That little girl’s name was Fern and she was brought to life in the Paramount Pictures portrayal of E.B. White’s classic tale of loyalty, trust, and sacrifice; “Charlotte’s Web”.
The little girl Fern, played so beautifully in the movie by Dakota Fanning, is one of only two living beings who sees that Wilbur is a special animal, as she raises him, the runt of the litter, to become a terrific and radiant pig.
As Wilbur moves into a new barn, he begins a second profound friendship with the most unlikely of creatures – a spider named Charlotte – and their bond inspires the animals around them to come together as a family.
And just like Fern, my ‘something that would change everything’ was a pig. And a decidedly handsome one at that! I named him Edgar Alan Pig.
Like everyone, I have had many important teachers throughout my life who have inspired and guided me, but my most important teacher has been Edgar. A humble, terrific and radiant pig who touched the hearts and opened the minds of all he met.
I created a sanctuary for Edgar to live in and decided to devote my life to the protection of farmed animals just like him. And ironically enough,”Charlotte’s Web” has been and continues to be a major influence in my life.
The Hollywood hit movie, filmed right here in Australia, made famous 46 little piglets who all played Wilbur. After the movie’s end, Paramount Pictures ensured that they all went to loving homes where people would truly appreciate what terrific animals they really were.
All the new carers of these animals were invited to the world premiere of “Charlotte’s Web” right here in Melbourne. I was in their number as we excitedly went along in the hope of identifying which role our pig played in the movie. For many this was difficult as ‘make up’ ensured all the pigs uniformly looked as ‘Wilbur’ should.
But there was one pig for whom there was no mistaking her identity. She played the mother of Wilbur and there in the opening scene she lay in a beautiful straw filled pen where she gave birth to her babies, just as nature intended.
But sadly in this touching scene, art did not imitate life. In fact nothing could be further from reality for this sow. She really was an actor living in a world of make believe. For her, this would be the first time in her life that she ever had the chance to lie on a soft comfortable bed, to even stretch her limbs or interact with her babies.
You see this pig was a factory farmed sow. What this means is that her life up until that point was all about being a ‘piglet making machine’ and her world was confined to a small metal pen known as a sow stall, barely bigger than her bulky frame. It was here that she would legally spend the entirety of her many 16 week pregnancies.
Just before she was due to give birth, she would be moved to an even more restrictive confinement area known as a farrowing crate. After each successive birthing, her piglets would be taken away from her at just 21 days of age and she would be artificially impregnated once more. And so the cycle would begin again.
But pigs are not machines and the continual sequence of impregnation, birthing and weaning inflicts a huge toll on these highly intelligent, sensitive and emotional creatures. Having reached her ‘use by date’, her days were numbered until Paramount Pictures insisted that she too should be suitably rewarded for her efforts. This is how I came to know Alice.
This gentle sow came to live with me at Edgar’s Mission on the 21st of September 2005. At first she was frightened of me and confused with her new found freedom. Each day I would marvel at how this pig was able to reshape her life from a barren and impoverished existence to eventually begin to relish lying in the sunshine, digging in the soil, making a nest of straw and branches and yes, falling in love with Edgar.
But Alice would cause me to do more than just marvel as I came to know this incredibly gentle and forgiving animal who bore no grudges for the terrible life she had endured at the hands of my own species.
From my experiences with Alice I increasingly came to wonder just how our society, one that prides itself on fairness, justice and compassion, dosed with an equal loathing of discrimination and bullying, could have somehow become so lost that we think nothing of incarcerating pigs just like Alice, and taking away everything in their life that gives it meaning and purpose, including their babies.
How hard have our hearts become that on the one hand we can enshrine in legislation our love of animals and express our acceptance that animal cruelty is wrong by way of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act then, on the other hand, say, “Well, some animals are more equal than others”, with Codes of Practices that allow acts of cruelty and suffering, which circumvent our ethical thoughts and standards of common decency?
I truly believe that no right thinking person devoid of vested interest would ever willingly wish to cause harm to an animal and, if given the opportunity to look long and hard into the eyes of a pig like Alice, so severely confined that she couldn’t even turn around, they would hear their heart scream, “This is wrong – this is madness!”
Paul McCartney said that if slaughter houses had glass walls we would all be vegetarian – to this I add that if today’s piggeries had glass walls we would all be shaken to the core for what we legally allow to be perpetrated against innocent animals.
We know in our society the worst we can do to those who transgress our laws is to lock them away in prison, to take away the very things that give their life meaning and purpose. Our campaign against factory farming is not an issue that is solely the preserve of animal lovers.
Factory farming strikes at our most fundamental core belief of justice as it applies industrial methods to the production of not vegetables that are to be prepared for dinner, but sentient beings – animals. Sadly, we have grown up in a society where we have trusted others to do the right thing and have unknowingly taken on a belief system that does not stand up to our ethical scrutiny.
If you don’t think the lives of animals matter then just try and imagine a world without them. The reality is that the fate of animals and that of humans are inextricably linked. What we do to them we do to us, and each time we say we don’t care, a piece of our heart shuts down, until the day there is nothing left.
But back to “Charlotte’s Web”. When the word got out that Wilbur’s days were numbered, it seemed that only a miracle would save his life. A determined Charlotte – who sees miracles in the ordinary – spins words into her web in an effort to convince the farmer that Wilbur is “some pig” and worth saving.
Do you know what is the most important and powerful line in that movie? It is Wilbur, crying out, “I want to live!” He had just found out that he was going to be killed for Christmas dinner. And you see, it didn’t make sense to Wilbur. He had so much to do, so much to experience. He had friends he wanted to grow old with! And he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hurt him.
But Wilbur was a lucky pig because his friends joined forces to save his life and in doing so made a whole town realize what remarkable living beings pigs are – rather than only thinking of what remains when their lives are ended – pork, ham or bacon.
Like many, I grew up in a loving household surrounded by family, friends and our beloved pets. Animals in fact played a huge role in my life. I was fascinated by them, their very form and feel captured my imagination and filled my stories, drawings and dreams.
The countless stuffed animals that littered my room were my friends and like E.B. White I would give them voice that gave great insight into the imaginary rich and emotional world I created for them. Some days I would make them mischievous and clever, other days naughty and defiant.
As I grew, I learned from my animal friends that imagining emotions for animals was not a quantum leap of a faith but an inescapable truth. After all, I knew when I made my cat happy she would purr uncontrollably and when I pushed the bounds, declaring “No Tiny you really do look good in dolly’s dress,” I had made her cross and she would let me know in no uncertain way.
That animals indeed have rich emotional worlds was something I knew well from a small child but sadly I fell victim to a society that had become very good at indoctrinating its people that there are certain things that just are. It seems bizarre that today, science is repeatedly ratifying something that anyone with an open heart and open mind who has spent time with an animal knows, and that is that animals are as conscious and aware as humans.
Coming to know Edgar, Alice and all the other farmed animals I have rescued, I can speak with confidence when I say that although they may look a little different on the outside to the dogs or cats that share so many people’s hearts and homes, on the inside they are no different.
I know they might be a little bigger… But does your dog like getting up on the couch? Yes? Well so did Edgar… Does your dog like to have cuddles and belly rubs? Well, so do pigs … Does your dog like playing? Yes? So do pigs… And does your dog like sleeping in the sun? You guessed it! So do pigs… Actually that is almost their favorite thing to do. Their very most favorite thing is wheetbix!
You know, we tend to think of pigs and all farmed animals differently but they are no different to the much loved ‘pets’ that share our homes. We just haven’t had the same opportunity to get to know them. We also tend to think that we are different from them. But we have so much in common.
We breathe the same air, we have the same need for food and water and we are raised by mothers who love and nurture us. Our children love to play together in the same way that theirs do. If it is hot we will seek shade or if it rains we will seek shelter – just like they do.
The most important message that Wilbur tries to get people to understand, and the message of “Charlotte’s Web”, is that animals feel joy, sorrow, pain and fear in the same way that we do. And they respond to kindness – in the same way that we do.
One of the reasons I have dedicated my life to the protection of farmed animals is because of the terrible injustice that they face in this country, which so few people know about.
Our politicians know that chickens, pigs, cattle, sheep and goats have the same ability to suffer as do those animals with whom we share our homes – but they have deliberately denied them legal protection from acts of cruelty to allow animal industries to maximize profits.
As a result, animals can be confined for their entire lives, barely able to move and can have surgical procedures performed on them without any anaesthetic or pain relief.
The simple truth is, that for some 500 million animals raised for food in factory farms in this country each year, the first time they will see the outside world, feel the sunshine, breathe fresh air, or walk more than a handful of steps, will the last day of their lives – as they are loaded and trucked to abattoirs.
Animals cannot vote so they are never going to have much influence with politicians. The animals here who need help, sadly aren’t going to have a ‘Charlotte’ in a web above them writing words to make us realize how remarkable and wonderful these animals are. But they do have you.
In a world shaped by the ethical choices we make, every time you go to a supermarket, what you choose, or what you choose to leave on the shelf, represents the hope these animals have that their lives will change for the better. Using our power as consumers will change the world faster than any laws.
We all know that we live in the luckiest of countries. Australia should be the lucky country for animals as well.
Coming to see pigs and all farmed animals as I have, one can never ‘unsee’ them and nothing can erase the knowledge that these creatures are possessed with many of the same feelings that we have. They love, they hurt, they can be happy or sad, they take care of each other and they even have eureka moments.
All of this makes me so passionate about changing the way people view these hapless creatures who have unwittingly, and through no fault of their own, fallen from our thoughts and compassion and our animal protection legislation.
I have made it my personal mission to give people the opportunity to meet these animals, to learn what their lives are really like and over and over, I have watched with tender sadness as they reach the inevitable conclusion that the prejudices they have against farmed animals are unfounded and are no justification for treating them any different from the pets that share their hearts and homes.
That even lucky pigs like dear Edgar and Alice do not live as long as a human is something I am painfully aware of. But I know that if Edgar and Alice were alive today, they would want for everyone to think deeply on a very, very important question…
“If we could lead happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?”