Depressed about large and momentous events beyond our control, perhaps we had best think of humbler matters in which, at least, the decisions are ours alone to make. If that’s your state of mind in the fall of 2016, I’ve got just the news story for you. A morality tale out of Ontario, Canada, it’s known locally as the “thirsty pigs” case and presents choices that are, in their way, momentous enough.
In a court of justice, a 49-year-old woman named Anita Krajnc stands accused of criminal mischief. Her offense, as alleged by complainants and provincial authorities, was to give water to pigs bound for a nearby abattoir. It was a hot day in June of last year. A trailer hauling 180 or so of the animals had stopped at an intersection. Seeing the pigs looking out through the vents, panting and foaming at the mouth, the defendant let them lap water from a plastic bottle, provoking this videotaped confrontation related by the Washington Post:
At that moment, the truck driver emerged in protest.
“Don’t give them anything!” he shouted, his own camera phone in hand. “Do not put anything in there!”
“Jesus said, ‘If they are thirsty, give them water,’” she yelled back.
“No, you know what?” he shouted. “These are not humans, you dumb frickin’ broad! Hello!”
The driver, Jeffrey Veldjesgraaf, called police and eventually continued on with his doomed cargo down Harvester Road to the suitably named Fearmans slaughterhouse (what pig shouldn’t fear man’s slaughterhouse?). The next day Eric Van Boekel, owner of Van Boekel Hog Farms, pressed charges for what he regards as an interference with his livelihood and property: a case of tampering with the food supply and nothing more.
Anita Krajnc, moreover, didn’t just happen to be at that intersection. She leads a group called Toronto Pig Save. Part of its mission is to offer water to pigs and other farm animals in their final moments. In the way of mass-confinement farming these days, that ride to Fearmans affords their very first glimpse of the world and their very last. Often these journeys are hundreds of miles, the pigs crowded into trucks for as long as 36 hours with no food, water, or rest. Krajnc is there to “bear witness,” that they might go to their deaths having encountered at least one human face that wasn’t glaring indifferently at them, felt one touch of human kindness. Viewing the woman as incorrigible, Van Boeckel decided this was his chance to put an end to it.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, representing hog farmers, informs members that “our coordinated action plan has been established” in case the controversy gets out of hand. “Developments in the case and associated actions by interested parties are being monitored very closely,” and “we sincerely hope the court continues to focus on the specific issue at hand.” They are understandably wary of any inquiry extending beyond the property-interference question, wishing to steer as far clear as possible of a public moral debate, to say nothing of a religious debate, about the mistreatment of farm animals in general and about Krajnc’s last-hour benefactions in particular. Allow the spirit of the Comforter and Good Shepherd at the end of the creatures’ lives, and attentive men and women will start to wonder where it was all along. Not good for business when people get too unearthly about these things. Save your prayers for grace over the meal.
For her part, the dumb frickin’ broad with the water says that she was “just following the Golden Rule,” understood as applying wherever human empathy can reach. She explained in court that she prefers the word “intervening” to “interfering,” since whatever the law says about Van Boekel’s property, she was simply living out her Christian obligation of compassion for animals, thereby serving the public good. It was an act of mercy, and in what kind of enterprise is it forbidden to be merciful? I was thirsty and you gave me drink. Nothing in the ring of those words to encourage help for an afflicted fellow creature? Do humans alone know thirst?
The reputations of revered saints instruct us in gentleness toward animals, along with firm admonitions in Scripture and felony-level penalties recognizing, toward some creatures, anyway, an obligation of justice. So to Krajnc’s supporters it seems unfair that she should be the one compelled to explain herself, facing imprisonment for being merciful, while Van Boekel, who shows nothing of that quality, steps into court like some aggrieved pillar of the community. Change.org, petitioning for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s attention to the case before a verdict comes next month, frames the matter this way: “What is wrong with our legal system, when attempting to alleviate the suffering of another being is seen as criminal, and those who are inflicting the pain and cruelty are left unchallenged?”
A satisfactory answer from the prime minister would top his viral-video performance back in April, when he explained quantum computing to a dazzled audience of reporters and academics. Merely addressing the problem of factory farming at all would show a truly searching mind at work. How often do liberals who lay blame for the world’s ills on the greed of other people, or conservatives on the weak will of other people, ever question their own habits and appetites, or consider how a change in these might help to avoid vast animal suffering? In neither case do we see the moral idealism of serious people at their best, and liberals in particular receive far more credit than is merited for thinking and caring about animal causes. So it would be nice if Canada’s progressive prime minister set a helpful example. Should he answer the question put to him by Change.org, it is a challenge of mental prowess less theoretical than quantum theory, and the test of truth is consistency.
For instance, it was pointed out in Krajnc’s trial that if the court had the same basic set of facts, replacing only the word “pig” with “dog,” the weight of law would shift instantly in favor of the defendant, even though dogs also fall rather uneasily into the category of legal property. A conscientious person, seeing a trapped, desperate, overheated dog, would be expected to offer relief, and in some places, parts of Canada included, the law encourages exactly that. What would we do? And why should we care in the least what the owner thinks, when the creature is clearly suffering from deliberate or reckless neglect?
Social norms basically say that dogs are awesome and pigs are worthless. Provably, however, pigs are every bit the equals of dogs in their intelligence, emotional depth, and capacities for suffering and happiness alike. Though badly maligned, pigs are really quite impressive and endearing when they are not being tortured, terrified, scalded alive (as often happens), and dismembered amid the bedlam of places like Van Boekel’s factory farm and Fearmans’s abattoir. In countries where dogs are mostly appreciated, admired, and loved, while unseen pigs are killed by the hundreds of thousands every day, people need to pretend there’s some subtle yet all-important moral difference between abusing one and abusing the other, or eating one and eating the other. And it falls to guileless souls like Anita Krajnc to remind them it’s all just made up. Charge her with a lack of sophistication, being too naïve to play along with convenient cultural distinctions that have no basis in reality.
Indeed, we can easily imagine a Chinese or Korean version of the story, a “thirsty dogs case” in which some Golden Rule do-gooder dares to offer a merciful bit of water to one of the millions of dogs ensnared in the canine meat trade — complete with a driver shouting “These are not humans! Hello!” and a seller insisting that she take her damn hands off his food animals. Dogs in China, South Korea, and elsewhere are subjected to devilish torments; as with our farm animals, thirst is the least of their miseries. Call up a few pictures on the Internet if you can bear reminding of how utterly depraved some people are toward animals. And then try explaining why that meat trade is needless, selfish, and hard-hearted but ours is not. If anything, the dog butchers and their customers may be credited with greater consistency, being unselective in their inhumanity toward animals.
Wait on the day when all such scenes are in our past, finally left behind in what Wayne Pacelle calls the “humane economy” (in a powerful book by that name). For every product of human cruelty, human creativity will offer something better, as it does already with an abundance of far healthier substitutes for meat. We will need no witnesses like Anita Krajnc to gentler, saner ways, because the slaughterhouses will be gone. The little acts of mercy will lead to great ones; the ruthless instead of the kindly will be counted disturbers of the peace. You can take that on the authority, as well, of Charles Krauthammer, a man educated in Canada, who observed recently on Fox News that “in a hundred years people are going to judge us as a civilization that killed wantonly and ate animals. There’s going to be a time when we’re not going to need to do that. And they’re going to end up judging their ancestors, meaning us, harshly for having been that wanton and that cruel.”
Or, you can take it from Anita, this gracious person whose real offense is to see what we are not supposed to notice, and to say what the world both dismisses as foolish and knows to be true. “When someone is suffering,” she told the Post, “it’s actually wrong to look away. We all have a duty to be present and try to help. In the history of the world, that’s how social movements progress.”
– Mr. Scully, a former literary editor of National Review and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.
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