We’re told to meet at 4AM, outside a café on Dace Road in Hackney Wick, east London. It’s a Wednesday. It’s late January. The café won’t open for another four hours at least. By then, the thousand or so chickens we’ve come to protest the slaughter of – uniquely, as we’ll get to – will all be dead.
We’re on our own in the dark and the cold for what feels like ages. Then a giant of a man, introducing himself as ‘Andy’, approaches. Bold lettering on his beanie bellows the word VEGAN. He beckons us into the shadows. “First rule of today,” he says, extending his hand: “Keep a low profile; we don’t ever make a nuisance of ourselves.” Leaving aside the irony of a 6ft-something man with an all-caps VEGAN spelled out on his forehead making that request, Andy is keen we adhere to the rules. He recently “got in a bit of trouble with the police,” disrupting a fox hunt in East Anglia. News of this travelled to his work and his bosses cautioned him. “What we do matters, to me and to the animals – but I can’t lose this job.”
The WhatsApp group for the organisation I’ve come to meet this morning is a flurry of activity. Missed buses, requests for lifts, enquiries as to whether anyone needs anything picking up from the garage. Today is the first East London Chicken Save of the year. Many of the animals being brought to the abattoir nearby – members of the group report that today’s condemned souls are making the 250-mile journey to London from Scarborough in North Yorkshire – will have perished en route, crushed by other animals piled on top of them in crammed boxes stacked up in towers. Sometimes the towers are ten boxes high. By the time the chickens in the bottom crate meet their end, they will do so covered in the piss and shit of every chicken above them.
The Save Movement has been in existence for a decade or so now. It’s a confusing name for an interesting form of activism. What it isn’t is a movement that aims to actually ‘save’ animals from the whirr of the abattoir’s blades. Nobody here realistically thinks they’re going to rescue a chicken today, though the odd dishevelled bird has been known to fall out of a crate and end up nursed back to health at home by an attendee. Instead, the general idea is to ‘bear witness’ to farm animals’ final moments before they enter the slaughterhouse and are killed. Leo Tolsoy – himself an ethical vegetarian – inspires the movement through his writings like: “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”. And as I see, in both east London and Essex at bleary-eyed times of the morning, that can take many forms.
Save Movement groups regularly meet outside abattoirs when consignments of animals are brought to be slaughtered. The East London Chicken Save have met each week for the last two years. Before Christmas, they celebrated their second birthday, registering around 60 people, their biggest turnout ever. Today, there’s probably about 20. In line with other Save groups, their objective appears to be to spend time with the animals in their final moments. “To show them kindness when so many others have not,” is how Andy explains it.
The movement came to global attention in 2015, when Toronto Pig Save co-founder Anita Krajnc had criminal charges brought against her for offering bottled water to caged pigs, en route to a company called Fearman’s Pork Inc in Burlington, Greater Toronto. Under Canadian law, it’s legal to deprive pigs of food and water for up to 36 hours. Krajnc’s argument was that ‘nothing that lives can ever be property’. To some fanfare among animal liberation groups worldwide, a judge dismissed Krajnc’s case in 2017 (though they chastised her defence team for comparing her actions to those of Nelson Mandela, social reformer Susan B Anthony and those who had assisted the Jews during the Holocaust).
Since then, and inspired by the actions of Krajnc – who was for some time an aide to Charles Caccia, Canada’s former Minister of Environment – Save groups have sprung up across the world. That’s why I’ve ended up waiting for today’s consignment of animals outside Kedassia, an abattoir owned by a company on Smeed Road in Hackney Wick.
From a distance you’d never know what went on behind the tall metal gates; there are no signs, and graffiti covers its street-facing walls. Move closer and you get a better idea. Outside the gates feathers pile beside a pool of an unidentifiable slop that makes you shudder. One sticker affixed to the gates asks you to support vegan businesses, another the Animal Liberation Front. Another depicts caged pigs on the back of a lorry, with the words “Here With Us, Not Here For Us.” Then there’s the stench…
Andy is laying out the rules for the morning. He reminds us that the Save Movement is a peaceful organisation. They don’t harass truck drivers or abattoir employees. In the battle to change perspectives, it’s important they don’t cross any lines that might be detrimental to the cause. Kedassia is a kosher slaughterhouse. In 2016, after the first time they held their vigil outside the premises, someone daubed graffiti reading “Kosher Holocaust” on the abattoir walls. Things were different then. Before today’s high barriers and CCTV cameras, the gates were often open. On that occasion, some of the group just walked in and got into the kill room.
Andy is nice. He seems pleased to see new faces, of which this morning there are many. Newcomers Laura, 19, and Sarah, 23, have come from south London. They have pretty intense views on how buying dog food for your pet actually makes you complicit in the animal-industrial complex. “Have you tried feeding your dog rice instead?” they suggest. Regardless, both obviously care deeply about the animals they’ve come to see. Like many newcomers here, the Joaquin Phoenix-narrated, Shaun Monson-directed 2005 documentary Earthlings was their entry point into veganism.
Suddenly, around 7AM, there’s a shout of, “The van has already been!” and the group assembled outside the café race round the corner and down the street to the abattoir gates. It transpires that, in order to bypass the vigil, the slaughterhouse managers have had their chickens delivered earlier than the East London Chicken Save usual 4AM to 8AM vigil window. The gates are locked. Many of the group are visibly distraught.
You can see the crates through the crack in the gates, stacked on top of each other in the forecourt. A low, fevered clucking carries over the overwhelming stench of blood. The Save group pull out selfie sticks and try to take photos and videos from above the walls, with varying degrees of success. Each time they try, the security guard kicks the fence and they have to retreat.
At one point, an abattoir employee rushes towards the gate lugging a crate of water. “They’ve done this before,” says one member of the group. “They’ve drenched us.” That's not what transpires, and yet several members of the group are now in tears. “Fucking bastards,” says one. “Murderers!” shouts another. Andy and other members of the group gather in a huddle to discuss how to stop this happening in the future.
By 9AM, almost everyone has admitted defeat and peeled off to go to work, university or elsewhere. Before the crowd dissipates entirely, we’re invited to a Pig Save in Essex the following week.
There, at 6AM outside Cheale Meats, in Brentwood, I encounter the same level of devotion and, on occasion, hysteria. Like Kedassia, you’d never know what went on beyond the gates just by looking at them – though on this occasion, from a lonely country road called Little Warley Hall Lane, it’s clear what’s taking place in the buildings in the distance because you can hear the animals. It’s no exaggeration to say that it sounds like actual screaming.
Cheale Meats is notorious among UK vegan groups. The Foot and Mouth epidemic of 2001 was first identified in 27 pigs here. In 2011, secret cameras installed by direct-action animal-welfare groups caught workers putting out lit cigarettes in the faces of the pigs, as well as striking them with a baton. Animals were seen being dragged by the ears, while the electrical rods used to stun them before slaughter were applied incorrectly, meaning they were conscious when they were killed.
Controversially, no action was initially taken against Cheale Meats, a family-run business now more than 50 years old. While the workers captured on film committing the welfare breaches were let go by the company themselves, the Food Standards Agency – responsible for regulating abattoirs – never passed on the footage to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Without Defra being able to prosecute, Cheale Meats at first escaped legal action. The FSA explained that they didn’t believe they could get Defra to pursue a prosecution based on hidden-camera footage submitted by campaigners Animal Aid. The judgement appalled the Essex Pig Save, who’ve been ‘bearing witness’ outside the site since 2016. Later, the two slaughterhouse workers were jailed, after Animal Aid went to the press and inspired the Crown Prosecution Service to take the case to court.
By the time the members of the group meet outside Cheale Meats this morning, one delivery of pigs has already arrived – presumably the animals we can hear screaming. Unlike The Chicken Save in East London, the Essex Pig Save hold protests openly and in conjunction with both the police and the abattoir. The six policemen present this morning enter the abattoir, ask how many lorries will be arriving today (seven, it transpires) and at what time (between 8AM and midday), then relay the information back to the group. It’s a strange and uneasy stand-off, but the thinking is that at least nobody will get hit by a car on this narrow country lane.
Nothing prepares you for the first time you see one of the lorries. Three decks of animals, writhing on top of each other, clanging against each other and the metal walls, their legs bent backwards, covered in excrement. Cheale Meats slaughter 6,000 pigs per week. More at Christmas. Once the group’s two allotted minutes with the animals are up, the lorries turn the corner into the Cheale Meats complex, unloading into the kill room. As they enter, the group span out across the road to the complex, standing in silence until the lorries re-emerge, empty of their payload.
“If people could see where their food actually came from, I think things would be very different,” says Laura, who we met at the Chicken Save and who’s made the journey from South London to be present today. “I was sceptical about what good this would actually do before I first came to a Save event. I wanted to do something with more immediate results.” She pauses, wipes a tear. “But I don’t want these creatures to end their lives thinking that we’re all the same. I don’t want them thinking that we won’t do everything we can to stop this. This won’t go on forever, I can promise them that.”
The screaming in the distance continues all morning. For the members of the Essex Pig Save, the hope must be that one morning the screaming will stop forever.
– Names have been changed to protect identities. This article was updated on Friday the 15th of February to reflect that the two Cheale Meats workers were jailed for their treatment of pigs in the facility. VICE UK regrets the error.