This week I drove into a local shopping centre to pick up some last-minute groceries. Parked next to me was an open bakkie with a flat cage balanced on the back. The cage was narrow, roughly made and crammed full of chickens. I walked closer and noticed about 40 roosters squashed against each other. They were in an appalling condition and a number of them were slowly dying or already dead. I stuck my finger through the wire and tried to rouse the rooster closest to me. His eyes were closed and he was barely breathing. There was no space, and the rest were a living or dying mass on top of him. The driver walked out of the shops with a drink in his hand.
“Baba,” I said, “these chickens are suffering.”
He grunted that they were fine and got into the cabin. I stood with my arms helplessly hanging next to my side, not knowing what to do. I tapped at the driver’s darkened window to try and engage the owner again. I could see nothing inside except my own reflection. The driver quickly reversed and sped off, thus squashing the remaining chickens even tighter against the exposed cage.
I retreated into the shop, and almost vomited in the vegetable section.
With some distance, I speculated about the driver’s response and what the black, working-class man thought of a white, middle-class women trying to interfere with his evening, and his livelihood. I wondered if he thought I might harm or threaten him in any way. Whether I was officiously poking my nose into his business, where it did not belong. Perhaps that I was being hypocritical; I was possibly on my way to buy chicken nuggets, frozen chicken breasts or eggs myself – all those items displayed in the aisles, brightly packaged and neatly processed to shroud the fact that they had originated in conditions not dissimilar to those I had just seen on the bakkie.
Why should I single him out for questioning, when the multi-million rand poultry industry in South Africa – probably still mainly owned by white money while he is trying to make a living with a bakkie-full of caged chickens - continues to produce cruel food on a daily basis?
One of my research field trips to an utterly desolate and dirt-poor squatter camp clamped to the periphery of a Rustenburg mine in 2010 recurred to me. No running water, no electricity, no roads. We spent a day at the clinic conducting focus group discussions with sex workers. Throughout the day, I could hear the terrible cries of a dog. Later in the afternoon, I followed the sound towards a shack. A dog was chained to a pole – neck bleeding from the rope around it. No water, no food, no shelter. Rustenburg winters – as its midday sun - can be brutal. I knocked at the shack door and asked if it would be possible that the dog could be untied, or given some water and shade. I was met with a puzzled look and a disengaged response.
On returning to the clinic, I passed a few (unemployed?) men sitting outside a makeshift cafe in the shade. They asked me what I was doing. I explained about the distressed dog and wanting to help. One of the men looked at me intently and said “What about us? Why don’t you help us?”
I had no answer ready.
How does one negotiate and re-negotiate the unmet needs and suffering of South Africa of 2012? How legitimate is it to care about the pain and suffering of animals when a country is reeling from the brutality of Marikana? When the front page of one’s daily newspaper is taken up by the bloody, beaten face of a young woman trying to escape from her ex-boyfriend? Wide-scale unemployment, the greatest inequality gap in the world, endemic violence and xenophobia jostle for our attention and succour every minute of every day.
How can an animal rights activist respectfully and truthfully answer the Rustenburg man’s frank question?
Let me attempt: First, alleviating the suffering of animals mostly requires very little indeed of us. The suffering of the chickens and of the dog was unnecessary. It had no earthly function or point. It was caused by mere thoughtlessness. The acute pain and distress the chickens and the dog were suffering could be remedied immediately without much effort from the humans responsible for them. The canopied back of the bakkie was empty. The cage could have been placed inside to provide some protection against the wind. The cage could have been made bigger. The dog could have been given something to lie on. And a bowl of water, a more comfortable collar.
Of course, these interventions would go some way to relieve their immediate suffering. But they would not scratch the surface of why they were so cruelly chained and caged in the first place. Nor would they address the deeper question of why humans believe that animals are theirs for the taking, or that their suffering does not count.
Second, to care for animals and alleviate their suffering is not to care nothing for humans. Nor is it to direct action that could benefit humans towards animals. We can care for both humans and animals. And our compassion and empathy are not finite. Caring about animals does not expend compassion that we should otherwise direct to humans. Asking the owner of the dog to consider its suffering was relatively undemanding. That I had no similar immediate solutions for the problems of the man in the shade does not detract from the fact that the dog’s suffering was entirely pointless. And needless.
My commitment to justice for animals does not detract from my commitment to social justice for South Africa’s poor and unemployed, and to opposing inequalities whose eradication will assist the man, his friends and others.
Many animal rights or animal welfare activists are strongly committed to a wide range of causes related to justice, rights and freedoms in our society. Many of us draw links between domineering power structures and violence, violation of rights and exploitation of the weak – whether of animals or of humans. Asking a society to be more respectful and mindful of animals does not detract from other worthy causes – in fact, it supports and bolsters them.
Our country is striving to create a more humane society based on dignity and social justice (well, we are trying to strive). It is exactly these principles that should motivate us to confront animal cruelty in any form, to demand the production of ethical food, and to encourage people to be more thoughtful and empathetic in their interaction with humans and animals alike.
This may involve some gumption:
- Requesting your supermarket or restaurant manager to offer free range eggs, milk and meat, and moving your consumer power elsewhere if they do not.
- Asking the Western Cape government why it has discontinued its endorsement of Meat-Free Mondays and how much the influence of the Red Meat Producers’ Organisation lay behind this sudden decision.
- Querying your municipality on why it has not endorsed a Meat-Free Monday in the first place.
- Knocking on your neighbour’s door and asking why she beats her dog when it barks.
- Phoning the SPCA if she continues, and doggedly (yes!) following-up with them.
These small, principled actions will not exhaust any of us. But they will contribute towards a more compassionate and ethical South Africa.
Something to contemplate while you are waiting in the drive-thru at Kentucky Fried Chicken tonight. DM