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September 2005
A Journey Into The Darkness
By Christine Morrissey


The streaming noise of the freeway reverberating in my head plays like a soundtrack to my staring session with the ceiling. It is close to four a.m. on a Thursday. I estimate that the final live-haul truck of the night is arriving at its endpoint. When mid-morning arrives, the truck will unload its cargo—5,000 chickens—at the processing plant located one hour away from my home. “I wish I was there with you,” I think to myself. “I will return soon.” I cover my ears with the melodic voice of James Taylor and close my eyes.

Before I fall asleep, I am reminded of the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. Superimposed with images of Napalm bombings, the cinematic masterpiece begins with a shell-shocked U.S. Army Captain, Benjamin L. Willard (played by Martin Sheen), awaiting his next military mission. Lying on his hotel bed, the intoxicated special-forces operative is undeniably damaged by combat. His opening words illustrate his trauma: “All I could think of was getting back into the jungle. I’m here a week now, waiting for a mission, getting softer. Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter.”

The opening sequence of the film is stained into my memory. Indeed, I deeply identify with Captain Willard’s bizarre anxious anticipation to return to the horrors of war.

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the 1979 film follows the dark journey of Willard up the Nung River to the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam War. Willard, the passive narrator of the film, is granted his wish for another mission. He is sent on a classified assignment to ‘terminate’ the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, a renegade Green Beret who turns genocide into a profession in the jungle (played by Marlon Brando). In-route to Kurtz, Willard dives deep into the darkness of human nature. Slowly but surely, he becomes obsessed with Kurtz.

The Darkness in my Backyard
Two years ago, I embarked on a similar journey. Like Willard, I developed a deep fixation with another slice of humankind’s dark side. Unlike Willard’s mission, however, my expedition did not require departure from American soil. In fact, the mission would take place in my own ‘backyard.’

I grew up in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area, a stone’s throw away from California’s Central Valley. As a young person I was exposed to the horrors of factory farming through mainstream media, however, I was largely unaware until recently that such acts were carried out within my immediate geography.

On a scorching September day in 2003, it all changed for me. At the time, I was calculating my next move. I felt I needed to push my commitment to animal protection to a deeper level. For me, it was time to face animal cruelty head-on.

That day, the Valley revealed its true identity to me. To industry standards, the Valley is recognized as one of the most industrious and concentrated animal agriculture areas in the world. I was invited on a road trip to the rural town of Oakdale, one of the Valley’s CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) capitals. As Willard proclaimed on his voyage up-river to Kurtz, “I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn’t even know it yet.” What I had seen in documentaries came to life before me: the industrial confinement, the corroded carcasses and the lingering stench of death.

I was horrified. But, I was also completely captivated. My fascination with the Valley’s horror was inexplicable. Over the next several months, I found myself visiting the Valley—mostly at night—more and more frequently. Documenting conditions at farms and following live-haul trucks to slaughterhouses became a part of my weekly routine. When I was home, I wanted to be in the Valley. It felt like someone was constantly pulling me back, I was so consumed.

My concept of reality made a bizarre and surreal twist. I was using my camera as a filter between my emotions and the systematic cruelty I witnessed. The more cruelty I could document, the happier I was. And farmed animal cruelty in the Valley was excessively commonplace. As Willard described the conditions in Vietnam, “Charging a man with murder in this place is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”

Why would I have such a passive response to such horror?

Willard’s internal reaction to the insanity of the Vietnam War was quite similar to my new disposition. Traveling up-river, Willard scarcely displayed signs of distress or anger. He was a silent observer, absorbing ‘the horror’ of human nature like a sponge. Colonel Kurtz was the focus of Willard’s obsession. However, there are moments when the viewer wonders if Willard will be completely absorbed by the jungle. In the end, Willard completes his mission to ‘terminate’ Kurtz’s command.

The correlation between Colonel Kurtz and modern animal agriculture started to gel in my mind. At one time, Kurtz was considered by his military comrades to be an exemplary officer. Exposed to the atrocities of war, Kurtz hits a breaking point. “Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fucking program,” Willard explained.

Similarly, over the last century, American agriculture has also deviated from any sense of decency. In the name of corporate greed, industrial farming has turned its back on animals, humans and the environment. Like Willard, I am compelled through investigative work to stop the atrocity of factory farming.

Today, my commitment to animal protection has never been more intense. It is almost an addiction. The ominous darkness of the Central Valley continues to mystify me. The ongoing exposure to ‘the horror’ of animal cruelty has had a penetrating yet silent effect on my spirit. I am angry and emotionally damaged; but I am too focused to let my emotions blind me.

Unlike Willard, my journey into the heart of darkness is not over. It continues to consume me. Every time I return home, I stare at the ceiling, waiting for my next mission.

Christine Morrissey
is director of East Bay Animal Advocates. Learn more at



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