If I could describe the first ever vigil I went to in one word it would be stench. At some point I noticed a truck that was left where we were standing with posters. At first, it appeared as though the truck was empty but on closer inspection there were lots of insects flying above it. Then I realised what was bothering me the whole time – a very heavy almost sweet unpleasant smell surrounding us. I asked a fellow activist what was inside the truck and they said ‘oh, it’s waste. You know, heads, testicles…’. It turned out a slaughterhouse worker had left the truck next to activists in an attempt to scare us away. If I could have seen what was inside the truck from above I would have definitely passed out. Suddenly it all became too real for me.
Transitioning to veganism and then moving to London for a year was very exciting. The vegan community made me feel like I belonged to something meaningful and beautiful. However, with all the amazing people around me, vegan restaurants, meet ups, and events it was easy to suddenly become quite removed from the reason I went vegan in the first place. It is comfortable to live within a vegan bubble but at some point it is no longer enough. So I started attending protest demonstrations, Earthling experiences, animal sanctuary and live export events. When it came to attending my first vigil in Manchester to witness pigs in trucks and the real slaughterhouse I thought I was ready for it.
In the past couple of months several Save Vigils have launched in cities across the UK. They attract activists who stand outside local slaughterhouses protesting and documenting what is going on and bearing witness to the suffering of animals. The vigil in Manchester is the first one in the UK inspired by the Toronto pig save activist group.
People wonder why activists go to Save Vigils knowing they can’t do anything to help the victims of the system. I feel like anyone who was not born a vegan has a lot of social conditioning to undo. So it seems to me people go there to feel those intense emotions deliberately, to break out of this fairy-tale that adverts have been designing and creating for us to live in for years and see the world for how it truly is. It is a matter of regaining self-respect after being fooled and building your own map of reality.
Taking part in this vigil felt like being a child again. As you grow older, everything around you becomes familiar, you see patterns, you understand how most things around you work and nothing can surprise you anymore. But slaughterhouses are not something you regularly see, imagine, or even think about growing up. This is why when you go there for the first time it feels so unreal and you can’t help repeating to yourself ‘this can’t be true’. Your senses pick up everything around you and you leave with very vivid memories.
Some people enjoy watching horror movies because it is a fictional story happening on the screen, and even though it may scare them and trigger their imagination, they feel safe because they know it is purely fiction. Attending a pig vigil is like witnessing a horror movie happening right in front of you. But this time you’re not a victim – weirdly you turn out to be a bad guy. This is why I think this experience is so important. Our minds are wired up to immediately seek solutions and find people to blame. This situation is extremely confusing because you can’t blame anyone directly – it is the system which is corrupt. You can clearly see that nobody wants to be in this situation – not slaughterhouse workers, not police, not activists. But it is still happening because of this cryptic demand and ignorance.
I witnessed several activists stroking the pigs when the trucks finally arrived and stopped in front of us. I could not bring myself to touch them. I was afraid they would become aggressive or bite me and cry in anger. I was definitely more scared of them than they were of me. I wasn’t aware back then that this was probably the first time they saw humans in such a close proximity. The first day someone looks them in the eyes through the truck window and strokes them, gives them water, and connects with them would be the same day they are brutally killed several minutes later.
There was a place around the corner where the slaughterhouse faced a little river and you could hear the pigs being killed. We stood in front of the fence and stared at the dull painted walls listening to workers inside slapping and laughing at the pigs trying to hurry them to the gas chamber. This is probably the most disgusting thing I’ve heard in my life. I could not believe that was actually happening and I felt completely numb until I heard a girl crying loudly next to me and when I hugged her I too could not hold back my tears anymore.
To some extend you can behind the lens of the camera if you choose to film the vigil. Trucks pass by quite quickly and it is a choice everybody there makes – you either experience it fully yourself or you decide to concentrate on filming it so other people can see what it is going on. Once the trucks are in and you are standing in front of the slaughterhouse wall listening to these horrific sounds there is nowhere to hide. Your imagination makes the wall in front of you disappear. By the end of the day I felt as though I didn’t have a soul anymore. It took me several days to stop having flashbacks of the stench from the ‘waste material’ truck. The whole experience did something very important to me; I stopped feeling the need to prove veganism right just because I watched some documentaries and read some books.
Rehanna Sara, with whom I attended the vigil shared her thoughts. She said: “I think my emotions have changed a lot since the first vigil I went to. I didn’t know what to expect the first time – I found the whole experience emotionally distressing and very draining. I remember feeling sadness more than anything at the beginning, sad that we live in a world where we feel this is ‘normal’ and sad that many choose to turn the other way. The more vigils that I attend, the more I feel a sense of responsibility to go. I can’t stop going now – as much as I find the experience difficult, what I’m going through is nothing compared to the animals. My sadness is irrelevant in my opinion.”
To anyone who feels scared of apprehensive to attend a vigil, my question is, if we don’t go, who else will? As vegans, we have a responsibility to bear witness. It’s not a fun or enjoyable experience of course, but after each save I attend, I fight all the harder because seeing the animals reinforces why I’m vegan and it’s important for all vegans to be involved in activism. Living vegan is simply not enough. We need every voice in this fight.
It is very easy to become part of the save movement. If you want to go to a Manchester vigil, you can find upcoming dates on the official event page. facebook.com/ManchesterPigSave
A list of all the save movement groups can be found on the website thesavemovement.org