Interview with Undercover Investigator Aaron Fehr

After not being in touch for over 10 years I randomly reconnected with the wonderful Mr Aaron Fehr, one of my old elementary school/ jr high friends. A few years ago I ran into Aaron’s older brother in our home town of Portage la Prairie, Mb. We got to chatting about Aaron and I found out he was a vegan/animal rights activist or vegetarian (however his brother seemed to have made it seem at the time, Aarons older brother is a big hunter and was definitely not sympathetic to the vegan community at the time, not sure if that has changed). I knew that I was curious about what Aaron was up to and how to get further involved but I didn’t know how to get a hold of him. Finally with the help of friends and facebook we were able to reconnect and to set up an absolutely wonderful interview packed full of education about cruelty free living and behind the scenes information on these horrible industries. Here is the interview for you to enjoy.  🙂

423553_10150655161279761_961707274_nAaron Fehr

 

1. Why did you become vegan? What made the switch in your mind that got you reconnected, why did you make the change?

— I’ve been vegan now for just over 10 years. I had pretty early exposure to the generalities of vegetarianism and at least a vague understanding of animal rights from spending time at punk shows and reading things like Adbusters, but it never really clicked with me as a thing I should get in line with. I was starting to understand it on an intellectual level, but it still seemed foreign to me somehow. Most of the killing I had participated in growing up was at a rifles distance or inflicted upon the unfortunate other species that were hard to relate to as they had such different physiology from my own. If pressed I might’ve excused myself with nonsense such as birds not screaming or fish not howling, but that was really just thoughtless affirmation of what I was used to.

That all changed though the first time I listened to “Purina Hall of Fame”, the last track on Propagandhi’s record “Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes”. For those who don’t know it, it opens with a recording of farm workers beating a downed sow who has become stuck between the bars of the wretched stalls they keep them in. Over the sounds of the workers assault there is the desperate screams of their victim.

It grabbed me. I made the connection immediately that her expression of suffering was no different from that of any person I had ever met – not to mention my own – and it dawned on me through that expression that the experience can’t be all that different. The dishonest and lazy excuse of degrees of sentience was revealed to me as being complete shit, and I knew I couldn’t eat meat of any kind any more. It occurred to me that If I was up until that point oblivious to the nature of suffering in pigs that my lack of understanding of all other species was probably insufficient when it came to deciding to lend my approval to their destruction. I was done with all that.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4DORkDtwKQ – here’s a link to the track.)

 

2. Did you do the change gradual or all at once?

— Less than a week later I was given a disc of PETAs video “Meet your meat”, and by the end of each section there was one more thing I couldn’t be a part of anymore. That was the first time I heard of veganism, and I made the switch immediately. No phasing out of cheese (really, you just need to quit), no eggs once in a while or only in baking. Done.

 

3. What were the reactions like of your family and friends? how did you deal with it?

— For most of my established friends at that time it was just a curiosity to poke fun at, but seeing as I could still drink beer and whisky it was quickly regarded as a non issue. As for family: my mum was supportive as long as I ate well. It was a bit of a mixed bag with other members of my family though. It was at times a point of derision or a question of my intelligence. It was interpreted as my being too emotional and not in line with my impending entrance into adult manhood. And of course those pesky annual family dinners were hotbeds of uncomfortable confusion all around. Pretty standard experience in that case I’d imagine, especially for someone with roots in rural Manitoba.

One thing of note that I remember is how my one brother – already a vegetarian himself for some years, remarked that not eating eggs was silly as egg production “isn’t bad like it is in the states. They don’t do that stuff here” – something I would come to hear a lot in the next few years. A strangely common delusion, that one.

 

4. I feel you now seem more in control of your reactions to the silly meat eater situations or questions we are all presented with. How did you react at first, did you get really heated and passionate or just lived the best example you could?

— Due to the newness of revelation and the severity of the horrors I wasn’t always the nicest person to have a discussion with I’m sure. The righteousness of a newly minted vegan can be overpowering and we often seem to forget that not that long ago we were part of the problem too and as such the tendency is to regard others as fools and tyrants. It’s a pretty natural conclusion to reach when you’re being reminded of the feelings of carrots for the nth time by someone who thinks “People Eating Tasty Animals” is the height of comedy. The only times I ever really got pulled into heated argument though was when someone would initiate the discussion unprovoked despite preemptively dismissing my view. I got pulled into that a lot before realizing that it wasn’t worthwhile and that by engaging with them I was probably being counter productive.

There are a few things that without fail will bring my annoyance to an obvious boil. I still can’t stand being referred to as a hippy – something I reject wholesale. There’s also the assumption that as a man I must be gay – an assumption which is troubling to me not because of hetero insecurity but because of how blatantly it perpetuates stereotypes of what it means to be male generally (aggressive, violent, insensitive) and what it implies about people who are gay by extension. It’s all really distasteful to me.

 

5. When you started informing yourself did you get urges to be part of change in the movement or were you content just knowing you were vegan? I feel people go through different phases of passion but for me I feel i got very passionate right away and slowly over time realizing how to deal with situations better.

— As I mentioned earlier my introduction to veganism and animal rights came by way of a PETA dvd, so I think I realized right away that my independent decision was also part of a larger movement. In the first few days I felt a little lost in the immensity of it all, so I registered as a member for their youth wing website peta2. At that time it was a great resource as I could learn more about all the issues and request as many printed materials as I could use completely free of charge. So my early activism took the form of distributing propaganda in any clever way I could manage. It was very satisfying to do something like pin a “Kentucky Fried Cruelty” poster to the back of a KFC delivery car for the whole town to see and even if it didn’t do much to sway popular perceptions it certainly instilled in me the belief that there were things I could do.

PETA2 would also connect members with actions happening in their area. There wasn’t exactly a local movement in Portage la Prairie though, so when the circus came to town I was the only one there to hand out leaflets and hold a placard. But Winnipeg? There were actual groups doing actual protests, a vegetarian society that met regularly, a community. So I got connected with the people working out there and it wasn’t long before I was going to my first banner drop, then onto larger circus protests and regular tabling around the city. At 15/16 it was my primary focus. That was when I got to know the people who would become my friends and comrades for the next few years, and for the first time I was experiencing a life lived with purpose.

 

6. Why and when did you decide to become an undercover investigator? Who did you investigate for and for how long?

— I suppose it was around 2005-06 that I was first involved in what could be called an investigation, though it was a pretty informal thing. I was involved with a local group – AnimalWatch Manitoba (AWM) – which would hold regular protests, put on speaking events, that sort of thing. When one circus came to town we watched from the sidewalk at one of the elephants who swayed back and forth with a psychotic ferocity, pulling on the chains around his feet unending for hours. So we decided we had to get closer – specifically, right inside of the beast tents – to see what their living conditions were like. A few of us returned over the course of the weekend with cameras to document what we could and by the end of two days had a locally sourced case for why we objected to these things in the first place. We updated our materials with what we had found and refocused our campaign in appropriate ways.

AWM was a very active group and we quickly became the go to voice of animal rights in the area. If you know Manitoba then you know we are heavily invested in pig exploitation, and everyone in Winnipeg knows which part of town reeks of shit and death because of it. Near the Maple Leaf processing plant there was a pig collecting station – “Manitoba Pork Marketing Co-op” – a kind of place where member farmers from around the province send pigs to be shipped to buyers all across the continent. One day an email from a local business man arrived in AWM’s inbox with pictures taken at the parking lot of the station which showed a dead pig tied by a hind leg, clearly having been pulled from the inside of a transport trailer and just left to bloat in the sun. It was horrifying.

Thinking back I don’t know why we were so surprised. I mean, we knew this kind of thing wasn’t exactly uncommon in the industry, but those pictures sparked a determination to watch what the bastards were doing. It was so flagrant that we knew we could catch them if we only watched and since they were right there we had nothing but opportunity.

I was finishing up at school, but when I wasn’t busy or unable to skip I would be out in the city to help. After many months of watching them a comprehensive report was produced and sent out to organizations all over the world. It got into the hands of one investigative organization based out of Europe that focuses primarily on the transport of farmed animals but by extension also works on farms, collecting stations, livestock auctions and slaughterhouses. My friend of the time who effectively spearheaded that effort landed a position as their head of Canadian operations and seeing as I was both willing, able and available I would assist with any investigations that came up.

I worked with that one organization from time to time for just under two years I suppose, then about 1 year with national Canadian groups and on more personal projects.

 

7. What was a typical day like for you as an investigator? How often did you go undercover?

—A whole hell of a lot of driving, long stretches of sitting and waiting in all sorts of strange places, all peppered with moments of extreme brutality. If any part of it was typical that would be the gist of it.

When it came to auctions we’d go right in and stay for the length of the sale; observing the ring, wandering through the holding pens. We’d document how the animals were handled, how the facilities were constructed and record any disease or injuries – both of which were pretty common. At auctions or collecting stations we would watch as animals were loaded into transport trailers and would then follow them to wherever they ended up – usually some slaughterhouse but sometimes to another collecting station half a day away before then going to some point even farther away.

When we could we would provide water to animals at auction or in transport. In some cases we would ditch the pretense of being passive observers and advocate (or rather insist) for the euthanasia of those who were in especially dire conditions.

I did that kind of thing for a week or two every month. I once lived on the road for around 3 months shadowing a circus as it went across the country from Alberta to Ontario, but with that the days were mostly similar. Again, lots of driving and waiting, then ending the day by going over footage and compiling notes.

 

8. What are some of the typical things you would see when going undercover?

— A lot of abuse, much of which was just part of the farming process and regarded as normal by the people engaging in it. The kinds of abuse that happen because people are impatient or in a hurry: liberal use of electric prods, kicking and pulling of ears, that kind of thing. It’s very common for animals to go thirsty in the very worst of conditions, and they always suffered from exposure to the elements. Imagine being in a metal trailer, exposed to winter winds of 40 below or summer heat waves with the inside ambient temperatures peaking higher than 50 above. Frostbite and heat exhaustion were as common place as you might expect and often by the time a trailer would get to its destination a few animals on board would be either downed or dead on arrival.

 

9. What are the worst things you have seen? Tell me some experiences

— A few things that will always stay with me:

1) I was doing the initial reconnaissance on a horse slaughterhouse in Saskatchewan, down in the Qu’Appelle valley. It was at the end of a long private drive and since I arrived at what was the middle of their workday I couldn’t get right up to the facility, so I decided to take some shots of the layout from up the southern slope of the valley. This was a pretty normal part of scoping a place out. Normally an abattoir of that size would be pretty busy and filthy, but everything there was pretty quiet. In fact most of the pictures I took turned out to be beautiful panoramas of prairie perfection; a lazy stream under a huge sky with all the colours of the season filling the space in between. Despite the reason for my being there, I couldn’t help but be relaxed.

When you spend time around the killing industries you develop an eye for the gathering of scavenger birds, as they always lead you to where the undesirable dead and other remains are kept in piles or bins. I couldn’t see anything around the facility itself but noticed the birds going over the northern side of the valley well out of view so followed them and found it pretty quickly.

I had been around all kinds of dead pits before but none really like that. I just came upon it all of a sudden, immediately finding myself staring down a range covered with blood red piles of bodies, bones, gore and viscera. I got out of my car to take a closer look and after a quick run through a stench that would rival hell I made it to the nearest pile. Bodies stripped of skin and limbs, intestines and an awful lot of heads with eyes stuck open in with the look of horror. None of them had any sign that a captive bolt pistol was used to stun them so they either died in transport, holding or more likely (and as later proved) were slaughtered while completely conscious. As I went to leave I looked down at the ground which broke to reveal it was more dead than dirt. That horror messed me up for a long time.

2) Some people might remember hearing in the news about some elephants who escaped from the Garden Brothers Circus one night in Ontario back in the summer of 2007. I wasn’t tailing them at the time, but as I was only a few towns over with another circus when I heard the news I decided to spend a few days following them instead.

It didn’t take more than an afternoon to figure out what was going on. I was in place with my camera across a field with a good view of the tents, right about the time the elephants were brought out from the stadium. The trainer was running them out at a pretty quick pace, goading them on with a bullhook when he stopped and split one off from the others. Without a word he went to work beating the hell out of her: hooking behind her knees, lunging and then yanking back under the chin, full on beating on the side of her face. He was unrelenting for minutes.

There’s nothing like the bellow of an elephant in pain. After many hits she started to kneel down, trying to turn away from the onslaught. When he wouldn’t stop she started to scream – so loud, so filled with pain and desperation unlike anything I’ve ever heard. From across the field – a good distance away – the bellowing was so strong that I swear I could feel the vibration, though it might have just been my own shaking in disbelief and horror.

In my eyes that was the perverse idea of dominion exemplified: this magnificent giant being brought to her knees by a tiny primate with a sharp stick, completely unmoved by the absurdity of it. It would have been no small measure of justice had she up and crushed the bastard.

 

#### Here’s a link to an article I wrote for the Winnipeg Humane Society a while ago. It goes more in depth into my thoughts on my stint with Tarzan Zerbini, a different kind of torture.
***http://www.winnipeghumanesociety.ca/files/newsletters/WHSSpringNews2012web.pdf page 6*** —- search link added– search ‘aaron fehr’ for his article and scroll down halfway and his article is about the circus—-

 

10. how did you deal with wanting to physically stop these things from happening right in front of you but knowing that being undercover you can’t?

— Framing things as “big picture”, I suppose. The idea being that if we gathered evidence we could try to get changes to problem areas after the fact; something like making suggestions for infrastructure changes that would help reduce instances of abuse, or maybe even have evidence for pressing charges through provincial authorities (often a dead end). As I mentioned earlier we would always be giving water, and when possible/needed improved shelter, which would help ease that feeling of uselessness a little.

However, that’s a very different experience from the people who are normally considered “undercover” – the people who are plants in farms for instance. While I never did that there were many times I had to pretend to be a good ol’ country boy just like any other and be indifferent to abuse happening right in front of me. I have nothing but respect for the people that can do that day in and out without losing their minds or getting lost in the bottle trying to live with the duplicity of that life.

 

11. Are there any pointers you would give to people who are interested in working in the vegan community and how to get started, how did you go about being an investigator? Were there certain qualifications needed?

— No real qualifications, no. Just a willingness to go head first into whatever is happening around you and an ability to keep cool in the face of violence. In fact, the kind of thing I was doing would be far easier for someone to start doing now what with the recent proliferation of inexpensive, high quality cameras. Anyone with the coin could pick up a GoPro or something similar and easily film industry activity on the sly.

Do your research, take notes, make a plan. Then make backup plans. You could scatter yourself all over the place in a frenzy of “I just need to do SOMETHING!”, so having a focus is important.

Volunteer for organizations and be patient with the process of finding where you fit. I remember a few people being annoyed and dropping out because they thought they should thrown right into the frontlines without having first proven themselves. If you’re no good with a camera just be honest with yourself and work on it. If it doesn’t come after working on it then have the humility to recognize that you might be better suited for other types of activism. Every one has their own strengths and weaknesses, both of which can be quite fluid and change over time. You can spend all your time pushing against a mountain and only ever waste away so be open to changing your strategy actively, as opposed to acting out in desperation when time feels wasted. Keep an eye out for cracks in the rocks to plant your dynamite.

 

12. What are some great life lessons or things that you learned from that experience that you think would be good for others to know?

— If anything strikes you as self evident then you should stop and think on all the details you’re considering and entertain the ones you are ignoring. Similarly don’t lock yourself into the masturbatory echo chamber that insular communities are prone to (only reading their literature, listening to their music, discussing their ideas, etc). Have a core but be flexible enough to learn how the rest of the world interacts with it and vice versa. There are all kinds of ways to recognize and approach problems and convincing yourself that you have a golden truth is a guaranteed dead end road.

Meditate. Keep a balance in life so you don’t lose your mind. Disagreeing with someone, even on the most fundamental of levels, does not mean you should discount them as a person. “Hate the sin and not the sinner” is the point I suppose.

 

13. What are some general things that you think people should know about veganism to get them on the right track?

— You mean other than that we’re slowly taking over the world? …One thing that I think is important is a reminder that a vegan diet is way more than imitation meat and cheese, difficult recipes and boring salads. Don’t be a junk food vegan: if you’re unhealthy it’s not because of the ideology but because you’re eating like shit, full stop.

Don’t take yourself so seriously that you become an entitled little shit. You have no right to be upset if there isn’t a food option for you as the only vegan at a gathering. Bring something along (something other than hummus or chopped vegetables – both are fine but come on) that demonstrates your passion for the food and related politics, while simultaneously convincing others you’re not starving.

Similar to this – don’t ruin other peoples dinners. Nobody likes a missionary, especially at the wrong time. That old saying about how food is the path to the heart or whatever should be gospel, and it goes both ways. Be respectful, sociable and normal and you’ll do more for farmed animals than you would by whipping out the latest videos of torture in Abkhazia or casually comparing them to rapists and Nazis over their lunch.

The misanthropy that in some so-called animal people is really quite disturbing to me, and I think it is something that needs to be done away with in the community. Aside from the glaring ethical inconsistencies present in wishing hellfire down upon our species, it’s counter productive in that it proves the popular perception of animal rights activists caring more about non-human animals correct. If you fix yourself on those kinds of thoughts your behaviour will start to reflect it.

But with all that said be confident in your decision to be vegan. It is justified and remains one of the single most important things an individual can choose to do while taking their walk through this world.

 

Here are a few photos Aaron has provided.

11) A laming cull dairy cow at the St Josephs Auction in Ontario, being brought to the ring despite the severe arthritis in her back hips.

22) Another cow in the process of going down, this time in Alberta. In addition to going down she had several teats sliced off, likely due to milking related infection.

33) A hen who just hours before was rescued from a battery barn. For the first time in her life she was able to nest in straw and feel comfort.

44) Another rescued hen, looking out the window on the long drive from Calgary to Vancouver.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA5) Dead pile at a horse slaughterhouse.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA6) When a pig barn goes up in flames this is what’s left. Another unparalleled horror.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA7) It doesn’t really show anything but I like this shot of my camera narrowed in an elephant trailer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA8) A downed pig at the Woodville Auction in Ontario.

 

— I would like to thank Aaron for taking the time to do this interview with me and sharing his photo’s and stories with me. Its been a wonderful joy to learn more about your life and experiences you have been through. A very informative read for people who are interested in really doing more actively to help in this movement. Your knowledge is outstanding and really you understand how to hit someones soul with your words. Your generosity, passion and commitment in this movement are so greatly appreciated and we will always support you in anything you choose to do that helps. Same with all work done by anyone, anywhere in the name of the animals and this planet. I think ultimately something that people should remember is that the true meaning of veganism is ‘To love and respect ALL living beings’ everyone and thing that lives and breathes. To hold compassion in our hearts and open our minds to a different understanding. Love is unconditional, regardless of sex, race, or species.

 

 

 

Categories: Animal Welfare

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