Sue Coe grew up in postwar England with a slaughterhouse nearby and a small pig farm with sheds behind their house. “My mother and I watched a pig escape from a slaughterhouse. My whole childhood was listening to the pigs scream.”
So she asked her parents two questions: why didn’t we stop the death camps in Europe? "Because we didn’t know," they said. But we know about the slaughterhouse next door, she asked, so why aren’t we stopping it?
Their maddening answer: “Why don't you grow up?”
Shockingly, she wanted to go into a slaughterhouse, and at age 10, she was allowed inside to draw. Upon entering, the thing that immediately struck her was that, as a witness, you have no power or control. You are totally vulnerable and defenseless – just like the animals.
“I was so glad I looked into the slaughterhouse,” she said, “because it became my life mission to stop it. My work destroys the meat industry, in my small way.”
50 years later, Sue has continued talking her way into slaughterhouses, armed with paper and pencil – but no camera – to bear witness to the plight of farmed animals. Along with slaughterhouses, her work also explores subjects including apartheid, sweat shops, prisons, AIDS, and war, and her illustrations have been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time Magazine, Newsweek and more.
At a presentation of hers I saw, during which she showed her illustrations while describing what each particular slaughterhouse setting or moment was like, at times it felt like getting punched in the stomach. My eyes watered, chills of shame came in waves. And I kept thinking – how can I tell people about this in the normal day-to-day social context of my life? There's no way the people I love would want to be part of this. And yet we don't want to know, so we keep participating and transferring the guilt.
“I’m asking you to look through my eyes,” she told us. “Not to look at my eyes but through my eyes.” Here are some of the moments that especially stuck with me.
It's a Picnic
“This is what goes on, on the other side of the wall. Why don’t we want to look on the other side of the wall?” she implored us. “That we can be so happy, and yet only feet away, this is happening.” (And it's happening on a scale of unfathomably epic proportions, to an estimated 70 billion sentient individuals each year despite the fact we have no nutritional requirement for the results.) She also drew a parallel to our for-profit prison system.
“This is insanity,” she told us. “This is the meat industrial complex. Madness is a complex they are selling. The insanity that they force on the animals…”
She drifted off and said softly, “In some sense, when they get to be slaughtered, their suffering is over.”
Did you know a large factory farm is built near the site of the Lety Concentration Camp in Czechoslavakia? Once a World War II internment camp, today it's a never-ending hell on earth for one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, pigs. She quoted philosopher Theodor Adorno: “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.” She pointed out that many descendants of those killed in the camp don’t even eat pork.
“The meat industry,” she said, “knows no irony.”
(Linking the human Holocaust to our treatment of animals is controversial, but many of those making this connection are themselves Holocaust survivors.)
"Gassing Hogs, 6 at a Time, Instead of One at a Time, More Profitable for the Industry
In the US, she shared, most slaughterhouses are still the old-fashioned single line system, but globally they are becoming more and more automated to decrease labor costs, complete with muzak playing in the background.
Decompression chambers, or controlled atmospheric stunning, are the latest slaughter method, and she says it feels comparable to a human with the bends. It’s now a very common method for killing "spent" hens past their egg-laying prime. Birds have very sensitive eardrums, which burst as they are being decompressed.
In the gas/CO2 chambers, it takes pigs up to 90 seconds to die. “They have done many tests on this.” To try to get away, she described, “They climb vertically up the ceiling. They climb up walls.”
“This is a Slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania. She [a "dairy" cow] has a broken back or broken leg and they leave her for lunch break. And she’s tapping, it’s like Morse code with her hoof. All her herd are there waiting with her. And they [the workers] come back and she keeps calling and she’s not being milked because they don’t care – she is going to be slaughtered at age 3 or 4. A cow lives for like 32 years. At age 3 or 4 she’s ‘milked out.’"
She adds, "Her milk went with her blood down the drain.”
We were all inside a large enclosed room for her presentation, and now she paused before continuing. “This is as though I said to you, ‘I’m going to slaughter all of you now. All of you. And I could.
Because you are the batch. You are the average number that goes through in a few hours.
And you would go to the farthest end of that room to get away from me. You would try to become invisible. You would start climbing up the walls to get away from me – but you can’t, because I would get you, one by one.’”
I'll never forget how I felt at that moment.
In a recent LAIKA Magazine interview, she said that almost every animal she has seen slaughtered firsthand – and there have been many – has looked into her eyes right before it happened if she was close enough, and just like anyone would want to know, the question in their eyes is always: Why? They are searching your eyes for a motive right up until the last moment.
Amongst the other unbearably heartbreaking incidents Sue described:
- The debeaking of poultry: “Their tongues come out sometimes. People come up to me and want to know – people don’t know this. Regular people don’t know."
- Foie gras geese being force fed: A rare example of males being used, as the majority of farmed animals used are female (milk, eggs).
- Sheep transported (by boat 3.5 weeks from Perth Australia to the Gulf): “The sheep on the bottom are blinded by the urine that comes down.”
- Fish market: “In San Francisco, where the fish are chosen alive – they could be swimming in the Galapagos a few hours before, with their scales of multicolors! And they’re taken, and they end up here. And they flip off the board sometimes and are still moving around on the ground, amongst cigarette butts. They go grey. You actually see them go grey, all their beautiful rainbow colors going.”
- Separation of dairy cows and their calves: “All around me in upstate New York are dairy farms," she said. "This is a young calf stolen from the mother... These cows cry for three days and three nights. It’s constant. And then they are hot-wired away from these plastic kennels where the young cows are chained. These are replacement heifers, not veal calves. They stand in freezing cold. They stand in their own shit and piss, frozen to the ground, barely alive."
- Male calves tied to a tractor: “They aren’t even worth the price of a bullet.”
- The cutting of the vaginal folds of sheep used for wool: “Many are so young they’re still basically lambs, trembling so much they can hardly stand.”
- Transport to the slaughterhouse (the average farmed animal today travels 350 miles to slaughterhouse): “I’ve seen pigs get electrocuted in the eye and anus to get them to move when their whole skin is frozen to sides of trucks.”
- Abandoned animals due to a slaughterhouse health code violation (without food or water for a week): There were pyramids of dead animals’ bodies and some survivors. “I held this goose, and she was as thin as paper. Her heart beat against my heart. Under her wings was a tiny chicken she had been with for a week." She added that they were rescued and stayed together for the rest of their lives.
- Millions of pigs buried alive in plastic pits (due to hoof and mouth disease, which is not fatal to pigs but reduces the market value of their flesh): “Bulldozers bulldozed over them, still screaming."
- Dogs being boiled alive in Asia: “In their last moments they are trying to get out of the boiling water. And what’s difference between this and throwing pigs in a scalding bath? None. Don’t be xenophobic and focus on this. There’s no such thing as humane slaughter.”
- A single black sheep outside of a slaughterhouse: “I’ll always remember her. I drew her. One out of billions. One out of trillions. And I couldn’t save her.”
- The de-finning of hammerhead sharks: Thrown back and left to drown.
- Long line fishing: “Every animal gets caught in long lines. This is an obscenity.”
- Young turkeys pecking another turkey to death (because of a tiny spot of blood): Turkeys habitually peck at dirt and food, but “there’s no dirt or food, they’re in a cage, so they just peck each other to death.”
- Newborn chicks ground up alive (because male chicks born at hatcheries for the egg industry – for both factory farms and backyard farmers – have no value): When Sue’s activist friend called the police to report this barbaric yet standard practice, she was arrested.
- Sheep drinking the blood of the animals that had just been slaughtered before them (because they’ve been in a truck for three days without food or water): “They fell to their knees and started to drink.”
- Visible antibiotics in a calf's open carcass: At an organic veal butcher in Montreal for NYC restaurants, the butcher lifted up the calf’s skin, and underneath was all the medication still in its plastic caps. She added that the butcher lost fingers because he makes 1,500 cuts an hour.
- Sheep bleeding out: “This I watched as the sheep and goats just went very small as they bled out. They just seemed to get smaller and smaller.”
Exploited meatpackers at a slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania: Waiting for a late truck of a animals, greatly concerned they won't get paid that day if it doesn't arrive, as as the average lifespan of a meatpackers before getting injured is just six months. Meatpacking is the most dangerous job in the United States.
Sue said when she goes into a slaughterhouse, she asks the workers, “Can you imagine a vegan world?” They think about it, and they say yes. She then asks them what’s preventing a vegan world in their opinion.
And they think, and they say: “culture.”
Written by Lorelei Plotczyk
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Watch Sue's full presentation: