Everyday Vegan - A singing voice for the voiceless

Sandra Kyle might just be one of Aotearoa’s most committed animal activists. Now in her 70s, she still maintains her weekly practice of holding vigils for animals being sent to slaughter; singing, playing music, and reciting mantras to calm them on their tragic journey. Clare Insley talks with Sandra about how she got started, what keeps her going, and whether or not the end of slaughterhouses is nigh.

I have been following Sandra on Facebook for a while now and loved her interview with Kim Hill on Saturday Mornings on RNZ. Knowing Kim’s usual style, I was impressed by how empathic she was to Sandra. Listening to Sandra speak, her compassion shined through and clearly affected Kim too. There is an old Quaker tradition of “bearing witness” and it is this that Sandra accomplishes so amazingly. Despite the taunts she may receive, she watches, she photographs, she talks to the animals, she sings to them. Whatever she feels can give comfort, she offers.

I feel fortunate to ask her to tell me more about how and why she started her slaughterhouse vigils.

Claire Insley: What gave you the idea to do vigils in the first place?

Sandra Kyle: It was back in late 2015. I moved from Auckland to the Waikato when I retired from teaching at Unitec, and joined ranks with a small group of Hamilton vegans. One day, we were brainstorming what actions we could do for the animals and someone mentioned slaughterhouse vigils. I had never heard of them, and at that stage didn’t know anything about the Save Movement [groups around the world who bear witness of pigs, cows, chickens and other farmed animals being sent to slaughter] but the idea immediately resonated. I just knew that it would become a major activist platform for me.

How did you feel at your first vigil?

I don’t recall exactly, but do remember holding my sign in front of my face when a stock truck went by because I couldn’t bear to see the sad and worried eyes staring back at me. After a while, the others stopped coming for various reasons and I continued on my own. Then the experience became more intense in a number of ways.   

In what ways did things get more intense?

As an older woman standing by herself, I was more of a target for negative, derisive comments, and I received a lot of them. I guess, back then when veganism was much less common and slaughterhouse vigils very new in NZ… the majority of people drove by without reacting, often pretending they didn’t see me, which I knew they did.  

I also had positive reactions. I remember on one occasion, a car screeched to a stop near where I was standing with my signs and a woman got out and started running towards me. Her long hair was billowing in the wind and she looked very emotional.   I was bracing myself for her to land a punch in my mouth when she said: “I saw you and had to stop; it is marvellous what you are doing!” And she gave me a big hug.  

How do you feel when you are doing the vigils?

Even though I have been doing them for so long, they are hard for me every time. I now live in Whanganui and usually do them Sunday afternoons at two local slaughterhouses. Every vigil day, I wake up with a sinking feeling. It is definitely the hardest day in my week, and the hardest thing of all is knowing I can’t do anything to save the animals I meet.

How do you cope with seeing their distress?

There are a number of things in my life that help me to balance out all the sadness I feel when I’m at the slaughterhouse, and when I’m confronted on social media with the distressing reality of our treatment of our animal kin. 

I teach piano and keyboard to young children, and their sweetness, as well as the belief that I am enhancing their lives, helps me to be positive and outgoing. You can’t be a misery guts around children. I enjoy playing piano myself also, and this is another outlet.  

I eat a healthy vegan diet and keep up a moderate amount of exercise, walking my dog Gigi daily and going to the swimming pool a couple of times a week. I don’t like the cold weather and don’t do much gardening in winter, but enjoy pottering around outside in summer. I recently joined a choir and a French conversation group. All of these things help me to keep a balance. 

My background as a spiritual seeker also helps a great deal. I was brought up in the Catholic faith, attended Quaker meetings for a few years, and have lived in ashrams overseas. I am familiar with Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, and their respective teachings. When I feel desperate, I dig deep and somehow find it within me to keep going in the work I feel called upon to do.

How do you see the animals responding to you?

When I was in India in 2019, as the recipient of the Philip Wollen Animal Welfare award, I was interviewed by All India Radio. I told the story of a particular cow, who I recall to this day, who had been right at the front of the truck and consequently one of the last to be unloaded. I kept eye contact with them and sang to them for some time. When this cow was going down the ramp into the slaughterhouse pens, he or she stopped and turned their head around and looked straight back at me, as if to say, “Can’t you help me?” When I told this story on the radio, the producer of the show came in at the end of the broadcast and said that he had decided to turn vegetarian. This case stands out in particular of a cow who was pleading with me.  

When did you start singing to the animals?

I had been doing solitary vigils for about a year in and around Hamilton, but there was rarely the possibility of approaching the animals because the trucks didn’t stop.   One day when I was driving on a highway, I saw a stock car filled with sheep on the side of the road. The driver was off collecting more sheep to take to the slaughterhouse. This was the first time that I could actually get close to the animals, to reach in and pat them, and to talk to them. 

As I was with them, seeing their unease and uncertainty, feeling desperately sorry for their plight, the idea came to me to sing to them, the way a mother would sing a lullaby to comfort and placate her children, I guess. I am useless at remembering lyrics to songs, but had learned certain mantras during my various trips to India, and so spontaneously started to sing one I knew well. I was hoping the gentle vibrations would help to calm and reassure them, and also act as a blessing on their souls.

Here in Whanganui, we are fortunate that we can get quite close to the animals in the pens, so I still sing to the animals, both mantras and other songs. When I forget the words, I make them up or hum. It’s a good job the animals aren’t fussy about the quality of the voice of the one who serenades them!  

In my seventies now, my voice has definitely deteriorated, but it doesn’t stop me.  Actually, it’s partly for me that I sing. It is a channel for the love I feel for them and my deep sorrow that they should be in this position at all. I always hope that they understand my sincere intentions and it helps them in some way.  

Do you have people joining you on vigils these days?

On a couple of occasions while I was still in the Waikato, activists travelled from Auckland to do a combined vigil with me and I was very touched by this. But in general I just did them by myself.  

When I arrived in Whanganui at the beginning of 2018, I had several people with me right from the first vigil and, while the vegans who come regularly have changed over the years, I still have a couple of local friends who regularly join me. At one vigil earlier this year there were thirty of us, as friends in the Save Movement had travelled up from Wellington and Palmerston North, and down from Taranaki. 

Taranaki Animal Save activists in particular are very supportive of us here in Whanganui, and come down often to boost our numbers and make more of a statement at the slaughterhouse. I am very grateful for the commitment of all the activists who give their time and resources to peacefully protest, and to call into question the cruel and unnecessary killing of sentient beings for food.

Do you get abuse from slaughterhouse workers and drivers?

I worry more about those doing the vigils with me than about myself, and while people have thrown glass bottles and fruit at us, these occasions have been infrequent, thankfully. Abuse hurled from motorists is like water off a duck’s back for me, I am not someone who has a lot of personal fear or anxiety. I am sad to say, though, that there have been a number of altercations with drivers and slaughterhouse staff. I have had staff and drivers jabbing fingers in my face, cursing me, calling me names, and, on a couple of occasions, drivers have even used their trucks to try to scare us. This is very dangerous. 

Regan Russell, a Save Movement activist from Toronto, was tragically killed in 2020 when a stock truck ran over her. In the last three years, I have made a number of complaints to the slaughterhouse, to trucking firms, and to MPI [Ministry for Primary Industries] about staff, and over the treatment of animals. 

Just this week I contacted MPI about a driver who was jabbing cows with an electric prod over and over again, and cursing them at the same time. It was appalling, but one of our activists got it all on video.  No animal will ever be treated in such a way on my watch. Cruelty to helpless animals strikes at my very soul. I cannot bear it.

Have you had any conversations with slaughterhouse staff or drivers, and to what end?

We have all had conversations, and the hope is that what we say has made them think. But cultural indoctrination, cognitive dissonance, and habitual patterns are hard enough to penetrate in the general public, let alone people in the Industry. 

I did find it interesting to learn that the Production Manager of one of the slaughterhouses, whose job it was to oversee all the activities in the plant itself including slaughter, left about a year ago to manage a berry farm! I think seeing us every week with our peaceful but confronting presence, as well as the conversations we had had with him personally, might have had something to do with it, but I don’t know for sure. 


How many years have you been vegan?

I’d been a vegetarian since the early 1970s, but up until 10 or so years ago, I consumed free-range eggs, dairy and honey. The change happened when I went to a SAFE conference and heard about bobby calves. The presentation took place just before lunch. By the time I took my seat for the afternoon session, I was vegan.

You would have seen steadily increased interest in veganism in your time, are you hopeful we can create a vegan world?

There is an enormous increase in the interest in animal rights and veganism, and yes, I believe there will be a vegan world, and it will happen more quickly than we think. There are many reasons why I believe this. First and foremost, Victor Hugo said, “There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come”, and veganism is the idea of our time. The second reason is the existence of the internet and social media. Without it, I couldn’t see a vegan world happening, or at least happening so quickly.

We can also use the past and present to help determine the future, and other social movements in the last few decades — civil rights, the women’s movement, LGBQTI rights, rights of the disabled and first nation peoples — all these have succeeded in creating a more inclusive, more just, and more humane world for all. 

We just need to look on our supermarket shelves. Vegan options were non-existent just a few years ago, few people had heard the word vegan. Every time I go into the supermarket now, I find more and more plant-based products, such as vegan meats, vegan cheese, vegan ice cream, even vegan honey, and they are at increasingly affordable prices.     

One of the most important reasons I think we will have a vegan world is that to keep going the way we are is unsustainable for the planet. Animal agriculture’s contribution to global warming and climate change is around 18 percent globally (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization), while here in New Zealand it is closer to 50 percent. This is clearly unsustainable, and the answer is not to reduce the number of cows and sheep in our country, but to stop farming them at all.

I see animals as souls in a different body, and our treatment of them, in the astronomical numbers involved, is not only a cruel injustice but an egregious moral failure. Humanity cannot sustain a future unless we evolve beyond the violence inherent in the food production Industry. We just can’t. How can we continue to justify what cows and chickens have to go through to give us dairy products and eggs? Or taking calves from their mamas and killing them at four days old? Or confining hens in a cage where they can’t take a step forward or back? Or macerating one-day-old baby boy chicks in the egg industry?  

Who can justify confining intelligent, aware pigs in tight pens where they cannot turn around, until their mind is gone and spirit broken? I have been inside a broiler shed and have seen for myself the conditions that poor chickens bred for meat have to endure, and can’t shake it from my mind. And don’t start me on fish. As with any other sentient being, fish can suffer fear and pain, and are subjected to terrible abuses in fishing and aquaculture in their trillions. None of this is right, none of it is good, and none of it is sustainable.

When do you think you will do your last slaughterhouse vigil? 

More than three years ago, I self-published a book based on my vigils, called Glass Walls, A Plea to Close All Slaughterhouses in New Zealand by 2025.  I’m currently updating it. This is when I believe I will do my last vigil, before 2025. All it will take for this to happen is for our government to read the signs and start the work of transitioning New Zealand out of animal agriculture. Vegans and animal activists can bring this date forward by becoming an even stronger voice for the animals, using all the different platforms we currently use. Slaughterhouse vigils are definitely not for everyone.  

Consumers can begin to eat more and more vegan goods and this will lead to the

tapering off of demand for animal products. All these reasons I have given will lead to the closure of slaughterhouses relatively quickly. But we cannot be complacent. There is still a lot of work to do to achieve justice for our fellow animals and create a kinder, gentler world for them, for us, and for all the other species we share the planet with.

Singing Animals by Nursey. Nursey is a vegan tattoo artist based at Dr Morse Tattoo Studio in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. For more of her work, visit www.drmorse.nz.

  1. Aotearoa Vegan and Plant Based Living Magazine

This article was sourced from the Summer 2021 edition of The Vegan Society magazine.
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