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The Fetishization of Mr. Rogers’s ‘Look for the Helpers’

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After the senseless calamity of a mass shooting, people seek comforts—even small ones—in the face of horror. One of those small comforts has come to be Fred Rogers’s famous advice to look for the helpers. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said to his television neighbors, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Lately, whenever something goes horribly wrong, someone offers up Rogers’s phrase or a video in which he shares it as succor: during the Thai cave rescue, in response to the U.S. family-separation policy, after a school-bus accident in New Jersey, following a fatal explosion in Wisconsin, in the aftermath of a van attack in Toronto, in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas school massacre, and more.

And so it was no surprise when “Look for the helpers” reared its head again after a gunman killed 11 people and wounded six others in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday. Not just because the shooting marked another tragedy in America, but also because Rogers, who died in 2003, was a longtime resident of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where the synagogue is located. It’s as if all the other crimes and accidents in which Fred Rogers has been invoked were rehearsing for this one. “A Massacre in the Heart of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” reads the headline of Bari Weiss’s New York Times column on the slaughter.

Once a television comfort for preschoolers, “Look for the helpers” has become a consolation meme for tragedy. That’s disturbing enough; it feels as though we are one step shy of a rack of drug-store mass-murder sympathy cards. Worse, Fred Rogers’s original message has been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began. Fred Rogers is a national treasure, but it’s time to stop offering this particular advice.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood aired from 1968 to 2001, and it continues to run in syndication and on streaming services today. It was intended for preschoolers, which means that anyone who had kids under age 5 and owned a television, and anyone who was a child of that age since then, probably became neighbors with Mr. Rogers. That covers just about the entire U.S. population, which explains why the man and his show are so recognizable. The program’s ubiquity also speaks to the applicability of the “Look for the helpers” idea—it’s easy to quote or cite on-air or online, and it binds people of many generations and walks of life in tender recognition.

But it was never meant to do that much work. Rogers was an expert at translating the complex adult world in terms kids could understand: a grown-up emissary to a children’s nation. “Look for the helpers” was advice for preschoolers. But somehow, when it got transformed into a meme, the sentiment was adopted by adults as if they were 3-year-olds.

One of the “Look for the helpers” tweets posted on the day of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.

It’s a powerful notion for kids, especially very young ones. Fred Rogers Productions maintains a resource for parents on talking to children about tragic events that explains why. Children are small and fragile. They rely on adults for almost everything, from daily care to emergency rescue. “Look for the helpers” is a tactic that diverts a child’s distress toward safety.

Even for preschoolers, it was never meant to be used alone. On the part of the Fred Rogers website about tragic events,  “focusing on the helpers” appears among an eight-bullet list of tips. It also advises parents to turn off the television, maintain regular routines, and offer physical affection. Not only was this advice meant for children; it was intended as part of a holistic approach to managing a small child’s worry during a crisis.

Read: The quietly radical [Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood]

Seen in this context, to extract and deploy “Look for the helpers” as sufficient relief for adults is perverse, if telling. Grown-ups sometimes feel as helpless as children, and on the internet, where this meme mostly proliferates, distressed social-media posts, futile emoji, and forlorn crowdfunding campaigns have taken the place of social and political action. Which isn’t to say that that sort of action is easy to carry out anymore. For a populace grappling with voter suppression, wealth inequality, and the threat of a police state, among other perils, it’s not always clear how citizens can effect change in their communities and their nation. Ironically, when adults cite “Look for the helpers,” they are saying something tragic, not hopeful: Grown-ups now feel so disenfranchised that they implicitly self-identify as young children.

Among critics of “Look for the helpers” as a meme, a common objection is that just looking for the helpers is insufficient, at least for adults. Instead, you’re supposed to strive to “be a helper,” a variation on the original that’s almost become its own meme.

But that assumes anyone knows who counts as a “helper” anymore.

Rogers attributed the line to his mother, who probably gave him the advice during the 1930s. Things were difficult then, but tragedy came in a different form. Illness and death, natural disaster, economic despair, and, soon enough, global war. In all these cases, there remains some clear line between a threat and its relief.

Those matters would complicate themselves in the 1960s and beyond, when Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood entered its heyday. The show addressed current events, in its own way, from violence to segregation to war. But even in the 1980s, when the Cold War still raged, threats like tornadoes still preoccupied “Look for the helpers” wisdom.

Fred Rogers diligently refined the language he used on his show, transforming simple but ambiguous ideas into polished, sophisticated ones that take children’s lives into account. It is dangerous to play in the street would become Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing. In that example, your favorite grown-ups accounts for all sorts of circumstances, from guardians who are not parents to authorities the child trusts for established reasons. It’s a genius phrase, and classic Fred Rogers fare.

“Helpers” is a similar one. It covers official authorities like police and firefighters, but also laypeople like bystanders and Good Samaritans.

Even so, it seems that Rogers meant the term to refer mostly to trained service professionals in a position of authority. In a 1986 newspaper column about the helpers concept, Rogers was still leaning on natural disasters as the paradigm for terror, and on childhood memories of newspapers, radios, and newsreels that fomented fear. In a 1999 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Rogers clarified the idea more, talking about the people “just on the sidelines” of a tragedy. His hope was that media might show actors like “rescue teams, medical people, anybody who is coming in to a place where there’s a tragedy.”

This wisdom should have felt a little romantic in its aspirations, even in the 1980s and ’90s. Who “helps” avert global nuclear catastrophe, or climate change, for example? But today, the idea of helpers on the sidelines of horrific disasters isn’t just quaint. It’s dangerous.

After the Pittsburgh attack, President Donald Trump told reporters that the Tree of Life synagogue should have “had protection in mind,” by which he probably meant armed guards, or “good guys with guns.” Never mind the fact that the shooter had wounded four police officers during the standoff, thanks in part to the semiautomatic rifle with which he was reportedly armed. Those who advocate for guns everywhere see gunmen as the “helpers.” Those who do not construe the people who would limit access to them, or who would curtail domestic terrorism and white supremacy, as the “helpers” instead. The conflict over who gets to count as a helper is a complex amalgam of political and social conditions. But unfortunately, adapting Fred Rogers’s concept for the universe of kids to the world of adults allows any speaker’s favorite notion of “help” to fill in the blank.

The suspect himself, a man named Robert Bowers, appears to have construed his own actions as heroic rather than villainous. Bowers reportedly shouted “All Jews must die” before opening fire at Tree of Life. He advanced conspiracy theories about a Jewish incursion of government and society, including the false idea that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a humanitarian nonprofit, was funded by George Soros to import immigrants for violence. On Fox News, Lou Dobbs gave prominent airtime to an advocate of this view the same day as the synagogue massacre. And Trump has spread similar fears about criminal incursions by immigrants, not to mention other angry falsehoods. Bowers, Trump, Dobbs, and others all consider themselves “the helpers.” For those who want to look for them—or to be them—in a time of crisis, ideas of help and harmful actions are dangerously conflated.

Fred Rogers has a saintlike legacy for good reason. He touched people of all backgrounds and faiths. He modeled goodness and character. But his was never a gospel for grown-ups. It was designed for children, and entrusted to adults to carry out with kids’ interests in mind. (His attempt at a show for adults failed.)

We must stop fetishizing Rogers’s advice to “look for the helpers” as if it had ever been meant for us, the people in charge—even in moments when so many of us feel powerless. As an adult, it feels good to remember how Mr. Rogers made you feel good as a child. But celebrating that feeling as adults takes away the wrong lesson. A selfish one. We were entrusted with these insights to make children’s lives better, not to comfort ourselves for having failed to fashion the adult world in which they must live.

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Everyone Is Racing to Build the Killer Meme App

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Last year, Alex, a 19-year-old in California who runs a network of Instagram pages dedicated to publishing memes, became so frustrated with the current apps for making memes that she hired a developer to build her own. She spent $3,000 on the project, which she says has saved her hours of time and frustration.

“I don’t want to say it’s a competitive edge, because at the end of the day that’s not really what determines if a meme does well,” says Alex, whose pages have 5 million collective followers. “But for people who care enough about having memes perfect it makes a difference.” (Like all members in this story, Alex runs her pages anonymously, and asked to be referred to by her first name only to protect her privacy.)

As memes have increasingly dominated social platforms like Instagram, the methods for making them remain largely rudimentary. Many large accounts on Instagram treat Twitter as a content-management system for laying out images with text, but that comes with huge limitations. As memes become increasingly visually complex, they’re forcing meme makers—from professionals who run massive pages, to amateurs, to those just starting out—to rely on a patchwork of unreliable photo-editing tools.

“I use four apps to make a meme,” says Andy, who runs the Instagram meme page @heckoffsupreme. “There’s not one app I can go to for everything I need, not even close.”

“It’s ad hoc,” says Terry, who runs the page @socialpracticemafia and has used a slew of photo- and video-editing apps to make memes. “You know the term bricolage? It’s basically making due. It’s like that.”

Years ago, when classic macro-memes with Impact font—like Success Kid, Condescending Wonka, and Business Cat—became popular, there were tons of easy online meme generators. Unfortunately, as memes have evolved, the majority of top meme-making apps in Apple’s App Store have failed to adopt to more modern formats, rendering them semi-useless.

“You’d only use one of those now to be ironic about how terrible they are,” says Terry. “It’s funny that there’s been this regression to something that’s actually less efficient, because the style of memes has changed. I don’t think anyone is designing these apps to make the kind of weird post-dank memes that are being made now.”

The most popular format for large meme pages is still one that looks like a tweet with an image attached: a photo or video on the bottom, Arial-font text on top, and a white background. But over the past several months, there’s been a sea-change in the meme community, according to several top memers. Meme accounts that post more complex, artistic memes—including object-labeling memes, creative photo-editing memes, or memes with lots of text—have begun to gain popularity and online clout, and thousands of amateur meme accounts have sprung up, copying their style.

“The biggest difference is there’s way more information packed into most memes today than Impact-font memes,” says Cindie, who runs the meme account @males_are_cancelled. “The average person has viewed so much of this content, their ability to understand the nuance within newer meme format has increased.”

“I’m 20, maybe because it’s a new thing, but I think younger people are into more absurd, surreal humor,” says Chris, who creates highly visual memes under the handle @young__nobody. “Those big meme pages would make fun of us or call us weird niche members with the kooky fonts, but the whole scene has grown a lot in the past year,” says Loren, also known as @Whiskey.rat.

But to create in this new genre of memes means to rely heavily on apps that were not built with meme creators in mind. Phonto, one of the most popular apps for making object-labeling memes, has a steep learning curve and is plagued with bugs. “Losing my work has happened to me constantly,” says Andy, who has also relied on an app called InShot. “Sometimes things will shut down and be gone and I’ll have to start over. It becomes really time-consuming.” PicsArt, another photo-editing tool, is a mainstay for many memers who use it to watermark their work, but is notorious for its distracting pop-up ads.

For video memes, many people rely on PicPlayPost, but the app was not built for making memes and doesn’t include some more advanced features that many memers crave. “We didn’t create PicPlayPost with the intention of going after the meme community, but given the tools we have it doesn’t surprise me that it’s building momentum in that group,” says Daniel Vinh, who heads marketing for Mixcord, the parent company of PicPlayPost. “If any of these memers want to reach out and talk to us about the top five features they want or need, we’d be more than happy to have a brainstorm session on how we can make that happen.”

In the meantime, some memers have found the current suite of mobile applications so lacking that they choose to create their memes on desktop computers instead. “On your phone, you’re never going to be able to do as much as you could as on a computer,” says Noam, who memes under the account @listenintospitandgettingparamoredon.

Ronnie, who memes under the handle @mspainttrash, is part of a group of meme makers that works exclusively in MS Paint. “It’s so readily available. You don’t have to download it. It’s on any PC. It’s the most straightforward paint app that you could possibly use,” he says. “I’ve made maybe two memes total on my phone.”

Recognizing this need, some apps have emerged in recent months to corner the market. But building the killer meme app is incredibly challenging. Many memers say that for one app to have everything they’d need, it would have to incorporate advanced photo- and video-editing tools and a highly precise eraser. And it would have to be flexible enough to adapt to new formats in real time.

Julia Enthoven, Silicon Valley veteran of Google and Apple, co-founded Kapwing, a photo- and video-editing app, nine months ago in order to patch what she saw as a huge hole in the market. “You can see it in the Google search trends. The search volume for ‘meme maker’ has more than doubled since September 2017,” Enthoven says.

Keeping track of modern meme trends, and nailing details like the precise font options or default spacing between photos and text, can be a challenge for those not completely immersed in the meme world. George Resch, a memer with more than 1.6 million followers on Instagram under the handle @tank.sinatra, and his co-founder, @adam.the.creator, who has nearly half a million followers on Instagram, are betting that their deep knowledge of meme culture will give them a competitive advantage. They released their meme-making app, Momus Meme Studio, in January and have seen usage grow exponentially.

“I think people trust what we use because we are known as the backbone of the meme community,” says Resch. He and his team spent hours on the phone with the developers building the app, trying to get it to look exactly right. “If you look at the pixels of space at edge of a picture, we talked about that for weeks ... There’s apps out there that don’t pay any attention to that and it shows,” Resch says.

Chris Rosiak, the co-founder and CEO of Red Blue Media, which owns memes.com and @memes on Instagram and Facebook, also launched its own meme-making app, Memes Generator + Meme Creator, three months ago and saw an immediate explosion of use. The app is now on top of search results for meme makers in the App Store and has received thousands of positive ratings. In order to stay relevant, Memes Generator + Meme Creator employs a team of people who search for emerging meme trends on Instagram, Twitter, and “meme incubation zones” like Reddit and 4Chan. “We’re looking at the things that are going viral and trending and incorporating it into the app,” Rosiak says.

Conner Jay, head of audience at Elsewhere, a video-focused meme-creation app that launched in December, says that being one with the meme community is key to success. The app’s user base is 80 percent 13 to 24-year-olds, and Jay says they can tell when things aren’t authentic. “Our team is very squarely in our 20s. We have a video editor who has been a professional shitposter for years,” he says. The company also does a huge amount of outreach on college campuses and pays students to create memes for its owned channels.

But awareness remains the biggest hurdle for newer meme apps. Several big memers say they mostly only hear about new products through group chats with peers. “We have a bunch of group chats and we’re all good about sharing things with each other,” says Jacob, who memes under the handle @WipeYaDocsOff.

Still, Jeff, who memes under the handle @CtrlCtrl, says that those just starting out shouldn’t be too intimidated by the intricate formats they might come across on the Explore page.

“If you’re funny and you have ideas that are good, just keep messing around with whatever works for you,” he says. “There’s so many apps out there, so many ways to do it. I was never very tech-savvy and it took me a while to get to the point that I’m at now. It took me a long time to find the right recipe.”

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phatmat
613 days ago
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The Lexicon of Tom Wolfe

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The paeans to Tom Wolfe, who died on Monday at the age of 88, inevitably extol his colorfully inventive use of language across his decades of fiction and nonfiction writing. As the New York Times obituary observes, “He had a pitiless eye and a penchant for spotting trends and then giving them names, some of which—like ‘Radical Chic’ and ‘the Me Decade’—became American idioms.”

Wolfe’s contributions to the English language go far beyond the most obvious catchphrases that he popularized. The Oxford English Dictionary includes about 150 quotations from Wolfe’s writings, and in many cases, he is the earliest known source for words and phrases that have worked their way into the lexicon. Here is a survey of some of his key linguistic innovations.

As an early proponent of what came to be known as New Journalism, Wolfe had a flashy sense for language from the very beginning: Consider the title of his 1963 essay that put him on the map, a piece for Esquire on custom cars: “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…”

A year later, an essay of Wolfe’s for Harper’s Bazaar titled “The New Art Gallery Society” provided the first of his many OED-anointed neologisms: aw-shucks as a verb meaning “to behave with (affected) bashfulness or self-deprecation.” Describing a party for the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art, Wolfe wrote, “Up on the terrace, Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior of the United States, is sort of aw-shucksing around.”

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his 1968 account of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, introduced a number of terms straight out of the drug-fueled counterculture, like Owsley, for “an extremely potent, high-quality type of LSD” (named after Owsley Stanley, the Grateful Dead soundman who manufactured millions of doses of acid). The book also brought us edge city, defined by the OED as “a notional place outside the bounds of conventional society” (“It’s time to take the Prankster circus further on toward Edge City”), and the adjective balls-out, defined as “unrestrained, uninhibited” (“The trip, in fact the whole deal, was a risk-all balls-out plunge into the unknown”).

Wolfe was clearly in a neologistic frame of mind in 1970, when he wrote two of his most famous essays. From “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York, we of course get radical chic (“the fashionable affectation of radical left-wing views”), though he seems to have appropriated the phrase from Seymour Krim, who had used it earlier in the year in his collection of essays Shake It for the World. And the title of “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers” contributed two more coinages: mau-mauing (“using menacing or intimidating tactics against”), and flak catcher (“one who deals with and deflects adverse or hostile comment, questions, etc., in order to protect a person or institution from unfavorable publicity”).

A 1976 New York cover story is responsible for one of Wolfe’s most enduring phrases: “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening.” Along with me decade as his term for the 1970s (“regarded as a period characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with personal fulfillment and self-gratification”), the OED credits Wolfe with a lesser-known expression: hardballer in the sense of “a person who is ruthless and uncompromising, esp. in politics or business” (as in: “Charles Colson, the former hardballer of the Nixon Administration, announces for Jesus”).

Wolfe once again picked a title that was destined for lexical immortality when he wrote his 1979 book on the Project Mercury astronauts, The Right Stuff. Though the right stuff is actually documented by the OED back to 1748 in the sense of “something that is just what is required” (especially alcohol or money), Wolfe’s book provided a new semantic twist: “the necessary qualities for a given job or task,” that mysterious essence imbuing the test pilots drafted for the Mercury program.

The Right Stuff also helped popularize some expressions that were previously known only in aviation and aeronautics circles. One is push the envelope, meaning “to approach or go beyond the current limits of performance,” which the OED notes had appeared in the magazine Aviation Week & Space Technology a year before Wolfe brought it to a mainstream audience. Another is screw the pooch, meaning “to make a (disastrous) mistake,” which Wolfe famously used in recounting Virgil “Gus” Grissom’s botched splashdown after becoming the second American in space. The movie version reinforced the notion that Grissom had screwed the pooch, though the malfunction was likely not the astronaut’s fault. (For a deep dive into how screw the pooch evolved from the earlier expression fuck the dog, see my 2014 piece for Slate.)

Wolfe kept up his penchant for concocting new words in the go-go ’80s, such as his coinage of plutography, a play on pornography. “This may be the decade of plutography,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 1985, explaining that “plutography is the graphic description of the acts of the rich.” At the time, Wolfe was busy working on his own plutographic opus: his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, published in 1987.

The most notable expression to come out of The Bonfire of the Vanities is Master of the Universe, though that phrase actually dates back to the work of John Dryden in 1690, with the meaning “a person or being that controls everything.” In the early 1980s, “Masters of the Universe” took on a new life for Mattel’s superhero franchise of He-Man, She-Ra, and the rest, spun off into action figures, comic books, and animated TV series. Wolfe’s protagonist Sherman McCoy applies that omnipotent term to the financial world: “On Wall Street he and a few others—how many?—three hundred, four hundred, five hundred?—had become precisely that … Masters of the Universe. There was … no limit whatsoever!”

Bonfire also illustrated Wolfe’s keen ear for the vernacular, with different characters voicing the now-famous New York City refrain, fuhgedaboudit. To take the example cited by the OED, Goldberg, a police detective, says, “In the Bronx or Bed-Stuy, fuhgedaboudit. Bed-Stuy’s the worst.” Former Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz must not have taken the knock against Bedford-Stuyvesant to heart, since during his tenure he put “Fuhgeddaboutit” on a highway sign leaving Brooklyn, showing how the interjection had become firmly entrenched as a tongue-in-cheek marker of local identity.

Wolfe’s later novels (A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and Back to Blood) were not quite as fertile for introducing new words, though he continued to keep tabs on developments in the language. The germ for I Am Charlotte Simmons came from a 2000 essay, “Hooking Up,” that investigated the “hook-up” culture of American college students. But Wolfe was hardly in the forefront on this, as Connie Eble reports in her book Slang and Sociability that undergraduates at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill were using hook up to mean “to find a partner for romance or sex” since the mid-’80s. While Wolfe at the end of his career may have moved from being a linguistic leader to merely a follower, his decades of creativity with the written word have undoubtedly left an enduring impact.

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phatmat
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How to Lock Down Your Facebook Privacy Settings

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Friends, friends of friends, advertisers; keeping track of Facebook's privacy settings can get confusing. Here's how to get yours just right.
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phatmat
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The bloom is off the rose, Mr. Trudeau

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Canada owes Justin Trudeau a great deal. After all, long before he really wanted to, he took on the most difficult task of all: trying to meet the soaring and unreasonable expectations of a political institution circling the toilet bowl — the Liberal Party of Canada. First, an anecdote: I was speaking with then-Liberal Senator Willie […]
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The FBI’s Hunt for Two Missing Piglets Reveals the Federal Cover-Up of Barbaric Factory Farms

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This article includes graphic images some readers may find disturbing.

FBI agents are devoting substantial resources to a multistate hunt for two baby piglets that the bureau believes are named Lucy and Ethel. The two piglets were removed over the summer from the Circle Four Farm in Utah by animal rights activists who had entered the Smithfield Foods-owned factory farm to film the brutal, torturous conditions in which the pigs are bred in order to be slaughtered.

While filming the conditions at the Smithfield facility, activists saw the two ailing baby piglets laying on the ground, visibly ill and near death, surrounded by the rotting corpses of dead piglets. “One was swollen and barely able to stand; the other had been trampled and was covered in blood,” said Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), which filmed the facility and performed the rescue. Due to various illnesses, he said, the piglets were unable to eat or digest food and were thus a fraction of the normal weight for piglets their age.

Rather than leave the two piglets at Circle Four Farm to wait for an imminent and painful death, the DxE activists decided to rescue them. They carried them out of the pens where they had been suffering and took them to an animal sanctuary to be treated and nursed back to health.

Smithfield-Circle-Four-Farms-piglets-pigs-factory-pig-aminal-cruelty-abuse-08-1506966754

DxE photograph depicting piglets huddled up against their mothers at Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farm in Utah. DxE says the piglets were sick or starving.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

At Smithfield, like most pig farms, the abuse and torture primarily comes not from rogue employees violating company procedures. Instead, the cruelty is inherent in the procedures themselves. One of the most heinous industry-wide practices is one that DxE activists encountered in abundance at Circle Four: gestational crating.

Where that technique is used, pigs are placed in a crate made of iron bars that is the exact length and width of their bodies, so they can do nothing for their entire lives but stand on a concrete floor, never turn around, never see any outdoors, never even see their tails, never move more than an inch. That was the condition in which the activists found the rotting piglet corpses and the two ailing piglets they rescued.

Smithfield-Circle-Four-Farms-piglets-pigs-factory-pig-aminal-cruelty-abuse-05-1506966739

Piles of dead and rotting piglets are piled up behind a sow, who is wedged into a crate so tightly that she cannot move away from the mess at Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farm in Utah.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

Female pigs give birth in this condition. They are put in so-called farrowing crates when they give birth, and their piglets run underneath them to suckle and are often trampled to death. The sows are bred repeatedly this way until their fertility declines, at which point they are slaughtered and turned into meat.

The pigs are so desperate to get out of their crates that they often spend weeks trying to bite through the iron bars until their gums gush blood, bash their heads against the walls, and suffer a disease in which their organs end up mangled in the wrong places, from the sheer physical trauma of trying to escape from a tiny space or from acute anxiety (called “organ torsion”).

So cruel is the practice that in 2014, Canada effectively banned its usage, as the European Union had done two years earlier. Nine U.S. states, most of which host very few farms, have banned their usage (in 2014, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, with his eye on the GOP primary in farm-friendly Iowa, vetoed a bill that would have made his state the 10th).

But in the U.S. states where factory farms actually thrive, these devices continue to be widely used, which means a vast majority of pigs in the U.S. are subjected to them. The suffering, pain, and death these crates routinely cause were in ample evidence at Smithfield Foods, as accounts, photos, and videos from DxE demonstrate.

FBI raids animal sanctuaries

Under normal circumstances, a large industrial farming company such as Smithfield Foods would never notice that two sick piglets of the millions it breeds and then slaughters were missing. Nor would they care: A sick and dying piglet has no commercial value to them.

Yet the rescue of these two particular piglets has literally become a federal case — by all appearances, a matter of great importance to the Department of Justice. On the last day of August, a six-car armada of FBI agents in bulletproof vests, armed with search warrants, descended upon two small shelters for abandoned farm animals: Ching Farm Rescue in Riverton, Utah, and Luvin Arms in Erie, Colorado.

These sanctuaries have no connection to DxE or any other rescue groups. They simply serve as a shelter for sick, abandoned, or otherwise injured animals. Run by a small staff and a team of animal-loving volunteers, they are open to the public to teach about farm animals.

The attachments to the search warrants specified that the FBI agents could take “DNA samples (blood, hair follicles or ear clippings) to be seized from swine with the following characteristics: I. Pink/white coloring; II. Docked tails; III. Approximately 5 to 9 months in age; IV. Any swine with a hole in right ear.”

The FBI agents searched the premises of both shelters. They demanded DNA samples of two piglets they said were named Lucy and Ethel, in order to determine whether they were the two ailing piglets who had been rescued weeks earlier from Smithfield.

A representative of Luvin Arms, who insisted on anonymity due to fear of the pending criminal investigation, described the events. The FBI agents ordered staff and volunteers to stay away from the animals and then approached the piglets. To obtain the DNA samples, the state veterinarians accompanying the FBI used a snare to pressurize the piglet’s snout, thus immobilizing her in pain and fear, and then cut off close to two inches of the piglet’s ear.

The piglet’s pain was so severe, and her screams so piercing, that the sanctuary’s staff members screamed and cried. Even the FBI agents were so sufficiently disturbed by the resulting trauma, that they directed the veterinarians not to subject the second piglet to the procedure. The sanctuary representative recounted that the piglet who had part of her ear removed spent weeks depressed and scared, barely moving or eating, and still has not fully recovered. The FBI “receipt” given to the sanctuaries shows they took DNA samples “from swine.”

Several volunteers at one of the raided animal shelters said they were followed back to their homes by FBI agents, who dramatically questioned them in front of family members and neighbors. And there is even reason to believe that the bureau has been surveilling the activists’ private communications regarding the rescue of this piglet duo.

The FBI specified as part of its search that it was seeking DNA samples from piglets they said were named “Lucy” and “Ethel.” But those were not the names the activists used when publicly discussing the rescue of the two piglets. In their videos about the rescue, they called the pair “Lily” and “Lizzie.” Lucy and Ethel were code names the activists used internally, suggesting that agents were surveilling the activists’ communications — either electronically or through informants — in an effort to find the two piglets and build a criminal case against the group.

Subsequent events confirmed that this show of FBI force was designed to intimidate the sanctuaries, which played no role in the rescue. Weeks after the FBI’s execution of the two search warrants, Luvin Arms — in the midst of an interview with The Intercept — received a telephone call from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claiming the agency had received “a complaint” that the sanctuary lacked the legally required licenses for animal shelters that are open to the public. “We had never had an FBI visit or a USDA call about licenses, and now suddenly, within weeks, both happened,” the sanctuary representative said.

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A piglet that was ill and close to death at Smithfield recovers as she is cared for after being rescued.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

Retaliation for exposing cruel treatment

What has vested these two piglets with such importance to the FBI is that their rescue is now part of what has become an increasingly visible public campaign by DxE and other activists to highlight the barbaric suffering and abuse that animals endure on farms like Circle Four. Obviously, the FBI and Smithfield — the nation’s largest industrial farm corporation — don’t really care about the missing piglets they are searching for. What they care about is the efficacy of a political campaign intent on showing the public how animals are abused at factory farms, and they are determined to intimidate those responsible.

Deterring such campaigns and intimidating the activists behind them is, manifestly, the only goal here. What made this piglet rescue particularly intolerable was an article that appeared in the New York Times days after the rescue, which touted the use of virtual reality technology by animal rights activists to allow the public to immerse in the full experience of seeing what takes place in these companies’ farms. The article featured a photograph of the DxE activists rescuing the piglets from the Smithfield farm:

The Times article was published July 6. The search warrant against the sanctuaries was obtained the following month, in mid-August, and then executed on August 31. In the interim, the piglets had become stars of a clearly effective campaign against Smithfield Foods. 

In response to questions from The Intercept, Smithfield insisted that it does not abuse its animals. But, as is typical for factory farms, the company offered little more then generalized denials, accompanied by vague accusations that the videos and photos the activists took are somehow “distorted.”

After they rescued the two piglets, the DxE activists did not try to hide what they had done: They did the opposite. They used a tactic known as “open rescue,” the purpose of which is to publicly detail what has been done to help the public understand the true nature of the abuses.

The activists wrote about the rescue in social media postings that went viral, detailing the horrific conditions they witnessed at Smithfield and describing the suffering of the piglets. They posted videos to Facebook and YouTube that they filmed of the farm and the rescue as it happened, with other videos showing Lily and Lizzie being treated at the sanctuaries and growing into happy, playful, healthy adolescents.

Video: Direct Action Everywhere

Plainly, the “crime” of these activists that has galvanized the FBI is not the “theft” of two dying piglets; it is political activism and investigative journalism, which exposes the cruelty and abuse at the heart of this powerful industry.

In response to a few media reports on the FBI raids at the sanctuaries, bureau spokesperson Sandra Barker told the Washington Post: “I can say that we were at the two locations conducting court-authorized activity related to an ongoing investigation. Because it’s ongoing, I’m not able to provide any more details at this time.”

To an industry feeling endangered by growing public disgust over conditions at industrial farms — driven by scandals within the meat, pork, and poultry sectors — Lily and Lizzie are political and journalistic threats. Animals like them are vital for enabling animal rights activists to demonstrate to the public in a visceral, personalized way that this industry generates massive profit by monstrously and unnecessarily torturing living beings who are emotionally complex and experience great suffering.

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Rescued piglets Lizzie and Lily.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

Government power abused to intimidate and punish activists

The Justice Department’s grave attention to a case of two missing piglets reflects how vigilantly the U.S. government uses extreme measures to protect the agricultural industry — not from unjust economic loss, violent crime, or theft, but from political embarrassment and accurate reporting that damages the industry’s reputation.

A sweeping framework of draconian laws — designed to shield the industry from criticism and deter and punish its critics — has been enacted across the country by federal and state legislatures that are captive to the industry’s high-paid lobbyists. The most notorious of these measures are the “ag-gag” laws, which make publishing videos of farm conditions taken as part of undercover operations a felony, punishable by years in prison.

Though many courts, including most recently a federal court in Utah, have struck down these laws as an unconstitutional assault on speech and press freedoms, they continue to be used in numerous states to harass and, in some cases, prosecute animal rights activists. As the Times article notes, these ag-gag laws are one reason activists are forced to turn to virtual reality: to show what really happens inside industrial farms without running the risk of prosecution.

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Many mother pigs had nipples that were torn into bloody shreds from feeding starving piglets.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

Even more extreme and menacing is the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. As I described previously when reporting on the arrest of two young activists — who faced 10 years in prison for freeing minks from farm cages before the animals could be sliced to death and turned into luxury coats — nonviolent animal rights activists are often designated as “terrorists” under the AETA and are treated in the court system as such, even when no human beings are hurt and the economic loss is minimal:

As is typical for lobbyist and industry-supported bills, the AETA passed with overwhelming bipartisan support (its two prime Senate sponsors were James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.) and then was signed into law by George W. Bush.

This “terrorism” law is violated if one “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise … for the purpose of damaging or interfering with” its operations. If you do that — and note that only “damage to property” but not to humans is required — then you are guilty of “domestic terrorism” under the law.

Prior to the 2006 enactment of the AETA, animal rights activism that damaged property was already illegal under a 1992 federal law, as well as various state laws, and subject to severe punishments. The primary purpose of the new 2006 law was to expand the scope of criminal offenses to include plainly protected forms of political protest, and to heighten the legal punishments and intensify social condemnation by literally labeling animal-rights activists as “domestic terrorists.”

The factory farm industry and its armies of lobbyists wield great influence in the halls of federal and state power, while animal rights activists wield virtually none. This imbalance has produced increasingly oppressive laws, accompanied by massive law enforcement resources devoted to punishing animal activists even for the most inconsequential nonviolent infractions — as the FBI search warrant and raid in search of “Lucy and Ethel” illustrates.

The U.S. government, of course, has always protected and served the interests of industry. Beginning when most of the nation was fed by small farms, federal agencies have been particularly protective of agricultural industry. That loyalty has only intensified as family farms have nearly disappeared, replaced by industrial factory farms where animals are viewed purely as commodities, instruments for profit, and treated with unconstrained cruelty.

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Downed pigs languish in their own feces at Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farm in Utah.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

Lately, opposition is emerging from unusual places. Utah federal judge Robert J. Shelby, an Obama appointee who is a lifelong Republican, recently struck down the state’s ag-gag law on First Amendment grounds, noting in his ruling:

For as long as farmers have put food on American tables, the government has endeavored to support and protect the agricultural industry. … In short, governmental protection of the American agricultural industry is not new, and has taken a variety of forms over the last two hundred years. What is new, however, is the recent spate of state laws that have assumed an altogether novel approach: restricting speech related to agricultural operations.

As Shelby detailed, those ag-gag laws were not used until activists began having success in showing the public the true extent of cruelty that industrial farms impose on animals:

Nobody was ever charged under these [early ag-gag] laws, and for nearly two decades no new ag-gag legislation was introduced. That changed, however, after a series of high profile undercover investigations were made public in the mid to late 2000s.

To name just a few, in 2007, an undercover investigator at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company in California filmed workers forcing sick cows, many unable to walk, into the “kill box” by repeatedly shocking them with electric prods, jabbing them in the eye, prodding them with a forklift, and spraying water up their noses. A 2009 investigation at Hy-Line Hatchery in Iowa revealed hundreds of thousands of unwanted day-old male chicks being funneled by conveyor belt into a macerator to be ground up live.

That same year, undercover investigators at a Vermont slaughterhouse operated by Bushway Packing obtained similarly gruesome footage of days-old calves being kicked, dragged, and skinned alive. A few years later, an undercover investigator at E6 Cattle Company in Texas filmed workers beating cows on the head with hammers and pickaxes and leaving them to die. And later that year, at Sparboe Farms in Iowa, undercover investigators documented hens with gaping, untreated wounds laying eggs in cramped conditions among decaying corpses.

The publication of these and other undercover videos had devastating consequences for the agricultural facilities involved. The videos led to boycotts of facilities by McDonald’s,Target, Sam’s Club, and others. They led to bankruptcy and closure of facilities and criminal charges against employees and owners. They led to statewide ballot initiatives banning certain farming practices. And they led to the largest meat recall in United States history, a facility’s entire two years’ worth of production. Over the next three years, sixteen states introduced ag-gag legislation.

In other words, both the legislative process and law enforcement agencies are being blatantly exploited — misused — to protect not the property rights but the reputational interests of this industry. Having the FBI — in the midst of real domestic terrorism threats, hurricane-ravaged communities, and intricate corporate criminality — send agents around the country to animal sanctuaries in search of DNA samples for two missing piglets may seem like overkill to the point of being laughable. But it is entirely unsurprising in the context of how law enforcement resources are used, and on whose behalf.

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A piglet at Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farm in Utah.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

Smithfield Food’s defenses

It makes sense that Smithfield Foods would be petrified of the public learning of many of its practices. But in this particular case, they are specifically trying to hide the pure evils of gestational crates. This video, taken by an investigator with the Humane Society in 2012, shows the widespread but hideous reality of gestational crates at a Smithfield farm:

In response to the public controversy over this practice, generated by activists filming what was going on, Smithfield announced in 2012 that they would phase out gestational crating in 10 years — by 2022. They then claimed that by the end of 2017, they would transition completely to “group housing systems.” But as the DxE videos show, gestation crates are exactly what activists found in abundance when they visited Smithfield’s Circle Four.

Indeed, when Wayne Hsiung and DxE visited Circle Four over the summer, they saw no signs whatsoever of any construction or reform efforts to move away from gestational crates, Hsiung told the Intercept. As the videos show, Circle Four had thousands of pigs suffering in such crates. That was where the activists found the two piglets, close to death.

When Smithfield learned that The Intercept was reporting on these issues, a spokesperson emailed a statement and invited further questions. The statement claims that in response to DxE’s reporting, Smithfield “immediately launched an investigation and completed a third-party audit,” and “the audit results show no findings of animal mistreatment.”

This is a typical industry tactic: When they claim, as they almost always do, that their paid auditors discovered “no findings of animal mistreatment,” what they mean is that there was no evidence that their employees engaged in activities that corporate procedures explicitly prohibit (such as beating the animals or administering electric shock).

But what the audit does not do is ask whether the procedures themselves (such as gestational crating) are abusive and thus constitute “mistreatment.” Smithfield failed to provide a response to The Intercept’s follow-up questions about what it does and does not mean when their auditors claim no “mistreatment” was discovered; the company simply reiterated that “the animals observed on the farm by the audit team were in good condition, appeared comfortable, free of clinical disease, and showed no signs of fear or intimidation in the presence of people.” Simply review the DxE video above, and the featured photos showing what they found at Circle Four, to judge for yourself.

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Cramped conditions lead to many pigs being trampled to death at Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farm in Utah.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

In its statement, Smithfield also accused the activists who rescued the two piglets of “risk[ing] the life of the animals they stole and the lives of the animals living on our farms by trespassing” — an odd claim from a company that plans to slaughter all of those same animals. When asked to specify how the activists endangered the lives of the sick animals they rescued, Smithfield told The Intercept that “the video’s creators violated Smithfield’s strict biosecurity policy, which prevents the spread of disease on farms.” The statement added: “The piglets were not ‘extremely ill’ or ‘on the verge of death.’ These piglets, along with other animals living on the farm, are well cared for throughout their lifetime.”

But in response, Hsiung told the Intercept: “Our activists use better biosecurity protocols than the company’s own employees, as evidenced by the dead, rotting piglets on the farm. Allowing baby animals to rot to death is, in fact, a serious violation of biosecurity and food safety. Taking photographs of animal cruelty is not.”

Smithfield also accused the activists of manipulating their film, claiming that “the video appears to be highly edited and even staged in an attempt to manufacture an animal care issue where one does not exist.” But Smithfield did not respond to this question from The Intercept about the staging allegation: “How would these activists stage hundreds of pigs in gestation crates and dozens of piglets rotting to death — all in virtual reality, no less? It would take a Hollywood blockbuster budget and the most sophisticated team of computer-generated imagery for that. What’s Smithfield’s theory about what they fabricated in this video?”

The only specifics Smithfield offered was the assertion that “based on the review of animal care experts, it appears piglets were moved from one section of the barn to another to support the inaccuracies and falsehoods described in the video by its creators.”

But Hsiung said: “The video speaks for itself. I don’t know how we can fake a rotting piglet.” Regarding the accusation that they moved piglets, he added: “I imagine what they are seeing is piglets in the wrong sort of pen, gestation rather than farrowing. But that is a testament to their own failed animal care practices. We were shocked and horrified, as well, to see piglets born and housed in inappropriate conditions that left them exposed to trauma.”

In sum, the industry has long responded to these videos — which they tried in the first instance to use their lobbying power to criminalize — by insisting that the videos are distorted. Yet they never specify what these supposed distortions are. Now that activists are using virtual reality technology, which allows the viewer to see everything the activists see, such claims are even more untenable than they were before.

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A rescued piglet, named Lily, recovers under a blanket.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

Revolving door with agribusiness

A recent change in U.S. political discourse — spurred by events such as the 2008 financial crisis, the Occupy movement, and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign — is the increasingly common use of the words “oligarchy” and “plutocracy” to describe the country’s political system. Though dramatic, the terms, melded together, describe a fairly simple and common state of affairs: power exerted by and exercised for the exclusive benefit of a small group of people who wield the greatest financial power.

It is hard to imagine a more vivid illustration than watching FBI agents don bulletproof vests and execute DNA search warrants for Lily and Lizzie, all to deter and intimidate critics of a savage industry that funds politicians and the lobbyists that direct them.

Substantial attention has been paid over the last several years to the “revolving door” that runs Washington — industry executives being brought in to run the agencies that regulate their industries, followed by them returning to that industry once their industry-serving government work is done. That’s how Wall Street barons come to “regulate” banks, how factory owners come to “regulate” workplace safety laws, how oil executives come to “regulate” environmental protections — only to leave the public sector and return back to lavish rewards from those same industries for a job well done.

Though it receives modest attention, this revolving door spins faster, and in more blatantly sleazy ways, when it comes to the USDA and its mandate to safeguard animal welfare. The USDA is typically dominated by executives from the very factory farm industries that are most in need of vibrant regulation.

For that reason, animal welfare laws are woefully inadequate, but the ways in which they are enforced is typically little more than a bad joke. Industrial farming corporations like Smithfield know they can get away with any abuse or “mislabeling” deceit (such as misleading claims about their treatment of animals) because the officials who have been vested with the sole authority to enforce these laws — federal USDA officials — are so captive to their industry. Courts have repeatedly ruled that private individuals, animal rights groups, and even state authorities have no right to sue to enforce animal welfare laws, because the “exclusive authority” lies with the U.S. government, which has no real interest in actually enforcing those laws.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue addressed the School Nutrition Association convention at the Georgia World Congress Center Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in Atlanta. The former Georgia governor spoke about his decision to relax requirements spearheaded by the Obama administration. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on July 12, 2017, in Atlanta.

Photo: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

The current secretary of agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (pictured, right), is just one example, but he vividly highlights the revolving door form of legalized corruption that dominates this industry.

Perdue was raised on a Georgia row farm and obtained his doctorate in veterinary medicine. Despite those seemingly benign credentials, the factory farm industry celebrated the news of his nomination by President Donald Trump. The National Chicken Council, for instance, demanded that he be “confirmed expeditiously.” The enthusiasm was for good reason.

“Georgia was pretty friendly to food-industry interests during Perdue’s two terms,” Grub Street reported, and Perdue “took about $330,000 in contributions from Monsanto and other agribusinesses for his campaigns.” In 2009, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the lobbying group for genetically modified foods, named Perdue its “Governor of the Year” because, it said, “he has been a stalwart advocate of the biosciences in Georgia and truly understands the promise of our industry.” As Georgia governor, Perdue supported the rapid expansion of factory farm giant Perdue Farms (to which he has no familial relation), with its long history of allegations of animal abuse.

And Perdue has extensive ties to the agribusiness sector he’s now supposed to oversee and regulate. The firm of which he is the founding partner and his family owns and runs, Perdue Partners LLC, is an agribusiness at the heart of this industry:

After being confirmed, Perdue wasted little time lavishing his agribusiness industry with gifts. In February, the USDA “abruptly removed inspection reports and other information from its website about the treatment of animals at thousands of research laboratories, zoos, dog breeding operations and other facilities,” reported the Washington Post. Then, two senators who have received large sums from farmers and ranchers — Democrat Debbie Stabenow and Republican Pat Roberts — agitated for the recession of the Obama administration’s mild regulations on organic eggs, designed to improve conditions for chickens, and the Perdue-led USDA “put the new standard on hold and suggested that it might even be withdrawn.”

In sum, with industry insiders dominating the sole agency (USDA) with the authority to regulate factory farms, animals that are captive, abused, tortured, and slaughtered en masse have little chance, even when it comes to just applying existing laws with a minimal amount of diligence. The politics of the U.S. — including the fact that a key farm state, Iowa, plays such a central role in presidential elections — means there are massive forces arrayed behind factory farms, and very few in support of animal welfare.

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Piglets are raised in cramped, filthy conditions at Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farm in Utah.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

From fringe to the mainstream

But the animal rights movement, despite receiving relatively scant media attention and operating under the threat of federal prosecutions for terrorism, boasts some of the nation’s more effective, shrewd, and tenacious political activists. They have made significant strides in turning the public against the worst of the prevailing practices on these farms, and more generally, in forcing into the public consciousness the knowledge of how this industry imposes suffering, abuse, and torture on living beings on a mass and systematic scale, all to maximize profits. 

Just a decade ago, the cause of animal cruelty and exploitation was a fringe position, rarely appearing outside far-left circles. That has all changed, thanks largely to the efforts of these activists, many of whom have been imprisoned for their efforts. Most activists say that it was unimaginable even a decade ago for major newspaper columnists such as the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof or Frank Bruni to take up their cause, yet that’s precisely what they have done in a series of columns over the last several years.

“If you torture a single chicken and are caught, you’re likely to be arrested. If you scald thousands of chickens alive, you’re an industrialist who will be lauded for your acumen,” Kristof wrote in one 2015 column. He described the savagery of the process used to slaughter chickens by the millions and scornfully dismissed industry’s claim that no abuse or mistreatment was found by their auditors.

In a column the year before, Kristof detailed the barbarism and misleading claims that chickens are “humanely raised” at Perdue Farms — the company USDA Secretary Perdue helped to expand — and concluded: “Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.”

And that’s to say nothing of the other significant costs from industrial farming. There are serious health risks posed by the fecal waste produced at such farms. And the excessive, reckless use of antibiotics common at factory farms can create treatment-resistant bacterial strains capable of infecting and killing humans. There is also increasing awareness that industrial farming meaningfully exacerbates climate problems, with some research suggesting that it produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined. Reviewing the meat industry in 2014, Kristof summarized what he learned this way:

Our industrial food system is unhealthy. It privatizes gains but socializes the health and environmental costs. It rewards shareholders — Tyson’s stock price has quadrupled since early 2009 — but can be ghastly for the animals and humans it touches.

Bruni wrote in a 2014 column headlined “According Animals Dignity” of “a broadening, deepening concern about animals that’s no longer sufficiently captured by the phrase ‘animal welfare.’” Instead of simply curbing the most egregious abuses, he wrote, a more principled awareness of the intrinsic worth and rights of animals is emerging: “an era of what might be called animal dignity is upon us.”

Some progress is indeed undeniable. Laws are being re-written to recognize that dogs and other pets are more than property; places such as Sea World and Ringling Brothers’ circuses can no longer feature imprisoned animals forced to perform; and some states are enacting laws criminalizing the worst extremes of animal cruelty.

One U.S. Senator, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, has placed animal rights protections as one of his legislative priorities. Booker, who has been a vegetarian since college and recently announced his transition to full veganism, has sponsored a spate of bills to fortify the rights of animals: from banning the selling of shark fins to limiting the legal uses of animals for testing to requiring human treatment of animals in all federal facilities.

While he has been attacked by the New York Post for “animal rights extremism” after he announced his veganism, Booker now regularly and unflinchingly invokes the core principles of animal rights: “I want to try to live my own values as consciously and purposefully as I can. Being vegan for me is a cleaner way of not participating in practices that don’t align with my values.” Rather than these legislative efforts being scorned, a spokesman for Booker told the Intercept that “Sens. Merkley and Whitehouse have been reliable allies on animal testing and other efforts; the Shark Fin effort has a number of cosponsors as well; and Sens. Schatz, Markey, Warren, Feinstein, Blumenthal have been partners as well.”

The devastating cost of industrial farming and the mass torture and slaughter on which it depends — moral, spiritual, physical, environmental — are being documented in scholarly circles with increasing clarity. A group of public health specialists jointly wrote in a New York Times op-ed in May: “This sweeping change in meat production and consumption has had grave consequences for our health and environment, and these problems will grow only worse if current trends continue.”

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Rescued pig Lizzie gives affection to her rescuer, Wayne Hsuing of DxE.

Photo: Wayne Hsiung/DxE

In general, the core moral and philosophical question at the heart of animal rights activism is now being seriously debated: Namely, what gives humans the right or justification to abuse, exploit, and torture non-human species? If there comes a day when some other species (broadly defined) — such as machines — surpass humans in intellect and cognitive complexity, will they have a valid moral claim to treat humans as commodities whose suffering and death can be assigned no value?

The irreconcilable contradiction of lavishing love and protection on dogs and cats, while torturing and slaughtering farm animals capable of a deep emotional life and great suffering is becoming increasingly apparent. British anthropologist Jane Goodall, in her groundbreaking book “The Inner World of Farm Animals,” examined the science of animal cognition and concluded: “Farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear, and pain. They are far more aware and intelligent than we ever imagined … They are individuals in their own right.”

All of these changes have been driven by animal rights activists who, often at great risk to themselves, have forced the public to be aware of the savagery and cruelty supported through food consumption choices. That’s precisely why this industry is so obsessed with intimidating, threatening, and outlawing this form of activism: because it is so effective.

Dissidents are tolerated to the extent they remain ineffectual and unthreatening. When they start to become successful — that is, threatening to powerful interests — the backlash is inevitable. The tools used against them are increasingly extreme as their success grows.

To call the FBI’s actions in raiding these animal sanctuaries a profound waste of its resources is both an understatement and beside the point. The real short-term goal is to target those most vulnerable — volunteer-supported animal shelters — to scare them out of taking care of rescued animals. And the ultimate goal is to fortify and intensify a climate of intimidation and fear designed to deter animal rights activists from reporting on the horrifying realities of these factory farms.

There is a temptation to turn away from and ignore this mass suffering and cruelty because it’s so painful to confront, so much more pleasant to remain unaware of it. Animal rights activists are determined to prevent us from doing so, and we should all feel gratitude for their increasing success in making us see what we are enabling when we consume the products of this barbaric and sociopathic industry.

Top photo: Two dying piglets were rescued by Direct Action Everywhere activists from cruel conditions — where they were left to suffer to death — at Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farm in Utah.

The post The FBI’s Hunt for Two Missing Piglets Reveals the Federal Cover-Up of Barbaric Factory Farms appeared first on The Intercept.

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