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From Vegan Handbook - Author Anonymous
Dedicated to Jason, who at a very young age, in farm country and never having heard of vegetarianism, refused to ever eat meat again when he was told where it came from after losing his treasured calf to the slaughterhouse.  This poem may be reprinted at any time by anyone, without permission.

I was a pre-vet student, you see,
It was desirable to have experience with all types of animals;
When I saw the help-wanted ad put out by the Lone Pine Mink and Poultry Farm,
I jumped at the chance,
Never stopping to think
What the mink and poultry might be for.

I drove over in the full lushness of early summer,
Green hill pastures and endless woods,
Deserted back roads meandering through gentle mountains.
I thought how lucky I was
To be living in such beauty
After growing up in New York City.

Cresting a rise,
I spotted a high pine standing by itself,
Made one-sided by winter winds;
And I knew I was there.
The owner met me in the driveway
And pointed out his mink operation
It was only an open-sided shed.
I'd pictured mink running all over fields and woods,
A sort of wildlife sanctuary;
But when I saw the tiny wire-mesh cages,
Each with a single inmate making non-stop circles
From floor to wall to ceiling and back again,
I realized that this was no wildlife refuge.

"There's only one opening left here," the owner informed me,
"Someone to help with the killing
Don't think you'd be interested in that."
I looked at his face
He wasn't making fun of me;
He took me to the poultry building
Where his wife was in need of an egg collector.

In an already dazed state,
I entered the tunnel they called a barn, and was hit by a wall of sound
Thousands of chickens all shrieking at once in the heavy air,
The wife yelling above it all
As though nothing were wrong.
She took me on tour
Down a narrow walkway
Between high walls of vertical and horizontal rows of cages,
With no seeming embarrassment
That the hens were crammed so many to a cage,
Some had to be on top of others.
With traces of pride,
She explained the mechanized feeders and waterers,
And how the eggs dropped through wire-mesh floors
For their protection and easy collection;
Couldn't she see that her charges were pecked raw and bleeding?

She gave me a can: full of empty canons
And left me with the advice
Not to think about the end of the row
That's when I noticed that no end could be seen,
Not because the lights were dim, which they were,
But because it was so far away-.

Alone in the noise,
I began collecting the eggs
Like a mechanized feeder
That doesn't know what else to do.
I was supposed to pack the eggs big-side up;
What was wrong with me
That I couldn't tell which end was big?

I tried to concentrate
"Speed is essential,"
But my eyes wouldn't stay on the eggs
Where they belonged.
I began to see worse things than I'd first noticed
Wings caught in the wire bars,
Dislocated and broken by the movements of cage-mates;
I tried to free them,
Cringing at the way
Parts of living feeling beings snapped in my fingers.

At mid-morning the boss-lady returned,
She was concerned for me
She'd pay minimum wage for three training days,
But after that,
Payment would be by the carton,
And I'd be on my own.
She cautioned that I'd have to develop four
times my present speed
Just to earn the minimum.

But why were we talking about money?
We were in a concentration camp for birds,
And was the weight of our pocketbooks
All we could feel!

Yet, As hundreds of chalky eggs passed through my fingers,
Somewhere below awareness,
I came to the illogical conclusion
That if this was the system accepted everywhere,
It must be me that's crazy.

I worked mechanically,
Closing my eyes to all but the whiteness of eggs;
Though I could betray myself this way,
I couldn't do it efficiently
I'd only finished one row and started the next
When the man and his wife arrived to say the day was over
They'd have to finish the remaining five rows themselves.
I hoped they'd fire me,
But they weren't half bad where humans were concerned.

I bludgeoned myself into returning in the morning,
But I hadn't been working two hours
When I saw something
That even my cold steely eyes couldn't ignore.
A chicken had stuck her head out between two bars of her cage and back in between two other bars,
Wedged fast in that position for who knows how long.
I told myself to go on with my work,
That I'd only break her neck,
But how could I leave her like that?
I fumbled,
Precious time passing,
Time which became less precious
The longer I held suffering
Between my shaking fingers.
I couldn't get her loose and I couldn't go on,
I couldn't even see for the tears,
"God, take my clumsy hands,"
And suddenly she was free.

Numb at last
To my false sense of work responsibility,
I searched the rows in a haze,
Found my boss candling eggs in perfect oblivion,
And told her I quit.

She tried to pay me minimum wage,
But I took only what I'd earned by the carton
Four dollars and some change for ten hours work,
And still it weighed like thirty pieces of silver
In my pocket.

I stepped from screaming hell
Into the peace of a country morning,
Passed under a row of shady maples,
Sunlight beckoning beyond.
Why should I be allowed to walk away
When their only release would be death?

I didn't know then
That I would never be able
To shake off the noise and images of that place,
That I would carry their pain inside,
To be rekindled at the turn of a phrase by Vivaldi,
Or the stretched-out reds of an evening sky;
That I would lie awake in the night,
and remember.

The author was a pre-vet student, but dropped out of school the week before having to watch the upperclassmen practice on living animals. Most of her poems are auto-biographical.

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Painting by Mary T. Hoffman - God's Creation in Art

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