Why the Anti-Factory Farming Movement Needs Direct Action

The industry inflicts cruelty onto billions of animals each year. To change these practices, we have to get close to the suffering of the victims.

In January of this year, seven activists were driving through factory farm country in central Iowa. For those who have never been to this part of America, the sight can be surreal: Massive piles and dumpsters filled with dead pigs and piglets, discarded as trash, can be seen from the road. This apocalyptic scene is a common and inevitable part of industrial animal agriculture. Factory farms are breeding grounds for death and disease, and animals are routinely killed because they’re sick, injured, or just too small to be profitable. But in one of those piles in Iowa, the activists spotted movement—a piglet who was still alive. 

It was about 0 degrees Fahrenheit, the ground covered in snow, and the piglet was shivering and covered in blood as his tiny body rose and fell with each breath. The activists unburied him from beneath the other bodies, bundled him up and rushed him to a vet, unsure if he would survive. Charlie, as he was later named, was estimated to be three weeks old, weighed seven pounds, and had several health problems and injuries, including severe hypothermia and a broken jaw and rib.

The activists, members of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), a grassroots animal rights network, were in Iowa to support Matt Johnson, who was about to face trial and up to eight years in prison. In May 2020, Johnson, an organizer and press coordinator for DxE, had uncovered something that was shocking even by factory farming standards. Early in the pandemic, when slaughterhouses were shutting down and the industry didn’t have enough workers to process slaughter-ready animals into meat, companies started looking for ways to exterminate them quickly and cheaply. A truck driver for the pork producer Iowa Select Farms tipped DxE off about a method the company was using to kill its pigs. Called “ventilation shutdown,” it entailed packing pigs into sealed barns, sealing off the airways, and cooking them to death by pumping in heat and steam. Johnson and other activists planted recording devices to capture this process and its aftermath. The audio defies belief: Pigs can be heard shrieking in pain and distress for two-and-a-half hours. By the two hour mark, most of them have quieted down and presumably died, but some voices can still be heard crying out. The groundbreaking investigation was reported in The Intercept, and the state of Iowa, instead of charging Iowa Select’s executives with criminal animal cruelty, arrested and criminally prosecuted Johnson. Soon after, Lucas Walker, the truck driver who blew the whistle on Iowa Select at great personal risk, was pursued by the FBI to serve as an informant (he declined).

The revelations about ventilation shutdown created a crisis for the pork industry, which scrambled to create justifications for cooking pigs to death. McDonald’s, The Intercept reported, had asked pork producers for an explanation. The following month, Iowa Select announced that it had stopped the practice. It’s worth dwelling on the fact that if it weren’t for Johnson’s investigation, the world would never have found out about ventilation shutdown. Without direct action and investigations by groups like DxE, no one would know what had happened to Charlie or about anything else that happens on factory farms. The meat industry is highly secretive, and without undercover footage and direct activist intervention, its abuses would be carried out entirely in the dark.

Direct action, especially in the name of animal liberation, is often maligned by people who don’t know anything about it. They imagine reckless activists wreaking havoc for the sake of it. One reason for this is that the things these activists bring to light, like a baby pig maimed and left to die in the cold, can seem too horrible to be real. And their ultimate goal—to end all mass production of animals for food—can seem extreme if you haven’t thought about what it means for living creatures to be reduced to commodity status, their bodies mutilated and optimized for making meat. The meat industry has every reason to portray direct action activists as ignorant and deceitful, but in my experience as a journalist, these people are some of the most credible sources regarding factory farming. They know what happens on the ground because they see it themselves, and they document it for the world to see. They’re organized, strategic, and very smart. This isn’t to say that they’re perfect witnesses or don’t get things wrong, something that no person can claim to do. DxE has pulled pranks, like pretending to be the CEO of Smithfield Foods on cable news, but these antics are meant to be revealed as such. Unlike employees of the industry, these activists don’t have a financial incentive to lie. They’re eager to talk to journalists and back up their claims with evidence—unlike factory farm flacks, who run away from reporters when confronted with their industry’s pervasive cruelty.

Numerous organizations and individuals, besides DxE, are engaged in this work. Animal Save, for example, holds vigils at slaughterhouses and gives water to animals arriving on trucks (a practice that’s been banned by an “ag-gag” law in Ontario), drawing attention to one of the most stressful parts of a farm animal’s life: their transport to slaughter. DxE has, at various moments, been bedeviled by personal and political conflicts that are difficult for outsiders to make sense of. This has been painful for the animal movement, but it ought not to obscure the fact that exposing violence and liberating animals from it are some of the movement’s most powerful strategies. The vulnerability of activism to both conflict and government crackdown highlights the need for many groups with their own philosophies of change, so the movement isn’t dependent on a single organization’s infrastructure.

Despite immense industry efforts to thwart them, the radical wing of the animal rights movement accomplishes an extraordinary amount. DxE’s photography and videography has captured some of the best up-close encounters with animals suffering on factory farms available anywhere. Activist Kecia Doolittle, who worked as a nonprofit professional before joining DxE, created Project Counterglow, a separate organization that uses publicly available information aiming to map every factory farm in the country. The federal government, meanwhile, doesn’t even know where many factory farms are, The Counter reported last year, because meat industry lawsuits have blocked them from keeping a list.

If you only read official accounts of animal agriculture—including not just industry sources but also veterinary guidelines, USDA reports, legal records, and even many news outlets, which absurdly called ventilation shutdown “euthanasia”—you would have no sense of the lived reality of the billions of animals killed every year in our food system. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s guidelines on “depopulation,” for example, lists “manual blunt force trauma,” sometimes called “thumping,” as one of its “preferred” methods for culling piglets. This method is often used to kill piglets by slamming them onto the floor or wall, or hitting them with a hard object like a metal pipe—and it’s conceivable that that’s what happened to Charlie, who was found in the trash with broken bones. The same document even plainly states that the truth about such practices should be hidden: “Efforts should be made to shield depopulation activities from being easily observed by the public.”1

The European Food Safety Authority acknowledges that a risk associated with thumping, if it’s not carried out correctly, is “disposal of pigs while still alive,” and lists “pain, fear” as the “welfare consequences” of such an outcome. Such descriptions are the closest that even this report—which says manual blunt force trauma is “not recommended” because of the high risk of doing it wrong—comes to evoking the horrors endured by individuals like Charlie. The sanitized abstractions of such reports can’t tell the stories of animal agriculture’s victims because they’re designed to advise the industry or government, which is intimidated by the industry. This is how factory farm interests become written into the very knowledge our society creates about farm animals, and it highlights the importance of having people who speak from the perspective of the powerless, and don’t warp reality for the sake of the powerful. Fellow journalists would do well to treat activists using direct action as no more biased than governments or corporations trying to maintain the status quo.

The gap between what happens in reality and what powerful decision-makers proclaim to be the truth reminded me of an idea articulated by Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights lawyer who has  spent his career tracing the line from slavery to Jim Crow to the contemporary U.S. justice system. He urges people who want to change the world to “get proximate” to those who are suffering and disenfranchised, because that is the only way to truly understand injustice. I thought back to this last month, when I watched a pretrial hearing in a case that could send two prominent DxE activists, Paul Darwin Picklesimer and Wayne Hsiung, to prison for rescuing two sick piglets from abominable conditions at a Smithfield Foods facility in Utah (that rescue, The Intercept reported, resulted in a mind-boggling multi-state FBI hunt for the piglets, and a raid at the Colorado farm animal sanctuary where they were living).

At this hearing, the activists were hoping to convince Utah judge Jeffrey Wilcox that they should be allowed to present evidence of animal cruelty at the Smithfield facility at their trial, to show the jury that they had good reasons for entering and removing the piglets. I was struck by how clueless the judge seemed about what mattered in this case. To him, it was a matter of burglary. The suffering inflicted by Smithfield onto its animals didn’t matter one iota to the case because they were nothing but private property. The prosecutor, Utah Assistant Attorney General Janise Macanas, said that showing the video DxE created of the rescue would “cause an improper and emotional reaction within the jury.” Judge Wilcox sided with her and ruled that evidence of conditions at Smithfield would be banned from trial (he did, however, allow evidence about the health condition of the individual piglets, so that the activists could make their case that the animals would have been worthless to Smithfield). It was a remarkable display of how detached our justice system is from right and wrong.

A reasonable person’s reaction to this might be to wonder why we would criminalize people for exposing factory farms instead of thanking them, but I’ve come to believe that that’s the point. I think most politicians and law enforcement officials, regardless of whether they are conscious of it, understand that there’s something rotten in our relationship with animals, and they’re ashamed that, because of agribusiness’s power, no one will do anything about it. It’s easier to look away and punish dissent than to be implicated in something so unjust.

In January, I was supposed to cover Matt Johnson’s trial in Clarion, Iowa, but at the last minute, all the charges against him were dropped. The case was called off, as I reported at the time, right before a hearing was about to begin to determine whether journalists would be allowed to record the trial (media recording of court proceedings is usually permitted in Iowa, but Iowa Select Farms had filed an objection to recording of its witnesses). This was a win for DxE, and it suggested that the industry would rather not be scrutinized by a jury. Johnson was now free, but he was partly disappointed: He wanted to have his day in court. The most serious charge against him, burglary, which carried up to five years in prison, pertained to his 2020 removal of a sick two-week-old piglet from an Iowa Select facility, and he hoped to convince a jury that it was the only thing a morally upstanding person could have done in his position, thereby creating a model for what DxE calls the “right to rescue.”

Some vegans and animal rights adherents believe direct action is foolish because it makes the movement look extreme and criminal, and it threatens to destroy the movement by locking up talented activists. This is understandable. Prison is a terrible, unjust place, and the animal rights movement is not that far removed from the specter of incarceration. In the aughts, activists were imprisoned in a devastating series of convictions that weakened and demoralized the movement. DxE activists have not yet received any prison sentences, but its co-founder Wayne Hsiung was convicted for the first time of two felonies in December (and given probation) for rescuing a sick baby goat. Even a felony conviction without prison time can seriously restrict a person’s rights. More prosecutions are coming, and activists will need to carefully weigh the risks with each action they take.

But the notion that because removing animals from factory farms looks extreme, it is a bad tactic, misreads the philosophy of direct action. The law is supposed to reflect the public’s idea of right and wrong, not that of business interests with no regard for sentient life. By breaking unjust laws, activists want to confront a jury of regular citizens with the question: “Is it really right to send someone to prison for saving a suffering animal?” This is hard to do when regressive judges suppress evidence of animal cruelty, but as animal law scholar Justin Marceau told me, it only takes one judge ruling a different way to start to change that.

It’s an open secret that animal agriculture is usually a zone of exclusion from animal treatment laws.2Things that ought to be clear cases of systemic criminal animal cruelty or at least warrant an investigation—like, DxE and its lawyers have argued, ventilation shutdown—are ignored by police and assumed to be untouchable. By exposing atrocities that the state refuses to prosecute, activists are also showing how lawless the meat industry is, and that it’s up to laypeople to stop it. 

And then, of course, there are all the individual animals liberated by activists and given a rare chance to live, like Gilly the piglet, who was removed from Iowa Select Farms by Matt Johnson, or Lily and Lizzie, taken from Smithfield Foods. Activists working across the country have saved hundreds of turkeys, chickens, ducks, pigs, dogs (bred for experimentation), and other animals this way. Life for former farm animals is never going to be ideal—at farm sanctuaries, they still live in an enclosed, human-controlled environment. But it’s the least humans can offer our fellow creatures born into brutal violence.

Much as everyone hoped he would pull through, Charlie did not make it. He died after three days at the vet. There are many more farm animals like him out there, dying in a mass of corpses. His memory reflects the most important lesson of all about direct action: Factory farms aren’t like some horror movie that’s inaccessible to us, but something that ordinary people can physically intervene in. Activists are showing that anyone can, if they give themselves permission, start creating the world they want to live in.

Photograph: Direct Action Everywhere.

Marina Bolotnikova is a journalist in Madison, WI.

  1. The AVMA’s guidelines also acknowledge that depopulation is traumatic for the humans involved: “Depopulation activities usually require a baseline level of physical fitness and emotional resiliency. Direct and indirect involvement with depopulation activities can result in significant negative psychological impacts. The negative effects of bovine depopulation procedures on human psychological health have been well documented. Potential physical and psychological impacts related to depopulation activities should be considered when depopulation activities are planned.” Not to mention the harms to human physical and environmental health from factory-farmed food, including antibiotic-resistant infections and chronic disease. 

  2. When cruelty in animal agriculture does result in prosecutions, a recent Vox story pointed out, “it’s usually over the more egregious, often one-off acts of cruelty conducted by stressed-out, low-paid workers” who had no role in designing the factory farm system but are convenient scapegoats for the industry. Routinized violence against animals is treated as “standard industry practice” and therefore business as usual. 

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