It was a hot summer afternoon, and I was waiting in the shade of a tree at a Nebraska rest stop when a livestock truck passed by going west on the highway. The metal trailer behind the yellow and black cab had only small holes in the sides, making it hard to see if there were any animals in the trailer. Other trucks had passed by, but from where we were watching all of them had seemed empty. I wasn’t expecting much from this truck either, but to my surprise, I thought I saw a flash of pink flesh inside one of the holes in the passing vehicle.
Doubting my own eyes, I rushed back to the car to ask if anyone had seen anything. Another investigator who had been sitting in the passenger seat said they hadn’t seen any indication of live animals. After a quick discussion, we decided to drive off after the truck and confirm for ourselves.
When we caught up to the truck and peered through the holes in the back of the metal trailer, we could see the pink flesh of pigs and maybe a quarter of the face of a pig. We decided to continue following the truck with the goal of documenting a little-known federal law being broken.
There are only two federal laws that address the treatment of farmed animals: the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the Twenty-Eight Hour Law. Animal Outlook’s undercover investigators regularly document what we believe to be violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. We’ve seen animals remain conscious after having their throats cut and animals survive multiple gunshots to the head. But as we drove down the highway, we were more concerned with the brutal conditions animals suffer when they are transported.
Although this law prohibits transporting animals for more than 28 consecutive hours without unloading them for at least five hours, gruelingly long trips with no opportunities for rest, food, or water are still a reality for farmed animals because the law is woefully under-enforced. Moreover, the law needs serious reform. The United States lags behind others such as the EU in protecting animals during transport.
In fact, the USDA only began applying the Twenty-Eight Hour Law to truck transport following an investigation we completed in 2005 in which our investigators interviewed truckers who admitted to transporting animals for longer than 28 hours without rest, food, or water. After that, the USDA conceded that the Twenty-Eight Hour Law did protect animals transported in trucks. But this was no guarantee that trucking companies would follow the law—or that the USDA would enforce it. So there we were, more than 15 years later, following a pig transport truck to see how long they would travel before letting the animals out.
After an hour and a half, the truck entered Wyoming and continued westward. Some time after 9 p.m., the truck exited the highway and pulled over across from a travel center. I half expected the truck to leave after a few minutes, but when a few hours had passed we became more confident that this was stopped for the night.
It was a long night for us. We slept in shifts so one of us could keep watch on the truck, but I struggled to sleep soundly. At one point, we heard the pigs, still crammed together in the back of the trailer, screaming.
The sun had been up for a couple of hours before the truck started up again and got on the same highway it had been driving down the previous day. We followed the truck as it passed into Utah about three hours later.
We stopped when the truck did, taking care to switch driving duties, refuel, stretch our legs, and pick up snacks and energy drinks. Things went mostly smoothly, but the Ports of Entry at state lines posed a unique threat to our investigation as only trucks were required to enter them. To stay with the truck, we had to pass by the ports and wait for the truck to reappear, keenly aware that time we had spent tracking the truck would have been for nothing if we missed it.
We passed the 28-hour mark while traveling through Nevada. By the time we broke contact with the truck, we were in California. About 32 hours had elapsed since we started following the truck back in Nebraska, and during that entire time, we never once saw the pigs being let out for rest, food, or water.
Though proper enforcement of the Twenty Eight Hour Law can help improve animal welfare, it still allows sentient beings to suffer in transport trucks for extended periods of time. As animals are hauled over long distances, they can fall victim to stress, heat stroke, freezing temperatures, and other issues that frequently result in death. As we drove through Nebraska at the start of our journey, temperatures were up to 91 degrees F in some areas. Extreme heat or cold can be disastrous for animals in the back of livestock trailers. It’s even more dangerous while trucks are stopped, as temperatures can spike by an average of 10 degrees F during that time.
The stress associated with transport also has a negative effect on the immune systems of animals, making them more susceptible to disease, and traveling over long distances can help those diseases spread across the country. Millions of animals succumb to the rigors of transport each year. Their bodies have been found dumped by the side of the road by drivers, and in some cases, thousands of animals were found frozen alive.
After returning home, I spent a few days catching up on sleep. When I felt well enough, I went out to one of my favorite restaurants for a vegan breakfast burrito, complete with delicious “sausage.” As I ate, I thought about the pigs I had seen through the holes in the trailer and how their journey compared to ours. During stops, we could leave our vehicles to stretch our legs. We had air conditioning and our pick of vegan snacks from the gas stations along the way. The pigs were crammed together in an exposed metal box and had likely gone the whole journey without food. There is no reason for sentient beings to suffer like that.
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Scott is the Director of Investigations at Animal Outlook.