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The spectre of the militant animal rights activist is threatening the farmers of Britain once again, according to a section of this past weekend’s papers.
A report in The Sunday Times claims that a new campaign “has sprung up across Britain—organising pickets, blockades and even invasions of slaughterhouses” which has left farmers “unable to sleep at night”. As covered by the MailOnline, for the National Pig Association it’s only a matter of time “until someone gets hurt”.
Well there’s one part of the story that is true—a new campaign has developed in Britain over the last 18 months. The Save Movement is a collection of animal advocates, campaigners for social justice, media savvy Youtube personalities and Instagrammers, from many different backgrounds, who organise regular vigils outside slaughterhouses around the country.
The Save Movement began in Toronto, Canada in 2010 and has spread around the world into a dozen countries. It launched in Manchester this February, and now has 24 groups established across the UK.
The rapid growth of the Movement is down to both its simplicity and non-violent approach. People gather outside abattoirs, usually in the early hours of the morning, to bear witness to the loss of lives of hundreds of thousands of animals killed each week. The vigils are an example of compassionate collective witnessing.
The claim in The Sunday Times that “some groups have taken a more confrontational approach” is wrong. The movement is committed to following a code-of-conduct that advocates “non-violent protest”, and is modeled on a “love-based” approach inspired by other successful civil rights campaigners such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Protestors who continually flout the code of conduct are requested to change their behaviour or desist in attending what have been, in the vast majority, peaceful vigils.
But as with the movements for civil or gay rights, the campaign of justice for animals is freighted with complex and often overwhelming emotions. Tensions spill over into confrontation due to a clash of worldviews. The Save Movement advocates for a non-speciesist society: the killing of a chicken is the same as the killing of a human. Both human and chicken are individuals with a will to live—and the more we learn from science about the intelligence of a chicken, or that pigs, for example, can be either optimists or pessimists, the growing understanding that these animals are sentient, feeling, and can suffer like us, fans the emotions of grief and frustration.
Such a confrontation took place at a recent East London Chicken Save vigil outside a kosher abattoir. Allegations were made that activists sprayed anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls, linking the killing of animals to the holocaust. Such practices may not necessarily aim to be anti-Semitic, but rather make the link between forms of killing; however, they can obviously be seen as such, and anti-Semitism is not tolerated in the Movement. But nor are these vigils a strategic attack on any religious or ethnic group. Most Save Movement vigils are held outside “regular” abattoirs; the target is not slaughter by religious orders, but killing’s industrial efficiency based merely on species categories.
The emotional intensity of bearing witness to the deaths of so many nonhuman animals means that altercations are inevitable—as has been the case with all civil rights movements facing perceived injustices. What matters is how all sides—those killing animals, those protesting against their killing, and the police—act to ensure the safety of those involved, and the return to non-violent means of protest, free of intimidation.
And there has been plenty of that. In the many vigils I have attended while writing and researching the Save Movement, I have witnessed numerous provocations from slaughterhouse foreman, staff, truck drivers, and passersby—some offensive but harmless, and others a threat to the welfare of the protestors. Protestors have had slabs of bacon thrown at them from passing cars. There have been verbal threats from abattoir workers. There have been threats of physical assault from slaughterhouse foremen. Perhaps most worrying is the dangerous driving of the trucks, loaded with animals, meant to bully protestors out of the way.
One of the most common verbal shots is that the protestors should “get a job and leave hardworking people alone”. Unfortunately this misses the mark: the Save Movement is made up of teachers, nurses, mental health workers, media types, academics, firemen, bankers, shop-workers, chefs, engineers, physicists, retired people and students, all bonded by the cause of bearing witness to what they consider insufferable death.
Conversely, there are many good examples where abattoirs and protestors have worked together civilly to accommodate the activists’ wishes to provide some last moments of compassion and succour for the pigs, cows and chickens who have suffered very short, brutal lives, before their impending deaths. Some abattoir management have been smart in recognizing the longevity of these protests, and acted swiftly to draw up agreements for action which means much of the antagonism is averted.
It is gratifying, and welcome, that the National Pig Association believes that a handful of protestors and undercover investigations (revealing deplorable conditions and often misleading, if not illegal, practices) is reason enough to keep farmers “awake at night”. In this admission, the Association is recognizing the impact of the Save Movement, as well as the broader resurgence of animal justice issues and vegan practices over the last few years.
But I doubt it’s completely true. What might be responsible for keeping farmers “awake at night” is the huge change in consumer eating habits. Liquid milk consumption by UK households has fallen from over 2500ml per week in 1974 to just under 1500ml today. The dairy alternative market is expected to reach $21.7 billion by the year 2022, growing at a rate of 13.3% per year.
The market for pig meat is not faring better. Consumer spending on retail purchases is 12% down on last year, according to figures up to the middle of September. The overall amount of pig meat sold was down 6% year on year, with people buying less bacon, down 9%.
What keeps the protestors awake at night is the suffering of the animals, as well as animal agriculture’s impact upon the planet (it is the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change), and the health impacts of eating meat and dairy.
Rhetoric or action that causes injury to others, such as physical altercations with abattoir staff, will not be tolerated inside or outside this new Movement. But nor will the continued killing of nonhuman animals. Vigil attendees committed to bringing attention to the suffering of nonhuman animals, and the killing that takes place in the very hearts of our cities and communities, will continue to challenge the status quo. The way forward is to find means of protest that do not cause harm or put bodies in danger—and for the activists of the Save Movement, that ultimately includes the nonhuman animals in this story, too.
Filmed in 2015 by The Toronto Pig Save.
Dr Alex Lockwood is the author of The Pig In Thin Air, an exploration of the new wave of animal advocacy in America, Canada and the UK.
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