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I could hear the howls from three blocks away. But I still gasped as I walked into the sprawling Dong Xuan live-animal market in Hanoi, Vietnam. Dogs, many with open wounds, cowed in the corners of tiny wire cages stacked five high, as restaurateurs and butchers haggled over slaughter prices. Monkeys, chickens, and lizards huddled in cages scarcely larger than their bodies. In one cage, two young rabbits silently shook in fear as a python was placed in alongside them.
For the last three semesters I’ve written a Crimson column on animal protection, and for many years I’ve been a strict vegetarian. During that time, many friends and readers have voiced their surprise that I care so much about such an unlikely cause. Many, I think, have simply assumed I’ve always been this way—as if I were born with a PETA membership card and an inexplicably visceral distaste for KFC.
Yet, for the first 15 years of my life, the opposite was true: I ate meat, attended rodeos, and even occasionally went hunting in our family’s forest. A longtime vegetarian friend recently remembered that I teased her in middle school for her “rabbit diet” of fruit and vegetables. So what changed? In this, my last Crimson column, I would like to tell the story of how I became an animal advocate and explain why I believe history will judge our generation harshly based on our treatment of animals.
Looking back, I would love to pretend that my life changed after my chance encounter with the Vietnamese live-animal market. But it didn’t. In my mind, vegetarianism remained the preserve of health-obsessed teenage girls and animal rights the territory of self-righteous former hippies. Being neither, I returned to New Zealand and continued attending meat-filled barbeques at weekend rugby games.
But, if I was determined to never become a PETA acolyte, I also couldn’t shake entirely what I had seen in Vietnam. I read Matthew Scully’s beautiful book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy and began to wonder if our meat-production system merely sanitized and institutionalized the cruelty I had seen in Vietnam. Increasingly unsettled, I made a fateful decision to visit a slaughterhouse.
From its exterior, the slaughterhouse I visited looked very unlike the chaotic street market in Vietnam—its whitewashed walls satisfy our desire to ignore how meat is made. But inside the process was just as menacing: Huge chutes drove a pig every three seconds toward her death.
As I stood on the kill floor, I watched the moment when each pig, emerging from the chute, sensed its fate; the sudden piercing squeal followed by the too-late attempt to turn and run—some pigs literally attempting to scramble up vertical walls—as metal shackles were clamped around their ankles. And I watched as the shackles hoisted each pig into the air and as the slaughterer’s knife sent blood splattering across my overalls.
Then I watched as the mechanical disassembly line swung into action. First, the scalding tank that loosened the pig’s skin, then the series of machines and knife-wielding workers who swiftly converted the pig into a plastic-wrapped meat parcel. I asked one worker, “Do pigs ever get skinned alive?” “No,” he quickly replied, and then modified, “Well, when they do, I get really annoyed about it; that creates more work.”
American slaughterhouses kill 10 billion chickens, pigs, and cows every year in such conditions. Yet more troubling are the lives these animals lead before their deaths. Most farm animals today never feel sunlight, fresh air, or grass beneath their feet. Confined in narrow veal crates, gestation crates, and battery cages, millions of calves, pigs, and hens cannot even turn around or extend their limbs. And they live like this—sentient creatures capable of feeling pain and pleasure—for their entire wretched lives.
This year I wrote my senior thesis on those cages. What struck me most forcefully was how the horrific has become normal. Last week, a pig factory farm in Shuyer County, Illinois, burnt down. The owners had economized by neither installing a sprinkler system nor a night watchman who could release the pigs. In the ensuing blaze, 11,000 pigs were burnt alive, many struggling frantically to escape their cages—firefighters recalled the horrific squeals they heard. Yet nothing changed. The owners promptly claimed insurance and will soon rebuild their factory farm.
Such stories, and the broader reality they encapsulate, first persuaded me to buy only free-range meat, and later to become a strict vegetarian. I’ve never fully accepted any abstract theory of animal rights, nor do I think one needs to in order to sense that something has gone horribly wrong. For me, the horrors of the slaughterhouse and the suffering of the factory farm attest to that.
We are all complicit in a great moral crisis. But there is also hope: By informing ourselves, supporting political change, and even going vegetarian, we can end factory farming. I hope that I have persuaded you over the past year and a half that we must.
Lewis E. Bollard ’09 is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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