Not sure where to start here. It’s been a few weeks since I was smashed with a realization that, maybe, I should’ve seen before. Maybe it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise…but it did.
Mid-February I went to one of the first Los Angeles Pig Vigils. That’s a gathering of compassionate people who wait outside the gates of a slaughterhouse for the delivery trucks of animals and try to give the starving, dehydrated pigs a bit of food and/or water. It’s not gonna save the pigs, but what it does is bear witness to their lives, and give them a tiny moment of compassion and relief before being killed. It is a noble and worthy experience, and can be the only chance some people get to actually interact with the living being that would become human food.
But, like most Animal Rights protests or events, it is ripe for exploitation.
I actually had a great experience there. I found it organized very well by the organizers, the police, who maintained order, set the rules, and forced the trucks to stop for 5 minutes each, were kind, patient, and understanding of our feelings. The other activists were all friendly, kind, and like-minded. I knew I wasn’t saving any of these poor pigs, but it felt somewhat satisfying to, at least, be physically doing something, and be close to the animals I worry so much about, even if only for a moment. It was, as expected, incredibly moving and sad to witness such scared and confused animals, absolutely exhausted and starved for water. It’s an odd thing to simultaneously want to do it again and again…and never again. It would be completely understandable to hear someone say that it was too emotional for them and too upsetting. In fact, I’d EXPECT the average person to say that and never come back. However, I found it incredibly motivating, even in it’s sadness. I will not soon forget that night.
So, hey, great experience. What’s the frickin’ problem, right?
Well, I started to notice something a few days before the vigil, on the Facebook group page. There was, of course, information about when and where the vigil would be. There was suggestions of what to bring, how to behave, and what to expect. But there was also a pretty apparent element of who’s who, kind of, celebrity wow-factor going on. There was mention of a few ‘name’ activists (and, look, I’m not a hater. I’ve met some celebrity activists, and to be honest? They’ve all been super down to earth, and focused on the animals). But the day of the vigil, there was a post about a “special celebrity guest” coming that night, who they couldn’t reveal.
I have to admit, that irked me a bit. I wasn’t quite sure why, at first, and didn’t really dwell on it…but I certainly bumped on that post. I thought to myself, “Yeah. There’s gonna be a thousand ‘special guests’, they’re called pigs and they’re the reason we’ll be there. Let’s not lose focus.” So, when I got there, EVERYONE was super cool and nice and concerned and talking about the one reason we were there: The animals. That was good. I met a bunch of people, including the ‘name’ people, who were all very cool. Once the trucks showed up, everyone rushed the trucks. I felt sad for the pigs for the simple fact that they don’t know we’re there to help them. They can sense our emotions: our sadness, our urgency, our anxiety. It was chaos. I don’t critique the organization for that chaos, that’s just the way it goes. No one did anything wrong or especially ‘chaotic’, so I’m not suggesting it should’ve went down another way. It shouldn’t have. It was how it needed to be, but the pigs didn’t know our intentions. I hoped everyone else was conscious of that.
But, I noticed one uncomfortable thing throughout the night: Cameras. Lights and cameras. Video cameras, still cameras, simple iPhones, to iPhones on sticks, to DSLR’s, to DSLR’s on rigs, etc., etc. Now, it’s to be expected that we needed to document the night and share with the world that event and the truth about scared, doomed, pigs, which is why it’s so difficult to describe the problems I had that night (and following vigil). I get it. The AR movement NEEDS documentation, it also needs numbers. We need people to WANT to join us. No change will happen if the masses aren’t behind it. But, it’s super easy to slip into anthropocentrizing the movement, and a bunch of people selfie-ing themselves while they wander around the truck kinda puts the focus on them instead of the pigs. (Note: I get it, if it’s them TALKING about the pigs, isn’t that putting the focus on the pigs? Yeah, if they’re in their room or their car and their making a video about pig suffering, but if you’re LITERALLY next to a truck full of the pigs you’re suggesting we help, maybe put down the camera and give a pig some water).
What I noticed after that first night was so many pictures, posted on the Vigil’s facebook page, of just the activists with the handful of celebrities. I’m not going to name them here, because I know that they didn’t mean to make things about them, but that’s kinda what the lasting image of that night was. There were too many (in my opinion) photos of JUST activists with celebrity activists. The reason that is important is because what are we doing? We are shedding light on the last horrific hours and, especially, moments of these poor animals’ lives, in hopes to get people to see these animals as individuals, and also to bear witness, acknowledge their lives and worth, and hopefully offer an ounce of relief and kindness before they’re killed. But, when the images are of humans, arms around each others shoulders, NOT performing any relevant action for the animals, what is that saying? It’s saying: “Look at me. Look at me caring so hard. Look how hard I care with this other famous person who is caring so hard, too.” It’s anthropocentrism on a small scale…but it’s anthropocentrism all the same.
Like I mentioned above, it IS a thin line between promoting, mainstreaming, and attempting to attract more people to the movement. The ‘cool’ factor will always do that, and what better way to have ‘cool’ factor than to include people who are ‘cool’ representing the movement? I get it. BUT – it’s also kinda repulsive to see people posing and eye-blasting the camera on a night that ALL focus should be on the animals.
That first night was the intro to this realization for me, but one image from the following vigil were what sent me over the edge. After the following vigil (which I did not attend, not out of protest, I simply didn’t go to that one), I checked the Facebook page and I noticed more of the same: A few pictures/videos of the pigs in the trucks, and a few pictures of activists posing deliberately with each other – No animals or action involved.
But, the most egregious one – the one that sent me almost into a rage – was a photo of a known activist, who is a bit of a ‘name’ within the movement/scene, staring into the camera, almost absent-mindedly sticking a water bottle into a hole in the side of the pig truck. Not looking at what he was doing. Not, seemingly, noticing if a pig could even reach the damn water. Was there even a pig at that hole he was shoving water into? Not sure. I couldn’t tell from the profile image-style picture. Now, I admit, this could’ve been a snapshot from the one second this dude looked away from the truck. Maybe he was focused the other 99% of the time. But it sure didn’t look that way. The picture looked like someone who was more concerned with how they looked, and/or getting a good shot of them near the truck, than actually helping the pigs in their last moments alive. And what made it worse, was the only comment on the FB post was someone saying: “He’s so handsome”. I had a visceral reaction to it. It made me so angry. I guess it was the combination of this picture, the previous pictures I’d seen, and the selfie-style behavior that was happening at the vigil I attended previously. When the first of the trucks had pulled up that first vigil, many, many people rushed to the trucks, but more than I think was necessary were wandering around with their arms stretched out and phones facing them, ‘reporting’ into their phone cameras. One guy, specifically, was seeking out the celebrities in attendance and filming them and saying, “Oh! Here’s _______ here tonight!”. In those moments, it felt like some kinda award show after-party. It felt like there were tourists at an Animal Rights action. It felt sick.
(NOTE: I should say that the VAST majority of people there were NOT engaging in what seemed like celeb worship behavior. But, again, any is too much, and a dozen is much too much.)
At this point, I may sound like a whiny, overly strict, hypervegan. But I don’t care what I sound like. I don’t care what I look like. I care only about the well-being of the suffering animals. When there is already not NEARLY enough focus on cruelty to animals and the inherent suffering in simply the standard operations of the Ag Industry, we, in the movement, need to keep the attention on the suffering animals, NOT our interaction with suffering animals. It’s adjacent ideas, but very different ideas. And the best way I can distinguish my thoughts on the matter is:
– If there’s a fundraiser, or event, or party, or beerfest, or documentary screening, or vegan food event? Go nuts with pictures of ourselves and any and all ‘names’ in attendance. There are no animals there, these are examples of human events, designed by and for humans, to spread awareness or just congregate with likeminded people. There is no reason not to illustrate the event through the human lens.
– If there’s a vigil where there are live pigs, if there is an event where suffering animals are present? It is NOT the time to put the focus on you. If you happen to be a secondary subject in an illustration, or if the imagery is you performing an action to relieve or help the animal, so be it.
My point is not to erase ourselves from the efforts to help animals, obviously. My point is to always maintain focus on the animals and their suffering. ESPECIALLY when were at an event where the intent is to bear witness to their suffering.