If you’re a sensitive vegan, you might have avoided watching Death on a Factory Farm, which premiered on HBO March 16th 2009. You might have tried to shield yourself from the disturbing video footage caught by an undercover investigator.
The images are bad, but if you’re vegan then the images probably aren’t anything worse than what you’ve already seen. In fact, I found Earthlings to be much more difficult to watch. Earthlings is a horror story of animal cruelty across the spectrum from animals used for food to animals used for entertainment and everything in between. Death on a Factory Farm is only about animals used for food. And of that, it’s only about hogs. And of that, it’s only the abuses on one hog farm in Ohio. (But those abuses are normal and common within the meat-production industry.)
The majority of Death on a Factory Farm is not full of images of cruel farm practices. The majority of the film is about an animal cruelty court case. Death on a Factory Farm can be thought of as three documentaries in one:
- a documentary about an Ohio factory hog farm’s cruel practices,
- a documentary about an animal rights undercover investigator, and
- a documentary about the US courts and impotent animal welfare laws.
However, the images are disturbing. If you’re really sensitive, you might want to fast-forward through them. (Spoiler alert! Read no further if you plan to watch the film and want it to remain a surprise.)
The images show:
- gestation crates where the sows cannot turn around or lie down easily
- furrowing crates where the sows cannot turn around, but can lie down a little bit more easily
- piglets with deformities or injuries left to die
- piglets tossed into wheeled bins, piling up on top of each other
- pigs prodded and shoved onto buses
- sick or injured sows left to die and rot in their own filth
- skinny, weak, sick, or injured piglets were slammed against a hard surface in order to “euthanize” them
- another method of piglet “euthanasia” was to beat their skulls with a hammer
- sick or injured sows being hung to death (the rationale: other methods of “euthanasia” were too expensive or too dangerous to workers)
I had a lot of reactions to this film. I went from curiosity about a secret life of an undercover investigator to disgust and empathy regarding the cruel treatment of factory farmed pigs to frustration over the US legal system.
It’s terribly sad that human labor in animal agriculture is so devalued that it’s more cost-effective to neglect sick or injured sows and let them die of starvation, cannibalism, infection, etc. or to pay low-wage workers to cruelly kill the “downed sows” than to pay veterinarians to euthanize them in a more humane manner.
We know what that does to sows, they suffer tremendously: we hear it in their screams and they display pain in their body language. But what does it to to humans? The humans mask their feelings with an aggressive machismo. They seem to enjoy the animals’ suffering. Do they really? One worker seemed to tear up while watching some of the cruelty footage: he blinked nonstop as though holding back tears. Was he worried about prison time or was he experiencing empathy for the sows?
Even though the undercover investigation stemmed from a local employee. She complained to the Humane Farming Association about the animal abuse and subsequently rescued some of the pigs. But the defense lawyer whined, “This case is actually about an animal-rights group from California coming to Wayne County, Ohio, trying to tell us how to run our farms.” When local employees complained about animal cruelty, their complaints were ignored.
More low pay work: undercover animal rights investigation. “Pete” testified he earned only $12,000 a year. Not only is the undercover work low-pay, it’s hard, manual labor that’s emotionally difficult and personally dangerous. Death on a Factory Farm gives you a sneak peak into that life, a life virtually no one sees. In my view, the people who are doing undercover work are fighting the good fight. The video footage they capture changes public perception and changes laws.
Boy, do the laws need changing. The legal system hasn’t caught up to the average American citizen regarding animal treatment. Things that everyday citizens would consider cruel aren’t considered animal cruelty in the eyes of the law. Gallup polls report:
“The vast majority of Americans say animals deserve at least some protection from harm and exploitation, and a quarter say animals deserve the same protection as human beings. [...] A clear majority, however, favors strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals.”
The treatment of farm animals shown in Death on a Factory Farm was not unusual, though one particular method of so-called “euthanasia” was unusual: hanging. That the court found the defendants “not guilty’ on all but one count proves how usual these practices are. All animal agriculture is cruel. Some farmers are more cruel than others, but animal agriculture is inherently cruel.
Even if we can’t abolish all animal agriculture (maybe we can, maybe we can’t), factory farming has got to go. It’s the most evil of the evil. The cruel killing methods used on the Ohio farm were called “euthanasia.” It’s frustrating that the word “euthanasia” has been so completely corrupted by animal killers that it doesn’t mean what it says it means in the dictionary:
1) Also called mercy killing. the act of putting to death painlessly or allowing to die, as by withholding extreme medical measures, a person or animal suffering from an incurable, esp. a painful, disease or condition.
2) Painless death.
Animal advocates often disagree about using the word “euthanasia” to describe the killings in animal shelters because many of the animals killed are healthy and adoptable, but how often do we talk about how the animal exploiters use the word? Before watching Death on a Factory Farm, I didn’t know that the legal and agricultural connotation of “euthanasia” included hanging sows or beating piglets to death, did you?
The way animal exploiters talk about what they do and the language they use is not truthful. Compassionate, sensible people don’t call swinging a piglet by the legs and smashing his or her head into cement a “painless death.” Compassionate, sensible people don’t call beating a piglet’s brain with a hammer “mercy killing.” Compassionate, sensible people don’t say hanging a sick or injured sow by a chain from a forklift is “euthanasia.”
Even though the farmers got off with a slap on the wrist, they only did so because the current farm animal cruelty laws are so lenient. The case didn’t prove that what they did wasn’t animal cruelty, it proved that animal cruelty in the meat industry is so prevalent that the cruelty is expected and defended.