I remember the exact moment that I stopped eating meat. It was a summer day, when the air burns like steam rising from a screaming kettle. I remember this because I was in my well-loved Civic, which, at that point in its life, was trying so desperately to keep in motion that it had completely diverted its energies from temperature-controlling the cab. I was forced to drive everywhere with my windows rolled down completely, ejecting sweat from every pore and arriving at my destination saturated and salty.
On that day, I was driving through a neighborhood on the edge of downtown Louisville. I was a little unfamiliar with the area at the time, and approaching a train track, I slowed. I leaned forward to grab a lip balm that had fallen to the floorboard.
Then, I heard someone scream.
This was the only actual scream that I had ever heard in real-life and it was blood-curdling. It was such a classic scream, actually, that I might have guessed that it had come from a haunted house, if it were October and if I were anywhere near a haunted house. As it happens, it was July and I wasn’t sure what I was near. For that reason, I assumed someone was being assaulted. I bolted up immediately and looked out my window expecting to see two people locked in a struggle. When I didn’t, I pulled over to the side of the road and got out. The screaming continued, indicating, I supposed, that the victim wasn’t dead yet, despite their obviously dire situation.
Despite raising myself on RPGs and fantasy novels, I never anticipated acting the hero. Being a first responder would be my actual nightmare. But when I heard someone getting murdered (probably), an instinct deep inside my coward’s soul came to life, and I knew I had to save that person.
I pulled out my phone and dialed 911 while cataloguing the Civic’s contents in my brain, trying to determine if I had anything I might be able to use for a weapon. I cast my eyes around again looking for the source of the screams, and noticed that I wasn’t totally alone: there were other cars driving by me; there was a man walking down the sidewalk across the street, along the exterior wall of what looked like factory. There were other people outside too, and no one seemed to be concerned by the sound. With my blood rapidly chilling into gel, I started to wonder if I was experiencing an auditory hallucination. Maybe no one else was reacting to the screaming because no one else could hear it.
The distress in my face must have been evident because the man walking by the wall across from me called out.
I threw my arms up in uncertainty. “Do you hear that? Screaming?” I called back.
He jerked a thumb towards the wall behind him. “Pigs. Squealing.”
The area of town I was in is called Butchertown, and at that moment I recalled that there was, in-fact, an actual slaughterhouse here. Crashing down from my adrenaline high, I understood that the screaming was coming from behind that wall and was not someone being attacked, but just a common old pig lumbering out of a truck and towards death.
Feeling foolish, I made an exaggerated face-palming motion, thanked the man with a wave, and climbed back into my boiling hot car.
I guess until that point I had believed in the mindlessness of stock animals, and vaguely imagined them trotting chipperly towards death with nary a care in the world, fattened and happy. That scream wasn’t mindless, though, that was true fear. And I could feel it.
As I drove away, and later that night at home, and the next day at work, I couldn’t shake the singular feeling that I’d had on the street. An emotional light switch had been jiggled. I went so quickly from knowing that I had to find and help the person making that sound, to a feeling of sheepishness and normalcy when I understood the sounds were “squealing,” and not “screaming,” no matter how similarly they had sounded to my ears. At one moment I would have risked my own well-being to help the person crying out, and at the next moment it was just an animal sound, something that happens all the time, thousands and thousands of times every single day.
Then, I couldn’t stop thinking about the slaughterhouse, probably because the scream had been so fraught with emotion. I guess until that point I had believed in the mindlessness of stock animals, and vaguely imagined them trotting chipperly towards death with nary a care in the world, fattened and happy. That scream wasn’t mindless, though, that was true fear. And I could feel it.
After that, I just didn’t want to eat pigs anymore. Pork and bacon didn’t seem like food. And then, like so many others there was a snowballing effect of research and reflection that landed me here at “ethical vegan”, where I’ve been for several years.
Recently, I started working in a building that’s situated very close to that slaughterhouse, which I learned, kills over 10,000 pigs each day. The cloying, acrid smell is the most common indication of its presence. There are also the ubiquitous trucks, packed with pigs, their pink haunches bubbling out of the air holes like one might spill out of a cutout bathing suit. When the trucks pull up to the plant, the pigs pile away from the doors, resisting removal until they’ve been prodded, kicked, pushed, and shocked towards the sunlight.
And some days, there’s screaming.
When the sound of the pigs protesting their end with everything they can muster splits the air and rattles me to my core, I look at the people walking outside on lunch breaks or shopping, not raising an eyebrow, and I resist the urge to ask “Do you hear that?” I know that they do hear it. They’re just choosing not to listen.