Other, less excruciating methods were off the table. Factory farms claimed that they couldn’t obtain enough guns and ammunition, captive bolt guns and charges, carbon dioxide or electrocution equipment quickly enough to pursue any of the methods those tools imply. So after the success of the second test in the converted trailer, the industry adopted “ventilation shutdown,” as the method of overheating animals to death is known. Construction crews converted barns into giant makeshift ovens, their ventilation inlets and wall seams sealed, food and water removed, and heaters and steam generators affixed to them. In at least one case, the steam generator the farm used was designed for the railroad industry, to heat railcars.
For the animals themselves, it resulted in what the industry deceptively calls ‘euthanasia,’ but that is, in fact, in many cases an excruciatingly slow and torturous death.
It’s unclear how many pigs were killed this way. But nationally, at the end of April, when swine processing was down by 45%, according to one peer-reviewed paper, a quarter-million pigs per day who would have been sent to slaughter in normal times remained in their pens, awaiting some other end. As of June, when the industry began to bounce back, there were still 3.2 million such pigs. The National Pork Producers Council estimated that more than 10 million pigs exceeded the industry’s processing capacity from the end of June to mid-September. All those pigs were killed somehow, and if the industry is to be believed, ventilation shutdown was one of only a few feasible methods with which to do it (others included CO₂ gassing and slaughtering without processing the animals). An article written by five veterinarians on ventilation shutdown reports that at the single site they studied, nearly 250,000 pigs were roasted alive between April and June of 2020.
I’ve reported on animal exploitation extensively in the past, and specifically about Direct Action Everywhere, a Berkeley-based animal rights group. A couple of years ago, I formally joined the organization as a member. I don’t claim to be neutral when it comes to this issue, or this organization. I disclose this because DxE, as the group is abbreviated, is a big part of what happened next—and specifically, a DxE activist named Matt Johnson, whom I consider a personal friend.
Lucas Walker is a young, burly guy who voted for Trump and belongs to the NRA. Until recently, he was a truck driver for Iowa Select Farms, and looks the part. Walker grew up in the heart of pig farming country in Iowa and raises a few cows and pigs himself. But he found himself increasingly bothered by the casual abuse of pigs by overcrowding that he had seen every day on the job. Walker struggled with what to do about it. He knew there would be a backlash in his community, a town of just 6,000 people where the industry he was exposing constituted the entire local economy. “Big company, small town,” he said to me. The company’s COO lived just a mile and a half from his home.
Walker first learned about DxE when he watched a video that Matt Johnson had shot of the atrocious conditions on the hog farm of an Iowa state senator who had sponsored the state’s new “ag gag” law. In May, Walker sent an anonymous email to DxE to inform them about conditions at Iowa Select.
Walker wasn’t familiar with Matt Johnson, but his employer was. And some of the workers at Iowa Select Farms facilities soon would be, too. Later, when Johnson snuck onto an ISF farm, he found a flyer in the break room with his picture on it. The flyer said, “Si entra à la granja, nos carga la verga”: “If he gets on the farm, we’re fucked.”
Walker and Johnson struck up a dialogue. Walker told Johnson conditions at Iowa Select were far worse than on the state senator’s farm. Johnson was listening, but it was only after the pandemic began that the conversation really started to take shape. Johnson would ask Walker about the company’s ventilation shutdown plans—when and where were they happening—and Walker would go to work, strike up casual conversations with coworkers and find out. Then he’d pass it back to Johnson.
After having gathered logistical information from Walker, Johnson returned to Iowa. Along with a small team of activists, he staked out the facilities. “It was never a sure thing it was going to happen,” Johnson said. “Maybe a 50-50 chance.” But Johnson managed to sneak onto the barns that had been converted into VSD death chambers, and planted hidden cameras inside. The cameras captured hours of the agonizing extermination of hundreds of pigs, on both video and audio. Glenn Greenwald and I released the footage to the public.
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