Seeing and Being Seen

by Tracy Timmins

Animals have been so indispensable to the structure of human affairs and so tied up with our visions of progress and the good life that we have been unable to (even try to) fully see them. Their very centrality prompted us to simply look away and to ignore their fates.” (Wolch and Emel, [0])

Meat in a grocery store. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

It is possible to see something your whole life and never really see it. Things that are extremely common and visible everywhere seem to be the most invisible.  Take for example the plethora of meat products we see every day in the grocery store, at restaurants, in our fridges, and in numerous adverts around the city, in magazines and on television, radio and the Internet. How many of us have stopped to think about what meat is?  As city dwellers, we seldom, if ever, ask ourselves which particular animal we are eating, what was their life like, how were they killed, how did their bodies end up on our plate, and who were they?  Most of us have no conception of the individual cow, pig, chicken, fish, turkey, or sheep whom we are eating. The difficulty of thinking about and talking about the animal in a piece of meat is because the subject has literally vanished in the deconstruction of their body into an object for consumption.  Carol Adams (1990) in the Sexual Politics of Meat refers to the missing subject of meat as the absent referent.

What or who is meat?

Who are cows?

Dairy cows, who have had their calves taken away, watch as the new mother cleans her baby. Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur

Dairy cows, who have had their calves taken away, watch as the new mother cleans her baby. (Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur for We Animals / Animal Equality)

Cows, whether they be used for beef or dairy, are of the species Bos taurus. They are herd animals and are therefore very sociable, a fact which probably made it possible for humans to domesticate their ancestors, the aurochs, in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago[1]. Cows can live up to 20 years, but the ones we eat are typically between one[2] and four years old[3], depending if they were bred for meat or dairy.  It might be surprising to read that dairy cows are also consumed, but once they are no longer able to produce high volumes of milk they are no longer financially profitable and sold for meat.

Cows are caring mothers. Like humans, the gestation period for a cow is nine months. When they are separated from their young, as on dairy farms, they bellow for days. Grief over a lost calf can last weeks.  A dairy cow is rebred (usually through artificial insemination) every 3 months after she calves so that she can continue to give milk. Most male calves are used for veal and some of the females may be used as replacement cows for the herd. A former dairy farmer, Peter Roberts said, regarding removing calves from their mothers, the “motherhood bond was so strong, that it had to be broken with violence. It keeps you awake at night.” ([1],p. 140). Not only are cows protective of their young, but bulls are protective of the herd.

According to Masson[1], cows have a highly developed sense of smell and get to know their calves and each other by scent. They also know the smell of death and the smell of blood. Cows are natural herbalists. When they are not feeling well they know which plants to eat and which ponds to drink from. Cows, as ruminants, have a tendency not to call out when physically hurt so as not to draw attention to themselves from predators, which tends to result in humans underestimating how much pain they might be experiencing. Like many other animals, cows have many emotions including joy, sadness, loss, worry, fear and curiosity. They also seem to enjoy music as you can see for yourself in the video below.

In the following video cows experience the joy of being let out on the pasture after winter.

Who are chickens?

Olivia, one of 5 hens rescued from a egg farm which held over 120,000 birds.

Olivia, one of 5 hens rescued from a egg farm which held over 120,000 birds. (Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur for We Animals / Animal Equality)

Chickens belong to species, Gallus gallus domesticus, and were domesticated from the Red Jungle Fowl found in Asia[4]. Chickens are probably considered one of the most non-consequential of farmed animal by city dwellers, but according to Masson, chickens have individual personalities and emotions[1]. For example, chickens derive great pleasure from dust-bathing. While dust-bathing provides an evolutionary advantage because it cleans the birds’ feathers of parasites, the motivation for doing so is clearly enjoyment. Two of the first activities that rescued barn chickens will do given the opportunity, are scratch and peck in the dust and dust-bathe. Chickens have rich communication structures and make precise calls dependent on context, whom they are addressing and who else is around [1]. Calls can indicate food discoveries, alarms, territorial claims, concern, fear, pleasure, frustration, dominance, appeasement and more.  Chickens form complex relationships with other chickens and also with humans. They are quite capable of giving and receiving affection.

Due to their small size, chickens are in fact the most exploited food animal on the planet besides fish. According to Statistics Canada, in 2012, 643 million chickens were raised for meat alone[5]. This excludes breeding chickens, layer hens and males from layer hens who are killed after hatching. Broiler chickens are typically sent to slaughter at 6 to 8 weeks of age[6], and spent laying hens at 60 weeks[7].

In the video below you can watch chickens enjoying a dust-bath.

A boy and chicken enjoy each other’s affection.

Who are pigs?

Nancy, enjoying peaceful sanctuary life. This is where pigs belong! Farm Sanctuary, NY, USA. (Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur)

Nancy, enjoying peaceful sanctuary life. Farm Sanctuary, NY, USA. (Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur for We Animals / Farm Sanctuary)

Domestic pigs are members of the species Sus scrofa domesticus and were domesticated approximately 12,000 years ago in the Near East[8]. Despite their well-known intelligence, practically all pigs in Canada are raised in sheds on cement floors or in farrowing stalls if they are breeding sows[9].

Pigs are also generally quite reviled in popular culture as filthy, greedy and badly behaved, but it seems this is very different from their true nature according to those who have studied them or had the opportunity to interact with them on an individual basis.  W.H. Hudson, a naturalist, said of pigs,

“I have a friendly feeling towards pigs generally, and consider them among the most intelligent of beasts. I also like his disposition and attitude towards other creatures, especially man. He is not suspicious or shrinkingly submissive, like horses, cattle and sheep; nor an impudent devil-may-care like the goat; nor hostile like the goose; nor condescending like the cat; nor a flattering parasite like the dog. He views us from a totally different, a sort of democratic standpoint, as fellow citizens and brothers, and takes it for granted that we understand his language, and without servility or insolence he has a natural, pleasant camaraderie, or hail-fellow-well-met air with us.” ([1], p.18).

Esther the Wonder Pig is doing much to change the public’s opinion of pigs. Her guardians, Derek Walter and Steve Jenkins, adopted her believing she was a micro-pig, but when she grew ever-larger and larger, they soon discovered that they had adopted a “food” pig. Derek and Steve fell in love with Esther’s charming personality and have transformed their lives to accommodate her needs. They are now ardent advocates on behalf of pigs.

How can we know farmed animals?

To really know someone or something, it is necessary to develop an intimate, embodied and personal relationship with that being or thing through regular close contact and interaction, and by paying attention. Most of us who live in cities seldom have the opportunity to do so with farmed animals, but we can partially learn about farmed animals by reading or watching  stories about them and watching videos of their behaviour and interactions with others.  Ethologists (scientists who study animal behaviour in non-laboratory conditions) can also tell us a lot about what farmed animals are like, and their emotions and behaviour. Many cities have farm sanctuaries nearby where people can actually meet farmed animals in relaxed circumstances.  Near to Toronto and in Ontario there are several sanctuaries for farmed animals including Wishing Well Sanctuary,  Cedar Row Farm Sanctuary , Haven of the Heart, Refuge RR for Horses / The Canadian H.E.A.R.T, and Ruby Ranch Pip Sanctuary.  Few people know, however, that they also have an opportunity to see and interact with farmed animals within the city.  A little known fact is that urban areas have historically been the centre of slaughter operations because of the availability of infrastructure, markets and labour[2]. When animals are transported to slaughter in the city, citizens have the possibility of interacting with them in their final hours.



Slaughterhouses in Toronto


A pig slaughterhouse in downtown Toronto that closed in 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

A pig slaughterhouse in downtown Toronto that closed in 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Until recently, Toronto, was the Canadian centre for meatpacking operations and the distribution of farmed animals for slaughter[2]. Although the number of slaughterhouses in Toronto is decreasing, there remain several in existence.  Modern city dwellers are increasingly sensitive to the sight (and smell) of slaughter, and no longer imagine farmed animals as having a place in the city. As a result, slaughterhouses are increasingly located further away from the core of urban areas and hidden from public view[10]. Large-scale and modern slaughter operations also have larger space requirements which makes it more economical to purchase land outside of urban areas. Despite the scale of slaughter operations, they manage to remain in relative obscurity from the Canadian public. Canadians do not generally seek employment in the day-to-day operations of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants, therefore, workers involved in killing and processing animals typically come from marginalized and immigrant groups (see here, for example). The meat industry itself has stated that it cannot recruit sufficient Canadians to fulfill their need for workers at slaughterhouses[11]. Canadians, usually white, are however, employed as plant managers, marketers and truck drivers.

A chicken slaughterhouse in northwest Toronto. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

A chicken slaughterhouse in northwest Toronto. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Slaughterhouses are located out of sight. They have high walls, fences, no or few windows and other means of hiding what is happening inside.  Pachirat (2011), in Every 12 Seconds, Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, argues that


distance and concealment operate as mechanisms of power in modern society. Although we literally ingest its products in our everyday lives, the contemporary slaughterhouse is ‘a place that is no-place,’ physically hidden from sight by walls and socially veiled by the delegation of dirty, dangerous, and demeaning work to others tasked with carrying out the killing, skinning and dismembering of living animals.” ([12], p.4)


According to Pachirat, slaughterhouses are invisible and inaccessible to ordinary members of society. For this reason, I took it upon myself to visit several slaughterhouses in Toronto and South Africa, my native country. Visiting a slaughterhouse, however, does not entail going inside, because, it is difficult to obtain legitimate permission to do so. I am not sure I would have the stomach for that anyway.


Cow slaughterhouse in northwest Toronto. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

A cow slaughterhouse in northwest Toronto. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

A large wall separating a residential neighbourhood from slaughterhouses and tannery in northwest Toronto. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

A large wall separating a residential neighbourhood from slaughterhouses and tannery in northwest Toronto. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Canada Packers stock yards located on the south west corner of Keele St. and St. Clair Ave. West between 1935 & 1955 (Toronto Municipal Archives, Fonds 1257 Series 1057 Item 766)

Canada Packers stock yards located on the south west corner of Keele St. and St. Clair Ave. West between 1935 & 1955 (Toronto Municipal Archives, Fonds 1257 Series 1057 Item 766)

Several of the remaining slaughterhouses in Toronto are part of the former Stockyard Industrial District in northwest Toronto. The Stockyard Industrial District was very large, being 97.6 hectares in area, and was composed of the Ontario Stockyards, a meat packing complex consisting of slaughterhouses, meat packing and processing plants, extensive railways, manufacturing, scrap yards, warehousing and other heavy industry uses, as well as pockets of residential houses and commercial use. The Ontario Stockyards was a 15 hectare portion of the Stockyards Industrial District[13].The Ontario Stockyards was located on the south side of St. Clair Street and the west side of Keele Street. The stockyards functioned as a livestock market place where animals were bought and sold daily to farmers and slaughterhouses.  While waiting for slaughter or distribution, the animals would be held in pens in the stockyards.

Aerial photos of northwest Toronto, the Industrial Stockyard District (formerly known as Union Stockyards), 1939. (Toronto Municipal Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 17780)

Aerial photos of northwest Toronto, the Industrial Stockyard District (formerly known as Union Stockyards), 1939. (Toronto Municipal Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 17780)

The Ontario Stockyards was opened in 1903 and closed down in this location in 1994 and moved to Cookstown where it exists to this day. The closure of the stockyards was mostly as a result of changes in how animals are distributed to slaughterhouses. In the first half of the twentieth century, animals were primarily transported to the stockyards for auction via rail, but increasingly farmers sold directly to meat packers and trucking companies transported animals directly to the slaughterhouse [2]. During its existence in Toronto, the Ontario Stockyard was one of the largest facilities of this type in North America. The Ontario Stockyard dealt in cattle, veal calves, sheep, lambs and pigs.  In 1982 it was estimated that 435,000 cattle, 122,000 calves, 90,000 sheep and 235,000 hogs were transported to the stockyards by truck and a further 60,000 cattle and 64,000 calves by rail that year.

It was the Ontario Stockyards that attracted the slaughterhouses and meat packing industries. The first slaughterhouse was erected in 1905 and was soon

Men unloading cattle at Union Stockyards, estimated from 1940s  (Toronto Municipal Archives, Fonds 1257 Series 1057 Item 4699)

Men unloading cattle at Union Stockyards, estimated from 1940s (Toronto Municipal Archives, Fonds 1257 Series 1057 Item 4699)

followed by others.  It is little known that industrial-scale slaughtering and “dressing” has been in operation in Canada since the end of the nineteenth century [2].  Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line was in fact inspired by the disassembly of animals hanging by their hind legs from a packinghouse rail line.  According to MacLachlan ([2], p. 8), an academic geographer,”The natural animate variability in cattle and the nature of organic tissue required more labour-intensive technology than automobile manufacturing but in other respects the turn-of-the century meat-packing industry in North America was the prototype for the Fordist revolution.” (As an aside, the language used to describe living cows as having “natural animate variability” and “organic tissue” seems to be a euphemism to avoid acknowledging that cows are sentient and do not willingly go to slaughter, are messy and bloody, and refuse to be homogeneous processing units like car parts despite efforts from producers.)

The slaughterhouses that still exist in the Old Stockyards vicinity have a long history. Both St. Helen’s and the Ryding Meat Packers were at least already present in 1983 [13].  The current Maple Leaf chicken slaughterhouse is a continuation and merger of previous companies that worked in the area[2].  In a highly competitive market, St. Helen’s survives by slaughtering dairy cows and boning ungraded beef. It also serves a distinctive ethnic market ([2], p.287). Based on discussions with local activists, Ryding Meat Packers also carries out kosher slaughter.

Stock yards. - 1908

Herding animals at the stockyards in 1908 (Toronto Municipal Archives, Fonds 1244 Item 3166)

Briny the bull and Jerry the goat, leaders at the Union Stock Yards from 1909 (Toronto Municipal Archives, Fonds 1244 Item 3167)

Briny the bull and Jerry the goat, leaders at the Union Stock Yards from 1909. Briny and Jerry would lead cows and sheep, respectively, to slaughter. (Toronto Municipal Archives, Fonds 1244 Item 3167)


Old Stockyards street sign - a reminder of the Ontario Stockyards in 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Old Stockyards street sign – a reminder of the Ontario Stockyards in 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

The Stockyards mall in northwest Toronto - the former Industrial Stockyard Complex in 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

the Stockyards mall in northwest Toronto – the former Industrial Stockyard Complex in 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

For the purposes of this project, I visited the former Ontario Stockyards area several times, now converted to big box stores and a shopping mall. The mall is designed to completely block the sights (and stench) of the slaughterhouses and leather tannery. Not one window or view point faces west towards the slaughterhouses and tannery. During a visit on a Sunday evening, I briefly saw a cattle transportation truck drive past on the north side of the mall, but had I not being paying attention, I would not have noticed it. I tried to imagine the sights, smells and sounds that I would have heard when the stockyards still existed and the lives that had passed through there, but it was hard.  The only reminders were the names given to a road, “Old Stock Yards Road,” and the mall, “the Stockyards”. It seems to me that there is terrible forgetting happening here before people have even realised that there is something to forget.


Art: Sirens of the Lambs by Banksy


This provocative performance street art was created by renowned artist, Banksy.  The onlookers’ attention is grabbed by the unusual sight of the toys squealing from the transportation truck.  It seems doubtful that a truck filled with living farmed animals would receive such notice.  Art can be a powerful means of making people pay attention and see familiar sights differently.


Literature: Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, 1906


In 1906, journalist and writer, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel about the working class of the United States centred around the Chicago stockyards and meatpacking industries.  His goal was to raise consciousness about the exploitation of immigrants and workers in unregulated capitalism and promote socialism as an alternative [14]. The novel was based upon Sinclair’s own investigative journalism into the stockyards and meatpacking industries and is therefore rich in realistic detail.  His description of the violent disassembly of farmed animals in the slaughterhouse was intended to act as a metaphor for the workers who were also cogs in the machine and whose lives were destroyed by capitalistic exploitation. However, The Jungle was too brutal, journalistic with a touch of soap-opera to be a work of art. Readers were disgusted by the unsanitary and horrific conditions of the slaughterhouse and missed the criticism of the capitalist system itself, resulting in the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Drug and Food Act of 1906.  Sinclair said in an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach” (Wikipedia, The Jungle). Neither the workers’ conditions nor the animals received much attention from the public who were mostly concerned about their own food safety. The slaughtered animals were, ultimately, the most overlooked by the author and the book’s readers and critics. Sinclair appropriated the violence inflicted upon animal bodies for political purposes and never seemed to question their very subjugation and destruction in the capitalist system.


“They had chains which they fastened about the leg of the nearest hog, and the other end of the chain they hooked into one of the rings upon the wheel. So, as the wheel turned, a hog was suddenly jerked off his feet and borne aloft. At the same instant the ear was assailed by a most terrifying shriek; the visitors started in alarm, the women turned pale and shrank back. [. . .] Meantime, heedless of all these things, the men upon the floor were going about their work. Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them; one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats. [. . .] It was all so very businesslike that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics. And yet somehow the most matter-of-fact person could not help thinking of the hogs; they were so innocent, they came so very trustingly; and they were so very human in their protests–and so perfectly within their rights! [. . .]  Now and then a visitor wept, to be sure; but this slaughtering-machine ran on, visitors or no visitors. It was like some horrible crime committed in a dungeon, all unseen and unheeded, buried out of sight and of memory.” (The Jungle, p.36-37)

Bearing witness

A Toronto Pig Save sign making the slaughterhouse visible from 2014. Photo by Anita Kranjc.

A Toronto Pig Save sign making the slaughterhouse visible from 2014. (Photo by Anita Kranjc.)

The visibility of the slaughterhouses in the Old Stockyards district began to change in 2012 when it was first visited by a grassroots animal rights group in Toronto called Toronto Pig Save. The group, a loosely connected set of individuals that grows, swells and changes over time, believes in the power of bearing witness to transform the viewer’s heart through the connection created with those who are suffering. Toronto Pig Save began doing vigils at a pig slaughterhouse, Quality Meat Packers, in 2010 and expanded to include other slaughterhouses in the region. Weekly vigils occur within and outside of Toronto. The movement has become international with many similar groups arising all over the world. Toronto Pig Save’s welcoming tone and online presence allows them to connect with members of the public, many of whom are meat eaters who noticed the transportation trucks in the city and were disturbed by what they saw.

Toronto Pig Save’s mission is to make slaughterhouses and the animals who are killed in them become visible.

Bearing witness to a cattle transport truck in 2014. Photo by Anita Kranjc.

Bearing witness to a cattle transport truck in 2014. (Photo by Anita Kranjc).

“Our mission is to put “glass walls” on Toronto’s three slaughterhouses [. . .]. Our goal is to encourage people: to join us and bear witness of the suffering of animals in transport and at slaughterhouses, to go vegan, to be daily animal activists, to protect the environment, to promote healthy living, to support farm sanctuaries, and to work towards a just transition for workers and the creation of meaningful and nonviolent work in a vegan food economy.” [15]

According to their website:

“Toronto Pig Save uses the strategies of bearing witness to animal suffering in darkest places—slaughterhouses—and a community-organizing approach in which we have a team of leaders and we encourage leadership in others. We aim to build a democratic, mass-based, grassroots movement to bear witness of animal suffering, end the animal emergency, and create a world of animal equality and animal sanctuaries. We use a love-based approach informed by Leo Tolstoy (especially his book The Kingdom of God is Within You about nonviolence, love and truth as the most potent forces in life and in social change), Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lois Gibbs, Cesar Chavez, and many other grassroots community organizers.”[15]

I first joined a Toronto Pig Save vigil at the former Quality Meat Packers slaughterhouse (now closed) in 2012. The prospect of bearing witness to suffering and saying good-bye to animals who were going to be killed was not something I looked forward to, but I felt a need and a duty to see the animals and to confront the meat industry from which I had been sheltered. Fortunately, the Toronto Pig Save community, led by a strong and compassionate activist, Anita Kranjc, provided a supportive community which is necessary when witnessing trauma and death. It is really difficult to describe the emotional dread of seeing something that is both horrible and totally banal, in the sense that it happens every day and is very much a part of normal life. Quality Meat Packers was in a particularly odd and contradictory setting that intensified my feeling of disbelief and disconnect. It was located in a gentrifying condo-community. Opposite the slaughterhouse, were tennis courts and a large free run dog park where people would commune with their pets. The contrast of dogs happily frolicking with their companions and stinking trucks rolling by containing screaming pigs was hard to comprehend.

Pigs inside transport truck, one looking at me. The sun is shining in. 2012. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Pigs inside transport truck, one is looking at me. 2012. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Pig looking at me from inside transport truck in 2012. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Pig looking at me from inside transport truck in 2012. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

I also visited the cow slaughterhouses in northwest Toronto. I was not able to capture good photographs of the cows, but did obtain photos of freshly removed cow hides on a truck. As they were being moved a stream of blood dripped from the truck onto the side-walk and road.

Freshly removed cow hides being taken to the tannery down the road. Nov 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Freshly removed cow hides being taken to the tannery. Nov 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Cow blood running onto the street. Nov 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Cow blood running onto the street. Nov 2014. (Photo by Tracy Timmins)

Hannah Gregus, a young member of Toronto Pig Save, made the following compilation of vigil experiences at slaughterhouses in Toronto and nearby. Participants try to reach out to the animals. They talk to them and sometimes cry. “I see you,” and “I’m sorry,” are phrases most commonly expressed.

Ten Billion Gone – Toronto Cow Save/Toronto Pig Save 2014 by Hannah Gregus

How the meat industry views farmed animals

Many different actors are involved in the entire supply-chain of reproducing, growing, transporting, slaughtering, processing, packaging, distributing and marketing of farmed animals and meat. Each of the actors could have different ideas about the animals whom form the heart of their business. If we believe the marketing campaigns, all animals within their care are valued, respected and treated well.

McDonald’s has a large campaign inviting people to ask them any question about their food. Very few questions submitted by the public to the McDonald’s website seem to be about animal welfare. Rather, they are mostly concerned about food safety and disgust issues. In the following video, a rancher from Alberta describes his process of raising cattle in very reasonable terms. The animals look content in this neatly contrived video, but the farmer glosses over the repetitive breeding of cows, and the stress animals experience when branded, castrated, and dehorned, while in feed lots, and during transportation and slaughter.

On another industry site,, a similar, but lower budget, Q-&-A section has been created for consumers. A customer asks, “Is it true that to de-feather a chicken it’s scalded with hot water while it’s still conscious?!” – Claire B, MB.’s response is,

“No, Claire, it’s not true. Chickens are processed in a humane way. When the chickens arrive at the processing plants, they are anesthetized with a mild electric current that makes the birds insensitive to pain. Next, the anesthetized birds are passed by a cutting blade that severs the carotid and/or jugular arteries. This whole process takes place in seconds. Later in the process, the carcass is immersed in hot water, and machines with rubber contacts are used to rub the feathers off.”

This response is dry and technical, thereby deflecting attention away from the living, breathing birds that must pass through a slaughterhouse system which would otherwise be described as horrifying. It seems odd to conclude that being electrocuted is a humane way to be killed. This technical description also assumes that the technical system always works perfectly. The fact that tens or hundreds of thousands of birds are “processed” daily reveals the impossibility of ensuring that all chickens are killed “humanely.”

In a historic case, Maple Lodge Farms in Brampton Ontario, which slaughters a staggering 500,000 chickens per day, was found guilty in September 2013 of causing undue suffering to spent laying hens and broiler chickens in transportation to the slaughterhouse in freezing cold weather. They were sued by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) under the Health of Animals Act. An excessively high percentage of birds were found dead on arrival (DOA) in 2008 and 2009 which prompted the CFIA to investigate. Four per cent DOA is considered acceptable for spent hens and two per cent for broilers at the time. These are not laws, only generally accepted figures in the industry. Details of the case can be found in this report prepared by the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals (CCFA)[5]. The report documents the conditions of the birds as testified in court and is well worth reading for fascinating details about the industry. According to the report just-in-time supply-chain management and economic considerations trumped the well being of the birds.

I attended trial proceedings on 11 February 2012 and was astounded by how precisely-timed the supply-chain management system of chickens’ lives and deaths is. Chickens must be hatched at the right time, grow at the correct rate, be removed from sheds at the right time (to make space for new chickens), and be slaughtered at the right weight. For example, if the broiler chickens weigh too much in total kilograms due to being allowed to grow for too long, i.e., be alive for too long, producers (farmers) will be fined for being over-quota. One testimony from an employee of Maple Lodge Farms really stood out for me. While describing the tight schedules for managing laying hens’ lives, he referred to spent hens as a “by-product” of egg production. The value of the meat on a spent hen is approximately $1 and the estimated cost of the hen by time of arrival at the slaughterhouse is 23c/kg (whether dead or alive). Clearly, hens are not “worth” much. Spent hens are used in deli products, chicken hot dog sausages and pet food. Alternatively spent hens can be gassed, burned or sent directly to rendering plants. Judge Kastner concluded, “Regrettably, Maple Lodge Farms, through their employees and agents, decided that commercial imperatives trumped animal welfare when setting out that day to transport the spent hens to slaughter.”

The attitude to spent hens is evident in the following academic report prepared by Janet Montgomery, The Disposal of Light and Heavy Spent Fowl in Canada[7]. Quoting from her report below:

“The price for spent fowl for
slaughter is low, and often not feasible when transportation costs are considered.
Therefore, producers are concerned with improved measures of flock disposal, and
especially methods that will increase income from the use of the spent birds.

Processors may be interested in the volume and value of the spent fowl produced each
year as a potential source of income as well. Knowing the supply of birds and what
nutrients are provided by each bird in terms of protein, fat, feathers and blood can aid
them in making processing decisions for feasibility, profitability, and the type of further
processed products that would be marketable to consumers.

Society is becoming increasingly aware of animal production and welfare issues, as
well as the impact of agriculture on the environment. It would be pro-active of the
industry to find a welfare and environmentally-conscious solution for flock disposal
before it becomes a major issue to the public, and decreases the value of poultry products.” (p.3)

It is clear from above that the dominant interest is profitability. Concern over chickens’ welfare is a reaction to potential consumer disapproval, which could lower profitability.

A quick search for articles using keywords “economic” or “efficiency” in the Journal of Animal Science, reveals similar attitudes. Titles include, “Economic Value of Feeder Calves Between Breed Crosses”, “Stochastic Economic Evaluation of Dairy Farm Reproductive Performance”, “Influence of Mature Cow Weight on Economic Efficiency in Beef Cattle Production”, “Some Relationships Between Blood Group Factors and Economic Traits in Swine”, “Swine, Breeding for Efficiency,” “Feed Efficiency of Dairy Cows During First Lactation”, “The Effect of Feed Restriction on Feed Efficiencies and Carcasses of Charolais x Hereford Steers”. Whatever the industry may tell us about their relationship with farmed animals, it is clear from a casual investigation into academic literature, trade journals and actual industry practices that farmed animals are only bare life. Every aspect of their lives is tightly managed and controlled as part of the supply-chain-management process. The value of individual animal lives is subsumed in the larger scientific-capitalistic enterprise. Never do they question whether animals should be turned into commodities to be “produced”, traded and consumed, and it is not in their interests to do so.

Literature: Charlotte’s Web, 1952, by Elwyn Brooks White

A popular children’s books features a pig, Wilbur, who escaped the fate of being eaten thanks to the effort of his spider friend, Charlotte [16]. Charlotte wrote messages about Wilbur in her web to impress the judges at an annual pig competition. After winning a special prize, Wilbur was guaranteed to live to old age. The book anthropomorphizes animal characters to help the reader relate to them. Although the animals take on distinctly human characteristics, like being able to speak English and write, White also makes an effort to describe their natural behaviours and inclinations. For example, White describes Wilbur’s actions and feelings after escaping from the barn:

“He gave a jump in the air, twirled, ran a few steps, stopped, looked all around, sniffed the smells of afternoon, and then set off walking down through the orchard. Pausing in the shade of an apple tree, he put his strong snout into the ground and began pushing, digging, and rooting. He felt very happy.” (p. 18)

In a letter, White wrote about how he came to write Charlotte’s Web. He describes his love of animals and pigs in particular. After raising several pigs and developing relationships with them, he felt a sense of betrayal after killing them. He wrote this story about Wilbur to reflect his desire that a pig would escape its fate.

“A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of “Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.[17]


Peaceful activists block a transportation truck from delivering cows to slaughterhouse.

Peaceful activists block a transportation truck from delivering cows to slaughterhouse. Nov 7, 2014 (Photo by Carole Iritz)

A group of Toronto-based activists took White’s whim to save animals from slaughter seriously. So seriously that on the 6th of November 2014 they decided to take non-violent direct action against St Helen’s Meat Packers by blockading the entrance to the slaughterhouse. Six activists (three women and three men) sat on the sidewalk (public property) side by side to prevent the trucks from entering. Up to 70 Toronto Pig Save members came to support and bear witness. The blockade lasted 2.5 half hours before the activists were arrested for public mischief. According to activists, John Bonnar from Rabble News reported fairly on the event, here.

According to the activists’ media representative, Lorene Elke[18],

“We consider ourselves part of the whole blockadia movement which Naomi Klein is talking about in her new book “This Changes Everything” although she doesn’t mention specifically animal rights groups.”

“When activists are willing to use their own bodies to defend the innocent, it is meant as a highly symbolic gesture of solidarity with the most oppressed beings on the planet. It is a way to say that we will try to defend them as they go to their deaths, and that we object to this needless and cruel system of violence that is in place to rob them of their lives and their freedom.”

More information about the blockade can be found on the activists’ website, Meet Me at the Stockyards.

Seeing each other, activists and cows. Nov 6, 2014. (Photo by Carole Iritz)

Seeing each other, activists and cows. Nov 7, 2014. (Photo by Carole Iritz)

The cows see the activists. Nov 6, 2014. (Photo by Carole Iritz)

The cows see the activists. Nov 7, 2014. (Photo by Carole Iritz)

Making life overlooked visible

The animals who are transformed into meat are both overlooked and not overlooked. The general public or consumers may not think about the meat/flesh that they are eating or the farmed animals’ lives, but the meat industry, with its farmers, transporters, meat packers, and supply chain managers spend their working hours managing every aspect of these animals’ lives. However, although all the material aspects of turning an animal into a product is thoroughly researched and controlled, sight of the individual animal and their inner world seems to be almost completely lacking. In industrial capitalism, farmed animals are bare life, infinitely disposable. Animals are grown to be more efficient, to grow faster, and to be more profitable. This is very clear in the language that is used, such as livestock, by-products, spent hens, dead on arrivals or DOAs, breeders, disposal etc. This is why throughout this text, I have attempted to refer to farmed animals rather than use conventional words such as livestock, pork and beef which prevents us from confronting the animal. Animal-centred language is a first step in trying to make the animal behind the meat more visible. Bearing witness is also essential for uncovering their lives. In bearing witness one encounters a living being who not only is seen, but sees us. In seeing and recognizing each other a profound connection is created, much like in Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am (in Critical Inquiry 2002).

I would like to end with a short documentary about artist, Sue Coe, made by Our Hen House, in which Sue Coe beautifully explains the power of bearing witness and expressing images, feelings and memories through art.


[0] Wolch, J. R., & Emel, J. (Eds.) (1998) Animal Geographies: Places, Politics, and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands. London: Verson, , p.xi

[1] Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff (2003) The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, The Emotional World of Farm Animals. New York: Random House Publishing Group.

[2]MacLachan, Ian (2001) Kill and Chill, Restructuring Canada’s Beef Commodity Chain. Tor, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press.

[3] Wikipedia (n.d.) “Dairy Cattle,” Wikipedia. [online] url: Accessed on 2014 Dec 8.

[4] Wikipedia (n.d.) “Chicken,” Wikipedia. [online] url: Accessed on 2014 Dec 9.

[5] CCFA and AAC (n.d.) Economics of Animal Welfare, Production, Transport and Slaughter of Chickens in Canada. [online] url:

[6] (n.d.) [online] url: Accessed on 2014 Dec 7.

[7] Montgomery, Janet (2005) The Disposal of Light and Heavy Spent Fowl in Canada. [online] url: Accessed on 2014 Dec 7.

[8] Wikipedia (n.d.) “Domestic Pig,” Wikipedia. [online] url: Accessed on 2014 Dec 9.

[9] Sorenson, John (2010) About Canada, Animal Rights. Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

[10] Philo, C. (2010) Animals, Geography, and the City: Notes on Inclusions and Exclusions. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 13(6), 655–681.

[11] Arnason, Robert (2014 Jun 23) “Temporary Foreign Worker Changes Worry Meat Packers,” The Western Producer. [online] url: Accessed on 2014 Dec 10.

[12] Pachirat, Timothy (2011) Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[13] McLaughlin, S.G. (1983) Report on the Stockyards, Meat Packing and Related Industries in the Stockyards Industrial District, as requested by the Stockyards Task Force, Planning and Development Dept. Toronto Municipal Archives: Fonds 2, Series 60, File 2272.

[14]Dickstein, Morris (1981). “Introduction,” The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. New York, New York: Bantam Dell.

[15]Toronto Pig Save (n.d.) “About Us,” Toronto Pig Save [online]. url: Accessed on 2014 Dec 9.

[16]White, Elwyn B.(1952) Charlotte’s Web. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

[17]Usher, Shaun (2013 Aug) “A Book is a Sneeze,” Letters of Note [online]. url: Accessed on 2014 Dec 3.

[18]Bonnar, John (2014 Nov 8) “Activists Block Entrance to Toronto Slaughterhouse,” [online]. url: Accessed on 2014 Nov 16.