‘And let them have dominion …’ A quote taken from the Bible – where ‘dominion’ means dominance, supremacy or government and which can be interpreted to include care.
‘When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to
the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer,
as close as you can to him who suffers, and try to help him.’
– Leo Tolstoy
In a small Victorian town by the sea, I was sitting out the front of my favourite café, which just happens to be next to a butcher shop. Twenty minutes earlier, two farmers had pulled up directly in front of the sign advertising ‘fresh meats’. The farmers were taking a calf called Nyo Nyo to an agricultural show and had stopped to grab a snack, but now they were having trouble getting back on the road because no one could walk by without stopping to pat her. And the calf was also incredibly sweet; she stood patiently as strangers fussed over her, looking out at them from beneath her beautiful eyelashes.
One of the people excited to meet Nyo Nyo was a young girl wearing a fairy costume in the same shade of pink as the little calf’s nose. When the farmers finally hit the road again, the girl waited outside the butcher shop with her dad while her mother went inside to buy meat. I smiled at the girl’s dad – a good start, I thought – but then heard myself say in a voice that sounded perhaps just a tad too incredulous: ‘So now you’re going to eat a steak?’ The dad just laughed – giving me a ‘like yeah, what can you do?’ kind of look – and we lost the chance of making a genuine connection.
Afterwards I couldn’t help thinking, ‘What would James Aspey have done?’ Sydney-born Aspey is one of the world’s leading animal activists, and I’m certain he wouldn’t have tried using an accusation or judgement to open a conversation. Instead, I can imagine him saying, ‘Looks like you guys really love animals’ or ‘Baby animals are cute, hey?’ Within minutes, he would have gently found a way to pose a question like: ‘So do you think it’s possible to love animals AND eat them?’ before graciously segueing into the topic of how much healthier we humans (and the planet) would be if we all ate cruelty-free foods.
According to social psychologist Dr Melanie Joy, the vast majority of people eat animals ‘not because they’re selfish, or evil, but because they’re part of a system that has shaped their beliefs, preferences, thoughts, feelings and behaviours in profound and powerful ways’. It’s because most people do care about animals, she says, that they feel threatened by information that reveals the discrepancy between their values and practices. This discrepancy is known as cognitive dissonance, and Dr Joy contends that animal lovers are highly susceptible to it. People sensitive to the suffering of animals, she insists, often make the greatest efforts to avoid learning about how they’re participating in atrocities against them.
But the pain of animals is getting harder to ignore, especially with the rise of animal rights campaigns on social media and the release over recent years of many confronting documentaries such Earthlings, Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives, all available online or on Netflix. And now an Australian documentary has joined their ranks.
On March 29, only a couple of weeks after meeting Nyo Nyo, I attended the world premiere of Dominion at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne. Dominion is a feature-length documentary mostly comprised of harrowing footage filmed on handheld, hidden and aerial drone cameras. The movie conveys both the terrifying scale of the cruelty inherent in the meat, dairy, egg, clothing and entertainment industries, as well as the individual stories of its victims – from piglets, lambs and calves, to dolphins, dogs and turkeys. As Dominion writer/director/producer Chris Delforce of the organisation Aussie Farms explains:
‘Drones offer a whole new perspective of these industries – for the first time we’re able to truly appreciate their terrifying scale and the way in which the traditional “farm” has been replaced by these massive identical rows of factories. We can cut from focusing on an individual animal with his or her own personality, to a huge wide shot of a feedlot or saleyard where thousands of these individuals are packed together as mere units of production, their individual identities lost or indistinguishable.’
Having spent many happy hours giving pigs belly rubs, I was devastated by the footage of these intelligent and sociable animals being forced by electric prodders into steel chambers known as ‘gondolas’, and then screaming and thrashing for air as they tried desperately to escape the asphyxiant gas. Having also whiled away many dreamy hours in the humble company of turkeys, I have no words to adequately describe the feeling of witnessing these kind and peaceful birds being shackled and suspended by their feet and dipped into electrified water before having their throats mechanically cut. To make matters worse, any bird who lifted her head to avoid the electric water bath went on to be painfully killed without stunning.
Obviously, Dominion is incredibly difficult and confronting to watch. Before and after the screening, organisers were handing out small cards saying, ‘Bearing witness can be a crucial part of making change. But bearing witness can take an emotional toll.’ The cards included advice about support services for anyone ‘feeling distressed and in need of mental health support’. Aspey is currently touring with the film as it is being screened around Australia, and in the minutes following the closing credits at the premiere, as he prepared to address the audience of more than nine hundred people, he broke down on stage.
So why are people flocking to see such a distressing movie? The three Sydney screenings set for next weekend at Dendy Opera Quays are sold out, as are the screenings scheduled over the coming weeks for every other major Australian city. Of course, those already fighting for animal liberation watch movies like Dominion to pay their greatest respect to the documentary makers, who face great personal risk getting the footage. Many viewers also wish to stand in solidarity with the victims. As Melbourne-based neuropsychologist Dr Ash Nayate explains, there is immense power in bearing witness and recognising the suffering of another sentient being.
‘Through the grief, loss, heartache, anger, and despair, there is a renewed conviction. No more silence. No more hiding. The truth must be shared, even if it’s unpopular or inconvenient. By bearing witness one recognises the suffering of another. It is to be present with the suffering of the animals and try to help them in whatever way you can.’
Delforce hopes the documentary will motivate viewers not only to adopt a vegan lifestyle – after all, ‘being vegan is the baseline of our movement’ – but also to speak and act strongly and publicly for animals.
‘The most important thing I want viewers to realise is that these are individual, sentient beings – they think, they feel, they hurt, they suffer. The pigs dying horrifically in gas chambers are no different to the dogs and cats we keep as our beloved companions. They don’t want to die and it is within every viewer’s power to make it stop. Unlike other prevalent social justice issues, we’re not trying to persuade a backwards government to do the right thing – this is entirely up to us as consumers. It’s in our hands and it’s our responsibility.’
Only minutes after the final credits had rolled at the Dominion premiere, Aspey wiped away his tears and proceeded to give a rousing speech. After acknowledging how painful it was for everyone to watch the documentary, he asked who was motivated to become vegan, and out of those who were already vegan, who was now inspired to do more. Every single person raised a hand.
You can find out about Dominion and how to watch it here: http://www.dominionmovement.com/
And learn how to live a more compassionate, healthy and eco-friendly life by taking the 30-day Vegan Easy challenge.
Quote from the Bible, Genesis 1:26: ‘And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’
Pictured above serving vegan treats at the documentary’s world premiere are Stephen Sumner and Joanne Buttigieg of http://thecompassionatekitchen.com.au
Copyright text and photographs: Sharon Dean