What’s behind the rise of militant veganism
An arresting scene greets workers heading home for a chicken dinner on a drizzly Friday night. It's the cluster of masks that stops them. Creepy white masks with black brushstrokes for eyebrows, a moustache and goatee. Then they notice the masks are worn by motionless people holding either signs saying "Truth" or a video screen. They look at what's on the screen.
They see caged chickens, bald, wasted or dead. They see piglets walking over dead piglets on a grey steel floor.
They see cute, just-hatched chickens on a conveyor belt.
They see the belt end and the chicks tumbling through the air into an industrial grinder. People flinch, wince.
Which is what the masked people seek. A reaction. An abhorrence. A decision to never buy animal products again.
This "Cube of Truth" protest at Reddacliff Place at the top of Brisbane's Queen Street Mall is run by Anonymous for the Voiceless, a group determined to turn people off animal farming. The Guy Fawkes mask, depicting the revolutionary who tried to blow up the House of Lords in the 17th century, has become a symbol for anti-Establishment protests globally. This lot want to stir things up.
They are vegans and animal liberationists, members of one of many groups growing more vocal and active in their campaign to turn barbecue-loving Australians off their meat.
Many of the activists here tonight were at the national day of protests on Monday, April 8, which halted work at a Darling Downs abattoir after protesters tied themselves to machinery, and threw inner-city Melbourne traffic into chaos.
The protests coincided with the first anniversary of the Australian documentary Dominion, which used secret cameras to highlight unsavoury farming and slaughter practices. Its subtitle is, "You have been lied to".
Stand and watch this silent protest for too long and an activist will come and have a chat. They'll ask if you are aware that male chicks, an unwanted part of egg production, are macerated alive after hatching. Or that male dairy calves are killed about a week after birth, because they too are surplus to requirements, their job done after helping their mother produce milk for human consumption.
Vegan activists such as Clare Mann believe these undisputed practices are kept hidden from the public and it's their duty to make meat consumers aware of the "trance" they are in.
A Sydney-based psychologist, Mann emceed an Activism Masterclass attended by about 50 people at the Holland Park Library in Brisbane's inner southeast the night before. She told the crowd the headline-grabbing April protests had been fantastic. "We have put the issue of animal social justice on the political agenda," she said.
Now, she's put it on the agenda of 38-year-old passer-by Anneleen Erlingen after getting her talking about the shredding of chicks. Erlingen is wide-eyed as she watches the footage. "In the back of my head, I knew some of this existed but just looking at it … " Her voice trails off.
Mann fills the void. "We've been lied to," she says. "All of us have been lied to. That's why we're having to expose this; we can't make decisions unless we have information."
Erlingen says if Mann hadn't come to talk with her, "I would have passed by. I would have said, 'yes, shocking', then gone home and had a steak. But because we talked about it for so long, it really makes an impact."
Right there, Erlingen says she will stop eating meat. She'll study ingredients to see if her purchases contain animal products. She'll change her habits. Mann smiles. One down, another few billion meat-eaters in the world to go.
NOTHING TO HIDE
To enter Glasshouse Country Farms, at Beerburrum, on the Sunshine Coast, you need owner Gary Maguire to open the electronic security gate. He shelled out $20,000 for it this year, along with $25,000 in surveillance cameras and alarms, after his piggery became a repeat target of vegan protesters.
He's sick of it. "We just want to be left alone to do our thing, which we've got a right to do, we've got a licence to do it. It's legal. They're jeopardising our biosecurity and our business. Just leave farmers to produce the food for people who want it."
I'm one of those people. I love bacon. But there's no escaping the fact that intensive pig farming is an ugly business. Or as Maguire says, "not real glamorous". It's just most of us don't see - and don't want to see - what goes on, to get the bacon to our plate.
Maguire, 54, says he has nothing to hide and shows me around his piggery of 1000 sows that produce about 23,000 pigs for slaughter each year.
The Large White pig breed has been genetically modified, and cross-bred, to speed up the growth rate, with slaughter at 22 weeks. In a rigorously planned weekly cycle, sows are artificially inseminated and go into concrete group pens of between six to 15 pigs to gestate for about 16 weeks.
Maguire leads the way to the farrowing shed where sows are taken a few days before giving birth. It's smelly and basic; row after row of sows, 100 one side, 100 the other, with an alleyway in the middle.
The sows are placed in steel farrowing crates inside a small pen (some concrete, some a hard polyurethane) with slats for manure to push through. A holding tank below is flushed out weekly.
"They stand up and down and move backward and forth a little bit but they can't turn around," says Maguire. It reduces the chance of the sows squashing the piglets and injuring people.
There will be aborted and stillborn piglets. Maguire says the more litters a sow has, the greater the incidence of birthing death rates. This farm averages about 9 per cent.
Sometimes, as seen on video footage taken on protest raids, the mother will gnaw on her own dead piglets. When the litters diminish, the sow is killed, on average after four litters, or when it's three years old. Its meat is used in smallgoods. There's little reprieve if the sow is still productive; she has four to seven days after weaning before being reinseminated.
Runts are killed. The quickest, approved way of killing them is to strike their heads against the concrete floor. Surviving piglets have their tails snipped off and teeth clipped.
Maguire says the farm tried leaving the teeth because "it's recommended not to do it if it works". But the pigs were damaging each other by biting, requiring antibiotics to stop infection, so they reverted to cutting the teeth.
The tails are docked to stop tail-biting. "If they get a taste for blood, they'll keep chewing and that will cause a lot of damage," he says. "It's very quick: snip the teeth, cut the tail, spray a bit of disinfectant, give them an iron shot. Takes about 10 seconds."
At 3.5 to four weeks, the piglets are removed from their mothers and put in weaner sheds. At six weeks, they're transported to another farm in Dalby, on the Southern Downs, to mature before being sent to an abattoir. They never roam free, or lay on straw, or wallow in mud. Most pigs in Australia are slaughtered by having their throats cut after being stunned by carbon dioxide in a confined unit. Activists call them gas chambers. Hidden footage has shown pigs squealing and thrashing. Protesters argue the pigs suffer and the RSPCA has urged a better method.
Says Maguire, who stresses the process is not his area of expertise: "It's not painful, it's probably the process of getting the pigs into the thing that makes them carry on a bit."
Maguire says nothing about his job irks him, a job he chose as a teenager and studied at Gatton Agricultural College.
"We love the pigs, we look after them, but that's the process that they do go through for food," he says. "That's what being a farmer is. We're producing food for communities, and for around the world.
"The ethics of it is that pigs are bred purposely for food, not bred to be pets, and to produce pigs on a free-range basis is very, very hard in hot climates, and it's very expensive."
Price is key. Consumers might like the idea of pigs being raised in a more natural environment but are not prepared to pay for it. Processed pork imports such as ham and bacon put pressure on local farmers. And imported products may come from countries that pay less attention to welfare; places where sows are confined in stalls similar to farrowing crates for the entire gestation. Sow stalls are being phased out in Australia due to welfare concerns (Maguire has got rid of his) and studies are being undertaken here into how to dispense with farrowing crates.
But Maguire reckons talk of welfare improvements is a moot point when dealing with vegans. "Their attitude is not to improve welfare for the pigs, they don't want animals for human benefit. Not for food, or for pleasure. [They see] animals on the same level as humans, they [think animals] deserve to be free and do whatever they want. And that concept just will never ever work. People enjoy eating meat."
He says he's fine with people choosing not to eat meat, OK with them protesting outside his piggery "but when they break the law, trespass, take photos, not knowing what we do or how things work, that's the issue".
Maguire's piggery has had five trespass protests - covert and public - since late 2017. The biggest was in December last year when 100 protesters walked into the pig sheds. Scores more stayed outside with placards, chanting slogans into loud hailers. They were on the property for three hours, with some charged with trespass and receiving fines.
The protesters were fired up by footage Animal Liberation Queensland says it received anonymously and released in November. It showed dead piglets in the farrowing pen, tail and teeth clipping, and pigs that wouldn't move being prodded with a metal stick.
One sow refused to leave the shed and was killed in front of other caged pigs with a bolt gun to the head, its legs jerking after the shock.
Maguire does not believe the other pigs would comprehend what happened. "The sow drops to the ground and there's no screaming, might be a bit of kicking."
After viewing the footage and paying a visit, Biosecurity Queensland advised the metal stick - the pin from the pig's pen - should not be used because, Maguire says, "under the welfare code you're not to hit with a solid object".
"They said what you were doing was not being cruel or mean but it just didn't look good and it's probably not the best way." He's amended his operating procedures.
Maguire says that was the only issue raised by authorities. He follows the Australian Pork Industry quality assurance program. An independent auditor from Aus-Meat visits once a year. "Things are done scientifically … it's all proven practices to get the best outcome."
LAMBS AWAY FROM THE SLAUGHTER
Three lambs with "s" for slaughter stencilled on their backs are huddled in a grassy fenced zone of a rambling farm in Dayboro, 45km northwest of Brisbane.
Four days ago, they were on death row at Carey Bros Abattoir in Yangan, 160km southwest of Brisbane.
That was the day of national protest action, when 20 vegan activists entered the abattoir and chained themselves to machinery while 100 others protested outside. They left the abattoir to get on with its business after negotiating to take the three lambs.
Now here they stand, at the animal rights-based Farm Animal Rescue. What they stand for is open to debate; the power of vegan conviction or woolly-headed symbolism?
To Brad King, 55, the vegan farm manager, it shows animal rights activism is cutting through. "Without those [activists] doing that, it wouldn't have had the impact it did," says King, who acted as media spokesman at the abattoir protest and transported the lambs here from Yangan.
"We've been doing all the right things for years, reporting welfare issues to the right agencies, and it's never got any attention. The option is give up, or push it further. It's government inaction that has brought it to the head it's at now."
Government action was definitely spurred on by the protests. Federal and state ministers poured scorn on the activists, with the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, calling them un-Australian and shameful, and the federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, attacking their actions as subhuman. State Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said he'd had a "gutful" of farm invasions and introduced on-the-spot fines of up to $650.
The Morrison Government announced activists would face up to 12 months' jail if convicted of inciting protesters to invade farms by sharing information about farms online, a reaction to the Aussie Farms website, which posts the addresses of animal agriculture businesses.
King was surprised by the "venom" but says the flip-side is that within 48 hours of the protests, the film Dominion was watched 55,000 times. "That's the impact," he says.
Another video released on the day of protest has been viewed 20,000 times.
It showed the slaughter chute at Carey Bros, where some lambs and pigs appeared to be ineffectively stunned with electric paddles before their throats were cut. One "stunned" pig leapt over the writhing body of another onto the abattoir floor and tried to escape.
"That's why activists are so angry," says King. "Because blatantly the way the industry works is not high welfare at all. That video showed specific violations of the slaughter codes - animals being slaughtered conscious."
Biosecurity Queensland says the abattoir has been told to improve where workers stand and how they position the stuns.
King says the intention of the protests was to make the public aware of farming and slaughter practices. "If you're drinking milk, there have been baby calves slaughtered. That's the reality," he says.
"You could argue the dairy and egg industries are worse than the meat industry because in the meat industry it's just death but in the others, it's a horrible cycle, over and over and over.
If you really have a transparent industry where people are not lied to about what's required to get food to the table, then the likelihood is more people are going to question what they buy at the grocery store."
He admits the number of converts to veganism is small, and growing slowly. About two to three per cent of the Australian population, he estimates.
"When you're two per cent, the first thing you need to do is grow your numbers. Transparency would grow the numbers. If you want the strategy, that's the strategy." And the aim is to change the way Australians live? "That's accurate, yes."
We wander around the free-range farm, home to about 80 "rescued" animals - 18 cows, 14 sheep (including the Yangan Three), 15 goats, seven pigs and scores of chickens. They're spread out over 22ha but King says it's almost at capacity. Animals die of old age or are euthanased.
Some cases are perplexing; some might say pointless. There are giant broiler chickens that can barely move. Broilers have been genetically modified to accelerate growth to slaughter weight of 3kg at six weeks.
King says this causes their muscles to pull bones out of shape prior to slaughter. But if not killed at that stage, they grow into birds like the one before me - eight months old and 9.5kg. It's struggling to walk.
King says it will be killed if it doesn't respond to anti-inflammatories.
He admits that one pig broke its spine because its genetically modified growth rate meant it became too big before it was euthanased. Even Howard, the hefty seven-year-old Large White in the cosy shelter lined with straw "doesn't like standing up any more".
King denies the pigs are overfed and says Howard is happy, although not keen on being bothered by his younger shed-mate, Moby. "They're just astonishingly clever, they communicate."
For King and fellow vegans, the rescue of these pigs from the slaughterhouse and giving them a life of freedom is a win. Of course, vegans argue that the complications of genetic modification would not be an issue if humans gave up eating animals. "There's no reason for humans to use animals," King says. "You can argue that in history we did, but now we have machines, all our fibres that are warmer than natural fibres."
As for the vegan diet, King says he's been a plant-eater for 20 years, preceded by about 15 years in his less enlightened period as a vegetarian. "And," he jokes, "still alive."
TURNING OVER A NEW LEAF
They're mostly under 30, this gathering of people in the Holland Park Library, many of them wearing T-shirts with slogans like, "Proud to be vegan", or "Don't ask me about my protein and I won't ask you about your cholesterol".
One sports a tote bag with a drawing of boltcutters and the words, "The animals can't free themselves".
It's the Activism Masterclass and there's a buzz about the room, the 50 or so attendees buoyed by the national coverage of the protests just days before. Now they're learning from international activists how to keep animal liberation on the agenda.
American James Hoot, who gave up a professional photography business in Hawaii to become a vegan activist, gives the crowd tips on how to make videos from abattoirs and farms that will burrow into people's hearts. Just a minute of video can reach millions on social media, he says.
He tells them to embrace "the haters", people who reply to heartfelt posts about animal slaughter with photos of bacon. "Our goal is to make them feel. Anything. Make them so angry that we as vegans exist… but then make them realise, 'Oh shit, that animal's in that place because of me'."
That's what happened to receptionist Rebekah Kendall, 31, who is in the audience. Watching the documentary Earthlings, a precursor to Dominion, turned her into a plant-eater nine months ago.
"By the end of it, I was crying hysterically and said, 'That's it, I'm vegan'," she tells me. "It's not that I don't miss meat and cheese, I still do, but I start seeing all the documentaries in my head and hearing the animals and I'm like, 'Yep, nope'."
Environmental concerns about land and water use and emissions in animal agriculture drive some towards veganism and are what convinced engineer, Shao Yap, 30, to convert a year ago.
He did a PhD in wastewater management in animal farming and believes too much water is used to feed us meat. "It's unsustainable," he says, "especially if climate change kicks in."
Emilie Bartolf became vegan four years ago and is horrified it took her more than half a century. "I was brought up to eat meat, never questioned it," says the 62-year-old. "Once you start questioning and looking into the cruelty, well, I can't be part of that." She attends protests and the fortnightly Cube nights "because maybe I can help others". She's here tonight for more tips on engaging non-vegans.
Seb Alex provides some. The Barcelona-based, one-time architect now full-time activist schools the crowd on how to approach and talk with people who stop at the Cube of Truth. Don't pounce as soon as they stop, he counsels. Ask questions of them, praise any steps they've taken to reduce meat consumption. And keep their attention on the video screens. "It's easier [for them] to say, 'I don't care, it tastes good', when they're not looking at the gas chambers."
But one woman in a Q&A session wants to know what to say to people who believe it isn't animals that are the victims but "the poor families and their children" on the properties that are invaded. How should she respond to those who ask why vegans think it is OK to trespass, to break the law?
Tell them the law does not dictate morality, says Alex. "Slavery was law, stoning people is law in some places," he says. "If we are never going to question the law, good luck going forward in civilisation."
People nod their heads. In this room, they are united; strong, forward-thinking, right. They've made a noise in the past few weeks, gained attention. But this room is tiny. Outside are people who enjoy eating meat. Billions of them.
Outside there are all-you-can-eat rib nights and Grandma's treasured meatloaf recipes. There are five-star restaurants wooing celebrities with the incredible things they can do with beef cheeks and fast-food joints feeding burgers to the masses.
Outside, there are people who see videos of chicks being macerated, of pigs squealing for their lives, and can live with it more than they are willing to live without meat.
Revolutions have to start somewhere but some TV coverage, a flurry of social media hits and three lambs are but a blip in man's dominion over animals. ■