(OR: WENDY AND THE GREAT ICE CREAM BUY-OFF)
(Not Wendy, and not the old fashioned type of ice cream mentioned herein.)
When I was 11 years old, I had the opportunity to go on a week-long school trip to a field study centre, secreted away in a rural location on the side of the Malvern Hills in the UK. Although I wasn’t the most adventurous of children, it sounded like it might be fun, since it involved a working week, learning about geography and things related to the natural world. I was already in love with nature, so I signed up, with no foresight that it would become one of the most enjoyable and impactful weeks of my childhood. For me, the week was idyllic. It involved being outdoors all day long, getting to grips with fossils, seismic formations, oxbow lakes, and land use patterns, to name but a few of the magical mysteries that unfolded. Long days were followed by late evenings in the centre’s classroom (staying up way beyond my usual permitted bedtime), documenting everything we had done. It was hard work, but for me it was exceptionlly rewarding. I remember all too vividly that when I got home, despite it being my twelfth birthday, my mother was unable to understand why I seemed so miserable at the party she’d laid on for me (fortunately, without other guests); or why I was tired and weepy. True, I was exhausted after a challenging week; but I was also depressed that it was over.
Well that’s a very nice little story. But something else happened that week which for some reason found its way back into my memory a few days ago, just short of 45 years later. On the second day of the trip, we visited the market town of Ledbury with the specific purpose of observing the mixed livestock sale that was taking place that day. It wasn’t exactly a grand place (see the photo below) and there wasn’t a great deal there, but we were treated to a guided tour of the pens the animals were enclosed in, listening politely (as kids had to back then) to the auctioneer who was leading us around. To our great delight, we were able to pet any creature we chose. Oddly, we didn’t seem to register their obvious discomfort as fear. The penny didn’t really seem to drop for any of us as to why they were there. For my part, I imagined they were going from living in one nice field to another. Things started to go awry when we came to the pigs. A farmer was using a nasty looking piece of equipment to punch half inch holes in their ears, before inserting numbered hard plastic tags. The helpless creatures struggled to get away from him and were brutally treated when they did not comply with his desires. When he did manage to get hold of them with his gun like instrument, they squealed at first, then screamed when its action left its bloody and gaping hole. As we watched, there was a palpable ripple of disquiet and our cheery group rapidly fell silent. Suddenly the tour seemed to be less fun. Then a girl called Wendy burst into tears and became inconsolable. Perhaps through autosuggestion, other girls began to follow suit, so we were hastily ushered away from the scene of minor carnage. Fortunately, at that moment our school’s deputy headmaster (vice principal), Mr Locking, arrived with his wife. They had made the not inconsiderable journey from our hometown just to see how the school party was getting on. Kindly, they treated us all to ice creams from a fortuitously placed van outside of the market. Then as we all licked the soothingly bland vanilla blocks, housed between two wafers, he explained that we should not be upset about what was happening to the pigs. They needed to be tagged so that the person who buys them will know who they belong to and they won’t get lost. It was for their protection, was his assuaging elucidation. As for their apparent pain, it was like ladies having their ears pierced. It was just a little pinch. It was over in a second. Since very few in the party could relate to this experience, his wife stepped in to assure us that it did not hurt at all. Then to illustrate, she had us all pinch our own earlobes and we were instantly reassured that it was nothing to make a noise about. They were being silly pigs. Now why didn’t we finish our ice creams and stop worrying about it? That bitterly ironic ice cream, itself a product of horrible suffering and grief, did its work upon us. It bought off any lingering concerns we might have had in the moment and how easily we swallowed it. A few compensatory licks seemed to instantly banish any further need to delve into the dreadful truths we might have discovered. Even Wendy smiled. Over the years, I have periodically played back the memory of those tortured pigs and wondered at the deception so easily wrought upon us. But I don’t condemn what was done to us. Instead I feel shame over what we allowed to be done to us. Forty-five years ago, nobody told us that the animals in the market were living the last day of their sad and tragically short lives. It was omitted from mention that the high sided vehicles that crowded the market car park were owned by slaughter houses that would haul the helpless beasts away to their inevitable death. It wasn’t shared with us that the creatures we children had taken such pleasure in stroking and being close to were likely out of their minds with fear through instinctive prescience over what was to come. But in hindsight, I believe we all knew. At some level, our pre-adolescent minds must have grasped what was going on. Children naturally, spontaneously love animals. Even a hint of acknowledgement of their fate should have caused a revolution of emotions similar to those that Wendy gave vent to. So why was it only Wendy (and the copycats) who succumbed to the knowledge of the terrors that we all should have realised lay in store for those poor cows, sheep and pigs? Were we afraid of adult disapprobation or even recrimination if we challenged what was happening. Or was it just more expedient for us to accept the ice cream and shrug off the hideous truth of what transpired? I have come to believe that the experience of that day presented us with a choice. Either accept the ice cream and the probably well intended guff proffered by our deputy headmaster; or face up to the cruel reality of what we witnessed. Maybe that Tuesday morning in 1973 was only a cathartic moment for me, where I could choose to acquiesce to a lie would set a precedent for my life; or rebel and refuse to accept society’s most evil precedent. We don’t all have close encounters with doomed animals whose tragic lives will be imminently snuffed out so that humans may experience a few minutes of unnecessary gustatory pleasure. Yet surely, for all of us, there must come a moment in our lives where we make that choice, arising when the grim truth of the way in which we feed ourselves presents itself. That instant when we need to tell ourselves “It’s OK. Their lives don’t matter” (simply to withstand the ravaging guilt that should stem from horror of what we allow) or choose a no harm path. Of course, things are seldom that black and white. Self-deception is easy and convenient, and a decisive response to evil can be a long time in coming. Although the Ledbury market scene never ceased to trouble me, it would be a further seventeen years before I would allow my consciousness to fully register the implications of what befell those poor creatures that day. Coming to terms with my own culpability was not easy, and consequently, my decision to go vegetarian was, in hindsight, far too long in coming. Even then, my total commitment to living a vegan, harm free existence would not surface for a further twenty-two years thereafter. Better late than never, right? Maybe, but as the slogan so rightly says, “The only thing you’ll regret about going vegan is that you didn’t do it sooner.” That is so true. In my book ‘A Piece of Heaven’, I reflected that were children to be allowed to connect with domesticated ‘farm’ animals one day, and then visit a slaughter house to learn the truth of their inevitable ghastly deaths the next day, they would instantly become lifelong vegans. They would then determine the precedents for our future world, and the terrible scourge of theriocide would vanish within a generation. Of course, exposing children to such atrocities would likely scar them for life, so that’s never going to happen. Instead, as I did, the vast majority of children in the generations to come will grow up either failing to make or ignoring the connection between supermarket packaged ‘meat’, and the harmless creatures they would otherwise love. As for me, I live with regrets about the many years of my life spent glibly accepting the deception that our society entraps us with in order to excuse endless theriocide. I know I was responsible for too many deaths, so now I try to atone by helping others recognise how easily we allow ourselves to be bought off. Perhaps, as adults, it’s not with ice cream, but with the so many other ridiculous rationales that will permit a developed mind and conscience to assuage its guilt and find the horrific and unnecessary acceptable. I consider it inevitable that all of us, in some lifetime, must face up to what we are doing to animals and reject our lame excuses for allowing their relentless suffering. It took me too long to stop doing that. So now please ask yourself, when will you? Or are you happy knowing that you've allowed yourself to be bought-off?
Shame on you.
Ledbury livestock market, as it was then.