Wayne Hsiung

Published on:

October 27, 2021

The piglet who made it in The New York Times

A legal fight over pig crates in North Carolina ended this year. But the rescue of a piglet shows that the struggle has just begun.

It’s the middle of the night in rural North Carolina, and a police light is flashing to my left. I’m lying flat on the ground to avoid detection because I’m outside a factory farm that is holding one of the industry’s dirtiest secrets: the use of gestation crates — grim cages that have been described by animal scientists as “one of the cruelest forms of confinement devised by humankind” — at Smithfield Foods. One of my team members, a rookie investigator, is planted face-to-the-dirt right behind me. He’s gripping my calf so tightly that it slightly hurts. Another is about 200 yards away from us, sprawling down against the ground as a police spotlight passes over his head. We had left him to serve as a lookout, a relatively safe position near the road. But now he’s the most exposed member of our open rescue team. I stare right at his location, though I can’t see him in the dark, even as the light passes over him. I wonder if he’s been spotted, as we wait for what seems like an eternity for the police lights to leave.

We are here, based on an employee tip, to reveal the abuse happening behind the closed doors that are just a few feet away. And to help whatever animals we can. But the police are not on our side. And as I lie there, waiting to see how the situation will unfold, I wonder if we might end this night in a North Carolina jail.

This moment that unfolded in January 2018 was years in the making.

Our undercover investigation was, in many ways, a last resort. After years of consolidation with the industry, Smithfield Foods was now perhaps the most powerful corporation in the state. Dozens of individual pig farms have merged into one. And over a period of 10 years, Smithfield has used its economic might to silence those who disagreed with its practices. From physically assaulting its workers to polluting the local air and water, the company operates with virtual impunity. The systemic abuse to millions of animals is merely one of many disturbing examples.

But the final straw, for me, is the passage of the state’s so-called “ag gag” law, at Smithfield’s behest. The law, HB 405, which was decried  as “a clear violation of the constitutional freedoms of speech and the press” in an editorial by the New York Times, makes it unlawful for an employee to take a photo of corporate misconduct. It is the broadest such law in the nation.

But it has served its function. The passage of HB 405 has ended scrutiny of the abuses within the company. Virtually every organization doing undercover work in factory farms has left the state, fearing the legal repercussions of ag gag.

But not us. We are not a traditional nonprofit. Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) is a grassroots animal rights network. And that means we can travel where others refuse to go.

The initial tip that leads us outside the Smithfield farm in January 2018 comes from a family member of an employee. Our tipster, Jane*, has a brother who works at Smithfield.

“It’s total bullshit” she tells me. “They say they’re treating animals better, but it’s all the same.”

She is blonde and has a southern drawl. She wears work jeans and flannel shirts and has been raised in one of the most Christian areas of the nation. In contrast, I’m Chinese, Buddhist, and coming to North Carolina from perhaps the atheist capital of the nation: Berkeley, CA. But, with respect to animal cruelty, we are teh same.

“I can’t take it anymore, but no one is willing to go against Smithfield,” she says. “They control everything.”

Her own family is evidence of that. But I think to myself, this woman is proof that not everyone is afraid.

A mother pig trapped in a 2 x 7 foot gestation crate.

We drive around rural North Carolina, going from one site to the next as Jane guides us. It seems there’s a pig farm around every street corner. In many cases, we can see the shed doors from the road. We even stop at a few, and look at the facilities from the road.

“The doors are all unlocked. You just have to go in there and take some photos,” Jane tells me.

“I take it your brother is not willing?”

She says he’s not willing to get fired.

We look inside dumpsters outside of the farms, and notice the grisly evidence of abuse. Pigs and piglets by the dozens left to slowly rot in the summer heat.

“Have you seen them?” Jane asks.

She is talking about gestation and farrowing crates, the tomb-like devices where mother pigs live out most of their roughly 4 year lives. The devices resemble a massive metal hand that grips a 600 pound animal with wiry tendrils covering her from face to tail. Numerous studies have found that the devices drive pigs to insanity. Unable to do anything other than eat, sleep, and shit, the pigs begin eerily swaying their heads, or gnawing on the metal bars, in an attempt to relieve the stress of confinement.

But the suffering of these mothers is good for the company’s bottom line. Indeed, the crates are mandatory in modern factory farming. You cannot raise thousands of animals, including baby pigs, in such a small space without keeping the adults in crates. In the wild, the mothers would each leave the herd and find a separate nesting ground. In a factory farm, without these crates, the thousands of pigs and piglets would very likely trample one another to death.

The intensive confinement of animals is not just a cruelty issue, though. The millions of pigs raised in North Carolina create 15.5 million tons of waste every year, more than the entire human population of the state. The lagoons have become an environmental disaster. A few generations ago, before the inception of factory farming and the exponential increase in the number of pigs, the waste produced was much smaller, and spread over a large geographic area. But factory farming is “intensive” not only for the animals but for the environment, too.

Thousands of pigs drown in their cages as hurricane waters rise. These lucky few escaped — but are still destined to die.

This is most notable during environmental disasters, where local neighborhoods have been literally flooded with pig shit as the lagoon overflowed. As floodwaters rise, pigs have been left to slowly drain in their crates. The few that escape have created harrowing images of pigs swimming through feces-filled floodwaters, or desperately clinging to the roof of the buildings in which they were previously confined.

But on a more routine basis, the biggest concern is impacts on local air and water. North Carolina is one of the states that allows pig farms to spray the waste right into the air, supposedly as crop fertilizer. But the mixture, a grotesque combination of chemicals, disease, and pig shit, has been associated with increased disease in local communities, which are almost always poor and disproportionately Black. When those communities complained, they were ignored. When they sued and won victories, the North Carolina government passed laws to prohibit the suits.

“If you would have stayed out there,” local resident Elsie Herring said, “you would have probably had to end up going to the hospital because this stuff was being released and you’re breathing it in.”

Perhaps the single biggest concern, however, is disease. Factory farms have been described by Johns Hopkins University’s Pew Center as “super-incubators for viruses.” Indeed, a deadly coronavirus — porcine epidemic diarrhea or PED — has killed millions of pigs in recent years. And the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 likely came from a North Carolina pig farm. Research shows that the surrounding communities to a pig farm are the ones most affected by this risk. But the world’s experience from the last year teaches us that, in a connected world, dangerous pathogens cannot always be contained.

“What do you know about drugs and disease?” I ask.

“I don’t know for sure. But I know it’s bad.”

And that’s exactly what we find.

In early 2018, we are back in North Carolina partly at the behest of The New York Times. A team led by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist is doing an investigative series on infectious disease. Factory farms, which use 70+% of the antibiotics in this nation, are important to their story. But they are finding it shockingly difficult to get basic questions answered from companies like Smithfield. They quickly start to understand why.

“When it comes to power, no one dares to stand up to the pork industry,” Dr. Pat Basu says to them. “Not even the U.S. government.” Dr. Basu was the former chief veterinary officer of the Food Safety Inspection Service. Basu was supposedly in charge of oversight of the industry. But after retiring, he has started talking openly about how things are actually run: Smithfield and other multinational giants run the show.

If the Times is going to get what they are looking for — evidence of disease and drugs inside modern pig farms — they are going to have to work with groups like us.

Previous trips to North Carolina, including the one where Jane guided me across the Eastern portion of the state, concluded with our undercover teams obtaining gruesome footage of what was happening inside. Perhaps the most disturbing single scene is a mother pig with gaping, infected hole where her neck should be. It looks like something from a horror movie, as if she has mutated into some extraterrestrial monster. And when we see it, I turn away, and am forced to gather myself. It’s been years of undercover work for me, but I am still not completely inoculated from the impact.

A bizarre hole in the neck of this gestating mother left her looking more like an alien creature than a pig.

The Times reviews this footage but asks for something more: they want to embed with our team. There’s initial discussion as to whether their journalists — a videographer, photographer, and print journalist — can join us inside the farm. I make the case for them to do so; North Carolina, like most states, has a doctrine of law called “legal necessity” that allows citizens to break laws to avoid a greater harm. The ag gag law, I argue, is unconstitutional. At first, it seems possible that the Times will agree. Their opinion page has argued publicly against ag gag laws.

But the Times’ lawyers get cold feet and ultimately conclude they can’t come in; they’ll have to just document what we are doing from public roads. But they will get access to our footage and photos, from the moment we step off the farm.

I understand the decision. Over the last 20 years, nonviolent animal rights activists have been targeted as domestic terrorists. Even supposedly progressive politicians, such as California’s Diane Feinstein, have jumped on board legislation like the absurd “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” to protect corporate profits (and campaign donations) against the threat posted by activists and journalists. Especially in conservative farm counties, activism has become a crime.

But that is precisely the point we are trying to make with the Times.

“This is a nation that was founded on civil disobedience, on understanding that, sometimes, to change the rules, you have to break them,” I say to the journalists who are with us in North Carolina. “That is especially true when the rules are corrupt.”

The journalists nod, and I can see that they approve. They should; after all, going after activists who report misconduct is just one step removed from going after the journalists themselves.

But it still feels like a fantasy to me. I have now been going into slaughterhouses and factory farms for over a decade. And yet I have never been charged. I am beginning to wonder if we’ve called the industry’s bluff.

Very soon, I’ll be proven wrong.

The night where the police seemingly spot us occurs just days before we are planning to bring journalists with us to the farm. We were scouting out the facility, again, to ensure it remained as we had previously seen it, safe enough for us to bring journalists along.

It’s a little weird that this is the biggest feeling on my mind, but my main concern is losing credibility with the Times. I want them to see us as competent, professional, and capable. The fact that we’ve apparently alerted the authorities to our presence on site is an indictment of our team’s abilities, and my leadership. The problem is not “getting caught.” After all, the entire point of an open rescue is to eventually publicize everything we do. The problem is getting caught before the animals’ story can be told.

But the police cars quickly depart. Our communications in the field that night are brief, and I make the call for us to go home shortly thereafter. We debate later whether the police knew that there were activists on site, or whether we had done anything to trigger attention. Our goal is always to leave no trace. But on prior nights, we had not been perfect. A head lamp left here. A barbed wire fence slightly bent there. We consider all the options, but don’t reach a conclusion. Like so much about the messy world of open rescue, that question will remain unanswered.

But the key thing is that no one saw us. That gives me confidence that we can bring journalists along. And we do.

The day of investigation comes. The three journalists, two camera people and a reporter, take a separate car to the facility. They document everything we do, from briefing to drop-off. I’ve told them about the prior near-miss with the police. And we are all on edge. In the back of my mind, I’m wondering if I’ll end up with the infamous reputation of sending three Times journalists to a North Carolina jail.

Our lookouts are placed. We do a last check of our gear, which has all been sanitized and wiped to reduce any biosecurity risk. And then we enter.

One of the first pens we see has a grisly site: a piglet who is almost completely missing the skin on her backside. The condition, which is thought to be caused by inbreeding, is called epitheliogenesis imperfecta, and it is one of the many ways for a pig to die before reaching slaughter. If it happened to a dog or cat, a simple skin graft could fix the problem. But in a factory farm, a baby suffering from such a gruesome condition will waste away, before dying of bacterial invasion or sepsis, a condition where the body’s blood destroys its own tissues in an attempt to fight off infection.

“This is too gruesome for the Times to even publish,” I say to our team.

Our focus is something more mundane-looking, but just as deadly: skin infections. Various forms of staph, including the strangely-named greasy pig disease, are endemic in factory farms. Thousands of animals, in filthy conditions, are packed so tightly that they inevitably claw, trample, or nip at one another. The small wounds create infections of various sorts, including the disturbing shoulder sores that are seen in many of the sows. But it all starts here, in the nursery, where piglets, separated from their mothers at an unnaturally young age, are getting crusty infections all over their body and face.

There are, frankly, too many infected piglets to count. But we focus our cameras on a specific piglet with an infection that is so serious that it has literally grown off her face. The brown, slimy growth looks like something between a rhino’s horn, and projectile vomit frozen in time and place. The victim of this condition is unusually small, perhaps half the size of the other piglets, because of the toll the infection is taking on her tiny body, heart, and lungs. She moves haphazardly, almost like a drunk person. And she has a raspy cough that suggests respiratory disease.

“She’s not going to make it,” I say to our team.

“What do we do?” a team member replies.

If the various infections don’t kill her, the company will. A sick piglet is not worth the investment of food and space. So if a worker happens to see her, she will most likely have her skull crushed against concrete, as she cries out in terror. This practice, which is called thumping, is an industry and veterinarian approved practice that would be criminal if inflicted on a puppy or kitten. Indeed, it would be criminal if an ordinary person inflicted it on even a pig. But there is an exception to the animal cruelty laws, baked into the laws of North Carolina.

Facial infections were so severe that, in some cases, the piglets could no longer open their eyes.

Criminal violence becomes acceptable, so long as it’s being done by a large corporation for profit.

As team lead, it’s up to me to decide what we do with this baby pig. The calculus is a difficult one, even if it’s one that I’ve taken many times before. What are the chances this pig will survive, if she is removed? The last thing we want is to worsen her suffering, by taking her into the North Carolina cold in her last days or hours of life.  What will the consequences for my team be, for trying to save her life? We cannot expect leniency from the authorities in a state where Smithfield has such deep financial ties.

But the people of North Carolina have been as devastated by Smithfield as the animals. Perhaps removing this piglet is worth the considerable legal risk. Perhaps the people of this state will understand.

What convinces me, ultimately, is the look in this little piglet’s eyes. She does not walk well; her vision is partially blocked by a horrifying infection; and her little lungs are giving out. But there is a willfulness to her movements, and in her eyes, that suggests she’s not ready to give up. She doesn’t want to die. And she’s ready to fight.

“Let’s take her.”

Arwen is the activist designated as animal caretaker. In her day job, Arwen works at a school with young children. She later recalls to me, in explaining her motivations for risking so much to rescue animals, that she once had a child suffering from a rare form of cancer. The child was dying, and her parents and teachers could do nothing for her. The heartbreak of caring for a child with no future, and the powerlessness of confronting cancer, a monster that  cannot be defeated, might have broken a weaker person. But it made Arwen strong. She vowed to do whatever it takes to find the power to help the next suffering child in her life. Now she was fulfilling that vow.

Arwen is covered up from head to toe, for her protection more than the piglet’s. And we wrap the piglet, who we eventually name Lauri, in multiple layers of blanket. She squirms and screams. Mother pigs, unlike dogs or cats, do not carry their young in the air, and the experience of being held in the air triggers terror in most baby pigs. At farm sanctuaries, in healthy and happy environments, I have never held a piglet in my arms who did not immediately and endlessly scream. That would not be conducive, of course, to an effective rescue mission, where our covert status is crucial to success.

But something strange happens with piglets rescued from factory farms. They will often squirm or squeal for a moment, perhaps wondering if this human means to hurt her. But once they are safely in our arms, wrapped in a blanket or nestled deep into someone’s coat, they stop fighting or screaming. It’s as if they know. We’re here to help.  

“Shh, little one,” I say to Lauri. Her life may depend on her silence.

And on this night, Lauri delivers.

Months later, the New York Times publishes one of the best articles written about open rescue. Unlike so much of the media coverage about factory farming, the article doesn’t shy away from the reality of what we saw on that night. The cover of the story is an image of Lauri, with her infected face in focus.

They were drenched in sweat and reeking of manure. One of them cradled a piglet. “It was hell in there,” said Jake, one of two videographers with the group who documented the night’s incursion, his voice jangled with adrenaline. The images they captured included scores of piglets that appeared to be sick, and shelves and refrigerators full of antibiotics, many of them human-grade.

The focus of the story is antibiotics. But the star is Lauri, the little piglet who lived. Even the hardened Times journalists, who have documented dictatorships and war zones, seem moved by this tiny animal’s struggle to survive. And the pictures tell the story of that fight. From the veterinarian who diagnosed her with serious pneumonia, to the beautiful farm sanctuary where Lauri recovered, and was given the one-in-a-billion chance to live out an ordinary life, readers of the story are given a brief glimpse into Lauri’s life. And across the world, thousands upon thousands of them respond.

The story has come at a cost. Many months after our visit with the times, another visit occurs, this time at the home of one of the women who openly participated in the investigation and rescue, Sierra Post. Sierra is at work when she gets a call from her father. The cops are here, he says, and so is a representative from Smithfield, who appears to be directing them. Shortly thereafter, an arrest warrant is issued for Arwen as well. The charges are felony conspiracy, breaking and entering, and theft; the potential prison sentence is 5 years.

When Sierra tells me this, I am stunned. It is highly unusual and inappropriate for a corporate executive to participate in the execution of a warrant or raid. The government, after all, works for the people, not for big business. But I quickly learn this is nothing new for Smithfield. Months before, in nearby Tar Heel, NC, armed police brutally assaulted nonviolent protesters at the largest slaughter plant in the world. The officers lied in court about what had happened, only to have all charges dropped after a journalist revealed footage showing that the protesters were the victims, not perpetrators, of brutality. It turns out that many of the key officers in arrest of protesters were working as private security for Smithfield. One was receiving six figures in income for the work. It’s a form of bribery we typically associate with tinpot dictatorships in the developing world.

Smithfield has so much power in North Carolina it doesn’t seem to care about the appearance of corruption. It wants to send a message: “We will punish you.” And it won’t let a little thing called Democracy get in the way.

Every movement struggles with fatigue. It’s hard to sustain a narrative and campaign. And the campaign against Smithfield in North Carolina, after an initial burst of excitement, is fading. Our grassroots support in North Carolina is not as strong as our home base of Berkeley, CA. And the media, initially fascinated by our story, has been taken over in 2020 by Trump and the coronavirus.

The case drags on for years, and though we win some initial victories, including the dismissal of the most serious felony charges, our defendants eventually grow tired. The legal Sword of Damocles dangles over their head, and the case seems to have been forgotten. Our lawyers, in turn, grow tired as well, and advise her that the time has come for the case to come to an end. When the prosecution offers a plea with no jail time, both defendants ultimately take the offer. It’s the right deal, and the right decision. In March 2021, the case has reached its end.

And yet part of me wishes for more. From Day 1, I have stated openly my own participation in the case. The guilt of having two members face charges, while I have escaped punishment, had weighed heavily on me. (I was behind the camera for the entire open rescue, so the prosecution declined to charge me, fearing it lacked concrete evidence of my participation.) So, in one regard, the deal comes as a relief; my two friends and team members are safe.

But I know there are other friends who are not: the mother pig we left behind; the piglet with the gruesome back who likely died a slow and painful death; and the millions of animals (human and non-human) who continue to suffer in Smithfield’s hands. Vindication for them will wait for another day.

That day is coming soon. Across the nation, dozens of activists await trial for the supposed crime of giving animals the relief they deserve. Many of these trials will unfold where our communities are strong, and media interest remains high. And, as with social movements over the last 200 years, these trials will provide a focal point for social change.

Our fight with Smithfield in North Carolina has reached its conclusion. But the fight to rescue animals across the nation, whatever it takes, is just beginning.