On the Anniversary of Unseen, We Came to Bear Witness
Activists gathered for a vigil exactly two years after the release of Unseen, a documentary that exposed the horrors inside Yosemite Foods, a slaughterhouse in Stockton, California, that kills 2,000 pigs every day.
We began to disperse around 11 p.m., without a single truck having arrived at the slaughterhouse, and shamefully, my first response was relief: I could go home tonight without the faces of young, scared, sick, lonely pigs in my head; without bursting into unpredictable episodes of sobbing for the next couple of days; without temporarily losing my abilities to do things like focus on work and smile at strangers. And then, immediately following the relief, I felt guilt: Though I’d come here to bear witness, a part of me still wanted to spare myself. Also, what if a truck showed up right after we left? No one would be there to show those babies that someone cared, that someone knew they were terrified, thirsty, hungry, miserable – and about to die. But it seemed like the company must have told the truck drivers to stay away, so the vigil organizer thanked us for coming and told us to head home. I had just dumped all the water out of my pump sprayer – brought to offer the pigs a drink before death – when I heard a commotion, looked up, and saw a truck coming up the street.
I started running toward the truck. Someone had – thank goodness – brought extra pump sprayers, and they were still full of water, sitting in a row by the road. I grabbed a big heavy one, not thinking about how routinely I throw out my back, just trying to get to the pigs as fast as I could.
In those few minutes, when the stopped truck’s engine is sputtering loudly as though amplifying the driver’s impatience, when you try not to waste a second because it’s a second you might be able to help someone who’s about to die, questions tumble through your head, one after the other, as you second-guess how you should be spending those precious two or three minutes: Should I keep giving water to this one desperately thirsty baby or should I move on, so that someone else can get a drink? Should I gently touch this baby, so they feel a moment of love, or are they too scared of humans – who have always been unkind to them – for touch to even impart comfort? Should I use up 10 seconds taking some photos, so a few of their faces will be seen by other humans and – who knows? – possibly even move some to start supporting animals’ right to their own lives? You wouldn’t think you could have so many thoughts in just a couple minutes of surreally intense activity.
I’ve been to only a few vigils, but these pigs were the smallest – presumably the youngest – I’ve ever seen. I wondered if they weren’t even five months old. They were packed in together with no room to move, and I saw deep red scratches on the skin of many. And they were so thirsty – had the driver offered them water even once on their journey of many hundreds of miles? As I and other activists focused on giving them water, I became aware that this truck that should have been stationary was moving forward very slowly, I became aware of the raised voices of the activists who were using their bodies as barricades to keep the truck there for a few minutes, and I heard someone shout, “Do you want to kill one of us, too?” I realized the truck driver was inching this huge, overloaded vehicle right into a group of people – people with arms raised and hands making peace signs, people begging him to allow us just a moment with the pigs.
I learned later that the police officers present said nothing about the driver pushing his truck into a group of humans. In fact, the cops apparently laughed. It’s clear that, over time, the violence that’s part of both these professions dulls the human soul to the suffering of others and creates an us-them dynamic that allows for emotional separation. These are psychological survival mechanisms.
I had given water to only four or maybe five pigs when I heard our companions standing in front of the truck telling us to move away – the driver had had enough and they knew it. I backed away slowly, and then, before I could even think or cry, the truck had passed through the gate, and we were standing there in darkness, some of us silent, some sobbing audibly.
Almost none of us ever sees what happens next, what happens after one of these trucks carries the trapped animals through a slaughterhouse’s colossal high-security gates. But I know one person who has, and that’s Raven Deerbrook. To make her 11-minute documentary, Unseen, she followed a truck carrying hundreds of pigs from a factory farm in Utah to Yosemite Foods in California, and she got inside this horrific facility, risking her life to document what these animals experience in their final hours and minutes. At what is euphemistically called a “meat-processing plant,” her film shows workers beating pigs with paddles – sometimes on the head – to make them leave the trucks and move through the pens; it shows them being lured into CO2 gas chambers where they writhe and scream through a painful and prolonged death; it shows the bodies of pigs who died in transit being treated like trash.
To honor Raven’s courage and commitment, please watch Unseen or share it with someone who might learn from it.
The days after a vigil are hard. This time, the face of one particular pig kept coming back to me: They had met my eyes, and I had called to them, “I see you.” I can’t imagine it would matter to them. They probably were thinking something like, “Just get me out of here.” I hope they somehow knew that all of us would have done anything to get them out.