“Nonhuman animal” is a term that student volunteer Matthew Rose-Nel noticeably uses again and again. Heavily involved with the vegan organisation Wake Activism, it is an insight into their core philosophies and values. Anti-speciesist, abolitionist and determined to shift narratives in the Irish conscience, Rose-Nel’s particular enthusiasm came to my attention after a video at a University College Dublin (UCD) debate was spread on social media.
In the video, Rose-Nel is one of six speakers debating whether “The House Would Go Vegan”. In his speech, he describes veganism as first and foremost a “social justice movement that is and always will be about animals and their rights”. The audience intermittently interjects, and low-level murmurs and chuckling can be heard from the incredulous crowd at some of his statements. Despite this, he carries on strong: “Just like you and I, they wanted to live, but instead they are lowered into gas chambers and burned from the inside out.” The crowd erupts into laughter. Visibly jarred by this reaction, he quickly regains his composure, questions the crowd briefly, and continues on to viscerally describe the process of slaughter over dismissive snickering.
“Society should be palatable not only as a Google executive or a schoolteacher but equally if you are human or a farm animal.”
Talking to Rose-Nel a few months later over Skype, I asked his opinion on the talk now. Going in, he said he didn’t expect the motion to pass (it didn’t) but he explains: “Every opportunity to talk about it is good. It was extremely intimidating, but I just focussed on what I wanted to say.” He talked of the criticism he received for what was perceived as drawing parallels with the Irish farm industry and the Nazi genocide, but Rose-Nel feels that is unfair: “I’m not equating anyone’s suffering to anyone else’s suffering. I’m just giving the facts that pigs are sent into gas chambers and people can see for themselves what matches and what doesn’t.”
‘We believe that the fundamental rights of nonhuman animals need to be legally recognised.’ – Statement from Wake’s website
Rose-Nel highlighted that one of the difficulties in working within vegan activism is the spectrum of beliefs relating to what a vegan world should look like. Wake, he told me, is completely abolitionist in their approach, with anti-speciesism at its core. This means they’re not campaigning for free-range eggs, or grass-fed cows. All animals have the right to complete respect and freedom from oppression, as they consider all individuals equal in how they feel, how they suffer and the bonds that they make with each other.
Speciesism is the belief in a hierarchy of species, be that “four legs good, two legs bad”, or a God-given dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air. The idea that humankind is separate from animals is ingrained in culture, hence Rose-Nel’s use of “nonhuman animal” – trying to draw attention to an artificial separation. Anti-speciesism, Rose-Nel said, isn’t equating the abilities of these species, like saying dolphins are as intelligent as humans. Instead, it is highlighting that in any way that matters, such as a right to respect, dignity and experience of pain, all animals are equal. Dogs, pigs, chickens or human – none deserve to be imprisoned, harvested or suffer.
The Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’ philosophical concept is how he explains the rationale for this belief. Traditionally applied to a human society, this thought experiment posits that a fair society is one designed by an occupant who does not know what position in the society they would occupy, and so would design it in such a manner that they would be happy with any lot drawn. Applied to a vegan framework, society should be palatable not only as a Google executive or a schoolteacher but equally if you are human or a farm animal.
Visiting their website, Wake Investigations is the most powerful way of getting this message across. Currently featuring footage on treatment of pigs and ducks in Ireland, the images are crisp, detailed and harrowing. Whether one considers this a brutal exposé of how farms operate or simply the reality of running an agricultural business is left to the discretion of the viewer. Rose-Nel commented: “There’s massive amounts of footage from all over the world, and in the majority of cases it’s the same practices used [such as] in the UK and Australia but if you show people footage, they say we’re much better [in Ireland] than they are; that the welfare standards are much higher here.” These videos aim to dispel that. Even if this were the case, Rose-Nel argues, the slaughter wouldn’t be justified: “At the end of the day, they’ll be sent to slaughterhouses and they’re still suffering.”
A noticeable aspect of these investigations is that the farms aren’t named or located. Given that the farms in question are meant to be showing the inside of Irish farms, knowing the footage is what it says on the tin is a possible concern. Rose-Nel has acknowledged this, but said it isn’t about drawing attention to the conditions of particular farms. Causing boycotts of specific farms or advocating for higher welfare isn’t their aim, but instead they want to give a general state of affairs to show how unacceptable speciesism is: “We want people to know that this is standard practice [in Ireland] and no matter where you go, this is what you’re paying for.”
“It’s so easy to forget because you go into shops and you see animal flesh nicely packaged with nice words like ‘grass-fed'”
An element of Wake that really stood out was how active their activism was. One such event that Rose-Nel was involved in was temporarily blocking the road to slaughterhouses in Ireland. Distinguishing from mass-road blocks such as those of Extinction Rebellion, these protests were aimed specifically at temporarily disrupting trucks to slaughterhouses and raising public awareness. He described these as “quite high intensity. [You’re] outside a slaughterhouse with thousands of individuals going past you where you know it is their last moment.”
Not only that, the process itself was often daunting and anxiety-provoking. The protesters divided into two groups: some stood in high-visibility vests to block the trucks, and a second group would film animals in the truck. At one such protest, a truck driver began to accelerate in order to intimidate the activists. Filming at the time, Rose-Nel began to move backwards in order to capture the moment. Both accelerating, a fellow activist pulled Rose-Nel out of the way, but fell in the process. Saving the camera meant landing on his elbow, causing a fracture. “It was intense, anyway,” he commented with a chuckle.
“[We want] to show their story and make the connection for people that these are living, sentient beings. Because people are deciding to eat animal flesh or wear leather or any form of animal products, those choices are the reason for these individuals being brought into slaughterhouses. That what they’re paying for is directly causing someone to be killed. It’s so easy to forget because you go into shops and you see animal flesh nicely packaged with nice words like grass-fed.”
Rose-Nel had been conspicuously missing from social media prior to our meeting. Apologising, he explained his absence, mentioning the Australian bushfires and Iran-U.S relations: “It was all these things building up over the past year. Sometimes you think ‘the world is just fucked’. You start thinking ‘I’ve been doing this for how many months and how much change has happened? Will we ever live in a world where other animals are free from discrimination?’.” He described this as being amplified by being in a vegan activist friend group: “You know loads of others and they care and they share and try and educate, but when you are friends with all these people your social media gets flooded with it…”
Combatting this burnout isn’t a concern limited to veganism. New Zealand has recently introduced dealing with “eco-anxiety” as part of their school curriculum, and burnout is widely recognised as a major problem in the activist community. “Wake Uprising” was a two-week event organised by the group in the summer of 2019 that aimed to address this, as well as other aspects of education. With plans to organise a second spell for 2020, they will facilitate any and all who want to spread knowledge about activism.
For Rose-Nel though? “Going to the sanctuaries is a great way to recover from those situations. You get to spend time with these individuals and see those that have been rescued from the slaughterhouses.” This seemed a particularly effective way of feeling the change that other forms of activism lack. So too does it break the detachment from Rose-Nel’s description of “packaged flesh” to breathing creatures. Even their website pushes this idea, naming rescued farm animals now living at the Back Into Daylight Animal Sanctuary. Connie, a particularly handsome chicken, stares into the camera, as does Jake, a white goat. These images convey curiosity and an engagement with the viewer but is this just a human-projected anthropomorphisation? Wake would surely answer with a resounding “no”.