The title of this blog is in quotes because those are the words that someone yelled at us last week at a vigil in front of Maple Leaf Foods, a chicken slaughterhouse here in Toronto. Actually, his precise words were, What FUCKING difference does it make? but I decided to edit that part out since it doesn’t make for as strong a title. The man who yelled at us was an employee and it was after two truckloads of chickens – about 7,000 birds per truck – had been driven onto the property and were being held in an area prior to slaughter.
This is only the second vigil with Toronto Pig Save that I’ve been to. The first was in 2015 when I joined in one held at Maple Leaf Foods, St. Helen’s Meat Packers and Ryding Regency Meat Packers, all three which are located very close-by to one another (both St. Helen’s and Ryding slaughter cows, calves and lambs, Maple Leaf slaughters birds). Although nothing can ever prepare you completely, I was more mentally ready this past week and had at least some idea of what I was going to see. And smell. Even just standing outside of a slaughterhouse on a chilly night in November, the smell of blood and feces and raw flesh hangs in the air. It’s an unmistakable stench and all the Styrofoam, refrigeration and plastic wrap in the world could never make me forget it.
When the semi-trailers arrive at the slaughterhouse, the drivers momentarily stop on the side of the road, just outside the gate of Maple Leaf Foods. They exit their vehicles, holding a fistful of paperwork, and head inside the plant, presumably to make sure everything is in order before they offload their “freight”. The drivers did not give us any trouble; they’re either used to seeing the activists there or they just wanted to get in and get out as fast as possible without being delayed by asking us what we were doing suddenly hanging out by their truck.
It’s when the trucks are outside of the building – not yet on private property – that we can physically go up to the vehicle and see the birds inside. Some people take photos or videos, others reach their fingers through the crates where all the birds are jammed and gently stroke a chicken’s feathers or feet. Some will say something gentle or soothing, whispering apologies to these innocent animals who have never known a kind touch from a human before. The eeriest part of seeing the birds on the trucks is the silence: since it is legal to transport birds in Canada for up to 36 hours without food, water or rest, and in all kinds of weather conditions, one can only imagine how it might feel to be trapped in the same position for that long without being able to move, stretch, eat, or drink. Understandably, some birds are dead on arrival. Could the silence be from shock or terror or because they are slowly dying? I can only speculate.
If you do happen to hear a bird make a sound – and you can if you get close enough – they “cheep” rather than “cluck” because they are still baby chicks, only about seven weeks old. (What a lot of people don’t realize about chickens raised for meat is that they’re killed while still babies. They are bred to grow abnormally large in a very short amount of time so while their bodies may look full size, their heads are actually very small and they still make chirping sounds because they are so young).
When the drivers return to their trucks, they honk twice at us to indicate that they’re getting ready to drive into the slaughtering facility and to clear out of the way. We reluctantly do so, a mix of indignation and helplessness passing through the group. Many activists do not move away until the last possible moment, walking beside the truck and talking to the birds until the gate closes in front of them.
Once inside the gate, the truck stops again and we continue to watch from outside as the drivers maneuver the trailer of birds either into the holding area (where birds can wait for up to another 12 hours) or nearer to the assembly line where the birds will be roughly unloaded by the feet and hung upside down by their legs. (At the Maple Lodge chicken slaughtering plant in Brampton, workers are expected to hang 20 birds a minute so try to imagine how “humane” that treatment is when working at those speeds.)
While one of the workers was pulling a plastic curtain around the first truck (I’ve yet to find out what this is for), the pause allowed a few of the activists to linger by the second truck that was still partially on public property. It was then that the man yelled out at us, “What fucking difference does it make?”
What difference does it make?
For someone reading this or watching us that night who is not familiar with what animals endure everyday prior to becoming “food”, this would seem a logical question. So here is my answer:
For those baby chickens I saw last week, those 10,000+ birds that we watched be sent to their deaths, I don’t know what difference it made. We were not able to save them and we will likely not be able to save any from the next 100,000 trucks that go in. But I know this: it will make a difference one day. When that employee yelled at us with that question, he was only thinking of the birds right in front of him, the ones he could physically see. What he doesn’t understand is that activism is never just about what’s in front of you – it’s about the big picture.
Every week that activists document what is happening there, or at any other slaughterhouse, every picture that is sent out, every video that is recorded, every story that is shared, every witness that is present, adds another push to the movement for total animal liberation. It’s another piece of information that will one day move someone to make the connection between animal suffering and what’s on their plate and go vegan. Every person that bears witness to animal suffering is making an impact, whether it’s now or twenty years from now.
We live in a world that relies on instant gratification as a measure to tell us whether we’re successful or not and that’s not a reason to become an activist. Activism is about the long-game. Do we wish we could save every animal we see suffering? Yes, of course (and if everyone went vegan, that suffering would end). But that’s not how the world works. People can take entire generations to change and that is all the more reason to press on. Do we watch those trucks go into the slaughterhouse, throw up our hands and say, “Well, we can’t save those chickens so that’s a lost cause!” Of course not. Do firefighters say, “Well, that whole family died in the fire because they didn’t change the batteries in their smoke detectors – I guess we shouldn’t bother trying to educate people on fire safety.” Of course not! You keep going. You keep working to educate people because someday, someone, somewhere, is going to wake the fuck up. And then they’re going to tell someone else, and someone else, and someone else, and before you know it, the world is changing because the people are.
So Mr. Employee Man, to answer your question, I don’t know what difference it makes. I just know that it does. And as my friend always says, it beats doing nothing.
If you’d like to join a Save group in your area, please check out their website here for a list (you can also start one too!). If you’d like to join the Thursday night vigil at Maple Leaf Foods, the address is 100 Ethel Avenue (Keele and St. Clair West) from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. And if you have any questions, you can contact me in the comments, email me via the Contact page, or DM me on Twitter (@themeanvegan).
Thank you for reading.