Looking at Jo-Anne McArthur’s portraits of animals is like looking into a mirror, the shock of recognition forever destroying—if ever there was any doubt—the notion that animals are not our fellow creatures.
Activist and photographer McArthur created We Animals, a project documenting through photographs the fate of the animals we consume, in environments we created for them for that purpose. Her work was featured in The Ghosts in Our Machine, an award-winning documentary by Liz Marshall, screened in Montreal last September.
In the film, Marshall’s camera follows McArthur as she photographs animals in various settings, providing a glimpse of the lives they lead that few of us ever get to see or care to think about. The film also lets us see rescued animals living in a sanctuary, and the capacity for wellbeing they exhibit speaks as loud as their suffering to the idea that they are sentient beings.
There is a haunting moment in the film, where there is only silence as the camera pans slowly on a busy city street, settling here and there on various objects. It takes a moment to get it—and it’s a bit of a cold shower—to realize that so many of the things that surround us, like shoes or keychains, originally were not things at all.
The Ghosts in Our Machine asks: Are non-human animals property to be owned and used or are they beings deserving of rights?
The question is answered in a manifesto announced in January that begins: “Like most people, we believe animals are not toasters.” The manifesto is written by Sophie Gaillard, a lawyer with the Montreal SPCA, and Martin Gibert, a philosophy teacher at McGill University. Seeking to change the legal status of animals from “moveable property” to “sentient beings whose lives matter to them,” the document has been signed by more than 37,000 people including Laure Waridel, co-founder of Equiterre, Daniel Weinstock, director of the McGill Institute for Health and Policy, and Alanna Devine, director of animal advocacy at the Montreal SPCA.
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“At this point, we aren’t asking anything in particular, just that people be aware of the situation,” Devine says. “While the Criminal Code forbids certain types of cruelty to certain types of animals, it is limited in scope.” Devine says that even subject to industry-approved standards, animals experience “unimaginable suffering.”
One such instance was captured in hidden-camera footage filmed at Hybrid Turkeys in Ontario by Mercy for Animals. It aired on CBC’s Marketplace last month. The video shows what appears to be a turkey being beaten to death with, among other things, a shovel, struggling for five minutes. According to a statement issued by the company, the video “depicted employees … utilizing euthanasia methods that, while approved by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, violate Hybrid’s strict animal welfare protocols.”
Spokesperson Helen Wojcinski says the incident reflects an issue with employees and is not reflective of a system or process problem. Approved euthanasia methods include blunt-force trauma, cervical dislocation, barbiturates, carbon dioxide gas, and gunshot.
“The method that is part of our quality practice, which employees who perform euthanasia need to be trained to do, is cervical dislocation,” Wojcinski says. The company pledged to install video monitoring and veterinary review of euthanasia, becoming the first turkey producer in North America to do so, according to a statement.
Devine says many groups and individuals are working on animal rights in different ways but all agree that the “Five Freedoms”, meeting the basic needs of living creatures, should be respected. This essentially means the right to be free from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury, disease, fear and stress, and the right to express behaviours natural to their species.
Even excluding isolated incidents of gratuitous cruelty, these needs are “100 per cent not respected in factory farming,” Devine says.
The Montreal SPCA supports mandatory labeling of factory-farmed food so that consumers can make informed choices at the grocery store. It has submitted a brief to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, noting that a 2009 survey demonstrated that Canadians are willing to pay more for cruelty-free meat and eggs. Such labels as “free-run” are not verifiable and do not necessarily reflect reality, Devine says.
“The overarching concept is that labeling should not be deceptive, but truthful.”
Canadians want to know where their food comes from, Devine says. “It’s a question everyone needs to ask of themselves.”