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A tale of two piglets (Part I: Podcast)
The plight of two baby pigs – one trapped and starving, and one with a literal broken heart – shows the toll of factory farming on the youngest and most vulnerable creatures on Earth.
This is Part I of a two-part series. Part II is here.
One of the many pathologies of the modern system of “animal welfare” is that it leaves unprotected the youngest and most vulnerable animals on factory farms (and even prosecutes those who give them aid). The issue came up, in a recent podcast I did with Zoe and Sherstin Rosenberg, founders of Happy Hen Animal Rescue.
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You see, Zoe and Sherstin have stepped in where the government has failed, by starting a sanctuary of last resort for abused animals. And their stories of rescuing baby animals are both heartbreaking and inspiring. There’s the case of the calf who was so covered in feces that maggots were growing on her body. There was the baby duck who was left on the factory farm floor, crippled and unable to properly walk. And then there were the piglets — far too many — suffering from disease and starvation that can only be compared, in both scale and suffering, to a concentration camp.
There are lessons in these stories. The first is that oppressive systems invariably target the most powerless among us: the old, the weak, and the young. But the second lesson is that, even in failure, standing up for these powerless victims is an important statement of who we are. I know this because I have experienced it myself.
As with so many stories of injustice, this story begins with a lie. It is the lie the government told the people of California in 2008: that farm animals would no longer be caged.
A Historic Promise, Broken
In the summer of 2015, I walked into a Farmer John/Smithfield Foods facility in central California, the largest in this state, with the intent to document the confinement of pigs in modern factory farms. Seven years earlier, in 2008, California voters had passed a historic ballot initiative, Proposition 2, that promised a cage-free future for animals in farms. Marketing materials for the campaign showed animals frolicking outdoors, and contrasted these happy animals with the brutal confinement of what came before. Voters were convinced, with 63% voting in support – which, at the time, was more individual votes than any ballot initiative in California history.
But by 2015, despite California’s status as one of the largest farm states in the nation, no company had been prosecuted for violations of Prop 2. Given the long record of abuses in the California farming system, this seemed an impossible result. For example, in 2008 (the very year Prop 2 was passed) an undercover investigation exposed sick and disabled cows being kicked and dragged with forklifts at one of the largest slaughterhouses in the state. This was not just cruel but illegal, as “downed” cows pose serious risks to the food supply, including so-called “mad cow disease,” a neurological disorder caused by contaminated beef that has a shocking 100% fatality rate in human beings. Due to public pressure, the owner of the slaughterhouse, the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company, recalled 143 million pounds of beef — the largest in the nation’s history — and eventually was forced into bankruptcy.
While Prop 2 covered the confinement of healthy animals, rather than abuse of sick animals, its seemed implausible, to say the least, that an industry that had just been caught engaging in horrific and criminal abuse had turned 180 degrees in less than a year. And yet that was what authorities were saying to the public. When I and Priya started calling and emailing district attorney offices across the state, each and every one said they had zero prosecutions to report. What they didn’t say is that there were also zero investigations; no one was bothering to verify that factory farms were complying with the law.
Exposing the Giant
Because of this, when I led a team of activists into the massive Farmer John/Smithfield facility in 2015, we did so with a heavy dose of skepticism as to what we would find. But even I was not prepared for what we saw when we arrived. Baby pigs were languishing, sick, or slowly starving to death throughout the facility.
The basic problem was this. Farmer John, perhaps due to Prop 2, had shut down its entire breeding operation in California and was now shipping in piglets to raise at the farm, perhaps from distances as far away as Southern Utah. While this might have insulated the company from legal liability, as it could no longer be held accountable for confining mother pigs in so-called gestation crates, it also meant that the piglets were going through a potentially hazardous, long-distance journey, at just 2-3 weeks of age, in scathing heat, and without their mother (or their mothers’ life-saving milk) to protect them. And the result was a system filled with sickness, starvation, and death.
One of the first piglets we saw was literally caught in this system. In the crowded pens of the Farmer John nursery, where the animals were small enough to fit through various gaps in the cage bars, a baby animal was hanging from the edge of the pen. She appeared dead from starvation. We could see her bones protruding through her skin, and she was about half the size of the other piglets. But as we approached, she moved; she was not dead but rather smashed and trapped in the machinery of the factory farm. That moment was caught on camera, and I am publishing it for the first time today.
Let’s note a few things about this baby’s plight. First, her distress was obvious to anyone from the moment you walked into the barn. Julianne, my animal care team member on that day, instantly saw her motionless body hanging from the side of the pen. Any worker would have similarly seen this pitiful creature upon entry into the facility, yet her suffering was ignored. Second, the piglet had likely been trapped for a long period of time. The bony protrusions of her body, and the dramatic difference in size between her and the other piglets, suggests that she was trapped for perhaps a week or more. Third, the fact that she was alive was a miracle, but a dark one. It suggests that she obtained fluids using whatever means she could, including eating the feces of other animals (the only sustenance she could reach, in her pitiful state). Perhaps it would have been better if she had just died. We took video of this poor baby in the moments after she was “freed.” You can watch and see what you think:
There are relatively few moments, during investigations, that I feel much emotion. The adrenaline shuts down the introspective parts of one’s brain, and I have conditioned myself for years, through meditation and cognitive behavioral training, to calm myself in moments of danger, anger, or fear. But this was one of the moments where my training failed me. I felt rage swelling up inside me.
My own government was allowing the torture of babies, and calling it humane.
But the rage I felt was not just rage at the industry, and at the government for allowing the industry’s torture to continue despite the passage of Prop 2 in 2008. I raged at myself, too.
And that’s because we left this poor baby behind.
Animal cruelty investigators are left with an impossible choice. We see suffering in every direction that we look. And there are always theoretical actions we can take to alleviate this suffering. That was true of the piglet we saw trapped in the side of the pen. Though we were unprepared for a rescue, we could have taken her out and rushed her to the vet. With intravenous fluids and emergency care, perhaps she would have survived.
The problem is this: the same could be said for every other suffering individual we saw in that farm. And thus hard choices — impossible choices — must be made, and not on the basis of sentiment. For one, we must ask ourselves a strictly medical question: is this baby, even if we save her, likely to survive? For another, will saving this baby use up our limited resources and prevent us from saving another baby with a better chance at life?
As team lead, I made the choice that we would not even attempt to save the piglet on this day. We had no place to take her; no veterinarian to treat her; and not even a crate to carry her. This was intended to be a strictly investigative day. When I told Julianne my decision, I could see the tears forming in her eyes. (You can hear the pain in Julianne’s voice, even before the decision was made. It’s the voice of a future mom suffering from a baby’s unspeakable plight.) But she accepted my decision, as we had agreed to before we entered the farm that these decisions would be mine. Even if that decision was wrong.
I remember struggling to sleep that night when we returned to the Bay Area. I clenched my fists tight, and pulled at my hair. I could not get that poor baby’s image out of my mind.
“You should have tried, you fucking idiot!” I screamed at myself in the dark caverns of my sleep-deprived mind. “You didn’t even try!”
And I cried. In fact, I’m crying again now, as I write this, just thinking about the guilt and shame I felt on the day. We saved that baby from being trapped in the cage. But we relegated her to death all the same.
It would be many months later before I realized that, even in failure, there was power in what we did on that night.
I’ll release Part II of this story on July 19. But, for now, I wanted to say that, as I approach the most dangerous trial of my life, beginning on September 9, you will see me telling more of the untold stories from my years investigating cruelty at, and saving animals from, factory farms. It’s important that these stories, and this history, be told, so the public understands why animal rights activists fight so hard for the liberation of all sentient beings. And I may not have much ability to tell them after September 9. Incarceration is the predicted outcome of a conviction, especially given that I am now a convicted felon and repeated offender.
But the other reason I am telling these stories now is because I need you to be a part of them. There will be dozens, perhaps hundreds, of us heading to Utah in September. And with the industry and government colluding to cover up the abuses of Smithfield, the Chinese-owned pig farming giant that controls the levers of power in so much of our food system (and beyond), we will need so many people to not just tell the story of rescue, but to be a part of it. And to truly be a part of that story, one must understand it. My hope is that many of you will understand and embrace the story of rescue, and join us in Utah, come September.
Read Part II of this series here.
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