Ghost stories

There is a moment in the documentary “The Ghosts in Our Machine” in which an old dairy cow eases herself onto the straw in a barn at the New York State refuge to which she has been taken. Her weariness and relief are almost palpable. She has won the bovine lottery – after a life of unbroken confinement and tedium, producing calves that are promptly taken from her, having her udder periodically sucked dry by a machine, and facing slaughter after just three or four years of existence, she has been plucked from the system. So sick and dehydrated that she could barely stand, this “spent” cow and her day-old calf were purchased at an auction and brought to this farm to live the rest of their days in peace as “ambassadors” for their kind.

Not terribly long ago, most dairy cows did not need to be “rescued” in order to live quiet lives on farms. But in this age of industrial agriculture, many animals no longer enjoy affection, companionship, natural birth and death, or even freedom of movement. They have become slaves, commodities, ghosts in an enormous profit-making machine that has no concern for their suffering.

That’s the message of the film, which was shown following the 4 Corners for Animals Conference in Cortez on Oct. 11. Touching and sad rather than gruesome, as are many animal-rights documentaries, it chronicles the efforts of photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, who has made it her life’s work to reveal the conditions in which commodity animals exist. We see her sneaking onto a fox farm where the yipping, fearful animals live short lives confined in a dark building, never able to run or play. She trespasses onto a mink farm to photograph the creatures as they leap frantically in their pens, biting at the metal that encases them.

“I’m not here to liberate them. I’m here to document them,” she says, though she also admits, “Leaving is the hardest part of my work.”

At that point in the film, her earlier claim of having post-traumatic stress disorder no longer seems exaggerated.

Cut to a scene of the New York farm sanctuary, with birds chirping, clucking hens poking about in the dirt, and grunting pigs blissfully cooling themselves in muddy water. The viewer can’t help but sigh with relief.

But that feeling is short-lived, as the film turns to a segment about the use of beagles as lab animals. Beagles are favored for their size, and a strain has been bred to be especially docile and passive. Some of these traumatized beasts are eventually adopted as pets after their stint as research subjects, but other lab animals are not so fortunate. Where do they come from before they reach the lab? McArthur shows us small monkeys captured in the wild in Laos and Cambodia, thrown into cages and fed just enough to keep them alive until they can be shipped to their new homes in tiny pens. Then we see Ron, a chimpanzee who lived more than 30 years in a 5-by-5-by-7-foot cage, anesthetized and experimented on over and over, with nothing for comfort or stimulation other than a blanket. Finally he was rescued as the laboratory use of chimps – which share over 98 percent of our DNA – began to be phased out, and was able to die in a sanctuary.

When people say they love animals, McArthur notes, they mean pets and wildlife. No one wants to see the ugly truth behind the meat we eat, the milk we drink, and the furs with which we adorn ourselves.

Certainly we don’t want to view “gestational sows” living in pens so small they can’t turn around, cranking out litters to feed Americans’ ravenous hunger for bacon and pork. “Bacon makes everything better!” we see on a sign outside a restaurant. Underneath, someone has written, “not for the pig.”

The film shows one sow who, while pregnant, was beaten with a metal pole and burned with a cattle prod until a worker called police. She is rescued. The owner explains that he keeps his sows alive only two years – a kindness.

“Ghosts” makes an unabashed plea for veganism, something not likely to become widespread in this age of the Paleo and Atkins diets and the demonization of carbohydrates. It makes no pretense of being objective or even-handed, though it does offer a comment from Professor Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, a well-known animal advocate who sees nothing wrong with eating other creatures so long as they have a good life first. (Many advocates, in fact, subscribe to the “one bad day” principle – animals live fairly normal, happy lives until the day they’re slaughtered.)

“Ghosts” is guilty, perhaps, of a little naiveté in making it seem as though humans are the cause of all animal suffering. Nature can be tremendously cruel, as anyone who has seen a hawk eat a rabbit can attest.

Still, even a painful but relatively swift death at the hands of a predator might be preferable to months or years of confinement without the possibility of escape. To lock thinking, feeling creatures inside small enclosures with nothing to do except experience boredom, pain, and terror is surely a kind of torture more barbaric than anything nature could devise. McArthur makes the case that vegetarians who give up meat to try to be ethical but continue to eat dairy products are actually supporting the crueler end of the spectrum.

The film leaves some fairly obvious questions unexplored: If humans did stop eating meat altogether, would we continue to kill other animals to feed our pet cats and dogs? Is it acceptable to use animals in labs for a few years if it advances our medical knowledge and saves human lives – or even animal lives? And it doesn’t provide information on things like whether organic and free-range farming is significantly more humane.

But, watching this gentle, sincere, and kind-hearted documentary, it’s impossible not to wonder why – at the very least – we can’t give up the use of fur altogether; why we need to consume so much cheap meat; and why the human race seems compelled to be so cruel.

Meat-eater or no, anyone seeing this film who feels no sense of empathy for the other species with whom we share the planet might benefit from a period of confinement encased in concrete and steel.

Just one bad day.

From November 2014. Read similar stories about .