slaughterhouses with my partner in this task, Vida, who single-handedly coordinated the pick-ups and spoke with the owners of various slaughterhouses, dairy/egg/fur farms, kill shelters, pet stores, disposal service companies and rendering plants and was able to get a couple of them to agree to give us animals as a donation on a regular basis. Together, we drove through what we agreed felt like the gates of hell so we could have animals for the first ever demonstration of its kind in the United States — a country not known for its love of animal rights activists (or activism in general). Here is my part of the story:
In an early meeting when we were assigning tasks and the task of picking up the dead animals for the opening ceremony came up, I was first to volunteer. I knew that it was going to be one of the most emotionally, physically, mentally and possibly even spiritually demanding things I would ever do in my life and it was for this reason that I was so ready to jump in. It was to me, the most important task of all and I felt a gnawing need to be there to make sure it got done. I can be a very emotional person, but I have learned (especially from this experience) that I have the ability to put my emotions on hold, grit my teeth and get the job done so I can cry about it on the way home once it’s all over.
This ability is something my partner, Vida has as well. No matter what is going on, she finds a way to remain calm, collected and courageous through it all. I admire her for her drive, her eloquence and her tranquility. Getting to know Vida through this experience has been a gift and something I didn’t expect but am so grateful for. She is ten activists in one with the heart of a hundred. I am honored to call her a friend.
Over the past few months Vida and I have built relationships with the owners of these slaughterhouse facilities and their families. I can’t describe the amount of restraint, discipline and courage it took for us to walk into a room where animals are being confined and slaughtered, smile and shake the blood-soaked hand of a man who had just finished slicing open the throats of countless chickens, rabbits, ducks and goats.
Over those few months we’ve had many conversations with the owners and their families. We talked about a lot of things. We talked about their kids and their career aspirations, which college they wanted to attend, what degree they wanted to major in. We talked about which animal’s meat is the most delicious and asked for recommendations on what type we should try when we would get the chance. (Apparently guinea pig is more delicious than chicken.) We talked about the first time one of the owners killed an animal in front of his son and how his son wouldn’t eat meat for a week afterward, and how since then he has become calloused to the suffering of animals, come to his senses and realized that “this is just the way things are”. Hearing that story almost brought me to tears, but I had to hold them back and laugh it off. “You’re right. We can’t eat them without killing them. It’s just the way things are.” Now go home, cry and curse yourself for doing the exact opposite of everything you felt like doing while you were there. Before, I would never consider myself a good actor or liar. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and don’t have a poker face. But it’s funny how things like that can change in the right circumstance and with the right motivation. I was good. Almost too good. I almost started believing my own lies. It still scares me.
I never thought the people responsible for so much suffering and pain would be such generous and kind people (to humans, at least). That was probably the biggest shock to me. I was expecting to be greeted by cold, stiff, almost robot-like people — mean people — but instead I came face to face with a simple, struggling family just trying to make ends meet and give their kids a good life. This is of course, no justification for their actions, but it is the truth of their situation. Through conversations with them Vida and I have learned that these people look at their business as more than just a business. They see it as a duty. Their logic tells them that people need to eat meat (after all, what is the alternative?) and because slaughtering is something not many would like to get their hands dirty with, they consider it not only a service to the community, but an honor to be able to supply them with food for their families.
Now that I’m thinking more about this, a glaring similarity between myself and the owners of the slaughterhouses is becoming more and more apparent to me. They do something that is not easy to do because they know they can get it done when others cannot. Isn’t this the same reason I volunteered so quickly to assist in the pick-up of animals? An interesting thought…
On our first trip to one of the slaughterhouses, we met face to face with the owner for the first time. On the phone before our arrival he had offered to kill as many chickens as we wanted with an electric knife, out of charity. We quickly told him not to kill any animals for us, that we wanted only the animals who had died of “natural” causes before they were able to be slaughtered.
He was very friendly and very kind to us. I couldn’t help but feel a little remorse for being dishonest with him. I told myself that no matter how nice this person is to me, he is the enemy. He profits from the murder of animals. He has no remorse for killing them, why should I have remorse for lying to him?
As we were making our first pick-up there, a truck drove up the driveway with a cage built into the back holding pigeons, chickens and ducks. They were all crammed on top of each other in smaller cages and could barely move without stepping on each other. Who knows how long they had been in the back of that truck on their way to their final destination.
Vida wanted to get a closer look so she walked over to the truck while I kept watch. Before I could say anything to warn her, the owner of the slaughterhouse walked out the door right next to the truck. Vida called me over and we played it off like we had never seen these types of animals before. Then something happened that we never could have expected. He offered us a tour of the inside.
All we could say was a nonchalant “sure”, but inside I think both of us were doing somersaults. We didn’t want to see what waited for us inside, but we knew that it was an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.
He opened the door. The first thing I noticed was the smell. It was pungent and filled my nostrils so I could smell nothing else. Death, feces, urine and blood. Even after we left, I could still smell the stench of that place hours later. The next thing I noticed were the cages. Big black metal cages stacked high on top of each other, full of chickens. Some of the chickens were incessantly pecking at others. Chickens with missing toes and eyes. Some chickens looked on the brink of death. They couldn’t even hold their heads up. The owner would see these chickens and smack them on their chin from below and tell them to “wake up!”. One chicken had somehow managed to get out of one of the cages and was standing on top of the cage.
“Get back in your cage or I’ll kill you,” the owner said with a laugh. He looked back at us, smiling. We laughed with him. We had to. It hurt so much to laugh in that moment but we had to maintain our cover. Every time I felt like crying or screaming I would force myself to smile bigger. Holding in my emotions physically hurt, but I told myself it was nothing compared to what the animals had to endure there. If I couldn’t keep it together everything we had done up to that point would have been for nothing.
In the next room were cages of rabbits stacked on top of each other. Dozens of big white rabbits scratching at each other or panting in corners. As I was looking in one of the cages, one of the rabbits hopped over to me. I put my finger between the bars and she licked my finger with her warm, scratchy tongue. If only I could just open the cage, grab as many as I could carry and make a run for it! No. Now is not the time.
We went back into the first room and Vida pointed at a large garbage bin that was full of blood, organs, feet, feathers and slime. It was right next to one of the stacks of cages holding chickens. I looked to the other side of the room and saw what I knew to be the area they killed the animals. I had seen one like it before in a video about “humane” slaughter. A metal stand with funnels to hold chickens as they bled out into a trough. I pointed at it and mouthed “that’s where they kill them” to Vida. ”Are you sure?” she whispered back. I nodded. The “killing station” was right in plain sight of all the animals. They could hear, smell, see and feel their inevitable fate being dealt to their cage-mates.
The owner noticed us looking at it and confirmed that yes, this is where he kills them. ”Want to watch me kill one?” he said with a smile as he reached into a cage and pulled a chicken out by her neck. The way he asked us seemed like it was a matter of pride for him. Like this tour had been his way of showing off his power. Killing an animal was nothing to him. It was entertainment for him. He’d likely been doing this for so many years that that part of his humanity that would normally tell him killing was wrong had completely disappeared — probably when he was a boy and his father taught him that “this is just the way things are”.
“No no no no,” we laughed. ”We like eating them but we don’t want to see them get killed. We know it has to be done though.”
We had seen enough. We walked quickly out of the building and the door shut behind us. Once again we were faced with the truck carrying animals to their demise. From inside, we could hear the squawks and cries of that chicken as her throat was cut and her life slowly poured out of her body into the trough below. It is a sound that Vida and I will never be able to forget.
I can still hear it.
That was the only time we were allowed such free access to the secret hell hidden behind the stucco walls and barred doors and windows of the slaughterhouse. It’s possible the owner realized that he had shown us too much. Maybe he had been too eager to show off his fine establishment to the pretty ladies who were so excited to learn about his trade.
On our last trip to pick up animals for National Animal Rights Day we decided it was time to ask if we could get live animals. If we could get even one animal — any animal — we could go home knowing we did something that made an immediate and measurable positive impact on that being’s life.
All we did was ask and after a few moments of consideration, he obliged, much to our amazement. One of his employees brought out two hens in a wet bag and carelessly dropped them in the cooler just like he had done with the dead ones on other occasions. There may as well have been a bunch of rocks or sand in that bag. We shared a brief moment where we looked at each other with widened eyes and slight smiles as if to say “YES!” but quickly forced ourselves to hide our excitement.
We took them to Vida’s house, gave them baths and then I drove them to my house where they are currently living until they go to their permanent (vegan) home with fellow activist, Nicolas Tomas. This is the announcement from the National Animal Rights Day Facebook event page of their liberation:
The very first day Vida and I picked up dead animals from a slaughterhouse, after witnessing firsthand the gruesome horrors the animals there were forced to endure for the entirety of their shortened lives, we made a pact that one day we would find a way to come back with more than corpses. Today we are overjoyed to announce that yesterday, we made good on that pact and came home with two new members of the National Animal Rights Day family, Lucky and Fluke.
For what is likely to be the first time in their lives, they are able to stretch their wings, peck at the earth, feel grass beneath their feet and above all finally be able to forget the fear that has been present in their lives since the day they were born.
National Animal Rights Day is about more than mourning the deaths of our beautiful animal brothers and sisters — it is about celebrating the life and liberation of those animals and telling the world that until every animal is free we will not stop fighting for their right to live free from human exploitation.
Now that the event has passed, I am able to look back on all the hard work of so many people who did so much to make it possible and am still amazed that we were actually able to pull it off. What started as a seemingly impossible idea at an early meeting in a local Veggie Grill has grown into an event that has changed and will continue to change countless lives, human and non-human alike. I am honored to have played even a minor role in such a life altering and profoundly moving demonstration of universal love.
I am also looking forward. I see the impact this event has had already on so many people who were either part of the ceremony or onlookers who stopped to bear witness, ask questions and become informed. My faith in humanity has been renewed by this experience and although I know it won’t be easy, I believe that there is hope. We will never forget the animals we held in our arms and we will never forget the promises we made them that day. They are the reason we will never give up.
Until all are free.