There was no escaping the pungent odour around the Stanley Park area in downtown Toronto.

That unbearable smell of death, emanating from the Quality Meat Packers pig slaughterhouse on Wellington Street, spread through the air like a virus.

Steps away from residential streets, outdoor patio restaurants, luxury condominiums and a dog park.

“You’re probably smelling a lot of feces and dead flesh,” said Tracey Shepherd-Davis, who used to work at a slaughterhouse in Burlington, Ontario but now rescues and owns pet pigs.

“It’s hot. It smells horrible. You’re covered in feces and blood all day long. You just close your mind to what’s going on around you.”

Even now, the rancid smell coming from the empty pot-belly transport truck trailer as it left Quality Meat Packers on Monday brings back unpleasant memories for Shepherd-Davis.

“Those pigs would probably have travelled in there for an hour or two,” she said. “And they’re crammed in there, at least 200 to a truck.”

At the slaughterhouse, after the pigs are stunned with carbon dioxide (CO2) and hung on a hook by one leg, their necks are slit and the animals are bled. Then they’re dunked in a scalding tank to remove their hair. 

Soon after, the evisceration process begins.

In the summertime, said Shepherd-Davis, it’s not temperature controlled so it can get up to 120 degrees fahrenheit on the kill floor.

“You go home smelling it,” she said. 

“It never leaves your sinuses. It smells like death and feces. It’s a terrible place to work and they take advantage of people who can’t get jobs anywhere else.”

For new immigrants, often it’s the only place they can find work to support their families.

After Shepherd-Davis was severely injured on the cut line, she finally decided to quit her job. 

Even though she called herself an animal lover, she continued to sit down at the dinner table and eat pork chops, pulled pork sandwiches and bacon.

But after she rescued a pig at a local farm auction, she finally realized that pigs are just as loving, gentle and kind as dogs are.

“That’s when I realized what the heck am I doing eating these things,” she said. “It’s like eating my own dog.”

Eventually, she hooked up with other ‘“pig people” at Toronto Pig Save, who held their second annual veggie dog giveaway and celebration on Monday at Stanley Park across the street from Quality Meat Packers pig slaughterhouse.

Under bright blue sunny skies, chalk artist Jo Lalonde was busy decorating a piece of the sidewalk with a portrait of Dennis the Menace, one of the pigs rescued by Shepherd-Davis.

“When you hear such horrible screams and you know what’s going on over there it’s really hopeful to know that there are good people here that are trying to make a difference,” said Lalonde.

“To bring a smile to their face by doing a portrait of one of their pigs means the world.”

Florence Russell attended last year’s veggie dog giveaway and decided to return this year because she likes the people and supports the cause.

“Until these people bring it to our attention, I don’t think we think much about it,” said Russell.

Last year, Toronto Pig Save came up with the idea of giving away free veggie dogs to make people aware that 7,000 baby pigs are slaughtered every day at Quality Meat Packers. 

The company received a $3 million loan from Agriculture and AgriFood Canada’s slaughter improvement program earlier this year to upgrade its Toronto processing facilities.

“A lot of people don’t even know that the slaughterhouse is even there because its surrounded by a gigantic cement wall,” said animal rights activist Kate Steen.

“But you can smell it and on quiet days you can actually hear the pigs screaming.”

Even before the pigs are put to death, they’re forced to endure brutal conditions while being transported from farms to slaughterhouses.

A paper published by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in 2007 entitled “Welfare Implications of Pig Transport Journey duration” concluded that loading and unloading off pigs is extremely stressful for animals.

Current regulations and guidelines allow pigs to be transported for up to 36 hours without rest, water and/or feed. 

“There are a lot of alternatives,” said Steen. “We don’t have to eat meat in order to survive.”

Veggie dogs taste almost the same as a hot dog, yet are lower in fat and higher in fibre and protein.

“You also get a ton of potassium and 40 per cent of the vitamin B12 recommended daily intake,” she said.

“You’re sure not going to get that in a regular, artery clogging hot dog.”

Over on what Steen described as the “yummy yummy” table sat an assortment of sinful pleasures including cupcakes, cookies and chocolate cake.

“Most people would think if you go vegan, you’re never going to be able to eat chocolate cake again,” she said.

“This is some of the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had in my life.”

With all the options available today, Steen stressed how easy it is to be vegan. And there are all kinds of websites to help you get started.

Veganoutreach.org will even send you a free Starter Guide with recipes. 

Singer/songwriter Ivy James, 16, a featured performer at Monday’s veggie dog giveaway, has been a vegetarian since she was eight-years-old.

“A lot my songs have do with trying to right a wrong, kind of like Toronto Pig Save,” said James, an acoustic guitarist.

Colleen Tew and Brenda LaFleshe are members of Hamilton-Burlington Pig Save, a group that protests weekly and holds vigils in front of Fearman’s slaughterhouse, the largest pig slaughterhouse in Ontario.

“People don’t even know what it is,” said Tew at Monday’s event. “They go by it and they have no idea so we’re trying to educate people.”

Like Quality Meat Packers, Fearman’s slaughters roughly 7,000 pigs a day.

“These animals want to live a peaceful life and it’s horrible what they go through,” said LaFleshe. “We can’t even imagine it.”

Their goal is educate passersby on exactly what goes on in a slaughterhouse.

“We believe that if most people were aware of what they’re going through, they would stop eating pigs and all animals,” she said.

Sometimes the group gets a quick look at the pigs as they pass by in transport trucks.

“You can see the lacerations on their faces and their bodies. They have numbers written on them.”

“The animal holocaust we call it,” said Tew. “It’s very sad.”

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.