The room was kept dark on purpose, except for some scattered red bulbs. It was supposed to keep the chickens calm, but neither they nor I felt particularly comfortable. Hundreds of birds, destined for slaughter, were dumped out onto the conveyor belt before my coworkers and me. Workers raced to grab the birds from the belt and jam their legs into shackles speeding by at eye level. The quota was shackling twenty-four birds per minute, a speed completely divorced from humane or safe handling. Dirt, feathers, and particles of feces swirled through the air. My back hurt from picking up birds all day. My hands ached from holding thousands of bony legs between my knuckles.
I was there to share the plight of these chickens with the public, and I tried my best not to think about what the birds were going through. But it was impossible to ignore. I wondered if I should really be here at all, inside a North Carolina slaughterhouse, more than 2,000 miles away from home. Beneath my goggles, mask, and the cover of darkness, my face twisted up as a few tears fell down my cheeks.
That was in 2015, just before the state’s passage of what is known as an “ag-gag” bill, a law that would punish undercover investigators like myself who release evidence of animal mistreatment inside farms and slaughterhouses. After my first job as an investigator in a Mountaire Farms slaughterhouse in Lumber Bridge, NC, I understood why the industry wanted laws like that passed. The workers there treated chickens like they were objects. The line speeds forced workers to callously toss birds they thought had arrived dead to the ground into piles. Many of them were still alive and covered in corpses as the workers threw more birds onto the piles. When the lines slowed or stopped due to mechanical problems, some would rip feathers from live birds to throw at coworkers. Others would punch birds or even throw them like baseballs into the shackles. One worker pried open a chicken’s mouth and stuck a finger down the bird’s throat while we waited for the line to restart.
Looking back on those experiences now, I’m shocked at how naive I was when I first set out as an investigator. I wasn’t sure if I would even see anything worth showing to the public. By the end of my time in the field, I would be desperate to show people what I had documented.
My next job was at a pig processing plant in Minnesota that supplied Hormel, the makers of Spam. I remember passing a billboard for the Spam Museum on my way to work and wondering who would possibly want to visit. I also remember looking up while at work and on several occasions seeing a pig, hanging by his or her legs from a chain and trying to right him or herself, still conscious despite blood flowing from a freshly slit throat.
Pigs didn’t fare well before slaughter, either. While herding, workers would hit pigs with paddles and shock them in the face with electrical prods. Pigs who collapsed during herding or refused to move were roughly shoved out of the chutes or dragged out by their tails. They’d do anything to get the animals through the system as quickly as possible, as the plant was part of a pilot program that got rid of the 1,106 animal per hour slaughter line speed cap for pork producers. This program, which is past the pilot stage and just finished accepting the first round of opt-in requests from slaughter plants, would also replace some USDA inspectors with company employees, effectively allowing these corporations to police themselves.
Months after I left the facility, we were told by the Food Safety and Inspection Service that they were not taking disciplinary action against the workers or the plant. Yet they assured us that USDA inspectors would have corrected this behavior if they had been present. A frustrating result, but not unexpected in a world where cruelty toward farmed animals is rarely punished.
I saw similar disturbing incidents involving improper stunning and slaughter in the last facility I worked in. Again, I saw animals return to consciousness after being stunned and having their throats slit. This time, the incidents were much more frequent. I was employed at a slaughterhouse in California belonging to the largest producer of lamb meat in the U.S. I watched the workers cutting the throats of lambs, thinking I was just getting some gruesome context footage. It was only after our team started looking at the videos more closely that we discovered that even after being stunned and having their throats cut, about 90% of these animals were still alive later down the slaughter line, noticeably moving in response to another worker cutting off their tails. We even took our findings to a veterinarian for confirmation, who agreed that many of these animals appeared to still be sensitive to pain. Eventually, this facility entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice and had to change some of their practices, thanks to what I filmed there.
These companies keep their practices under wraps because they know that the public would be horrified if they knew the ugly truth. If “ag-gag” laws had been in place in those states when I had been undercover, I could have been put in prison or sued for what I documented. Our organization could have been mired in long, costly legal battles and we may have had to give up conducting undercover investigations altogether. Without these investigations, it would be impossible to expose what goes on day after day, week after week, year after year inside a factory farm or slaughterhouse. I couldn’t have shown people how birds are tortured, or how pigs and lambs are all too often still alive far down the slaughter line. The footage I’ve collected has been viewed millions of times, and if the mail we receive is any indication, it changed a few people’s minds on the ethics of eating meat. None of that may have happened if we had contended with “ag-gag” laws while I was in the field.
The repeal of several of these “ag-gag” laws in recent years is a promising sign that courts believe whistleblowers are protected under the First Amendment. The public seems to agree as well, with polls showing the majority of people opposing the passage of “ag-gag” bills in their states. Still, the industry continues to put its money and support behind lawmakers who introduce laws specifically designed to obscure the public’s view of grisly factory farming and slaughter practices. If conscious consumers withdraw their support by changing their diets, someday we may all be able to sleep soundly knowing that no one died for our dinner.