This is an edited extract from The Lives of Brian by Brian Sherman with AM Jonson.
Chapter 37: The Little Pig
We know now, as we have always known instinctively, that animals can suffer as much as human beings. Their emotions and their sensitivity are often stronger than those of a human being. Various philosophers and religious leaders have tried to convince their disciples that animals are nothing more than machines, without a soul, without feelings. However, anyone who has ever lived with an animal—be it a dog, bird or even a mouse—knows that this theory is a brazen lie, invented to justify cruelty.
– Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel laureate for literature, foreword to Vegetarianism: A Way of Life, Dudley Giehl, HarperCollins, 1979
In 2003, I visit a typical factory farm. A tiny piglet clambers towards me, slipping and sliding over the backs of his mates in his crammed enclosure. By the looks of him, he must be just a few weeks of age, new to this life. He has the joie de vivre of the very young.
Arriving at the barrier that separates us, he turns up his face towards me, lifts himself on his haunches and places his front feet on a rail, snuffling my hand and reaching down to sniff my feet and legs through the steel bars. His snout twitches at my unfamiliar smell and his small body vibrates with excitement: he has a read on this interloper. The inquisitive little fellow is ready to talk. ‘What’s up, mate?’ he asks me with his eyes.
I crouch and scratch him under the chin. He squeezes his eyes shut, stretches his neck and cocks his head to one side in delight. But the news is not good.
‘I’m sorry mate. There’s nothing up.’ I don’t have the heart to tell him the full truth. He has no life.
The fact is that the four windowless walls of his shed will remain the outer limits of his universe. He will spend his allotted time on its harsh metal floor, not a scrap of straw or clod of earth in sight, artificial lights buzzing overhead, the cacophony of the thousands of others confined here filling the putrid air.
His mother, separated from him, will lie broken and half-mad in her prison, a tiny concrete-floored steel-barred sow stall no larger than her body, until she exhausts her capacity to produce one litter after another and is killed.
In a few months, they will cram him onto a road train and truck him out, perhaps a long distance, perhaps over days. He will travel in freezing rain, or in blazing heat without a drink to quench his thirst. When he arrives at his destination, they will manhandle him into a slaughterhouse chute where he will listen to the screams of his dying mates as he cowers in confusion and terror or fights with all his might before he is prodded towards his violent and premature death.
He will never do the things that make him a pig: feel the grass or solid ground underfoot, roll in the cooling mud, snuggle with his mother and siblings in the straw, root and forage in the earth, or use his five senses to take in the big world. No sun will warm his back as he runs. His first glimpse of daylight will be through the slatted bars of the slaughterhouse truck.
Everything that will happen to him will defy nature and fly in the face of decency.
‘I’m so sorry, mate. That’s it. Fin.’
I look over to his slightly older counterparts in an adjoining pen. Their time is running out. Some chew furiously and repetitively at a bolt hanging from a crossbar on their cage. It’s the only game in town; there is nothing else for them to do. Others stand or lie inert on the floor, or mill aimlessly about in the crush of the enclosure.
I turn back to the little pig. Ours is an uncomplicated connection, word-less and fleeting, but I feel it profoundly. The species barrier is a fiction here, an imaginary fence the food-animal industry erects to secure humans’ dominion and to absolve us of our crimes. We are simply two sentient beings.
This chap is clearly endowed with a keen intelligence. He has a lust for life and a complex emotional repertoire that is his alone. In this, he is like us, like the dogs and cats we love as family, and like all other pigs, whose capacity for thought and feeling is comparable to that of a three-year-old child. He feels happiness, fear, hunger, thirst, pain and longing, as we do. And he is utterly and completely defenceless, totally at our mercy. In all probability, mine is the first and only kind touch he will receive.
I wear the foreknowledge of his miserable fate, of the injustice of it, heavily, like a cloak of grief. It is all I can do to stop myself from shouting to the heavens: It is ungodly! It is unbearable! This is not life! And we have no right to impose it on any living creature!
Two hundred and thirty thousand piglets and 23,000 mother pigs subsist with my new friend in his dim hell, one of the largest factory farms in the Southern Hemisphere. Its grim sheds stretch like a concentration camp as far as the eye can see. The inhabitants’ faces haunt me to this day; especially his, lifted to mine, his eyes bright, trusting me without question.
Of all his rich and varied experiences, Brian believes that founding Voiceless with his daughter, Ondine and dedicating the last fifteen years to protecting animals from suffering has been his most fulfilling and important of his life.
Brian’s memoir is a rich tapestry of triumphant highs, interwoven with profound lows. Facing his own health challenges, and a lifelong accumulation of unexpected grief, Brian will be tested to the limits of his being.
The Lives of Brian by Brian Sherman with AM Jonson is out now.