Some images in particular still haunt me.
I remember one mother pig especially. She was physically worn out and very sick. She was sprawled out in her crate, her snout resting in a mound of stale feed, and she had stopped eating. Workers had spray-painted a red “X” on her back to indicate she would be “culled,” or more simply, killed. Eventually, every mother pig who could no longer give birth received this designation.
I knew that things would never be better for her. She had known nothing but pain and suffering for her entire life, and by the look of resignation in her eyes, I could tell she had given up. Over the course of a week, when I was sure I was alone, I’d stop by her cage, sit down next to her, and quietly talk to her — a risk I barely ever let myself take.
I couldn’t blow my cover as an undercover investigator for Mercy For Animals. But I felt that if I could impart to her a tiny bit of warmth in a life otherwise devoid of compassion, that had to count for something.
A few days later, she was gone. The workers had sent her to the slaughterhouse, and all that was left was the little mound of food, still untouched.
My job was to document the conditions inside one of the nation’s largest pig factory farms, Iowa Select. The footage I obtained with a hidden camera would be used to alert the public, government officials, and food retailers to what was really happening to animals at factory farms.
A vegan since age 21, I was only in my mid-20s when I decided to do more by becoming an undercover investigator for Mercy For Animals. In my months of training for the physically and emotionally taxing job, my biggest fear was that I would somehow blow my cover. I practiced my poker face, watching graphic undercover footage of animals being slaughtered and tortured until I could train myself not to react. Of course, nothing could have prepared me for what it was like to actually work at a factory farm.
My day started with a task called “pushing” — scaring the newborn piglets out of the pen and into hallways so that they could be permanently separated from their mothers, who would squeal in distress for their newborn babies. It was an awful sound.
Next, I would check on the piglets who had been born overnight to see who had survived, and which mother pigs were prolapsed (when the uterus or other organs slip outside the body), a common occurrence because of their forced and constant pregnancies. Another image that haunts me: a mother pig with her entire reproductive system hanging out of her body.
These animals spend most of their miserable lives in windowless warehouses, where they are artificially inseminated and kept for the majority of their 115-day pregnancies. Each one is confined in a gestation crate barely larger than their own bodies. For much of their lives, they’re so cramped they can’t even turn around, let alone walk about.
My evening shower was an important ritual nonetheless. It gave me a chance to take a physical inventory of my injuries, which were numerous, as they are for every factory farm worker. Then, I’d review the day’s footage, marking the timestamps of the worst horrors I’d witnessed that day before passing out. Mercifully, the nightmares didn’t really start until a few years later.
Much of what I saw at Iowa Select was standard and legal, and that’s the problem with animal agriculture. The “humane certified” stickers on egg cartons, milk containers, and meat packages are little more than a marketing ploy, a way to keep us ignorant of systematic animal abuse behind our food.
There are several legal loopholes that allow the meat, egg, and dairy industries to get away with unthinkable cruelty on a daily basis. The Animal Welfare Act — one of the few federal laws protecting animals — excludes all animals raised and killed for food. This means egg-laying hens have their sensitive beaks seared off and are confined in cages so small they can’t fully spread their wings; chickens raised for meat are bred to grow so fast they have difficulty walking without severe pain; factory farmed fish are skinned alive or allowed to painfully suffocate to death. Mothers and their babies are always separated.
The animal agriculture industries don’t want you to know this, so they’ve pushed dozens of state bills, nicknamed "ag-gag" bills, to sweep evidence of abuse under the rug and penalize whistleblowers like me. The bills are often introduced by lawmakers who receive hefty donations from meat, dairy, and egg companies. Just one year after my Iowa Select investigation, Iowa governor Terry Branstad signed the first ag-gag law — and it’s no coincidence.
These days, the vegan cafe I run is across the street from a butcher shop. Often, I see dead pigs hanging in the window. I’m proud of the work I did as an undercover investigator, but the great irony is that I can’t feel anything from looking at that pig now. My impulse for compassion had to be suppressed too many times — my goal, now, is to return to the part of myself that could feel it. I don’t know how to get back there, but at least the nightmares are starting to become less frequent.
We all have the power to be heroic on this issue — we can all help end this cycle of suffering. By reducing or eliminating your meat, egg, and dairy consumption, you can choose, every single day, to opt out of the cruel system I’ve worked so hard to expose.
You are not powerless on this issue.