“Painting allowed me to literally paint the images out, freeing my mind up to return to the field.”
Like many activists, Twyla Francois can pinpoint the moments in her life that led her to animal rights.
One of the first was when she was 13. Growing up in a farming community in rural Canada, she joined 4H like most kids. She spent countless hours raising and getting to know her veal calf before enrolling him in the town fair, not understanding what would happen there. When she realized the man bidding on her beloved friend was the town butcher, she pleaded in tears to keep the calf, which 4H prohibits. She has no idea how she got a copy, but soon she was reading Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation” and no longer eating meat.
Years later, as an adult, Francois was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery where doctors discovered stage IV tumors in her abdomen. She was an administrator at the University of Manitoba at the time. While working for the vice president of research, she’d seen documents detailing the university’s research on dogs, including where they’d come from – the city pound. Some arrived with name tags still on their collars. Francois spoke up to no avail, so she moved to another department at the university, but there her values were only challenged further.
Facing the possibility of death, she re-examined her life. While undergoing chemotherapy, she co-founded a small non-profit animal advocacy organization and threw herself into the world of animal rights, first as an investigator and then as an artist.
These two kinds of activism might seem like separate paths. But Francois says the first naturally led her directly to the second.
Besides the research on dogs, what did you see during your time in academia that conflicted with your values?
Any efforts I made at challenging the university’s use of animals were quickly dismissed – the university relied on funding from the various granting bodies and wouldn’t do anything that would risk it. Eventually I felt I had to leave the job and moved over to work for the vice president of external relations, but things just got worse. The university accepted funds from all of the corporations no one else would touch, granting them the ability to rename faculties. (Monsanto’s – now Bayer’s – headquarters are still located at the University of Manitoba.) A large oil company happily accepted the offer and renamed the Faculty of Environment to the Faculty of Earth and Earth Resources, setting the tone that environmental protection would no longer be the primary mandate of the faculty.
A new Smart Park was built to commercialize research, including, of course, animal research, and special films were ordered for the buildings’ windows to prevent photos and videos from being taken, giving the impression of transparency without having to actually provide it. In Smart Park, researchers didn’t even have to release statistics on the number of animals they were using or what they were using them for because they were under private ownership. I cried on the way home from work every day. The cognitive dissonance became unbearable and my body forced onto me what my mind wouldn’t [when I got sick]. It ended up being a blessing in disguise.
Your 10-plus years as an investigator included top roles with Animals’ Angels, Canadians for Ethical Treatment of Farmed Animals, the Canadian Horse Defense Coalition and Mercy For Animals Canada, and your work led to facility closures, animal cruelty convictions, documentaries, government-commissioned research and animal rescues. Why did you stop doing investigations?
I started having more and more difficulty handling investigations as time passed. Part of it was learning the complexity of emotions farmed animals experience and understanding how much they must suffer in animal agriculture. Each time I would get to know a species through one I was able to remove and bring to my property to live out their life free from exploitation, investigations on that species would become more difficult. Eventually I got to know all of the species used in animal agriculture, making it nearly impossible to continue with investigations.
I also questioned whether what I was doing was having an effect. Initially, I had a strong belief that undercover investigations were the most effective way to bring about real change for animals. We put together complete evidentiary packages for law enforcement, and major media outlets provided extensive coverage. But while those releases caused a slight ripple in society, the response wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was devastating to find that the one thing I’d pinned all my hopes on failed. It was my answer to the doubts I’d always had about my previous investigations – that perhaps I hadn’t presented a full enough case or released it exactly the right way. With the undercover work, everything was right, at least according to what I felt was right, and yet it didn’t have much more effect than my earlier work had.
The argument that continued to hound us as well was the (false) claim that our findings were a one-off, and that all we did was expose one rotten apple in an otherwise unblemished industry. We couldn’t put out investigations fast enough to counter this argument and I realized undercover investigations weren’t the panacea I had believed them to be. What was needed were constant releases of evidence from multiple sources across the country, which is exactly what’s happening today and why we’re seeing such a massive shift in how Canadians view animals, along with a concordant increase in veg’ism.
What did you learn from being an investigator?
I learned from doing investigations in Canada that conditions for animals are much worse than any of us can imagine, and that while there definitely are some individuals who are sadistic and enjoy deliberately making animals suffer, the vast majority of those in animal agriculture aren’t intentionally cruel. They’ve absorbed the message that animals are less-than, or simply regard them as commodities. Others in the industry recognize that animals shouldn’t be made to suffer but fail to understand that standard practices such as separating calves from mothers immediately after birth are also forms of suffering.
I also learned that in Canada, government and law enforcement can’t be counted on to protect farmed animals. There are no governmental bodies that conduct inspections for compliance on farms and the animal welfare legislation that does exist exempts farmed animals, along with practices considered standard, such as castration without anesthetic or analgesics and the use of intensive confinement systems. So for the vast majority of a farmed animal’s life, they are completely without protection.
The two pieces of federal legislation that exist are for animal transport and slaughter at federal facilities, but as investigation after investigation has shown, these regulations are rarely enforced. Instead, the officials that are present are often involved in incidents of cruelty themselves or are so subservient to the workers that they are rendered ineffective. Inspections and enforcement are also becoming increasingly de-regulated. For example, in a recent access to information request, I saw that inspections of the unloading of trailers at a large “federally-inspected” pig slaughterhouse that used to be conducted by Canadian Food Inspection Agency officials are now done by plant employees, who, relying on their employer for a paycheck, are highly unlikely to find any issues of non-compliance.
Why did you turn to art?
I began painting shortly after becoming an investigator and did it as a means to cope with what I was seeing in the field. The imagery seared on one’s brain after an investigation can be haunting and difficult to shake. Painting allowed me to literally paint the images out and put them onto the canvas, freeing my mind up to return to the field.
Later, after many investigations and exposes that sadly didn’t lead to the widespread changes in consumer behaviour I was hoping for, I realized that we weren’t reaching a substantial portion of the population with our message. In particular, kind-hearted, sensitive animal lovers found the images too upsetting and turned away before absorbing the message. These were the very people most likely to make changes to their diet if they could connect with the message. I realized that art, with its ability to be less threatening, could be a way of reaching these people’s hearts. This is because of how subjective art is – we each see in it what speaks to us and feels personal to us. That leaves much of the interpretation up to the viewer who then feels a sense of discovery and ownership of making the connection. Psychological studies show that this sense of responsibility is a direct catalyst for changing behaviour.
And because humans are social beings and look to others to determine how to feel and react in ambiguous situations, which sadly is the case with farmed animals, my hope is that seeing someone lovingly providing water to a dehydrated sow or gently holding a piglet as one would a puppy changes how we view these animals. It reminds us that farmed animals are just as capable of suffering and just as deserving of our respect and sense of responsibility.
Discuss a painting of yours that is especially important to you.
“Free Me” is likely my most well-known piece. It features a pig in a dimly-lit concrete pen peering hopefully through a window out onto a clear, sunny day. As the viewer’s eye moves to the right to explore the darkness, the pig’s dead body, suspended for bleeding, comes into view. The painting came about after my first investigation at an assembly yard, where animals were temporarily housed while being marketed to slaughterhouses – in this case, thousands of miles away. The pigs were cull sows and boars used for breeding who had spent the majority of their adult lives confined to barren concrete and metal cages barely larger than their own bodies. When the pigs were loaded onto the large multi-deck trailers to be taken to slaughter, many pushed their snouts through the portholes of the trailer, trying to feel the sun on their faces. I realized it was likely the first and last time they would ever experience this simple sensation. In all of their suffering, they still had a desire to feel the sun on their skin. They had to strain for it, and many who were too sick, diseased or injured to reach the portholes weren’t even able to experience it. Their only certainty in life was their death which awaited them at the end of this journey as it had hung over them from the moment they were born. It was as inescapable as a shadow.
I never thought I’d release that painting because it was just too personal, but I eventually did and it became part of the Animal Activism Art collection in Stuttgart and is now on permanent display at Land der Tiere, the largest farmed animal sanctuary in Germany.
How do you think your art is making an impact?
I find that I’m reaching a completely different group of people than I did with investigations. It was only when I started releasing art that people from the small farming community I grew up in began contacting me, saying they’ve been following my work but didn’t feel comfortable contacting me until recently. That means a lot because I know where they come from and the difficulty in openly recognizing animals as anything other than commodities in an area that relies on that view. I’m always pleasantly surprised after exhibitions or when articles about my art have been published when people contact me to say they were inspired to make a change. The Recasting Series, which features womxn of all ages connecting with farmed animals in ways they would companion animals, seems to resonate with many people.
What is next for you?
There are a number of pieces I’m keen to do but have to wait until my technical skills are up to the challenge! I’d specifically like to continue adding to the Monkey Wrenching series, which features people of all ages actively liberating animals. I’d love to do a subseries of seniors liberating animals in particular, as I’ve found surprising support from this age group. No one is ever too young or too old to take action for animals.
Learn more about Twyla Francois and view her art at twylafrancois.com.
Photos by Jo-Anne McArthur. Interview and story by Corinne Benedict.