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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

To Answer Your Question, Gary...

To Answer Your Question, Gary...

By Jeff Melton


The day after Wayne Hsiung and Gary Francione debated on Bob Linden's Go Vegan Radio show (July 26th, 2015), Gary posed a question to DxE activists:

“A serious question for supporters of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE):

Wayne Hsiung acknowledged last night on Go Vegan Radio with Bob Linden that people don't have to be vegan to participate in DxE 'activism.'

So let me see if I have this right: a non-vegan can participate in a DxE action and go into Chipotle's and chant, 'It's not food, it's violence' to other non-vegans.

Can someone explain this to me? What's the difference between the DxE non-vegan and the non-vegan Chipotle customer, other than the former is wearing a coordinated t-shirt with a DxE logo?”

Yes, Gary, although it is rare for non-vegans to participate in our protests, non-vegans are allowed to participate in our demonstrations, just as they are allowed to participate in most other protests regarding animal liberation issues. As I'm sure you are aware, having participated in animal liberation protests in the past, it is not as though the Vegan Police are standing at a gate checking people's V-cards! 

Should there be such vegan policing at our protests? The general consensus among DxE activists is that this would not be productive. Although not formally incorporated into our organizing principles, informally we follow an open model of organizing. That is, in all that we do, we default to inclusiveness—to supporting, encouraging, and welcoming other activists even if they are not yet fully on board with everything we believe and do. An example of this is that we allow people to join our protests if they are not yet vegan.

Yes, Gary, there is a huge difference between someone who has begun to take to heart such ideas as that harming animals is wrong and that animals are not ours to use sufficiently that they are willing to take a public stand in favor of these ideas and, often, have already expressed serious interest in going vegan, and someone who has not had that sort of epiphany— even if neither one is yet vegan. Research suggests that when people are put in situations that call attention to hypocrisy on their part—to a discrepancy between their professed beliefs and some of their actions—that they are very likely to act to eliminate that inconsistency. In this case, that would mean that, having publicly expressed a commitment to DxE's view that animals are neither our property nor our slaves, they are not likely to continue treating animals as if they were for much longer.

Scott, who joined our protest in Bloomington, Indiana a couple of months ago, is a great example of such a person. Scott was a student in my Introductory Psychology class last spring. In my “Intro. Psych.” classes, I show a video about attitudes toward animals and discuss animal liberation in the context of how attitudes toward animals are arbitrary and culturally shaped. Scott immediately seemed to “get it” and expressed an intention both to go vegan and to come to one of our DxE protests and see what it was like.

A couple of weeks later, at our May Day of Action, we protested at Chipotle and at Chik Fil A. Scott came to our pre-protest meeting, and told us that although he still intended to go vegan, he was not there yet, and said that if we didn't think it was appropriate for him to participate, he would understand. We told him that, although as he knew— and we would keep reminding him— he needed to go vegan in order to live consistently with his newfound value that animals should not be treated as our property, we were fine with him participating, and so he did.

Not only did he participate, but he also spoke at Chik Fil A. I have no doubt that he will stick with his commitments to be vegan and continue being a voice for animal liberation. Other core activists in DxE have reported similar stories of non-vegans joining their protests and becoming vegan soon thereafter. There have even been cases of spectators at our protests joining us, and often also expressing an intention to go vegan, on the spot. There have been other cases where non-vegans who have joined our protests have gone on to become not only vegan, but core organizers.

Now that I've answered your question, I have a couple of questions for you, Gary. First, how can you continue to claim that Wayne Hsiung or DxE are “hostile to veganism” after it has been made so abundantly clear to you by Wayne and others in DxE that this is not the case? In his debate with you, Wayne said, “I just want to emphasize...that DxE, and I, believe in veganism. We believe in veganism fully, our house is a vegan house, and at many of our demonstrations we talk about veganism extensively.” Later, he followed that up by saying that “Every single one of our core organizers is vegan, it is a requirement to be a core member of DxE we make it absolutely clear that we believe in total animal liberation, which includes but is not exhaustive of the idea that animals should not be ours to use,” and that “All of us [in DxE] agree that veganism is a necessary condition to achieving animal liberation.” In a blog post the following day, Wayne also pointed out that he and many other core DxE organizers (myself included) refuse to even eat with others who are consuming animal products.

We often talk to people about going vegan at our protests, as Rama Ganesan does in this video, in which she successfully convinces a vegetarian to go vegan. We also do literature tabling and many other forms of vegan/animal liberation education aside from our protests, such as my weekly Farmer's Market table. Some of us even sing about going vegan. It's true that often, we don't tell people to “go vegan” at protests—just as you didn't in an interview with CNN a few months ago. When we chatted back in May on Bob Linden's show, we agreed that in the brief time you had you got the point across that animals should not be our property and that no use of animals was necessary, which is indisputably a message implicitly advocating veganism. Similarly, at every single one of our protests, we get that same point across, whether or not we use any v-words, with chants and speeches that make clear that animals are not ours to use, such as “Their bodies, not ours; their milk, not ours; their eggs, not ours; their lives, not ours.”

The second question I had for you is: What is the basis of your claim that Wayne and DxE are “new welfarist,” that we support animal welfare reform campaigns and organizations such as PETA, Mercy For Animals, Compassion Over Killing, or Farm Sanctuary who engage in them? What welfare reform campaigns do you think we support, Gary? You have never named any of them. Wayne explicitly rejected the new welfarist point of view when he was on Bob's show with you: “...the reality is that we are not working with Peter Singer, we are not working with Bruce Friedrich, we are challenging them. I agree completely that welfarism makes people complacent, that there is no evidence that it leads to real improvements for animals in the short or long term...But the difference between you and me, Gary, is I challenge people publicly but I also am willing to engage in dialogue because I think these people can change.”

There is a huge difference between being willing to engage in dialogue with Bruce Friedrich, Ingrid Newkirk, and other leaders of the large animal advocacy organizations and agreeing with or adopting their approach, or being uncritical of them and their organizations. Wayne, I, and many other DxE activists have been publicly critical of the approaches and tactics of these organizations. More broadly, in all of our activism, we make clear that we do not support welfarist tactics but, rather, directly advocate an end to all animal exploitation and killing. That is made abundantly clear in numerous blog posts as well as on our Frequently Asked Questions page.

We have made many detailed critiques of the inadequacies of a new welfarist approach, such as those here, here, and here. Common chants at DxE protests include “Someone, not something!”; “Their eggs, not ours! Their milk, not ours! Their bodies, not ours! Their lives, not ours!”; “Humane killing is a lie; animals do not want to die!”; and, of course, “It's not food, it's violence!” (the “it” being the animal products served in the establishments we protest). Indeed, the entire basis of our “It's Not Food, It's Violence” campaign, and the reason why it has targeted Chipotle and Whole Foods more than any other establishments, is our belief that there is no such thing as humane animal agriculture. Our objective is not to focus on alleviating "animal cruelty" or asking for "more humane" methods of exploitation, but to demand an end to animal exploitation and killing altogether. The objective of building an animal rights movement powerful enough to bring down the system of animal slavery mandates that all of us willing to make that unequivocal demand collaborate with each other. It is not served by attacking and misrepresenting those who are doing the same.

"An Opiate to the Conscience": Welfarism as a Step to Animal Liberation?

"An opiate to the conscience": welfarism as a step to animal liberation?

By Brian Burns

The American Colonization Society said that its moderate message, which sought to bring slaveowners and abolitionists closer together, would  eventually  lead to the end of legal slavery in the US. Why do modern historians say the opposite?

The American Colonization Society said that its moderate message, which sought to bring slaveowners and abolitionists closer together, would eventually lead to the end of legal slavery in the US. Why do modern historians say the opposite?

Advocates of welfarism often claim that while the “humane” use and murder of animals is not the end goal, advocating for welfare reforms while not challenging the notion of animals as property will make the public more sympathetic to animal rights, and thus move us towards animal liberation. Whole Foods CEO and self-professed “ethical vegan” John Mackey, for example, unapologetically frames Whole Foods as a groundbreaking progress-maker for both animals and public consciousness in response to an open letter by James McWilliams calling for the company to stop selling meat.

Is this correct? Is there historical evidence showing that a moderate message which appeals to those in the “middle of the aisle” will eventually push them closer to one end? To examine this question, I discussed trends in the antislavery movement in the US from the mid-1810s through the 1830s as part of a DxE open meeting on welfarism . Most of the information presented was gathered from Paul Goodman’s book, Of One Blood.

“An Opiate to the Conscience” - The American Colonization Society of the Early 1800s

From the early 1800s, the antislavery movement in the United States was dominated by a large, government-backed group called the American Colonization Society (ACS). As Paul Goodman writes, “The most important function of the ACS was to ensure sectional harmony by offering a platform sufficiently broad and vague on which both slaveholders and nonslaveholders, professed abolitionists and anti-abolitionists, North and South, could stand” (Goodman, 18). Despite its stated purpose - to improve the welfare of slaves in the South and convince their masters to free them to an ACS-created colony in West Africa, “the ACS renounced any intention of interfering with slavery in the United States. (Goodman, 16).” In fact, the society was extremely hostile towards those agitating against slaveowners: “It insisted that any agitation that placed masters under moral scrutiny or political pressure or questioned their Christian benevolence would chill the inclination to manumit … Nor must one ever speak too harshly of slavery itself, the suffering of the victims and the cruelty of the master, lest slavery become a moral issue for public discussion” (Goodman, 18-19). 

The American Colonization Society, far from pushing the public towards abolitionism, reduced both Southern and Northern tension surrounding the issue of slavery. From our talk on the psychology of welfarism, we know that discomfort and cognitive dissonance are essential to motivate people to change their deep-set beliefs - and the ACS was extremely efficient at reducing both of them. Goodman writes, “In the North, apathy and indifference toward slavery were the toughest barriers… For most, until abolitionist agitation pricked their consciences, [slavery] was a distant abstraction” (Goodman, 124). Despite the organization’s widespread popularity both in the South and North and consensus at the time that it was pushing towards abolition, the resolution of tension and feel-good consciousness created by the society were, according to Fogel and many others, some of the “toughest barriers” towards the end of legal human slavery in the US. 

The Importance of Agitation

By “abolitionist agitation,” Goodman refers to the explosion of grassroots antislavery activism in the 1830s. Sparked by activists who felt silenced by the ACS (many of whom were former members of the society), independent chapters of self-styled “immediatists” began to pop up around the country, learning from each other via long letters and word of mouth. The action taken by these activists was radical and dangerous: William Lloyd Garrison’s public burning of the US constitution, which he called a “covenant with death”, almost left him dead after a lynch mob attempted to murder him (ironically he was saved by the police, who seized him and threw him in jail for his protest). Goodman writes that “Abolitionism grew, by contrast [to the ACS], in the teeth of elite hostility, intense popular prejudice, and physical violence, and it required an exceptional organizational and ideological commitment.” 

Despite these obstacles, however, the radical abolitionist movement was extremely successful, growing from four to 1348 independent chapters in just six years - a 34,000% increase in activism (Goodman, 124). This exceptional growth coupled with a strong message and provocative activism had extreme influence on public dialogue and political action on slavery, pushing public tension to ultimately to the brink of the Civil War. And as the antislavery societies rose across the US, the ACS was put on the defense, eventually discredited as a racist organization opposing rather than acting for progress.

What Can We Learn? 

Despite its profound power, agitation can be extraordinarily difficult as social animals. The nice, middle-of-the-road approach is often much more appealing, and often may seem to be the more effective way to enact change, since it does not elicit backlash. No surprise then, that companies such as Whole Foods have capitalized on its appeal to consumers by offering the same products of violence - meat, dairy, and eggs - sold in a more “compassionate” way. 

Unfortunately, the appeal of “moderatism” is precisely the reason behind its failure; in order to motivate people to reconsider their deep-set beliefs, one has to make them uncomfortable by presenting very different alternatives, and disrupting routine to force attention to these alternatives. Sometimes, seeking to reform the periphery of the system without attacking its root is the best way to ensure it survives and thrives. Such was the case in the American antislavery movement in the early 1800s, and such may be the case in the animal rights movement today.

Our Enemies are Clever

Our Enemies are Clever

We CANNOT let animal killers divert our attention away from their violence.

Humanewashers like Chipotle are trying to manipulate the public into believing that killing someone who doesn't want to die is not only perfectly acceptable, but that if you're nice enough to that innocent individual first* then that greedy violence is a good, positive thing.

That insistence that speciesist violence is not only acceptable but a positive thing is moving our culture deeper into speciesism and complacency with violence, and further away from liberationism.

Which is why perpetuating the humane myth (and focusing on welfare, while ignoring the violence of the murder that life ends in, however nicely the animal was treated beforehand) is a threat to the liberation movement.

I'll also insist here that distracting liberationists from violence with plant-based options is a threat to the liberation movement. Being vegan-friendly =/= being animal-friendly, let's not confuse the two, nor let the former distract us from a failure of the latter.

I mean look, Chipotle even has us "animal RIGHTS activists" talking about plant-based food options for human consumers, instead of talking about the animals' rights, which are being violated beyond my human-privileged ability to even begin to comprehend in the slaughterhouses beside those tofu burritos and cute cartoons, RIGHT NOW.

That is why we have to target humanewashers. Utilizing the humane myth and offering plant-based options are a concerted effort by clever advertisers aiming to appease and distract the public so that no one challenges the company's speciesist violence. If Chipotle were genuinely moving our culture towards liberation, they would be challenging speciesism, and they would be saying that violence against innocent defenceless animals is wrong. But they're doing just the opposite, they're staying silent on speciesism (letting it perpetuate itself in its invisibility) and they're insisting that violence against innocent defenceless animals is a GOOD thing. What Chipotle is doing is not "a step in the right direction," it's a pull AWAY from liberationism, intended to keep people from realizing that the violence they engage in is wrong.

No compromise with slavery. No union with slaveholders. Especially the ones who are manipulating the public into believing that slavery and violence are positive things.


*To make matters even worse, this ideology of raising the exploited animals in pastures instead of factories is not one that Chipotle lives up to, but is merely a marketing ploy taking advantage of the lack of regulation in such advertising. Chipotle sources from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

Challenging Our Own Status Quo

Challenging Our Own Status Quo

Speciesism is the underlying disease of which all human exploitation of nonhumans is a symptom. If our goal as liberationists is to dissolve speciesism, to bring about a robust cultural change that will ensure lasting change for the animals, then the perspective of the "animal rights" movement and its advocates needs to shift:

Right now the dominant perspective, goal and message is about limiting the number of future animals brought into the world. ("Go vegan" and "this company kills animals but we'll ignore that and praise it for the plant-based option they offer on the chance that someone who is not yet ethically aligned with the idea that violence against animals is wrong might purchase it instead of a violent option, thereby slightly reducing the demand for more future violence."*)

We need to shift that to a focus on how the rights of the trapped animals who are suffering and crying and being forced onto a kill floor at this very moment are being violated. The goal here is to get people to realize that the violence is wrong and that these animals are in a state of emergency and need to be fought for. These stakes are much higher, which makes this framing much more compelling. Not only will the currently popular goal of reducing the demand for exploited animals be achieved through this pushing of anti-speciesist, anti-violent ideology anyways, but this is how we will actively combat the disease of speciesism, instead of just pumping drugs into the system to relieve a few symptoms.

*Just to be brutally redundant with this: No one who has decided to stop eating animals and products of their exploitation is going to buy a burrito with someone's flesh in it, and no one is going to decide to stop eating animals because they ate a single plant-based burrito. People don't need convenient access to nonviolent food options, they need motivation to not by violence-based products. What they need (and what the animals need from them, in the interest of a cultural shift in how humans perceive nonhumans) is to become ethically aligned with anti-speciesism. And even if one's goal is "more individual humans eating plants instead of animal products" then making anti-speciesists out of them is their most compelling reason to do that.