The moment the brand hits my skin, I can’t help but think of them. Him cramped in a metal cell, absolutely terrified, the barrel of a gun to his temple. Her crying out as her child is ripped away from her moments after his birth, the third child of hers taken from her this way. And here I lie, face down on the cold earth, my head freshly shorn of its mid-back-length hair, my side literally on fire as the brand melts through layers of my flesh.
I’ve gotten off easy.
Unlike me, they weren’t so lucky. Unlike me, they lost their lives.
In the United States alone, 8.3 billion animals were killed for food in 2012, according to the USDA’s National Agriculture’s Statistics Service. Given this data does not include fish, marine animals, crustaceans, rabbits, other farmed animals, or animals killed for their fur or other “by-products,” this figure is a gross underestimation.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jewish Author and Nobel Laureate wrote, “in relation to them [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.” Theodor Adorno, German Jewish philosopher, sociologist, and musicologist, stated, “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they are only animals.”
This is a global holocaust beyond the scale of recorded history: In the split second the brand is touching my skin, 263.2 animals in the US and 4,756.5 animals worldwide lose their lives.
It is January 27th, 2013, the day designated by the United Nations as the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. On this day in Iowa City, Iowa, at approximately 8 a.m., I am branded with a steel cattle iron in front of a rusted shed by a desolate railroad track.
On October 2, 2012, three vegan activists in Israel were branded with the number 269 in a public square in Tel Aviv. Having visited an Israeli factory farm and encountered a calf tagged with the industry-given number of 269, these activists had themselves branded in the traditional fire-heated method long employed by the farming industry. The manifesto of their organization 269life, states, “The branding of the calf’s number, chosen by the industry to be ‘269,’ is for us an act of solidarity and immortalization. We hope to be able to raise awareness and empathy towards those whose cries of terror and pain are only heard by steel bars and the blood stained walls of the slaughterhouses.”
I contacted Sasha Boojor, one of 269life’s founders, and discussed the possibility of staging an event in Iowa City. As a resident of Iowa, I am painfully aware that I live in the heart of industrial farming and agriculture. Out of the over 10,000,000 pigs that were slaughtered in November 2012, 2,700,000 of them were killed in Iowa, a total well over two times that of the next highest state.
The center of the United States is the historical source of factory farming as we know it. Born in Chicago in the days of Sinclair’s The Jungle, and “perfected” to a horrific efficiency decades later in Denison, Iowa by Iowa Beef Packers (IBP), assembly-line slaughter is a product of the American Midwest. Henry Ford himself found the inspiration for his automobile factory in the efficiency of a Chicago beef plant.
As with every industry, the faster the line moves, the more product produced, the higher the profit. Only here, “product” is the flesh of living beings, who are “produced” by violent slaughter for profit. The Animal Welfare Act, passed in 1966 and enforced by the USDA, “regulates the care and treatment of warm-blooded animals, except those (such as farm animals) that are used for food, fiber, or other agricultural purposes” [emphasis added]. Coldblooded animals, such as snakes and alligators, are also exempt from the act’s protection.
These are the arbitrary distinctions we make for who deserves safety, for who deserves to live. As a species, we have long drawn hard distinctions between races, genders, classes, and other perceived boundaries within humanity. With time, this hierarchical structure has proved to be arbitrary, abusive, and unjust. How, then, are the distinctions between the human animal and other feeling, sentient animals any more valid, any less arbitrary? Are not they simply the unjust hierarchy of our present day?
The apparent gulf we place between the slaughterhouse and the Holocaust can also be seen as a forced distinction. In his book Eternal Treblinka, Holocaust scholar Dr. Charles Patterson draws connections between our treatment of animals and the Holocaust. He speaks with Holocaust survivors, who tell how their experience of suffering drove them to animal activism.
In the four months of planning for my own branding, I was faced with many challenges. The event was originally supposed to take place in front of the Old Capitol building in downtown Iowa City, now owned by the University of Iowa. Once contacted by the press, the University pulled the permit I had secured in the previous months, stating my event violated their policy against “bodily harm.”
Viewer caution: Scenes in this video may be disturbing.
I also had multiple participants back out of the project altogether. The original individual on board to film the event emailed me one morning saying he was uncomfortable being a part of something during which I would be injured and suffer, and he could not participate any further. There were also legal and real medical concerns that frightened people. In Iowa winter weather, there is always risk of hypothermia and frostbite. And, in all reality, I would be receiving a first-degree burn.
My response to this apprehension and disapproval was, “That is exactly what this event is about!” All the fear and concern for me, for ourselves, for the legal aspects and the possible outrage the event would cause, it was all for an act that is done to millions of animals every day. Why is it so objectionable against the human animal but not them? Their capacity to emote is no less than ours. Does a steer awaiting slaughter not smell the blood and fear of those before him? Does a mother cow not cry out when her child is taken from her moments after birth? Does a baby chick not feel pain as her beak is cut off without anesthesia? Or a young pig as he is castrated while fully conscious? We cannot hear their cries and see their eyes fill with terror and say they are separate from us. Fear is Fear. Blood is Blood. Suffering is Suffering.
I think we should all feel how those who declined to participate and the University officials who pulled my permit felt about this event. Only we should extend this feeling to all the beings who are subjected to this and more every day. What I went through is not even close to a fraction of the horrors the animals experience. I don’t see a distinction between them and myself, save for one crucial difference: I have a choice. I get to go home.
I get to live.
Emily Moran Barwick
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
About the Writer
Emily Moran Barwick earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 2012. Read more of Moran’s comments about her branding in the Iowa City Press-Citizen.