It’s an early wake up for 10 activist, traveling to the outskirts of a city suburb. Some car pool, others travel alone. It’s pitch black, bitterly icy.
5.30am alarm, put on thermals, followed by a quick meditation and glass of water to clear my head. Scrape the ice from car windows. Select ‘Air Punch’ Spotify playlist to wake me up and prepare me for a full on morning.
The slaughterhouse looks like a generic industrial estate unit, with the only suggestion being a small sign saying licensed abattoir, the lorries and trailers of farm animals turning in, and now a group of animal rights activists, with signs and large banner stating ‘SLAUGHTERHOUSE’, which they cable tie to the iron fence next to the entrance. The slaughterhouse is on a main road, a commuter route. For three hours there is no hiding what this building is.
The activists hand each other blue high visibility vests to put over their clothes, to ensure they’re spotted by entering vehicles. The vests were originally yellow, but were suggested by the online activist community that bright yellow potentially causes distress to the farm animals. The activists catch up with one another, asking how their Christmases and New Years were. The slaughterhouse gate has been replaced, due to a fault in the previous one last month. This new gate has a serrated top, like an upside down hacksaw. The activists discuss and theorise the choice of gate; is it to intimidate, a function for an assumed forced entry in the future, or just by chance? Other activists begin to arrive. A couple has brought tea bags and instant coffee, with a small gas stove and kettle.
Driving passed the slaughterhouse to park up, I notice a double decker livestock truck is unloading farm animals inside the buildings courtyard. Parking up on the edge of an estate of bungalows, some 50 metres away from the slaughterhouse, I hug and exchange small talk with other activists already there and we make our way to the gates with the kit (banner, signs, rucksack of vests, cable ties, etc). My fingers are already numbing, and struggling to tighten the cable ties, attaching the banner to the fence. I take comfort in my prepared flask of coffee. I drink it too quickly to last out the morning freeze. Luckily there’s back up tea. The moon is full and staring at us.
Most of the activist are regular to these monthly vigils, and have assumed certain roles; a few put up the banner, another places signs on the sides of the road, leaning against lampposts and the fence of the slaughterhouse. While waiting for trucks and trailers to arrive, the activists catch up and converse from small talk to philosophical concepts. They keep a passive eye towards the distant busy roundabout; to spot any oncoming trucks. A truck is spotted and communicated to the group with a domino of ‘truck’. A couple volunteers to stand in front of the truck grab signs saying ‘Please give us 3 minutes to say goodbye’ and ‘No hate for the drivers, we are here to show love for the animals’. The others set up their phones on selfie sticks, to be able to capture the animals in the trucks through open slats. Today is cow day. This slaughterhouse does either cows or sheep, due to specific machinery (bolt gun).
As the truck arrives, the lower slats are closed, so we cannot see the animals. They are on a latch, I stretch to lift the latch and pull down the slats, revealing eyes and noses of cows, suddenly turning to peer out. Looking inside, the truck is full of breath, reacting with the crammed in mouths and the freezing temperature. The truck is there for a while due to issues with the new gate. After a minute of filming, activists begin to put down their phones and come closer to the truck; eye to eye, hand to nose.
The issues with the gate are quickly fixed; sending out a worker to operate opening the gate from a closer distance, as the remote range does not reach from inside where they used to open the previous gate. The presence of the worker on the inside of the gate changes the atmosphere; from a relaxed and almost routine process to a polarising one. The worker, dressed in high vis, aggressively shouts at activists to get out the way or they’ll get run over. A number of activists attempt to open dialogue, with questions like ‘Why do you think we are here?’ and ‘Do you look at the animals as they come through?’. He rarely gives answers and regularly shakes his head an turns away. In a brief interaction he reveals his concern of jobs being lost through our presence, hinting to decrease in purchasing of animal products.
As I stand in front of a decelerating, then stationary, livestock truck, with the sign asking for 3 minutes to say goodbye to the animals, they accept. The worker controlling the gate shouts to the drive to just drive ‘run them over if you have to’. The driver begins to drive on. My temper rises, I snap to the worker ‘you’re inciting violence!’, he shakes his head and walks away. Another activists shouts to him that we got what he said on camera. The moon is setting like a desert sun. Expanding, deepening, then gone.
Between these bursts of action: spotting a truck in distance, grabbing signs and phones, filiming/saying goodbye and apologising to the animals, trucks going forward into the slaughterhouse – there are moments of normality through conversations, spanning the new Aldi vegan range, vertical farming and the political and societal climate in the next decade. A couple of the activists walk around the back of the building to hear the cows travel the gangway towards their slaughter. Four trucks and trailers pass through during the three hours the activists are there. As 9.30am and daylight approaches, activists begin to leave for their respective days at work, home or other. Before the majority of them leave there is the routine group photo outside the slaughterhouse, to say ‘we were there’. They pack away the signs, roll up the banner and pack up the refreshments, load them into a car, say their goodbyes and begin their day.
Some of us who are free after the vigil plan to grab a vegan breakfast at a local veggie café. These opportunities are treasured, to enter back into the ‘real world’ through comfort and understanding company. Four of us sit around a table, drink coffee, eat pancakes, complain about people and systems, and make each other laugh. There is no normal day after a vigil, I feel that stone heavier, that bit angrier. But buoyed by purpose. The community and action we do is symbolic and meaningful.