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Face-to-Face with a Pig Killer

Face-to-Face with a Pig Killer

By Michael Goldberg


Following Perdue’s purchase of Niman Ranch, and McDonald’s move to “cage-free,” it’s time for us to ask: what does “humane” actually mean?

With his thinning white hair and black Polo-style short-sleeved shirt with a Niman Ranch “Raised With Care” logo over his heart, Paul Willis looks like a kindly grandfather. This soft-spoken man certainly isn’t my idea of a pig killer.

But that’s exactly what he is.

Willis, a high-profile spokesman for the “humane meat” movement, co-founded and manages the Niman Ranch Pork Company, a division of Niman Ranch.

This week it was announced that Perdue Farms, the third biggest U.S. factory farm company raising chickens, has purchased Niman Ranch.

In addition to running the Niman Ranch Pork Company, in years past Willis has raised between 2500-to-3000 pigs a year on his Willis Free Range Pig Farm in Thornton, Iowa, two hours north of Des Moines. He still raises 100s of pigs each year.

At about six months of age, Willis’s pigs are driven to the Sioux-Preme Packing Company, a slaughterhouse in Sioux Center, Iowa, where they are gassed and their throats slit.

Willis is responsible for the deaths of far more pigs than the ones he raises on his own farm.The Niman Ranch Pork Company is a network of over 500 farms that provide a total of over 150,000 pigs each year, who are slaughtered and sold under the Niman Ranch brand. The company’s reputation is based on raising pigs in what is alleged to be a humane way, and its operation is considered the gold standard for compassionate animal agriculture. Companies whose success is based on their “compassion” and “values,” including Chipotle Mexican Grill and Whole Foods, are supplied by Niman Ranch.

False advertising. About seventy-five percent of Niman pigs are raised indoors, according to a Niman spokesman, and yet this is the photo that appears on their website.

False advertising. About seventy-five percent of Niman pigs are raised indoors, according to a Niman spokesman, and yet this is the photo that appears on their website.

Willis, who refers to the dead body parts of pigs that Niman sells as “product,” told the New York Times in early 2014 that Niman oversees the raising and killing of about half of the pigs in America that are considered pasture-raised, or “humanely” raised, though most of those pigs are actually raised indoors.

Though in his early seventies, Willis has become the poster boy for Niman Ranch, the human face of a system that doesn’t value the lives of nonhuman animals. He’s the subject of an eight-minute video created and funded by Chipotle, one of Niman’s biggest customers.

The video tells a folksy story about Willis growing up on the farm in Thornton, and shows him wearing denim overalls, petting pigs who are hanging out in a large pasture, and letting his granddaughter’s chickens out of a barn. Willis has been favorably written up in numerous publications, including Fast Company, and has been quoted in both the New York Times and the New Yorker.

In the video, Willis speaks of himself as an “activist” fighting the good fight against factory farming. It’s a good story, and it’s helped assuage the guilt of upscale meat eaters who think they have a humane alternative to the violence that goes on at factory farms.

We do the best we can with raising the animals as humanely as we can,” Willis said while hanging out at a Berkeley, CA butcher shop, Magnani's Poultry, one afternoon in early June. Willis was there to promote Niman Ranch “product,” and the event was billed as “Demo and Q&A.”

I was there with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). We wanted to question Willis about Niman farming protocol, which is, in fact, anything but humane. But even if they did raise the pigs with care, there is nothing humane about killing an animal that wants to live. There were about 30 of us, and at least a half-dozen DxE members fired off questions at Willis for about 15 minutes before he abruptly ended the conversation.

DxE fights for animal liberation and against speciesism, which is similar to racism and sexism. Only where racism and sexism describe privileged humans discrimination against humans of color or the female sex, speciesism describes humans discriminating against other species.

Just as there is no moral justification for racism or sexism, there is no moral justification for speciesism. There is no moral justification for humans to exploit and torture and kill animals because they “like the taste of meat,” as more than one carnist has said. Yet that’s what humans do. More than nine billion land animals are killed each year in the U.S. alone for food. It’s mass murder on an unimaginable scale.

“I’ve always raised outdoor pigs, pasture pigs. Ok?” Willis continued. “Factory farming started coming in on us big time [in the early ’90s]. I wanted no part of that.”

Willis’s words are misleading. While he may actually raise his own pigs outdoors when the weather allows, most Niman pigs live their entire short six-month lives inside warehouse-style buildings with as little as 14 square feet allotted per pig – equivalent to the footprint of a small desk and approximately the size of a gestation crate, which are now illegal in California.

David Marin of Tendergrass Farms wrote in a June 11, 2013 post on the “Mark’s Daily Apple” blog that he considered raising pigs for Niman before founding Tendergrass. He changed his mind when he learned from a Niman “field representative” that “only a small percentage of Niman Ranch pigs are actually raised on pasture. In the whole east coast region he [the Niman rep] said that there are virtually no pasture-based Niman producers.

Paul Willis on his farm in Thornton, Iowa.

Paul Willis on his farm in Thornton, Iowa.

“In preparation for this blog post,” Marin continued, “I sent him [the Niman rep] an email this week to make sure that this was still true. He confirmed just yesterday that by his estimate well over 75% of Niman Ranch pig farms utilize warehouse-style buildings with straw for bedding, referred to [on the Niman website] as ‘deeply bedded barns.’”

Willis talks quietly and calmly. While conversing with him he never raised his voice, though when challenged about the morality of killing pigs and calling it humane meat, he seemed to become agitated. At one point in the Q&A he skirted the issue of whether there is a difference between a plant and an animal.

Me: You’re saying a carrot is no different than a pig?

Willis: It’s a living thing.

Me: Mr. Willis, you don’t really believe there’s no difference between a carrot and a pig, do you?

Willis: What I believe is we eat living things. Whether it’s a plant or an animal. Some people prefer to eat just plant material, some people have a more varied diet and they eat animals and plants.

F: You’re not equating an animal life to a plant life?

Willis: I’m just saying people eat different things.

Thanks to numerous undercover investigations of factory farms and slaughter houses by PETA, Mercy For Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and others, films such as “Food, Inc.” and “Speciesism” and books like John Robbin’s “Diet For A New America,” many people have learned about the cruelty that goes on at the factory farms where most land animals are raised for food. A 2015 Gallup Poll showed the vast majority of Americans believe that the welfare of farmed animals deserves considerable protection, with almost a third claiming animals warrant as much protection as humans.

However, the public doesn’t yet know of the cruelty inherent in raising animals at so-called ‘humane’ farms, and there is an upscale market for ‘humane meat’ sold by companies such as Niman Ranch.

This is why DxE investigated a humane-certified farm last year that supplies Whole Foods with eggs. That investigation, the first of its kind, produced a video documenting horrendous conditions at Petaluma Farms in Northern California. DxE has mounted on-going campaigns, protesting at Chipotle restaurants and Whole Foods grocery stores – companies whose success is based on perpetuating the humane lie.

A fourth generation farmer, Willis grew up on the Thornton farm. For Willis, raising animals for food has always been what psychologist and author Melanie Joy calls “normal, natural and necessary.” Those are the “Three Ns” of Carnism, “the invisible belief system, or ideology,” Joy writes, “that conditions people to eat certain animals.” Most Americans are carnists, and have chosen this ideology without even realizing that they have made a choice.

After conversing with Willis at the butcher shop, my sense was that he knows there’s something wrong with killing pigs. He told us “my contention is, if people raised dogs the way factory farm animals are raised, there would be an outrage.”

There would also be an outrage if dogs were raised the way pigs are raised at Niman-approved farms. More importantly, there should be an outrage over the fact that they’re killed, given that pigs, like dogs, are sentient beings.

DxE’s Brian Burns confronts Willis in butcher shop.

DxE’s Brian Burns confronts Willis in butcher shop.

DxE’s Brian Burns, who was standing in front of the butcher shop display window, behind which lay numerous cuts of dead meat, confronted Willis: “How about a Niman Ranch dog farm? You’d make a lot of money…”

Willis turned to face Burns. “Are you advocating this?”

“What I’m saying is you’re advocating this,” Burns said.

“No, I’m not advocating this at all,” Willis said.

“What if we were to take baby dogs, [make them live in] five square feet of space for their whole lives [it ranges from five square feet to 14 square feet depending on the weight of the pig], castrate them two weeks after they are born as you do [with pigs], shove metal rings in their noses…,” Burns said. “Just as you do with pigs [sows], and at the end of six months, even though dogs can live 15 years, just like pigs, why not kill them? You can make a lot of money. And I see no difference between what you’re doing [with the pigs you raise] and the idea I’m proposing right now.”

Losing his cool briefly, Willis said, “Well, I’m not doing this. I’m not interested in doing this. I don’t advocate this. You’re comparing one species with another.”

There it was: speciesism, alive and well at Magnani's Poultry, coming out of Niman Ranch poster boy Paul Willis’s mouth.

Paul Willis served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria for three years after graduating with a BA in psychology from the University of Iowa in 1966. As Willis tells it, by the early Nineties, factory farming, with its economies of scale and cheap but grossly inhumane ways of raising pigs, was driving him and other smalltime Iowa farmers out of business. So he contacted Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman in 1994 and after Niman tasted Willis’s pig corpses, Niman wanted to do business with Willis. In 1998, Willis and Niman created the Niman Ranch Pork Company, a network of farms that raise pigs according to Niman’s ‘humane’ protocol.

The Niman Ranch Pork Company is half owned by Niman Ranch, and half owned by the farmers in the network. Niman supplies pieces of dead pigs, in Willis’s words, “product,” to upscale restaurants including Chez Panisse in Berkeley, grocery stores including Whole Foods, the Ritz Carlton hotel chain, Dodger Stadium, the Google campus, and Chipotle.

In July 2006, Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings, owner of the Sioux-Preme slaughterhouse, purchased a major stake in Niman Ranch, which was losing money at the time, and was nearly $3 million in debt; a new management team was put in place, according to San Francisco Business Times. The following year, 2007, Bill Niman left Niman Ranch after fighting with the new owners over changes in how Niman animals are treated.

Bill Niman and his family.

Bill Niman and his family.

“I left Niman Ranch because it fell into the hands of conventional meat and marketing guys, as opposed to ranching guys,” Bill Niman told Business Insider in 2014. “You can't really ferret out how [the cattle] are being raised [now].”

In 2009 Natural Food Holdings took over Niman Ranch. At the time Natural Food Holdings was a subsidiary of billion-plus dollar Hilco Global, one of the largest distressed investment and advisory companies in the world. Two years later, in late 2011, Hilco sold National Food Holdings to the private equity company, LNK Partners.

In early 2014, the Nebraska newspaper Kearney Hub reported that the Niman Ranch Pork Company “generates $200 million annually.”

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms since 1991, is the new owner of Niman Ranch.

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms since 1991, is the new owner of Niman Ranch.

In mid-August of this year, The Street reported that there were multiple companies interested in purchasing Natural Food Holdings, after Austin, Minnesota-based Hormel purchased Bridgewater, N.J.-based Applegate for $775 million, more than double that companies annual revenue of $340 million. This week (early September 2015), Perdue Farms purchased Natural Food Holdings, including Niman Ranch and the Sioux-Preme Packing Company, from LNK for an undisclosed price. Perdue Farms has $6 billion in annual revenue.

While Paul Willis is willingly used by Niman to portray its operation as a downhome family farm (along with the images on the Niman website and other marketing), Niman Ranch is now owned by one of the biggest factory farms in the country. Since Niman became part of Natural Food Holdings six years ago, it’s also been under the corporate umbrella of a company that makes money murdering as many 4000 pigs a day at its own slaughterhouse.

Pigs in a holding pen at Sioux-Preme Packing Co. who will soon be killed.

Pigs in a holding pen at Sioux-Preme Packing Co. who will soon be killed.

Perdue was accused in two lawsuits (one in 2010, the other in 2013) filed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) of false advertising. HSUS claimed that Perdue was using the phrase “humanely raised” on it’s Harvestland chicken packaging labels even though the chickens were from factory farms. "Perdue has simply slapped 'humanely raised' stickers on its factory farmed products, hoping consumers won't know the difference," an HSUS lawyer said in 2010. Last October HSUS agreed to drop the lawsuits and Perdue agreed to remove “humanely raised” from the labels, although they ”vigorously” denied HSUS’s claims. In December 2014 this video showing how Perdue Chickens are raised was released by Compassion in World Farming, an animal welfare organization.

At Perdue-contracted farms chickens are packed into dark sheds.

At Perdue-contracted farms chickens are packed into dark sheds.

This year, Niman Ranch client Whole Foods is spending $15 million to $20 million on its “Values Matter” campaign in which they bizarrely proclaim: “PICK A CHICKEN, COOK A CHICKEN, KNOW YOUR CHICKEN,” and “CHOOSE A FISH, COOK A FISH, SAVE A FISH.”  In June of this year, PETA filed a false advertisement complaint against Whole Foods for claiming to be selling “humane meat,” and wrapping the meat it sells in paper printed with the slogan, “Thanks for Caring about Animals.” Chipotle Mexican Grill has had great success with its own “humane meat” campaign, in which it has marketed itself as “Pro-Chicken” and said that the animals it murders and sells were “raised with care.”

During the past year groups of DxE activists, sometimes numbering over 100 people, have entered Whole Foods stores around the country (and in Europe too), lining up in the meat department, speaking out against the “humane lie,” and chanting “It’s not food, it’s violence!” DxE has also mounted a national campaign against Chipotle.

DxE speak out at Magnani's Poultry in Berkeley, CA.

DxE speak out at Magnani's Poultry in Berkeley, CA.

Along with DxE, other animal rights activists including writer James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University who contributes to the New York Times Op/Ed page, don’t believe there is such a thing as “humane meat.”

Examples of why the pigs that become Niman’s “humane meat” aren’t humanely raised:

Niman pigs are castrated within two weeks of birth with no anesthesia, a painful procedure. In European countries including Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Germany anesthesia or pain killers are now used when the pigs are castrated, and a handful of countries have voluntarily agreed to end all surgical castration of pigs by 2018, according to Compassion in World Farming, an animal welfare organization.

As previously mentioned, about 75% of Niman pigs live their cut-short lives indoors with about as much room as the footprint of a small desk.

Although a pig can live as long as 20 years, Niman pigs are killed at six months.

Niman protocol allows for nose rings to be inserted through the septums of sows’ noses without anesthesia. This is excruciating for the pigs and numerous animal welfare groups oppose it. The nose rings are both physically and psychologically distressing. Nose rings prevent pigs from doing one of their favorite things: rooting around in the dirt.

On the Willis Free Range Pig Farm in Thornton, Iowa, Willis himself has maintained 200-to-300 nose-ringed sows, according to a 2008 report from Compassion In World Farming.

In his 2015 book, “The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision To Eat Animals,” James McWilliams wrote that there now exists “academic research showing nose ringing to be a serious welfare violation,” and, he continued, “…there’s no doubt about the impact of nose rings on pigs: it causes them pain every time they put their snout to the ground.” He quotes the RSPCA: “As well as pain when the ring is inserted … this practice leads to chronic pain.”

In fact, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), which McWilliams calls a “comparatively rigorous welfare label," prohibits nose ringing. Niman Ranch is no longer certified by AWA. Instead, it is certified by Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a questionable industry organization whose board includes Willis and Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey, and whose funding is mostly provided by Whole Foods.

GAP has a “5-Step Program.” Farms must meet the minimum “step one” standards to be certified. During an interview on Katy Keiffer’s “What Doesn’t Kill You’ internet radio show in mid-2013, Willis admitted that Niman farms do not meet step four or five certification.  

“The very highest steps are non-castration and slaughter on the farm and things like that,” Willis told Keiffer. “Now for us that’s not going to happen, it’s not practical. Most of our farmers fall into steps one, two and three.”

And of course there is no way to humanely slaughter an animal. Niman pigs are trucked to the Sioux-Preme Packing Company – itself a harrowing experience for animals who, until then, have typically never been in a truck – where they are gassed in a process known as CO2 stunning, and then their throats are slit.

It takes as long as 45 seconds after the gas is released for the pigs to pass out. And during that time some pigs panic. Animal expert Temple Grandin has observed pigs that, on first contact with the gas, “reared up and violently attempted to escape.” Grandin has written that this is “not acceptable.”

Paul Willis during Q&A in butcher shop with DxE activists.

Paul Willis during Q&A in butcher shop with DxE activists.

In the butcher shop, I said as much to Willis and he responded, “Well if you have better ideas about the slaughter process and everything, please let me know.”

A DxE activist said to Willis,  “There’s no way to kindly, compassionately, exploit anybody, confine anybody, put metal rings through their noses…”

“I encourage you to pursue your options, whatever they might be,” Willis said.

“It’s not about our options,” she said. “It’s about their lives. These animals have the right to live their lives.”

“What we’re trying to do is do right by the animals that are raised for food,” Willis said.

“There is no correct moral ethical kind way to confine, exploit and murder somebody,” she said. “You’re claiming you can do something you despise about factory farms in a way that’s kind and compassionate. Can you do the wrong thing in a nice way?”

“Ummm,” Willis said. “I guess I don’t know the answer to that question.”

“How can you not know the answer to that question?” she said. “Your entire marketing depends on you knowing the answer to that question.” 

To see full transcript click here


Michael Goldberg is a former Rolling Stone Senior Writer. He is an animal rights activist and a member of DxE. His first novel, True Love Scars, was published in 2014; his second, The Flowers Lied, will be published in October. His wife Leslie Goldberg, also a DxE member, blogs about animal rights at

Ethical Consistency: When "Vegan" Animal Advocacy Groups, and People, Advocate for Death

Ethical Consistency: When "Vegan" Animal Advocacy Groups, and People, Advocate for Death

By Saryta Rodriguez


Cecil's death, like any nonhuman death at the hands of a hunter, was a tragedy-- but we cannot allow violence to beget more violence. We must not adopt the ideology of the oppressor, no matter how angry we are.

Cecil's death, like any nonhuman death at the hands of a hunter, was a tragedy-- but we cannot allow violence to beget more violence. We must not adopt the ideology of the oppressor, no matter how angry we are.

You’ve probably heard about Cecil the Lion by now. While the death of any animal always makes me sad, if you know at least one vegan and spoke to that person any time this July, they probably informed you that we are touched by the suffering of nonhuman animals every day. We are shocked that many of the same people who mourn Cecil in the morning have a burger for lunch, or a steak or fried chicken for dinner. Animal abuse is not something that just pops up in the news every so often but something by which we are surrounded on a daily basis.

What you may not have heard is that various animal advocacy groups—and individual advocates—have been calling for the death of Cecil’s murderer, Walter Palmer. It always surprises and offends me when I see people commenting on articles like those about Cecil that the person(s) responsible should die a horrible death. I have been critical of Gary Yourofsky in the past for his comments concerning how women who wear fur should be raped. While this rhetoric would surprise and offend me independent of its source, it particularly offends me when employed by animal activists. Animal activists are supposed to be the ones who respect the lives of all sentient beings.  There is no “but” to the Vegan Ethos. Once you add a “but”—once you decide, “Everyone deserves to live until/unless/except…”—you open a very dangerous can of beans indeed.

This is why people think vegans are “crazy.” They think we care more about nonhumans than we do about humans. They don’t believe that we stand for nonviolence because whenever someone hurts an animal, we advocate for violence against that person!!!

For starters, let us all take a minute to remind ourselves that once upon a time, we engaged in animal cruelty, too. Unless you have the privilege of having been born to and raised by vegan parents, there was likely a time in your life when you enjoyed animal flesh and secretions without any guilt or shame whatsoever. Should someone have killed you?

Secondly, the argument that some people “deserve to die” is precisely why the death penalty is still legal in most of the US, and we all know how well THAT’S working out.

Lastly, this all reminds me of a conversation I’ve had many times over with various people, most recently about a week ago. “If you have a chance to kill X,” the hypothetical goes, “Would you?” X is usually someone notoriously heinous, like Hitler, George Bush or Trujillo. The idea here is to see how far my respect for life extends, and if there’s ever a set of characteristics a person can have which would prompt me to violate my anti-killing stance.

My answer to this question is, and always will be, No.

I can hear you gasping. “But what about the people they’ve killed?” you wonder. “What about the people they are going to kill once you let them go?”

Allow me to explain:

  • Institutional problems cannot be corrected by murdering individuals. It doesn’t matter whether the Dude at The Top is dead or alive—as long as that person’s ideas are alive, the violence perpetuated by them will be, well, perpetuated. So the better solution, not just from a moral standpoint of nonviolence but also from a practical standpoint of wanting to end so-and-so’s abuses, is to attack the ideas they are perpetuating and prevent those from spreading or taking root.
  • There’s always another figurehead waiting in the wings. Killing Hitler would not have left the Third Reich leaderless. Soon enough, someone else would have taken his place—someone who could have been less or even more violent and extreme than Hitler, if such a thing is even imaginable (I’m having a hard time picturing what “more violent than Hitler” would look like, myself).
  • The last thing you want to do for any negative or oppressive movement is provide it with a martyr. It’s not like killing someone immediately informs the rest of the world that what that one person was doing was wrong, or that that person’s beliefs were misguided and vicious. That person’s supporters will only grow more zealous, now seeking revenge for the martyr’s death in addition to seeking to kill, enslave or otherwise oppress whoever the martyr said should be treated this way. 

In short, my fellow liberationists, please stop talking about how this or that person should be killed, no matter what they’ve done. You’re just outing yourselves as not true animal liberationists and sewing confusion amongst non-vegans as to what animal liberation is all about. 

(And, please, for the love of all that is holy, ENOUGH with the “CatLivesMatter” nonsense. We already talked about that, didn’t we?)

Let this also serve as a reminder to us to speak strongly for ALL oppressed animals—not just those our culture already does not consider food, such as lions, and not just those who are killed by individuals (hunters) but also those scores of animals who are murdered daily by institutions. While I don’t believe Walter Palmer should be killed, I don’t think any negative attention he gets should be perceived as his being “victimized.” The real victim here is Cecil, just as when a meat-eater is criticized, even though they deserve to live, the real victim in question is not the meat-eater but the animal whose body they consume.

The Dark Side of "Happy Eggs"

Hen Harbor 's Pear Pear pictured below is sick and septic from eggs rotting inside of her. The Happy Hen Company wants you to believe that their "girls" are happily exploited on their farms. But we know this is not true. Because behind the humane marketing is the dark side of the egg industry.

Hen Harbor's Pear Pear pictured below is sick and septic from eggs rotting inside of her. The Happy Hen Company wants you to believe that their "girls" are happily exploited on their farms. But we know this is not true. Because behind the humane marketing is the dark side of the egg industry.

The Dark Side of “Happy Eggs”

by Priya Sawhney

Moments before Sia passed away in my hands, I watched Hen Harbor’s operator Ariana demonstrate the painful process of draining fluid from a sick hen’s abdomen. Sia was sick from the broken eggs rotting inside her abdomen. Despite our efforts, Sia’s fragile body gave out. Fluttering in panic, Sia let her small head fall over, and her delicate body fell lifeless into my hands.

Ariana took Sia and embraced her with tears running down her face. As she does with every sick animal at Hen Harbor, Ariana had already spent thousands of dollars and countless hours on Sia’s veterinary care hoping against the odds that she could escape the fate that takes the lives of nearly all hens bred to lay eggs.

Why did Sia have to die? Because of speciesism. Because of the idea that it is okay to exploit someone and turn her body into an egg-producing machine for profit. Because of the idea that just as long as these hens live on “happy farms” and live in “large open spaces,” that it is okay to subject them to lives of slavery and exploitation, despite the devastating effects on their little bodies.

This is exactly the idea that The Happy Egg Company is marketing to the world. On its website, the operators claim that “their girls” are free to roam outdoors and lead happy lives. It even launched a deceptively-titled Hendependence Campaign to tout its ideas about hen welfare. But it’s a lie we shouldn’t buy.

Earlier this year, DxE released our investigation of a “certified humane” Whole Foods facility -- where we found suffering, mutilation, disease, and misery. As one of the investigators of the farm, I can tell you that there was nothing humane about this farm. Despite all its labels and claims of being “humane,” all the birds in there were no different from Sia. They all wanted to live but instead knew nothing but lives of darkness, confinement -- and, ultimately, painful, early deaths.

The Happy Egg Company proudly talks its being an “American Humane Certified egg producer.” Which means…nothing. A recent investigation by Mercy for Animals showcases the fraud of the label by exposing an “American Humane Certified” slaughterhouse.

I visit Hen Harbor often. I look forward to seeing the faces of the happy hens who have escaped the horror faced by billions of animals raised for food production. Despite the sense of peace and calm at Hen Harbor, I know there is a dark side to the lifesaving work done there. Ariana wakes up in fear daily that she may have to bury someone’s body. Despite the fact that most of the sanctuary’s hens will eventually die like Sia, Ariana fights for their lives in the same way a mother would fight for her child. Despite financial struggles and the grim fact that there will always be sick hens, Ariana spends thousands of dollars and countless hours every month getting all of Hen Harbor’s residents the necessary veterinary care. Even today, Ariana is caring for Pear Pear, a sick hen who is septic from eggs rotting inside of her.

As animal rights activists, we have a duty to challenge the fraudulent and meaningless “humane” labels with a powerful message of Animal Liberation, with a powerful message that all animals have an equal right to be safe, happy, and free.

When Sia died, she didn’t care whether the farm she came from was certified “humane” or if she had been allowed access to the outdoors. All she wanted was to live a life free from harm -- including the terrible condition bred into her that took her life prematurely. The egg industry stole her life -- a fact that all the fraudulent “happy hen” marketing in the world cannot hide.

We cannot let profit-seeking companies like The Happy Egg Company co-opt our words. Words we use to demonstrate our love for animals are being used by such companies to lure people into buying violence. But we will stand this no more. By taking nonviolent direct action to demand the end of violence against animals, we will stop speciesism.

UPDATE: The Groundbreaking Case of Hercules and Leo

UPDATE: The Groundbreaking Case of Hercules and Leo

By Saryta Rodriguez


Earlier this year, I blogged about the Nonhuman Rights Project’s case against Stonybrook University on behalf of two captive chimpanzees named Hercules and Leo. While a decision has not yet been reached, here’s a brief update:

On May 27, 2015, for the first time in U.S. history, a case aiming to apply the writ of habeas corpus to nonhuman persons had its day in court. The hearing was held at the New York County Supreme Court in Manhattan, NY. Justice Jaffe countered the claim that there is no legal precedent for such a case (made by Assistant Attorney General Christopher Coulston) by declaring that the crux of common law is that it “evolves according to new discoveries and social mores.” In so doing, intentionally or otherwise, Jaffe highlighted the importance of consistently reexamining our legal system in light of our evolving morality— which, at a thrillingly accelerating rate, is evolving to encompass compassion and respect for nonhumans as well as humans in our society.

“Isn’t it incumbent on judiciaries to at least consider whether a class of beings may be granted a right?”
Justice Jaffe, May 27, 2015

In a surprisingly balanced report on Fox News following the proceedings, NhRP was quoted as demanding: “Chimps, although not human, should be designated persons, which would make their captivity illegal.”

Steven Wise asserts in court that Hercules and Leo are someones, not somethings, and, as such, they deserve legal protection from unjustified captivity.

Steven Wise asserts in court that Hercules and Leo are someones, not somethings, and, as such, they deserve legal protection from unjustified captivity.

Steven Wise said in court of chimpanzees, “They are the kinds of beings who can remember the past, plan ahead for the future…Which is one of the reasons why imprisoning a chimpanzee is at least as bad and maybe even worse than imprisoning a human being.” While the inclusion of “maybe even worse than” was perhaps unnecessary, the point being made is clear: chimpanzees are thinking, feeling beings who should not be detained and used as mere objects or tools.

The office of New York’s Attorney General, representing the university, desperately suggested that sending the chimpanzees to a sanctuary in Florida, NhRP’s intention, would simply be replacing one type of confinement for another. Anyone who has actually visited an animal sanctuary knows that this is patently false. While technically the chimps would still be in captivity—as they must be, because, regrettably, we humans have already robbed them of the ability to fend for themselves in the wild—they would enjoy both freedom to engage in their natural tendencies and socialize with others and safety from experimentation and other unnecessary human intrusion into their lives. This, and nothing less, is what chimpanzees—indeed, all animals—deserve.

Controversially, Wise likened the plight of the captive chimpanzees to that of enslaved African-Americans in U.S. history, reminding us all of the ongoing debates regarding the difference between a legitimate comparison and appropriation. I for one certainly hope that such a debate does not eclipse the matter at hand: the fate of Hercules and Leo.

The controversial comment reads: “We had a history of that for hundreds of years saying black people are not part of society and you can enslave them. That wasn’t right. It didn’t work.” When one considers this alongside Justice Jaffe’s statement about a “class of beings,” the comparison makes perfect sense. The idea here is not to compare individuals within different groups but to uphold the tradition of consistently challenging who in our society has rights, and who doesn’t.

Coulston reasoned, “The reality is these are fundamentally different species. They have no ability to partake in human society.” However, as NhRP and others have already stated, in response to NhRP’s past attempts to apply habeas corpus to nonhumans that were denied without a hearing on these and similar grounds, not all humans are able to “partake in human society” either. Not everyone can vote. Not everyone can have a job. And so forth. Still, we protect these humans. We do not enslave them based on their limited abilities.

I look forward to hearing these defenses employed on behalf of other nonhumans in the years to come. Much of the trial of Hercules and Leo has revealed scientific information about chimpanzees, emphasizing their intelligence. However, when personhood is finally granted to one nonhuman, inevitably animal liberation organizations such as NhRP will endeavor to apply the law to other nonhumans—including those who may be less intelligent than apes. This should not—cannot—serve as grounds for dismissal of these future cases.

This case, coupled with PETA’s recent decision to file suit against Whole Foods for false advertising, serves as proof that activism works—that when people speak loudly and confidently on behalf of those whose cries are so often ignored by society, change is not only possible, but also inevitable.

Jaffe is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

On Redefining Personhood

On Redefining Personhood

By Saryta Rodriguez


One week ago today, history was made. The legal definition of personhood was turned on its head, but, first, a bit of background:

For years, the NhRP has endeavored to redefine personhood. On April 20th of this year, the group scored a major victory for the Animal Liberation Movement.

For years, the NhRP has endeavored to redefine personhood. On April 20th of this year, the group scored a major victory for the Animal Liberation Movement.

For years, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) has endeavored to apply the writ of habeas corpus to chimpanzees. Their third attempt to do so occurred in April 2014. The New York Times reported that a chimp named Tommy, with the help of the Nonhuman Rights Project, was suing his captors for unsuitable living conditions, including solitary confinement.

Tommy was once a circus chimpanzee, whose caregiver recently passed away, leaving him under the care of the man referred to as “the repairman.” Wise met Tommy and the repairman at Circle L Trailer, the owner of which apparently also makes his living renting out reindeer during the holiday season for photos and such, including commercials for Macy’s and Mercedes-Benz. (No data concerning the fate of these poor souls was provided by the article.)

Steven Wise (NhRP President), Natalie Prosin (NhRP Executive Director) and Elizabeth Stein (New-York-based animal rights expert) filed their petition at the Fulton County Courthouse in Johnstown, NY. The petition described in detail Tommy’s miserable living conditions, such as his isolation and lack of space, and culminated in a series of nine affidavits from primatologists around the world asserting the cognitive sophistication of chimpanzees and the suffering Tommy was being forced to endure. In essence: “Chimps have feelings, JUST LIKE US!”

Unfortunately, on December 4, 2014, the Supreme Court declared that Tommy is not a “person” entitled to a common law writ of habeas corpus because he is “unable to bear duties or responsibilities.” Roughly two weeks later, the NhRP filed a motion seeking leave to appeal to New York’s highest court on the grounds that this decision contradicts previous decisions made by the Court of Appeals and that numerous cases bestow personhood on petitioners who are unable to bear duties or responsibilities. The motion was denied in January 2015.

…Thus went the third attempt.

I guess the fourth time’s the charm. On April 20, 2015, the NhRP announced that its fourth demand for a hearing under habeas corpus on behalf of nonhumans since the organization’s inception has met with success. For the first time, in May 2015, a hearing will be held on behalf of two chimpanzees—Hercules and Leo—who are being unlawfully detained at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

While Justice Jaffe, who issued the decision to hold the hearing on April 20th, downplays the significance of the habeas corpus statute and New York State court spokesman David Bookstaver maintains that “All this does is allow the parties to argue their case in court,” this unprecedented event will inevitably call into question the legal definition of personhood and, independent of the results of the hearing itself, I anticipate a domino effect in the months and years to follow.

NhRP is calling for the release of Hercules and Leo to a sanctuary in Florida, and the burden will rest on Stony Brook University to prove that there is just cause for further detaining these individuals.

I wrote here about my concerns regarding single-issue campaigns. There, Brian brought up the NhRP’s work as an example of single-issue campaigns that have potential for continued positive impact, a statement with which I agree. Unlike campaigns which fail to challenge the status quo—the foundational notion that animals are property—the NhRP’s work is challenging the very notion of what it means to be a person. This work forces us to consider animals as individuals, which can be challenging when talking about systemic violence against animals such as factory farming. While we at DxE believe in the importance of telling stories, it is ultimately impossible to tell the story of every individual animal currently being abused and exploited. Allowing them their day in court, however reluctantly courts might be doing so (one does get the sense that Jaffe and others are shying away from accepting responsibility for the major implications of this case on the Animal Liberation Movement, independent of the case’s outcome), gives at least some nonhuman animals a seat at the table.

Now we just have to multiply those seats. As usual, I’ll take a moment to remind us that our work is not over. For starters, it comes as no surprise to me that the first nonhuman animal to get a seat at the legal table is a chimpanzee. While chimpanzees such as Leo and Hercules are still exploited for scientific testing, held captive at zoos and victims of other violations, humans generally have an easier time identifying with them than with others.  They look like us, their intelligence is similar to ours and can be measured in similar ways, and they can even be taught to “speak our language” via sign language and computer use. Our next hurdle is to get those who are less like us a seat; otherwise, we risk reinforcing a false speciesist hierarchy, the Orwellian nightmare: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

There is also, as is all too often the case with human legislation, the matter of access. Hercules and Leo are lucky that someone found out about them and reported their plight. They are lucky that the NhRP is willing to fight for them, and has the resources to do so. One way in which all of us in the animal liberation community, even without law degrees, can contribute to the mission of giving nonhumans legal personhood is to keep abreast of situations like that of Hercules and Leo. Research as often as we can the plight of nonhumans near us, and report grievances to organizations such as the NhRP and the Animal Legal Defense Fund. (If you are able, these groups could also make great use of financial donations.)

We can all also contribute by taking part in campaigns that challenge the values of society at large. As DxE Bay Area organizer Chris Van Breen put it: “After all, judges are a part of society and are susceptible to social and political pressure…If we want laws to be enforced, we need to put social support behind them.” In short, one of the most valuable things we can do is what many of us are already doing. It is to put animal liberation on the public agenda—and keep it there.

The hearing will be held on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Check back here for an update!

Linking the Struggles for Liberation: LGBTQ and Animal Rights

Linking the Struggles for Liberation: LGBTQ and Animal Rights

By Hana Low


Open meeting about LGBTQ and AR intersectionality at DxE House. Photo by Jeff Vivero.

Open meeting about LGBTQ and AR intersectionality at DxE House. Photo by Jeff Vivero.

At a recent DxE open meeting, four LGBTQ-identified members of the DxE community, all of whom were people of color, came together to discuss their views on how nonhuman and human liberation struggles are connected. The presenters all recognized the importance of furthering the nonhuman animal liberation movement in a way that does not appropriate the struggles of other groups or otherwise perpetuate parallel forms of oppression. Following the set of presentations, attendees engaged in a thoughtful 45-minute Q&A session with the four panelists and later received updates and provided feedback about DxE’s latest campaign against humanewashing and consumer deception. Without further ado, please find summaries of and links to each of the four talks, which run about 10-15 minutes in length each.


“Respecting Gender Identity” - Pax Ahimsa Gethen