There is a history to this campaign which has involved many groups and tactics. Our blockade was not the first to happen to this particular farm. 10 years ago, animal rights activists tried to blockade the same road with people locked onto concrete barrels. Ours is the second blockade of Mainland Poultry, but this time, we used tripods.
The following is a recollection of the event from June 25th 2012.
It is 3am in Waikouaiti. We arrive at our destination with news media. Other activists have already started setting up the tripods. It’s pitch black and raining. The putrid smell of the factory farm hits you as soon as you get out of the car. This is it. I turn my head-torch on and start helping with set up. Everybody’s busy doing something; we don’t even notice the rain. The first tripod starts ascending, the sound of galvanised steel dragging along the gravel dirt road. I stand and watch as the second leg gets pulled out of the bushes. Shit, shit, shit! I thought as I saw the bent disfigured pole emerge from the trees. Panic hits but I try to remain calm. Another activist thinks quickly and the tripod gets brought down. It was Deirdre’s tripod and it was supposed to go up first. Sudden change of plan, mine will go up first instead. I help set up and move it to the right spot. I grab my bag and attach myself to the prussock ropes. With bright camera lights in my face, I start climbing. At the top of the tripod, I attach my bosun’s chair and slip myself in. I’m in position. I haul up my bag, much heavier than our practices. There’s a chain in there and food to last me a couple of days. I secure the chain around my waist and lock it onto a pole above me. I see Deirdre’s tripod erected next to mine. She’s halfway up the climb line, and gets to the top in no time. I sigh in relief. We did it. We’ve successfully blockaded the entrance to the egg farm. No workers have arrived yet.
The third tripod had the pole straightened but does not look as safe as ours. We make a snap decision for Marie to lock onto the gate instead.
At the apex, I could hear the hens inside the sheds. Quarter of a million of them are caged in this farm in both colony and battery cages. The smell of effluent blows past us periodically. Even though I haven’t been inside this specific farm, the footage of the colony cages that Open Rescue took inside their sheds are typical of any caged egg farming. It’s hard to notice the difference between colony and battery cages. Thousands of hens crammed in layers of cages stacked up to the ceiling. Same shit, different name.
What is not visible by only observing the layer hen’s immediate conditions is their life history from an egg in hatcheries to their slaughter at 2 years old age. At the hatcheries that provide layer hens for the egg industry, the chicks are separated by their assigned sex – male or female. Male chicks are gassed or minced alive - or what the industry calls “instantaneous fragmentation”. They are of no profitable use for the egg industry. Female chicks are de-beaked with a hot blade before they reach 10 days old. Layer hens are treated like reproductive machines, their female bodies exploited for their ability to menstruate. There are currently over 3 million layer hens in the country, the majority of them in cages. They produce almost a billion eggs per year. Outside of industrial farming, hens can live up to 10-15 years old, but in this profit-driven system, they are killed by the time they reach 2 years (unless they are rescued).
I think about the scale of this operation that we’re blockading and the symbolic nature of our action. The rain continues as we sit in position and our gloves get soaked. Eventually, the rain stops. But that’s when the cold hit. Our toes were the first to feel it. As the temperature dropped, the scaffolding poles radiated iciness. I wriggle my toes to try and conjure up some warmth to counter frostbites. It became really unbearable at one point and I just tried to take my mind off it.
The first worker vehicle arrives. Our ground crew greets them with a leaflet entitled, “We are not here to piss you off,” which explains the reasons why we are here. This is about the industry that abuses and exploits animals. I think it’s important to acknowledge that workers have little control over this. In a lot of areas in Aotearoa, these are the only jobs available. Some of the local supporters tell us that often WINZ brings people on the unemployment benefit on the farm to get them work. With the new policies of the unemployment benefit, if you refuse a job offer, you’re benefit gets cut. And I’ve heard stories about people only lasting half a day to one day and then going home a wreck. Factory farms have pretty poor working conditions, even more of a reason to end it!
Two workers turn around and drive off. Phew, no aggression, conflict or attempts to move us. The day went by with more trucks and vehicles having to turn around.
Some workers manage to get inside the facility, probably by foot through someone’s paddock. One of them drives up on a quad bike and threatens to hose Marie, who is locked onto the gate, with effluent water. We have wet weather gear with us, ‘cause we were prepared for the worst. We wait for the hose to come on but it never happened.
The sun comes up over the trees and provides us with warmth; this is the moment we were all looking forward to having been in the dark coldness for the past four hours. I watch the steam rise from the grass below and the icy dew evaporate from the poles.
Various media – print, radio and TV- start turning up. At one point in the morning, Deirdre’s phone was exploding from phone calls from the media. Interview after interview, she repeats our message and explains the Code of Welfare for hens that is currently under review.
On the ground, some local people came to support, bringing us food and offering their toilets.
The police had been there since 4.30am, but they mostly stood around talking to each other or sat in the warmth of their police cars. It took them about 10 hours to figure out how to get us down. Search and rescue team were called. The moment came when I saw the rugged-looking cherry picker approach us slowly. Two policemen get into it. They come for me first. They cut the chain with a bolt cutter and fiddled with my carabiners until the bosun’s chair comes undone and I am no longer attached to my safety lines. A cop walks me to a police car and takes my details. He hadn’t been told whether to arrest me or not at this stage so I take the liberty of accepting an offer from a local resident to use the toilet. I walk down to her place and relieve myself. She was fully supportive of our action. Living quite close to the farm, she knows the routines of the trucks and she told us that trucks normally go down this road every 10 minutes on a working day. So we did manage to cost and delay their production! Our tripods put a spanner in the works in the machinery of the egg factory farm.
We did get arrested, initially on charges of obstruction of a public way, but the senior sergeant in the station decided to release us without charge after considering the evidence. We were ecstatic! We didn’t have to stay in Dunedin for court!
We managed to catch the evening news. TV 3 coverage was considerably better than TV 1. Coincidentally, we have the same reporter covering us on TV 3 as we did for the Silo Lock On over a year ago. The Close-Up story that followed was quite weird. While it seems to show both sides, it was definitely more weighted towards the industry.
The Otago University Bioethicist basically acted as a mouthpiece for the industry: “We [humans] like the idea of chickens being out in the fresh air and we think that’s natural for chickens. Um, we need to think though... about welfare in a... um... in a more scientific way if we can.”
Is he actually insinuating here that it’s natural for hens to have their beaks mutilated, their brothers minced up alive, to have their bodies imprisoned inside metal cages in dark sheds on top of each other with wire beneath their feet and breathing ammonia-filled air? Under the rubric of ‘science’, you can justify any kind of murder and torture without having to explain yourself. Whaling as “scientific research” for example. WTF, seriously. The pragmatism of the industry of providing a cheap and sustainable supply of eggs is typical of any animal abuse industry that profits from the death and labour of non-human animals. We’re made to believe that the products of these animal industries are necessary in our diets for ‘health’ when they’re not.
On social media, there was a poll on TV3’s Facebook with the question, “do you support the protestor’s actions?” I read through the comments and over 90% of them were in support of the action!
While this is only one action among many with the ultimate goal of animal liberation, it is the first time that the animal rights movement in Aotearoa has used tripods as a blockading tactic. It was good for us to get out of our comfort zone! This campaign will only escalate if real change does not come for the animals.
We’re not actually advocating for free range farming or more ‘welfare-friendly’ forms of animal exploitation. We see the problem as the domination of animals full stop – speciesism – the control industry has over their reproduction and their life and death, because farm animals are treated as property. They are considered production units rather than sentient beings and we want to challenge those perceptions and the relationship of domination between humans and animals.
None of us are professional activists or anything doing this kind of work; we’re just a small group of vegans from various groups who came together because we care enough to act. Anyone can do this and every contribution to the struggle for animal liberation is important. We have to keep fighting to end speciesism! The animals need us. J