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The Greatest Comeback Story in History
Lily the piglet came back from the brink. So can we all.
I fly to Utah in a few days to begin preparations for my trial, which begins on October 3. And as I was reflecting with DxE co-founder Ronnie Rose, on what will unfold over the next few weeks, I realized there was something important missing from stories about the case. Don’t get me wrong. Major media outlets have brought much-needed attention to cruelty, corruption, and technology at issue in the trial, and ordinary people on social media amplified these stories in unprecedented ways. The initial report on the FBI’s bizarre hunt for baby pigs, for example, was shared over 130,000 times on Facebook alone, and might very well be the most widely-circulated story in the history of animal rights. For all that, I am grateful, not just to the media but to our grassroots supporters. You helped us tell the story of factory farming to the world.
But there is something foundational to this case that has still been missed: a comeback story. And I want to share that story today.
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It’s a comeback story involving a baby pig who should have died. The piglet at the center of it all – Lily, who we found starving on the floor of a factory farm – was in such bad shape that we felt certain that, even with emergency care, she would never survive. Yet she’s 600 pounds bigger and thriving to this day.
It’s a comeback story involving activists – of a movement facing unprecedented criminal prosecutions for acts of nonviolent rescue, but bouncing back to become even stronger.
But, most importantly, it’s a comeback story involving the human species. For thousands of years, we have rained terror on the other living beings of this earth. This trial will give us a chance to renounce that history of violence and transform into something completely different; caretakers rather than villains.
This story is not just about two piglets and two activists. It’s not even really about the animal rights movement. It’s a story about who we are, as a species and as a people: protectors, or killers? And, properly told, it’s the greatest comeback story in the history of humankind.
I am going to tell part 1 of that story today: the comeback of Lily the pig.
“She’s not going to make it, but I can’t leave her here to starve.”
In March 2017, I am staring at a malnourished baby pig, who is struggling to walk inside a pen at the largest factory farm in the nation. She is 2-3 pounds, compared to her 15-pound littermates. And, with an infected wound on her foot, that has swollen to three times its normal size, and her body so tiny that it can’t maintain a healthy temperature, she is destined for an untimely and painful death.
In this regard, Lily’s life is hardly unique. One of the shocking facts about modern pig farming is that infant starvation is simply a part of the business.
Mother pigs have been genetically modified – through intensive selective breeding – to give birth to so many piglets that their babies outnumber their teats. The result, as one recent agricultural scientist put it, is that “it is increasingly common for the total number of piglets born alive within a litter to exceed the number of functional teats on the sow. This increased competition for teat access results in higher piglet mortality, particularly for those of low birth weight.”
This is particularly true when mother pigs are forcibly impregnated, as many as 3 times in a single year, and their bodies are destroyed by the endless cycle of reproduction. I have seen teats that are so over-used and shredded that they’ve been transformed into something akin to a zombie octopus, with rotting shreds of flesh replacing what should be a functioning nipple. Needless to say, a piglet attempting to nurse from such a teat is not able to get any food. It is one of the many reasons that 16-20% of piglets typically die before they are even weaned, with starvation being one of the top 3 causes of death. One industry publication even has a name for this cycle: the hypothermia-starvation-crushing complex. Piglets are too small and weak to eat, and put on body weight. So they are crushed or freeze to death.
Lily seemed destined for this fate. She had trouble walking, due to her infected foot. And she began to vomit the small amounts of food that she was able to ingest. She collapsed next to a heat lamp and was not eating or drinking at all, and barely moving, only raising her head when we got too close to her – which would scare her into hobbling further away.
“We have to prepare ourselves for the worst,” I told the team. “I’ll sleep with her tonight in case something happens.”
I remembered another rescue that had ended badly, of a baby pig named Chester. I was sleeping in another room when Chester cried out in the middle of the night, as his little body thrashed. By the time we arrived, it was too late.
“I’m not going to make that same mistake with Lily,” I thought to myself. Even if Lily died, she would die in the arms of someone who cared.
But in the middle of the night, something changed. I felt it first. A small hard object on my abdomen, tentative at first, but then more solid and unrelenting. Then I felt a second hard push, this time on my chest. In the darkness of the basement, with my glasses off and only a faint red heat lamp generating light, I could not tell what it was. Then, as my vision started kicking in, I saw her face, staring right down at mine. It was Lily, and she had crawled up onto my body – all 3 pounds of her. She dug her face into my chest and promptly fell asleep.
“I trust you,” she seemed to be saying. “And I need your help.”
Lily still struggled that first night, with her diarrhea continuing into the next morning. But, while her foot was painful, she also began moving around and exploring her new home. She accepted the antibiotics we fed her, and a painful foot bath – an antiseptic chlorhexidine solution. She even began to eat. She was making a comeback. And within 2 weeks, her condition had completely reversed. She had come back from the brink of death.
We thought Lily had given up, but on the second morning of her rescue, she began to show incredible fight.
Lily’s case was literally one in a million. Of the 130 million pigs killed in the United States, there are probably less than a hundred or so rescued every year. And a video that we made about her story went viral on social media, with 1.1 million views on Facebook alone. Yet curiously, almost none of the coverage in the mainstream media discussed her comeback. That remains true to this day.
The reasons for this are hard to say, and probably numerous – the media’s bias towards the negative, the difficulty in verifying our specific claims. But fundamentally, I think the reason this comeback story has not been told is something more simple: journalists are afraid.
They are afraid that people will mock them, for taking seriously a story about mere “animal rescue.” Animal rescues, after all, are the domain of kids’ shows, or at best, The Dodo – not something you will see written about The New York Times. They are afraid of what it might mean to endorse the rescuers. Many journalists, for example, have accompanied us on investigations, and written powerful pieces about what we’ve found inside, but they almost always refuse to call a rescue – that is, an action taken to save a living being from harm – a rescue, for fear of endorsing “law breaking” behavior.
But I think, most fundamentally, the media is afraid to tell comeback stories like Lily’s because they suggest something troubling about our entire species. To the extent Lily’s rescue and recovery is a legitimate story, and not the domain of cute kids’ videos, there are deeper implications for our government, our society, and the daily food choices of billions of human beings. Lily’s comeback suggests we are the villains, and not the heroes, of Earth’s history – beings that terrorize the other creatues of this earth, forcing them to flee, or be held captive, or be slaughtered.
I understand this fear. The times when I have attempted, even very carefully, to criticize my audience – i.e.. animal rights supporters – have not gone well. When I wrote a deep and personally meaningful series on race and animal rights, for example, I faced what felt like hatred and ostracism for many years. A mainstream journalist, choosing to attack his readers as tyrants, seems like a good plan for career suicide.
But the fear, I believe, is misguided. And the reason is because human tyranny over animals is not the end of the story. And when we tell the entire story, it’s not a story of villainy. It’s a story of redemption.
I’ll share part two of that story in my next newsletter.
Couple updates for the week:
Direct Action Everywhere is organizing a series of calls to action over the next week, as trial approaches, to push back against Smithfield, including a big social media push this coming Monday, Sept 26. Make sure you’ve signed the petition here to get alerts. But I’ll also send out an email to this list, with some suggestions on things you can say and do to help!
I’ll be at two last community events in the Bay Area before I head to Utah on Monday: a hangout tonight in SF at 7 pm PT, and a meetup tomorrow at 11 am PT in Berkeley. I hope to see you at one or both. Here’s the SF event tonight, where I’ll be talking a bit about the power of unearned suffering, and here’s the meetup tomorrow, in which Paul and I will be chatting a bit about our battle with Smithfield in Utah.
If you’re in Salt Lake City, and want to come to the trial but need a ride, let me know. We have some supporters who are planning to take some big vans down to St. George for the trial! Reply to this email, or leave a comment on the blog, if you need a ride.
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