The man with the telephoto lens

When we first inspected our house, the bubbly real estate agent mentioned that our local town had a healthy economy, in part thanks to the abbatoir. Unable to see my jaw drop behind my mask, she carried on about how big the abbatoir is – it employs over 700 people – and how a lot of those employees are immigrants, so now the region is finally becoming more diverse!

“Diversity is great!” I said. I meant what I said about diversity, but I was clenching my fists thinking about the abbatoir.

We bought the house. We moved in.

Months later, I’m still adjusting to being surrounded by farmland. Around here, it’s mostly cattle.

Living in the midst of animal agriculture is difficult, even on good days. Sometimes I think that not being vegan is more emotionally taxing than being fully vegan, because even though my consumption of animals and animal products is significantly less than most, I still consume them occasionally. So even though I’m slowly trying to extricate myself from it, I’m still part of the problem.

I oscillate between being horrified by the way our species treats sentient beings as products, and horrified that we know how bad beef and dairy production is for the environment but that we don’t stop. We let our government take our taxes and subsidise animal agriculture. Even the people who don’t consume these products, who are trying to move the needle away from environmental collapse and animal suffering, still pay for them indirectly. It’s a broken system.

We regularly interact with a small herd of calves that come and go next door. They all wear numbered tags on their ears. They find our dog fascinating, but run away when he barks at them. Some are bold, some are cautiously curious, some are fearful. Jesse affectionately calls them “lawn puppies.”

Living in a place like this, you’re confronted with the relentless march of beef and dairy production. At this time of year, there are lots of calves. Some are still with their mothers, and look healthy and strong. Others are already on their own, huddled together, scared and unsure – still wobbly infants, too young to be removed from their mothers. You’ll drive past a herd of cows one day, and the next day you’ll drive past again, but some will be sporting a crude line of colored spray paint across their haunches. They’re marked for something.

One day, no matter what, they’ll be loaded onto a truck and taken to an abbatoir, like the one near us. Some of the female calves will be dairy cows for a while first; forcibly impregnated (a human arm shoved into them, up to the shoulder), have their child taken away too early, grieve loudly, and then get milked every day by a giant, automated machine. This will happen over and over, until they can’t stand up anymore.

Eventually, each one will get herded into a steel box that was created to hold them still, have their head placed on a small shelf designed for the express purpose of making the next step “easier” and “more humane,” and then have a human use a captive bolt gun to puncture their skull and brain in order to render them unconscious. (In terms of stunning, cows actually get it pretty good. Pigs do not. Look it up.)

Once the bolt has done its job, the purpose-designed box opens at the bottom, allowing the cow’s limp body to slide out and make room for the next one.

These boxes are made in various sizes. There are calf-sized boxes; male dairy calves are turned into veal.

Our species designs, fabricates, and sells equipment specifically made for killing other species en masse. Not because we need to, but because we want to.

I don’t like looking at spiders. It makes me feel very bad. But if someone tells me there’s a big one in the house, I have to go and locate it. Lay eyes on it once, and then avoid it.

Similarly, ever since we moved to this house, I’ve wanted to drive to the lamb abattoir. I know I can’t go inside, and I don’t want to. Inside is where the stunning, bleeding, killing, skinning, and dismemberment happens. I’ve seen videos of the process, and I’m not interested in re-traumatizing myself. But there’s always been a part of me that needs to see the facility from outside, in person.

Like locating the spider spider.

Yesterday, I was feeling very low. I’d only had three hours of sleep. I had therapy coming up that evening. I was driving home from a medicinal walk in the forest, still quietly numb, avoiding the music that would make me cry. I knew that, somehow, this was the time. So I put the address in my GPS, and drove to the abbatoir.

The scale of modern animal agriculture is fucking horrific. It’s dystopian. I don’t believe it’s inherently wrong to use animals for food, clothing, or medicine – but only when necessary, only if nothing goes to waste, and above all, only if done in a way that is humane and sustainable.

Nothing about modern, industrial animal agriculture is sustainable. And it sure as fuck isn’t humane.

As I drove past the front entrance, it looked like any other factory. An employee entrance with boom gates, car parking, and large, industrial buildings. Then I saw it: the sign for the other entrance. A nondescript sign with an arrow, and the words “Entrance: 600 meters.” I followed that sign.

As I came around the corner, I couldn’t see much, even behind the fully transparent chain link fence. I saw a huge, elevated loading area, with large, army-style shelters over the top. The side walls of the loading area were just the right height so that the sheep behind them were totally obscured. Visible over the side walls were the upper bodies of a few men in workwear.

I pulled over and rolled down my window. I smelled sheep, quickly followed by another, more distressing odor that’s impossible to describe.

I heard the usual noises sheep make when they’re being moved around, unsure of what’s happening, and I started to cry. I heard a lot of them, but I couldn’t see them. They were being herded from one end of the loading area to the other by the employees. One worker was tasked with herding smaller groups of them onto a platform. By shouting and making noise with what sounded like a big rattle, he’d herd them onto the platform, hit a button, and step back as a barrier would come down from above to confine them. The platform would then disappear into the building.

He did this, over and over. He was fast and efficient.

I wondered if he’s ever seen what happens to those sheep after the platform disappears. Or if he cares.

As I watched, and listened, and quietly cried, a truck approached – double decker, tightly packed with live sheep. Wool poking out between the metal bars, faces staring out, whites of their eyes visible. It came directly towards me before turning into the entrance. The driver saw me. We made eye contact. He remained expressionless.

I wondered if he ever thinks about what happens to those sheep after he drives away with an empty truck. Or if he cares.

After being confirmed by security, he pulled into the facility, then backed the truck towards the loading area. Another employee quickly got to work moving the sheep off of the truck and into the loading area with the help of a working dog. Behind me, in the back seat of the car, Rigby heard the dog, sat up, and growled quietly.

I could see the workers’ faces. And soon enough, they saw me, parked across the street, window down, face twisted with sadness. They stared at me blankly, and I stared back, wondering what they were thinking. I imagined them having a laugh about me later over a beer.

Suddenly, I saw movement in my rear view mirror, and panicked before realizing that a man on a pushbike had pulled up behind my car. He was using a telephoto lens to photograph the workers.

When he was done, I watched him wrap up his lens, put it in his bag, and get back on his bike. He rode right past my open window. As he passed, he made a sound: a low, visceral moan, bordering on a cry. It sounded like pain. Like a perfect representation of how I felt. His brow was knotted, his eyes blank. I watched him ride away.

For a second, I felt a little bit less alone.

I felt a little bit less like I was the only person on this side of the fence, staring at this huge, dystopian, well-oiled killing machine, wondering how we got here, feeling responsible but powerless to do anything about it. In that moment, I had evidence that I’m not the only one overwhelmed by this. And that maybe, if enough of us are loud enough about it, something might change.

I rolled up my window, wiped the snot and tears from my face with my shirt sleeve, gave Rigby a pat, and drove home.