Suffering in Plain Sight at the York Fair
Posted in: Activism
Tags: York Fair
For a moment, walking into the fair felt like I was reliving a part of my childhood. Coming to the fair was a treat – I looked forward to the sights, sounds and smells that accompanied the thrill of the rides and the fun I had with friends. This time, though, walking past the food vendors and through the buildings there was a huge knot in my stomach. Knowing what I know now, I wish I hadn’t been so ignorant of what the fair is all about. It’s simple if you want to break it down. It’s about animal agriculture. The main focus of the York Fair, like most other small town fairs, is on local farmers showcasing their best animals. It’s also about food; most of which is made of animals. And of course, it’s about money. Those same animals who everyone ogles at are either kept as breeding machines or sold at the 4H auction and sent to slaughter. What a great time for those animals! Put on display for prizes and then used for reproduction (and later killed) or just sent straight to be killed. Being at the fair, this time, was not for fun. It was for the animals.
It became clear almost right away that my friend, photographer Amanda Clark, and I were in a place that is heavily guarded. The first place we ventured into was the Ag Education Center. They have an area with young and small animals such as piglets, guinea pigs, chicks, bunnies and goats. Essentially, it is an animal petting area. I walked up to the entrance to see if we could enter, but they just changed the sign to Closed. Three young girls stood behind the gate, so I casually asked what happens to all the animals once the fair is over. While I was doing this, Amanda had gotten her camera out and started taking photos of the animals. One of the girls went on high alert and began reporting us to security via walkie talkie. The same girl answered my question a moment before, saying that all the animals go back to the loving homes they came from. It was obvious that she was not being truthful since most of the animals had For Sale signs hanging on their pen or cage. Another girl, who was standing near the entrance gate, after the initial false answer I was given, told me some of the animals do, in fact, go back to their original “owner,” but the rest are sold since the point of being involved in animal husbandry is to raise animals that are profitable.
We were being watched. Not 2 minutes after asking a simple question about the animals, while we were looking at the days-old baby chicks, we were approached by the same girl who reported us. She was pretty obviously trying to make us feel unwelcome by rudely asking how our visit was going and if we needed help. Even though she was trying her best to make us leave, we stuck around for a few more minutes to look at the battery hen display in the corner. As we walked towards the two hens in the cages, I knew then and there that this wasn’t about education – it’s about painting a pretty picture for the general public. The two beautifully white, plump hens were in individual cages, which seemed to illustrate the conditions of egg laying hens. In reality, 6 hens are the norm for a similar sized cage, and they are stacked many rows high; the bottom hens living amongst the droppings of the higher hens. An egg facility, normally a very long shed, can hold tens of thousands of hens. Think of the stench and all the feces! The pretty chickens in front of us did not tell an honest story of tens of millions of layer hens. The only truth behind the Fair’s portrayal of battery hen cages is that they live on wire floors, which is very uncomfortable and unnatural for chickens. You will never see a hen in the same perfect state, with white plush feathers, in an egg facility. You will see chickens with barely any feathers, most who cannot even stand up because of the damage the wire does to their feet. We left the Ag Education Center with one fact: animal agriculture likes to keep secrets.
Next, we ventured to the Poultry Area where all different breeds of rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, turkeys, pigeons, ducks and geese were kept – all in small, individual cages. Most people wander through the building, barely taking a moment to look at the individuals kept inside these wire prisons. Amanda and I connected with a few, giving a couple hens and turkeys some of our time to let them know we see them as more than a commodity.
We walked out, under a garage door and into the neighboring building, which was the main animal arena. We strolled past a line of steers that had a Cuts of Beef display right in front of the row. My heart pounded thinking about the beautiful, gentle animals before me being hung upside-down to have their throats slit. The farmers sat next to their row of cattle and I tried to look them in the eyes, but I felt nauseous knowing what these animals would endure; all for a couple dollars. I kept thinking, “Do these people care, even a little, about the animals they raise? How could they if they will be sending them to choke on their own blood?” Gruesome, I know. These animals aren’t killed “nicely” – not like that is even possible. I can’t, and will probably never, be able to wrap my head around what animal ag farmers do. Bovine are smart, gentle and curious, yet most people just see them as milk machines and burgers. It breaks my heart in half knowing how wonderful they are, but they aren’t given compassion because they don’t bark or meow.
I knew what I was in for as we started towards the baby animal area – the sow in the gestation crate. She was laying on her side with 9 piglets next to her. She looked half dead, to be honest, because she didn’t move at all. They were all laying on an elevated plastic floor with holes, which I imagine is easy to clean. The mother pig didn’t interact with her babies because she couldn’t. Her movement is contained to laying down and standing up, but nothing more. Her babies, at one day old, looked fragile and confused. They crawled all over each other trying to get close to their mom who was completely motionless. I wondered, “How many pregnancies had she already been through?” Maybe at this point, she no longer tried to comfort her babies because she was defeated and knew they wouldn’t be with her long. In the United States, 60 to 70 percent of sows, which are female pigs used for breeding, are kept in gestation crates. These crates are only slightly larger than their bodies. They are unable to turn around. Sows kept in them can become agitated due to boredom and being immobilized. They bite and hit the bars and move their heads back and forth. It is apparent that they are losing their minds in this horrendous form of torture. Sows normally have between two and three litters every year until the age of 4 when they are sent for “processing,” A.K.A. “slaughter.”
I asked a mother with two children what she thought of the scene in front of us, and to my astonishment, she said she thought it was great. I asked her if she thought the mother pig was comfortable, to which she replied that she probably isn’t. She didn’t seem to want to talk about it further as the reality of the situation might be setting in, or maybe I was just hoping that was the case. I asked another woman who seemed to be beaming at the sight of the piglets what she thought. Without a pause, she said she loved it. I again asked if the sow was comfortable, to which she replied that she didn’t know what kind of contraption she was in, but she hoped the mother pig was let out once in a while. It was plain as day that the sow was not comfortable, but she was overshadowed by the adorable piglets beside her; no one batting an eye at her recently pregnant girth trapped inside a tight cage. Neither the mother nor the babies had straw to lay in, proving their comfort and care is not even a priority. Right outside the arena’s doors showed the future for the adorable piglets – a food vendor boasting a “Bacon Bomb” sandwich. I knew it was likely that Amanda and I were the only ones who noticed the immense suffering and made the connection between the animals and what they would become.
The arena had sections of different animals – equine, cattle, goats, newborns and swine. Animals all around us, either tied by their faces to posts or kept inside enclosures. Everyone around us seemed entranced at the animals – saying how cute they were, yet no one seeing the true misery they go through because we are taught to believe this is the way things are. Livestock are property, pets are loveable, and wildlife is dangerous, possibly rabid or ferocious. I’m not sure when these lines started to be drawn; probably back when bovine and sheep were being domesticated. From that point on, the animals who were considered commodities were kept safe from the wild beasts in the forest, until the day came when their caretakers would commit the ultimate betrayal – taking their lives.
I couldn’t leave the animal arena without visiting the pigs, so we ventured over to the back of the building where their pens were. The pigs were all young; just a few months old. Amanda and I sat with a few of them and rubbed their backs. The more inquisitive pigs came up to check us out, and I got to pet their faces and touch their snouts. One pink-skinned pig with dark bristles had the saddest look on his face. He didn’t want to come close to us. Pigs are extremely intelligent, which made me think he was more aware than any farmer would let you think. Writing this, I wonder what will happen to him. I have a pretty good idea of what is in store for him, and it breaks my heart. Before we left the building, I asked one of the men holding a sorting panel, which is a plastic board that is used to move pigs, what will happen to them. He stated that they will either go back to the farm for breeding or will be sold at the Fair’s auction to be turned into ham and bacon.
Bruno’s Tiger Show was the last stop on our list for the evening. We arrived just as the show was starting. A tall circular cage was erected on a plot of grass, which held 6 adult tigers and a man with a stick. The tigers, as majestic as they are, looked so out of place in this enclosure, sitting atop metal pedestals. The show included the tigers following commands, jumping from platform to platform, walking a tightwire and rolling around. When they were not doing a stunt, they were in a bowing position on the pedestal, completely submissive. It was devastating to see these big cats with all their might and strength so powerless. I’ve seen how circus animals are confined, trained, starved and tormented to do silly shows such as the one I was watching. One at a time, the tigers were told to leave the performance area and go into their individual cages. Once all the big cats were in their cages, the show was over. We walked around the trailer and RV to the other side of the cage, but couldn’t see much. A large red tent hid the tigers who were in their tiny traveling cages. Considering the liability that goes along with having tigers on the road, I’m certain that they live in those cages 99% of the time that they are on the road. According to Bruno, he has 25 tigers living on his ten acres in Florida. He changes the cats out as he does different fairs around the country. Even so, a few weeks living in a cage barely larger than their body is not okay. Neither is breeding more into a miserable existence in captivity, which he does to make a profit. He told the crowd during his opening words that he is saving the tigers from being killed by poachers, yet he doesn’t even consider that what he is doing is completely unethical as far as exploiting a highly endangered species.
Amanda and I parted ways and I headed to the exit on West Market Street. The encounters I had with a few dozen animals will stay with me. I know most of them, especially the cows, pigs and chickens, will be sold soon and their futures will not be peaceful.
Photos by Amanda Clark, The Sanctuary Project