The screams of a thousand mothers are shattering my ears as I stand in the middle of one of the largest pig farms in the world. The mothers are banging their heads against the cage doors and shrieking to be released from the crates which, at 2 x 7 feet, are too small for them to turn around. This is all happening at a pig farm that, earlier this year, claimed that it had effectively ended the use of cruel “gestation crates.” But as the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) Open Rescue Team found, crates are far from gone.
As we walk through the pens, it’s so loud I can’t even hear myself think. But we keep moving because we know our mission ― exposing the horror and deception at Smithfield, the largest pig processor in the world ― is vital. And as we document the happenings at Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah, we realize that things are far worse than even we had believed.
The first hint of this was our discovery that Smithfield had been implicated in a scandal involving human slavery. A labor contractor hired by Smithfield tricked workers from Asia into coming to the United States with the promise of a better life. By signing over the deed to their village homes, the workers were able to secure passage to the West. They were promised wages that would be 10 times higher. But it was all a lie. The immigrants faced dismal work conditions, cramped rooms where they slept on floors, and a complete loss of their most basic freedoms. Shortly after arriving, they stopped being paid, and they were threatened with guns on one occasion when they left the compound. Some workers were trapped this way for years.
While the company denies responsibility for this episode (which was exposed when a few workers obtained contact info for a legal aid service that assists migrant workers) those of us who have seen the operations of a modern pig farm are not surprised. Managers who are acclimated to ignoring the screams of mother pigs find it easy to ignore the cries of their workers, too. As Immanuel Kant noted, cruelty to animals breeds cruelty to human beings.
The second shocking discovery was the horrific smell emanating from the farm -- an indication of both the health and environmental threats posed by an industry that has run amok. As we approached Circle Four, the stench was so bad that, at times, I had to cover my mouth and my nose. Residents in cities miles away from the farm have complained for years that the farm’s stench overwhelms their community. But this odor is just an indicator of the bigger threats posed by pig farming, such as mass contamination of local waterways. A report by a Utah governmental agency found that, in the years after Circle Four opened, rates of respiratory and gastric disease increased dramatically, and research finds that those who live near pig farms are at three times the risk of developing deadly antibiotic resistant infections such as MRSA. Pig farms like Circle Four, which use mass antibiotics to prevent disease due to the sickening conditions, pose an existential threat to human civilization. Within years, our children may start dying from infections that were once seen as easily treatable.
Our third and most important discovery, however, was that, at Smithfield, torturing baby pigs and their mothers can be transformed, through deceptive marketing, into acts of compassion. Smithfield and its retail partner Costco trumpet their commitment to animal welfare. Even the Humane Society has praised their supposed shift to “crate-free” production. What they failed to tell us is that there would be no accountability -- no audits to ensure commitments have been upheld -- and that the new system will still be a nightmare for the mother pigs and their babies. For example, very few consumers realize that “crate-free” pork does not abolish farrowing crates, meaning that mother pigs are still brutally confined in a cage as small as their own bodies. The poor moms are denied any opportunity to bond with their children by thick metal bars. And yet the conditions are still described as “crate-free” or “humane.”
The only effective solution to this crisis is political change. As the Nonhuman Rights Project leaps hurdles to achieve legal personhood for animals, we are on the cusp of an ethical revolution: a transformation from treating animals as things, to treating them as living beings deserving of respect and dignity.
DxE’s rescue missions, which are now shot in immersive virtual reality, show us the limitations of seeking animal welfare without animal rights. But it is only our political ambitions -- notably, a constitutional amendment for animals -- that will ultimately resolve the threat posed by Big Ag and save the planet from perhaps the greatest calamity it has ever faced.