REVIEWS: A Cow At My Table

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 1999:

A Cow At My Table
Directed and edited by Jennifer Abbott
Flying Eye Productions
(Denman Place Postal Outlet, POB 47053
Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6G 3E1), 1998. 90 minutes. $35/Canadian, $30/U.S


Billed as “a feature documentary
about culture, meat and animals,” A Cow At
My Table is an idiosyncratic and often refreshingly
unpredictable mix of interviews,
excerpts from agriculture industry teachingand-training
films, early 20th century silent
comedies, and undercover videos of abusive
practices mostly made by director/editor
Jennifer Abbott herself.

Abbott did brief time in the
Saskatoon hoosegow for allegedly trespassing
in order to document the death of a cow on the
premises of Intercontinental Packers Inc.,
though all charges against her were dropped.
“Her experience in Saskatoon,” the
box blurb states, “was a perfect example of
her thesis that social forces conceal, distort,
and legitimize factory farming, with perilous
consequences to animals, humans, and the
environment…Our acceptance is what Vandana
Shiva calls the ‘ethics of anaesthesia.’”
The vegetarian activist Shiva is only
one of many interviewees whom most viewers
probably will not have encountered before.
There are plenty of conference circuit regulars,
including Carol Adams, Gene Bauston, Karen
Davis, Howard Lyman, Jim Mason, Tom
Regan, and Peter Singer. They all have points
to make, particularly Mason, who focused his
activism against factory farming long before it
was a general concern of the animal rights
movement. However, the real stars of A Cow
At My Table are the little known agriculture
industry spokesperson Susan Kitchen and animal
welfare moderate Ian Duncan. Visibly
uncomfortable, Kitchen rattles off platitude
after platitude; Duncan gently explodes them.
As he is not a prominent career activist, his
testimony will probably carry greater weight
with whatever members of the not already persuaded
public eventually see the video.
Longtime activists may liken A Cow
At My Table to The Animals’ Film, narrated
by Julie Christie, and Tools For Research,
produced by the late Marie Carosello, which
helped spark the rise of animal rights activism
in the early 1980s, through repeated airings on
college campuses, public access TV stations,
and in front of any civic group that activists
could get to hold still. Animal rights conferences
often had one or both films in continuous
showings on a closed-circuit monitor.
This is probably just what director
and editor Jennifer Abbott has in mind––but
the relatively high price may discourage the
distribution of hundreds of copies that it takes
to develop a grassroots audience (though some
discounts are available); Abbott does not have
major organization sponsorship, so cannot
afford to send copies out free; conferencegoing
has largely yielded to participation in an
ever-growing number of online activist
forums; and both public access air time and
empty campus auditoriums are a lot harder to
come by, especially in 90-minute chunks.
Only if broken into a multi-part
series does A Cow At My Table have much
chance of frequent public access airing. At
that, many public access station managers
might demand the deletion of particularly
gruesome slaughterhouse shots which appear
during the last 15 minutes.
Without public access air time, the
open question is whether A Cow At My Table
can ever break out of the dwindling
veggie/vegan and animal rights conference circuit
to reach beyond the already persuaded.
The conference circuit crowd will at most only
be convinced to refocus their activism on farm
animals––away from dogs and cats, lab animals,
marine mammals, hunting, and/or
endangered species. And, as the late Henry
Spira pointed out in his final ANIMAL PEOP
L E guest column, posthumously published
in October 1998, recent surveys show that this
has already occurred among the younger half
of the activist core.
If Abbott can find a way to get these
younger activists to take A Cow At My Table
into their communities, it may become one of
the most persuasive videos of the coming
decade. But as we head into the era of downloading
instead of communal viewing, reaching
the public may require extensive reformatting,
for presentation via the World Wide Web
in clickable five-to-10-minute segments.
Should Abbott and Warren Arcan of
Flying Eye Productions go in that direction,
turning A Cow At My Table into a user-friendly
online serial, more material could be included:
• Colorado State University professor
of livestock handling Temple Grandin
deserves a chance to refute Susan Kitchen’s
strong implication that Grandin would endorse
some slaughterhouse practices of which
Grandin is in truth outspokenly critical.
• Farm Animal Reform Movement
founder Alex Hershaft describes in a recent
FARM promotional video how he learned in
childhood, as a Holocaust survivor, about living
in a tiny dark closet like a veal calf and
being herded and prodded aboard cattle cars.
Few people can as convincingly connect meateating
with murder.
• Jim Brewer and Dale Riffle,
cofounders of PIGS: A Sanctuary, speak
often about the moral obligation they perceive
to not only shelter rescued pigs, but also to
run their shelter as a demonstration of the
moral claim to life to which they believe all
animals are entitled. Their gate sign, barring
illegal drugs, weapons, and meat, is worthy
of emulation by every humane shelter.
• Historical justice requires crediting
Henry Spira’s long battle with animal rights
movement leadership to put farm animals on
the agenda. An excerpt from the 1997 Peter
Singer video Henry: One Man’s Way w o u l d
be appropriate.
• While Mason’s probes of stockyards,
auctions, confinement barns, slaughterhouses,
and drug use in factory farming are
rightly acknowledged, mostly more recent
parallel work by Gail Eisnitz of the Humane
Farming Association is not––and it was
Eisnitz, better known as author of the book
S l a u g h t e r h o u s e (page 5), whose exposure of
use of the banned growth stimulant clenbuterol
helped to jail several veal industry kingpins.
Turn A Cow At My Table into a
state-of-the-art web site, add hot links to
activist groups, vegetarian/vegan societies,
and information media, and it ought to fly.

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