By Vicky Alhadeff
I used to be a reluctant meat eater. I’d feel guilty and so drown the steak/chicken in a bottle of tomato sauce. I was a person who had always loved animals since childhood. Moving into a small building in Jo’burg where my Hare Krishna friends lived jolted me out of my habitual patterns. I learned fairly quickly that my dreams of how animals lived bore no resemblance to reality. The day I moved into the building one of my friends, Crystal, said to me, Vicky, this meat eating has to stop! That night I thought about it and decided to do just that. No more guilt! Such a relief.
As a photographer, my next step was to document conditions in abattoirs and factory farms. I asked the prof of architecture where I worked in the darkroom and as a photographer, to write a letter to City deep abattoir saying I was exploring interior spaces. They believed me and allowed me in.
I’d like to take you on a journey - and ask you to visualise 3 scenarios.
A chick calls to his mum in his secure egg. She gently turns the egg over to keep the yolk from sticking to the side of the shell - up to 50 times a day.
A piglet suckles contentedly on his mum as he lies in the deep nest made of sticks, leaves and hay that she has made for him and his siblings. He will nurse from her for 3 or 4 months. The nest is soft, cosy and comfortable. He plays tag with his siblings and, like puppies they have great fun chasing each other.
A calf is born after his mum’s 9-month pregnancy. She lovingly washes him immediately after birth. He hears a noise and snuggles underneath her. She will nurse him for up to 2 years. As he grows more independent, his close bond with his mum gives him the confidence to be more playful with the other calves in their social group.
This is how chicks, piglets and calves would naturally spend their first hours and years after birth. Like us, cows and their calves can form lifelong close relationships. As do sows with their piglets, and hens with even their unborn chicks.
That is not what I saw and photographed.
On our planet today, for 90-95% of chicks, calves and piglets this is a life of dreams - a distant reality. Today, over 56 billion animals are slaughtered each year for food and live in these factory farm conditions. Plus the trillions of fish, dragged up from ocean beds.
I spent a day at City Deep photographing the entire process for cattle - seeing them huddling together before being forced one by one into the pen where a bolt was fired into their brain. And then strung up by one leg, to have their throats slit to viewing their separate body parts on hooks. In the dairy industry calves are all torn from their mothers after just a few hours or a day or 2 later. Cows have been known to bellow for days for their calves. The male calves will be shot or sent to Europe to become veal at 4 months old.
I went on to photograph sows confined in squalid conditions, confined to crates on concrete unable to move, unable to nurture their piglets. In pain from being forced to lie on their sides for 4-5 months, in pain from the tight crate and anguish at not being able to nurse their piglets - who are taken away before weaning at 3 weeks to be fattened up for the next few months, have their tails cut off and teeth pulled out all without anaesthetic to prevent commercial damage which could happen when they fight each other from the stress of overcrowding. I photographed piglets sitting looking hunched and depressed or fighting - on concrete slabs, crowded and stressed.
I went to battery sheds and photographed chicks being debeaked at 12 days old as the stress of living the rest of their brief life in a cage with no room to move or raise even one wing, on a wire floor, would cause them to peck each other - and cause commercial damage. Broiler chickens are killed at 42 days old - when they still have the blue eyes of a chick and cheep like a chick. They are confined to windowless sheds and as they grow and become completely overcrowded, many cannot make it to food and water and many die trying to get there.
I changed from a reluctant meat eater, to a campaigning vegetarian and finally vegan that has released me from the guilt I always felt and a seeker of ways to tell the stories of those cows, chickens and pigs and of fish too, those neglected cousins, who suffer as much. Today, the conditions are even worse, with even more overcrowding, and agonizing deaths.
Dr. Will Tuttle, author of The World Peace Diet writes, what we do to animals we do to ourselves as we are all connected.
The next time you see billboards and adverts of cows and pigs in fields, or hens dust bathing - remember that is a dream that bears no reality.