The first time I saw a farm that raised animals for food, I sat in my car trying to picture the images inside. I had snippets of undercover videos I had seen prior flashing through my mind, wondering if the horrors were as horrendous as those painful videos. Outside, this vast land surrounding me, these large white windowless buildings, the calm stillness, the quietness and beauty of the green grass was such a stark contrast to what was pictured in my head. I felt like I was in there with them, hearing their screams, seeing them struggle to survive and knowing I would do whatever it took to save them all, even risk my own life and freedom. I was so naïve and so wrong. Not one single video can ever prepare you for witnessing the suffering and death of another being and no one, even Captain America, could save every single tortured soul in those sheds. There are just too many.
As I sat, crouched down in pitch blackness, miles away from street lights or even porch lights, I again felt the stillness and calmness as I looked towards the white sheds, that now looked yellow because of the flood light that illuminated them in the night. We went through these beautiful orchards, perhaps almond trees that would soon maybe end up in my almond milk latte and other lattes, while no one has any idea of the torture that exists just a few feet away from their precious nuts. We were still thousands of feet from the sheds but the smell of feces, death and decay was overwhelming. You could see the cesspool in the distance, only because of the glassy reflections from the one or two lights that were on outside. A huge priority was to not fall into that cesspool and die. But my first mission was navigating the many barbwire fences that separated us from the door of that shed. I was the tallest in our group and easily, relatively, climbed over them, only getting scratched and stuck a couple times. With every fence we went over my heart pumped with greater fervency and everything in my body, everything I was taught, every instinct I was not taught, told me to run away. I did not, we did not, and we kept going further.
I have this uncanny ability to shut down emotionally when I am behind a camera and there is “a job” to do, even when “the job” is documenting the immense suffering of others. I can look through the lens of a camera and remove myself from that particular moment- I do not hesitate, I do not flinch and I do not cry. I film with such intensity, knowing that this shot, this scene, this particular animal, this particular injustice is the most important moment in my life and theirs. That this very second I have the opportunity to capture what this one animal or perhaps this group of animals is enduring behind closed doors. That I may be their only chance at having their sad story told while so many are tortured and killed, almost to a point of being nonexistent. If an animal suffers and no one is there to see him or her, do they even exist? No one sees them, hears their cries, smells their blood or watches their heart stop beating. They die, utterly alone, by the billions, while most people just go about their every day life. As I do as well except when I am hiding behind my camera, enveloped in their misery for those fleeting moments.
When there are just so many of them and you cannot possibly have a lens wide enough to even fit one tenth of them in one shot, you go from group to group, trying to find the most abused, the most suffering, the one closest to death. After awhile I found him. I focused my attention on this one animal, out of hundreds and stood there filming his misery. All the others were terrified of me, desperate to get as far away from any human as possible because all humans had brought them was pain and suffering but not him. He couldn’t get away from me because he could no longer stand on his own, though he certainly tried to move, using any body part to try and pry his failing body off and away. He was panting heavily and could not hold his head up, for even the weight of that was just too much. This animal had been through an unimaginable hell since the day he was born until this very moment, where he was literally dying in front of me. I wanted so much to save him, take away his pain and get him out of this hellhole but instead I walked away and began filming the next injustice. He certainly suffered longer. We all would like to believe that we would do whatever it took to save a life and that even our own lives would be risked to save another. It does not always work out that way and though we were able to save a few, we left behind hundreds to suffer and die in such unthinkable ways.
We all want to be that hero and sometimes activism is fueled so heavily by ego rather than the importance of the actual injustice happening, while also concentrating on being the most effective. I wanted to be that hero. I wanted people to know that I had broke into a farm and saved animals’ lives. Sure, my intentions were genuine in that I deeply cared about those animals yet our ego is almost always a factor. More so than ever in our movement I see activists clambering to be on video or in pictures, to be the hero and to be recognized. I certainly did. And it took me years to grapple with my own ego and how it related to my activism. I think if most people were a little more honest with themselves they would see the correlation. It ended up being that I felt very uncomfortable high up on that pedestal people put me on and I did not really tell anyone about what I had done. I knew so many different activists but I felt such a disconnect because they felt I was on a different level. Yet I was no different than anyone else trying to fight for the rights of animals. I never thought I would experience burnout as an activist and honestly, I saw it as a weakness. We cannot afford to experience burnout while so many are suffering. Yet here I am, years later and still burnt to a crisp. I don’t feel very connected to the animal rights movement anymore and it makes me extremely sad. I am still active here and there but nowhere near what I used to do- I feel as if I have lost my identity and am struggling to find it again. All the years of physical and emotional abuse I put myself through, the many times I would just push through it, not think or dwell on what I had witnessed yet instead forcing it further down into my soul. It needs to be released.
There isn’t a day that goes by where I think of all the animals I left behind because I don’t think of them. I don’t think about the ones with blood on their faces, the ones who were dead and rotting with the others being forced to step around their bodies, the one who managed to get out of the enclosure and was free for a couple hours, feeling more freedom than they probably had ever felt in their entire life, not the ones stacked and stacked on top of each other in the “dead pile” or the one I tried to grab and save but who fought me and got away, only to be killed days later. How close he was to a better life and how quickly I gave up on him and simply grabbed another. If I stopped to think about every single individual I locked eyes with throughout my many trips inside, I would not be on my own two feet. Its not that I don’t remember every single one of them because I do- I remember the sound of the loud fans in the sheds, I remember the exact pathway to get inside, I remember the look in their eyes, I remember that they never really made any noise except the noises their bodies made against the wood as they tried to get away. I remember the stench, I remember feeling the weight of their bodies in my hands as I picked them up. I remember the stress of wondering if they would make it to a sanctuary and mainly, I remember my anguish as I turned my back on all of them, closed the door behind me and left them to suffer and die. I don’t want recognition for my actions and inactions- I am not a hero, not even close.