• Connor Thomas

Manchester Pig Save

At 4am on a dark & crisp summers morning, the soft gentle chill of the air through my open window carries the sweet songs of the early rising winged creatures. A beautiful start to a day that we had all not been looking forward to. I make a hearty wholesome Tupperware box of porridge for each of us. It’s full of bursting blueberries and zingy ginger, a hug in a bowl for the journey down. Ben arrives at 5:05 and is greeted with an energetic loving smile by all three of the hounds I share a house with. We head to Dale’s house, pick him up and finally set off for Ashton Under Lyme on the outskirts of Manchester.

We give ourselves a small pep talk on the way down, as we drive through parts of the Peak District and witness spectacular sights of low hanging intense clouds on endless rolling hills. As we grow closer to our destination, a grey mist cushions Ben’s Mini through the higher hills. In this bubble of misty thought, we rattle our brains and remind ourselves of why we put ourselves in the spectators’ seat of such immense suffering and how we are going to devour a gigantic hearty breakfast after the vigil. Self-care and the scrupulous planning of it is so important!

We pull up on a terrace parallel to the slaughterhouse. As we take our first step out the car, I feel a sharp chill; this is a re-occurring sensation I’ve found in my own personal experiences of visiting slaughterhouse areas, even on summer mornings. To our right is a high cemented wall around 9ft high with barbed wire. To our left is the ordinary world, a simple terrace that reminds me of the old family house I previously lived in. I wonder if kids still play street football like I used to at home when I was a bairn. If so, are they aware of what happens behind these high walls?

I’ve been holding a pee for a few hours now and the moment we arrive, I quickly say hello to a few of the welcoming faces in high visibility vests before I dart along the riverside to find a secluded spot to relieve myself. Behind the woods, I hear the first sound. It is piercing. It is 8:30 in the morning and we have gone from harmonious birds to deep and fiercely terrified squeals. It is their call for help, for relief. The sound is awful, like a baby screaming in pain. You know you can’t turn your back; you must address that cry for help to alleviate the sound that we ever so naturally respond to. What shocks me most is how hard it is to tell if the cry was human or non-human. The intensity of the orchestra of screams touches every millimetre of my physical structure and I just desperately wait for a crescendo to come and end it all.

It never does. It continues.

Something occurs to me. What if within all the screams, the slaughterhouse workers also cry out for help? They work with unnatural non-human tools - a far cry from the sharpened stone on a long stick, the tools used by our ancestors in times of food urgency. Nowadays we demand workers to use tools such as carousels that rotate through pits of carbon dioxide, flamethrowers so hot they burn every hair from their skin, huge harsh knives that cut through dense twitching protective flesh and penetrating bolt guns that fracture skulls and periodically miss, leaving animals to meet the sharp blade fully aware of their feelings, fellow friends and their unforgiving fate. Do you think this sounds violent? If yes, what does this violence do to the mind of the human holding the tool? Do they ever get caught in these machines or have they become machines themselves?

After ten long minutes, I walk back to the front of the gate. I am told there has already been six trucks enter the yard since the early hours. I can see the backs of the trucks which have the name of the location the pigs have travelled from. Each and every one of them has an obnoxious picture of a happy pig looking out at the drivers who follow the trucks on their long journeys. This is a comforting image to those who have never witnessed the inside of a farm, truck, slaughterhouse or probably even something I had smiled at when I used to eat bacon and sausage. Long journeys they certainly were; each individual had travelled without water or food, packed so tightly that many of them could not lie down at the same time. It took between one to four hours to reach the pigs’ final destination, while the drivers would return within the week with another hot box of snouts.

I look left. The Manchester Pig Save banner is now out of sight, blocked by a colossal three-story high trailer, fitted with small rectangular mesh slats on each level. This sight was a shock to the mind; I had seen trucks like this on videos of American and Canadian pig saves and I had never imagined it happened in the UK on this scale. Now my nostrils are twitching, something doesn’t smell good. This nose filling scent that feels so permanent. Intensified by the heat of many bodies packed so closely together; similar to that of when you’re very ill for days, you feel you need to keep cosy and the minute you lift those covers, you smell the fever inspired body odour arise from the warm depths of your quilt. It is a smell much worse than one can describe with words. Imagine faeces from your toes, up your legs and smothered on your belly as the truck comes to a sudden halt. Your friend accidently crashes their arse into your face. Now with every breath you inhale your fellow beings’ gruesome shit scent. You have no way of getting it off your nose. This confined space is abhorrently different to the woodland you are so used to stewarding, a place where you get to enact your instinct of keeping your toilet far from your sleeping quarters and much further from your snout.

“You use all of your senses when bearing witness at a vigil”. This is what I once heard Alex Lockwood talk about on a podcast about bearing witness. To me this is key, this is reality. It’s not a video filmed by someone else, neither is it your minds ability to use what it thinks is the ‘best guess’ and imagine what the experience would be like. Ask anyone who has been to a Save Movement vigil; their words can describe it so well, yet they’ll all tell you, “you must experience it for yourself”.

Back to the gates. This first truck I see is lively. The pigs look out from their confined space with searching eyes that are focused curiously on our high visibility vests, voices and video devices. At Tulip meats, the Manchester Pig Save group have an agreement that they can spend five minutes with the animals before they enter the facility. This helps us a lot and we bring pop up stools with us so we can peer into the lowest slat that usually sits around head height - this is how we gather the footage that we want to share with people. It’s also how we get to see the individuals for who they are within their confinement. It is smallest act we can do, to share their story and show them love.

The horn of the truck blares and my body suddenly becomes tense. I feel a hollowness within this stressed structure. I feel like a strong wind could blow into me and fill this empty space to such a volume that I just blow away into the grey sky, like a balloon left unattended by a distracted child. I look around at the people I’m bearing witness with. Some are in tears; others are looking deeply into their own minds and emotions. I look for a cue from Ben or Dale to see if they would want to talk about that first truck full of curious snouts. We come together and check if we’re all alright, embracing each other in a tight heartfelt three-way hug.

As we let go and share our experience within our trio, I see a car swinging in. A mother dressed in a nurse’s uniform dropping off three young men. They head into the facility for another regular day of processing. I wonder which area they work in as this plant is huge! Do they work with the tall gas cylinders that fuel the screams? How about the kill floor a real life house of horror containing the carousel of pain that spins continuously, turning life into death? The ‘process’ in this plant takes inquisitive trusting pigs and transforms them into a commodity through a process that not many people would be willing to do or witness themselves. I, along with every activist within the non-violent Save Movement have only compassion for these people. It didn’t start like that for me though. I think of how angry I was attending my first save. I blamed the workers. I now realise that this is the wrong orientation to have. If you’re feeling stuck in this rut, remember it’s not the people we are fighting, it’s the oppressive system that Melanie Joy coins as “Carnism”. Workers, animals and our planet are all under the oppression of this powerful ideology.

Twenty minutes pass, another truck indicates its intended route into the plant. We approach the right-hand side of the truck, set up our stools to give us the extra foot we need to peer in and this time we bear witness to something different. These pigs don’t look at us; they don’t even seem to know whether we exist or if they themselves exist. All we can see are either wide scattered eyes or closed eyes along with heavy breathing, like zombies from an apocalypse film. This trailer is filled with misery. There are scratches, wounds, blood and shit all over the pigs. Most of them seem to have deformities on their bodies, they simply look either unconscious or completely unhappy and unnatural. I jot in my notebook that they seem to have no perception of anything but their own bodies, crashing around and pushing each other with their heads held low. Are they aware of what is coming, or have they come from one of the 85% of UK standard intensive pig farms? The epitome of ultimate despair.

As this truck leaves, I spot the driver hosing down the now empty insides of the trailer in the cleaning section. He departs after switching his now wet and faeces covered t-shirt. Just as he leaves, we see two other trucks flashing their indicators in the direction of the slaughterhouse gates. The first smaller truck of the two standing at two stories high drives straight in as the security must clear the busy road for the next truck, which is huge. I approach the second truck. I look up from my position at the side of the truck and see four levels of this ginormous structure. I then glance through more mesh and witness a mixture of lifeless looking bodies and frantic searching eyes in this first level.

I think of my dear friend Lesley, who has been to a vigil here before. She told me to talk, sing and vibrate with love towards these creatures who have probably never known this feeling before. Suddenly I feel a state of shock and find myself gazing into a pair of blue eyes that are looking directly back at me. Connected by this glance, I feel the urge to sing words to this individual and that’s exactly what I do. The ever so slight sense of embarrassment you may feel singing to a pig in the back of a slaughter truck suddenly disappears. Along with everything else except those blue curious eyes. It is a moment in which you realise that you are giving this pig a comfort it has never known in its life before.

The horn blares.

My chest is tight.

It’s not raining Connor.

Those are your tears.

As this truck pulls into the yard, my emotions overwhelm me due to this connection with the eyes of the individual. Those eyes I will be able to recall in every animal I meet. What the fuck can I do? I walk through the crowd of activists, straight to the riverside as the waterfall of emotions floods from my eyes. Frustration gets the better of me and I can feel the heat of anger arising. As this heat arises within me, I feel the cool calming hand of Dale on my right shoulder. Followed by Ben’s to my left. My eyes begin to dry up as we take a stroll through the thin line of woodland that surrounds the tall slaughterhouse walls.

Another six or seven trucks have come in the time we are present.

Now the worst part of a vigil is upon us. Here comes the abrupt return to reality on the other side of the wall. We came closer when you were in pain. We stayed with you when you were afraid. We wish we could watch over you, all through the night. Remember that every day, we’ll never give up the fight.

We walk from the back and head to the front. We gather our things and leave at 12:30. We’re heading straight to Manchester to fill up on some tasty delights at a rainbow beauty of a café named: Boho Utopia! We fill ourselves up on a full English breakfast and a mega chocolate, peanut butter & banana cake milkshake. We’re heading home now. What a day.

I can only try again from my own experience to describe the sensory circus that occurs when you walk to the back of the slaughterhouse. These words come to me at that moment in time, you may have a different experience: Screams. Terror. Pain. Dominance. Burning. Crying. Witnessing. Helplessness. Hopelessness. Damage. Violence. History. Shock. Fire. Anger. Rage. Suffering.

The afore list of words is the dark side to describe the reality of a vigil. I’m going to share a different list of words now, under the title of; ‘How you feel when you talk to people who stand side by side with you at The Save Movement’.

Inspired. Committed. Fulfilled. Hopeful. Happy. Fair. Joyous. Connected. Warm. Calm. Loved. Empathetic. Caring. Truthful.

I want you to add to this list, your own words that come to mind when you think of an animal vigil. Let us tell everyone why bearing witness is one of the greatest things you can do in your life! You can simply think of these in your head or share them on Facebook, Instagram or under this Tumblr post. I’ll get you started with a few easy ones:

Tea. Cake. Coffee.

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