Slaughterhouse 269

Orna Rinat
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Orna Rinat

On October 2, Sasha Boojor, Zohar Gorelik and Oleg Ozerov went to Tel Aviv's Rabin Square and branded the number 269 onto their skin with a white-hot iron. The number they chose belongs to a calf in a barn in Israel and the act was done in solidarity with him and all farm animals, which are identified by such marks. 

On November 1, World Vegan Day, dozens of animal rights activists stood in Rabin Square, in an event organized by Tal Gilboa and Boojor, to tattoo their bodies with the number 269. A video clip of the event was posted on Facebook and inspired thousands of animal rights activists around the world to tattoo themselves with the same number.

A photo of calf 269 was unfurled at the event as participants waited in line for their tattoos. With a gentle, white head and large eyes, the calf looked like innocence itself, save for the number dangling from its ear which indicates the inevitable path to death.

This number announces the calf's one purpose: to die. From the moment it was born, the calf began a journey towards its death. He lives in a world where it is forbidden for a mother to touch its offspring. The one moment of kindness in this calf's life was perhaps when it was allowed to suck for a few seconds the hand of the girl that was photographed with it, in place of the teats upon which it never was able to suckle.

The cows and calves don't necessarily go quietly to their deaths. The process of corralling an animal for slaughter involves cows following their calves or calves heading in the wrong direction to avoid death. Calves unloaded from trucks and ships are often, weak, thirsty and short of breath. Then they are prodded with pitchforks and electric poles.

"The calves were stuck one to the other, skinny and full of mucus… and you hear sounds all the time. They are groaning," says an observer who saw a shipment arrive from Australia. "They are trying with all their strength to keep on their feet…their necks incredibly stretched in order to receive a bit of air."

These are the cattle shipments that Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz wants to subsidize.

"People who are not vegan just don’t grasp what we did to animals," writes American author Sienna Blake.  "They don’t grasp the language, the emotion, the horror… We took everything from them: their homes, their children, their land, their families, their dignity, their happiness, their freedom and their life."

The symbolism of this act declares that the branded is no longer considered a living being. In a country like Israel, tattooed numbers carry a particularly heavy burden. A video clip from the event on November 1 includes a caption that reads, "Jews in 2012 in Israel tattooed a number onto their bodies," a reference to victims of the Holocaust who were similarly marked.

Many object to the comparison with the Holocaust. But as Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer said, "In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka." He didn't mean it in a legal sense, just an ethical one.

Or as French novelist and playwright Romain Rolland wrote, "Grant animals a ray of reason, imagine what a frightful nightmare the world is to them: a dream of cold-blooded men, blind and deaf, cutting their throats, slitting them open, gutting them, cutting them into pieces, cooking them alive, sometimes laughing at them and their contortions as they writhe in agony."

Those who object to the comparison with the Holocaust point out that Nazis murdered the Jews out of hatred, but humanity brings animals into this world to be used as a source of food.

But most of this food (if not all of it) is meant merely for enjoyment and not to fulfill existential needs. And the agonizing conditions that accompany its production – the crowding, the amputation of limbs, the moving, the fattening up – are done for economic profit. Is cruelty for the sake of pleasure and profit less than cruelty that stems from ethnic hatred? Are people supposed to hate that which, in its innocence, isn't capable of hating them back? Could it be that what is outrageous about the comparison is that we are talking about animals that don't belong to our species?

But the negation of everything a calf does possess, those qualities that it shares with human beings – consciousness, its ability to suffer, everything relevant for the purpose of ethical consideration – is, in the words of Romain Rolland, the most unforgivable of crimes. In contrast, to the recognition of the injustices done to humans, animals simply aren't given consideration.

What other words, what other historical event, save the one that describes the greatest atrocity in human history, can possibily be used to describe this milking facility?

"You just don’t really comprehend it until you see it for yourself," says American nature artist Karrel Christopher. "All those living beings imprisoned by metal bars in a circle – in a bizarre involuntary meeting. Standing on the hard concrete, they kept shifting back and forth on their legs unable to move - waiting, waiting, and waiting. As the huge disc turned, I watched these females with numbers on their rumps passing by. Living beings surrounded by machines, tubes and devices that will be attached to their nipples…sucking away their milk in a cold, parasitic manner. The feed in the center of this monstrosity was the only consolation for these mothers who had their children stolen. As the human population continues to grow, I am horrified by the inventions made to enslave, use and murder another species. How do people participate in this without being sickened by the wrong they are doing?"

"This anonymous calf will live on forever on our bodies and this message may cause people to shift the way they perceive non-human forms of life," wrote the organizers of the event in Rabin Square. But the activists only waited in line for a tattoo, while calf 269 will wait in line for the slaughterhouse. He will enter alone and the cries that escape in its last moments will be heard only by the walls of the abattoir.

An animal rights activist is branded with the number 269 in an act of identification with livestock.Credit: Ira Mac