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NO HAPPY COWS
Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution
By JOHN ROBBINS
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2012 John Robbins
All rights reserved.
The Metamorphosis of a Pig Farmer
This story, which I first told in The Food Revolution, has generated such enthusiastic response that I decided to include an updated version of it here.
One day in Iowa, I met a particular gentleman—and I use that term, gentleman, frankly, only because I am trying to be polite, for that is certainly not how I saw him at the time. He owned and ran what he called a "pork production facility." I, on the other hand, would have called it a pig Auschwitz.
The conditions were brutal. The pigs were confined in cages that were barely larger than their own bodies, with the cages stacked on top of each other in tiers, three high. The sides and bottoms of the cages were steel slats, so that excrement from the animals in the upper and middle tiers dropped through the slats onto the animals below.
The aforementioned owner of this nightmare weighed, I am sure, at least 240 pounds, but what was even more impressive about his appearance was that he seemed to be made out of concrete. His movements had all the fluidity and grace of a brick wall.
What made him even less appealing was that his language seemed to consist mainly of grunts, many of which sounded alike to me, and none of which were particularly pleasant to hear. Seeing how rigid he was and sensing the overall quality of his presence, I—rather brilliantly, I thought—concluded that his difficulties had not arisen merely because he hadn't had time, that particular morning, to finish his entire daily yoga routine.
But I wasn't about to divulge my opinions of him or his operation, for I was undercover, visiting slaughterhouses and feedlots to learn what I could about modern meat production. There were no bumper stickers on my car, and my clothes and hairstyle were carefully chosen to give no indication that I might have philosophical leanings other than those that were common in the area. I told the farmer matter-of-factly that I was a researcher writing about animal agriculture, and asked if he'd mind speaking with me for a few minutes so that I could have the benefit of his knowledge. In response, he grunted a few words that I could not decipher, but that I gathered meant I could ask him questions and he would show me around.
I was, at this point, not very happy about the situation, and this feeling did not improve when we entered one of the warehouses that housed his pigs. In fact, my distress increased, for I was immediately struck by what I can only call an overpowering olfactory experience. The place reeked in a way you would not believe of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other noxious gases that were the products of the animals' wastes. These, unfortunately, seemed to have been piling up inside the building for far too long.
As nauseating as the stench was for me, I wondered what it must be like for the animals. The cells that detect scent are known as ethmoidal cells. Pigs, like dogs, have nearly 200 times the concentration of these cells in their noses as humans do. In a natural setting, they are able, while rooting around in the dirt, to detect the scent of an edible root through the earth itself.
Given any kind of a chance, pigs will never soil their own nests, for they are actually quite clean animals, despite the reputation we have unfairly given them. But here they had no contact with the earth, and their noses were beset by the unceasing odor of their own urine and feces multiplied 1,000 times by the accumulated wastes of the other pigs unfortunate enough to be caged in that warehouse. I was in the building for only a few minutes, and the longer I remained there, the more desperately I wanted to leave. But the pigs were prisoners there, barely able to take a single step, forced to endure this stench, and almost completely immobile, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and with no time off, I can assure you, for holidays.
The man who ran the place was—I'll give him this—kind enough to answer my questions, which were mainly about the drugs he used to handle the problems that are fairly common in factory pigs today. But my sentiments about him and his farm were not becoming any warmer. It didn't help when, in response to a particularly loud squealing from one of the pigs, he delivered a sudden and threatening kick to the bars of its cage, causing a loud "clang" to reverberate through the warehouse and leading to screaming from many of the pigs.
Because I found it increasingly difficult to hide my distress, it crossed my mind that I should tell the man what I thought of the conditions in which he kept his pigs, but then I thought better of it. This was a man, it was obvious, with whom there was no point in arguing.
After perhaps fifteen minutes, I'd had enough and was preparing to leave. Moreover, I felt sure he was looking forward to getting rid of me. But then something happened, something that changed my life forever—and, as it turns out, his too. It began when his wife came out from the farmhouse and cordially invited me to stay for dinner.
The pig farmer grimaced when his wife spoke, but he dutifully turned to me and announced: "The wife would like you to stay for dinner." He always called her "the wife," by the way, which led me to deduce that he was not, apparently, on the leading edge of feminist thought in the country today.
I don't know whether you have ever done something without having a clue why, and to this day I couldn't tell you what prompted me to do it, but I said "Yes, I'd be delighted." And stay for dinner I did, although I didn't eat the pork they served. The excuse I gave was that my doctor was worried about my cholesterol. I didn't say that I was a vegetarian, or that my cholesterol was 125.
I tried to be a polite and appropriate dinner guest. I didn't want to say anything that might lead to any kind of disagreement. The couple (and their two sons, who were also at the table) were, I could see, being nice to me, giving me dinner and all, and it was gradually becoming clear to me that, along with all the rest of it, they could be, in their way, somewhat decent people. I asked myself whether, if they were traveling in my town and I had chanced to meet them, I would have invited them to dinner. Not likely, I knew—not likely at all. Yet here they were, being as hospitable to me as they could. Yes, I had to admit it. Much as I detested how the pigs were treated, this pig farmer wasn't actually the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler. At least, not at the dinner table.
Of course, I still knew that, if we were to scratch the surface, we'd no doubt find ourselves in great conflict and, because that was not a direction in which I wanted to go, as the meal went along I sought to keep things on an even and consistent keel. Perhaps they sensed it too, for among us, we managed to see that the conversation remained completely and resolutely shallow.
We talked about the weather, about the Little League games in which their two sons played, and then, of course, about how the weather might affect the Little League games. We were actually doing rather well at keeping the conversation superficial and far from any topic around which conflict might occur. Or so I thought. But then suddenly, out of nowhere, the man pointed at me forcefully with his finger, and snarled in a voice that I must say truly frightened me: "Sometimes I wish you animal rights people would just drop dead."
How on Earth he knew I had any affinity to animal rights I will never know—I had painstakingly avoided any mention of any such thing—but I do know that my stomach tightened immediately into a knot. To make matters worse, at that moment his two sons leapt from the table, tore into the den, slammed the door behind them, and turned on the TV, cranking up the volume presumably to drown out what was to follow. At the same instant, his wife nervously picked up some dishes and scurried into the kitchen. As I watched the door close behind her and heard the water begin to run, I had a sinking sensation. They had—there was no mistaking it—left me alone with him.
I was, to put it bluntly, terrified. Under the circumstances, a wrong move now could be disastrous. Trying to center myself, I tried to find some semblance of inner calm by watching my breath, but this I could not do—for the very simple reason that there wasn't any to watch.
"What are they saying that's so upsetting to you?" I said finally, pronouncing the words carefully and distinctly, trying not to show my terror. I was trying very hard at that moment to disassociate myself from the animal rights movement, a force in our society of which he, evidently, was not overly fond.
"They accuse me of mistreating my stock," he growled.
"Why would they say a thing like that?" I answered, knowing full well, of course, why they would, but thinking mostly about my own survival. His reply, to my surprise, while angry, was actually quite articulate. He told me precisely what animal rights groups were saying about operations like his, and exactly why they were opposed to his way of doing things. Then, without pausing, he launched into a tirade about how he didn't like being called cruel, and they didn't know anything about the business he was in, and why couldn't they mind their own business.
As he spoke, the knot in my stomach relaxed, because it was becoming clear—and I was glad of it—that he meant me no harm, but just needed to vent. Part of his frustration, it seemed, was that, even though he didn't like doing some of the things he did to the animals—cooping them up in such small cages, using so many drugs, taking the babies away from their mothers so quickly after their births—he didn't see that he had any choice. He would be at a disadvantage and unable to compete economically if he didn't do things that way. This is how it's done today, he told me, and he had to do it too. He didn't like it, but he liked even less being blamed for doing what he had to do in order to feed his family.
As it happened, I had, just the week before, been at a much larger hog operation, where I learned that it was part of their business strategy to try to put people like my host out of business by going full-tilt into the mass production of assembly-line pigs so that small farmers wouldn't be able to keep up. What I had heard corroborated everything he was saying.
Almost despite myself, I began to grasp the poignancy of this man's human predicament. I was in his home because he and his wife had invited me to be there. And looking around, it was obvious that they were having a hard time making ends meet. Things were threadbare. This family was on the edge.
Raising pigs, apparently, was the only way the farmer knew to make a living, so he did it even though, as was becoming evident the more we talked, he didn't like one bit the direction hog farming was going. At times, as he spoke about how much he hated the modern factory methods of pork production, he reminded me of the very animal rights people who, a few minutes before, he had said he wished would drop dead.
As the conversation progressed, I actually began to develop some sense of respect for this man whom I had earlier judged so harshly. There was decency in him. There was something within him that meant well. But as I began to sense a spirit of goodness in him, I could only wonder all the more how he could treat his pigs the way he did. Little did I know that I was about to find out.
As we talk, he suddenly looks troubled. He slumps over, his head in his hands. He looks broken, and there is a sense of something awful having happened.
Has he had a heart attack? A stroke? I'm finding it hard to breathe, and hard to think clearly. "What's happening?" I ask.
It takes him awhile to answer, but finally he does. I am relieved that he is able to speak, although what he says hardly brings any clarity to the situation. "It doesn't matter," he says, "and I don't want to talk about it." As he speaks, he makes a motion with his hand, as if he were pushing something away.
For the next several minutes, we continue to converse, but I'm quite uneasy. Things seem incomplete and confusing. Something dark has entered the room, and I don't know what it is or how to deal with it.
Then, as we are speaking, it happens again. Once again a look of despondency comes over him. Sitting there, I know I'm in the presence of something bleak and oppressive. I try to be present with what's happening, but it's not easy. Again, I'm finding it hard to breathe.
Finally, he looks at me and I notice his eyes are teary. "You're right," he says. I, of course, always like to be told that I am right, but in this instance, I don't have the slightest idea what he's talking about.
He continues. "No animal," he says, "should be treated like that. Especially hogs. Do you know that they're intelligent animals? They're even friendly, if you treat 'em right. But I don't."
There are tears welling up in his eyes. And he tells me that he has just had a memory come back of something that happened in his childhood, something he hasn't thought of for many years. It's come back in stages, he says.
He grew up, he tells me, on a small farm in rural Missouri, the old-fashioned kind where animals ran around, with barnyards and pastures, and where the animals all had names. I learn, too, that he was an only child, the son of a powerful father who ran things with an iron fist. With no brothers or sisters, he often felt lonely, but found companionship among the animals on the farm, particularly several dogs that were like friends to him. And, he tells me—and this I am quite surprised to hear—he had a pet pig.
As he tells me about this pig, it is as if he becomes a different person. Before, he had spoken primarily in a monotone; now, his voice grows lively. His body language, which until this point seemed to speak primarily of long suffering, now becomes animated. There is something fresh taking place.
In the summer, he tells me, he slept in the barn. It was cooler there than in the house, and the pig often came over to sleep beside him, asking fondly to have her belly rubbed, which he was glad to do.
There was a pond on their property, he goes on, and he liked to swim in it when the weather was hot, but one of the dogs always got excited when he did and ruined things, jumping into the water and swimming up on top of him, scratching him with her paws and making things miserable for him. He was about to give up on swimming, but then, as fate would have it, the pig, of all creatures, stepped in and saved the day.
Evidently the pig could swim, for she plopped herself into the water, swam out to where the dog was bothering him, and inserted herself between them. She stayed between the dog and the boy, keeping the dog at bay. She was, as best I could make out, functioning in the situation something like a lifeguard—or in this case, perhaps more of a life-pig.
As I listen to this hog farmer tell me these stories about his pet pig, I'm thoroughly enjoying both myself and him, and am rather astounded at how things are transpiring. Then, it happens again—a look of defeat sweeps across the man's face and I sense the presence of something very sad. Something in him, I know, is struggling to make its way toward life through anguish and pain, but I don't know what it is or how, indeed, to help him.
"What happened to your pig?" I ask.
He sighs, and it's as if the whole world's pain is contained in that sigh. Then, slowly, he speaks. "My father made me butcher it."
"Did you?" I ask.
"I ran away, but I couldn't hide. They found me."
"My father gave me a choice."
"What was that?"
"He told me, 'You either slaughter that animal or you're no longer my son.'"
Some choice, I think, feeling the weight of how fathers have so often trained their sons not to care, to be what they call brave and strong, but what so often turns out to be callous and closed-hearted.
"So I did it," he says, and now his tears begin to flow, making their way down his cheeks. I am touched and humbled. This man, whom I had judged to be without human feeling, is weeping in front of me, a stranger. This man, whom I had seen as callous and even heartless, is actually someone who cares, and deeply. How wrong, how profoundly and terribly wrong, I had been.
In the minutes that follow, it becomes clear to me what has been happening. The pig farmer has remembered something that was so painful, that was such a profound trauma, that he had not been able to cope with it when it happened. Something had shut down then. It was just too much to bear.
Somewhere in his young, formative psyche, he made a resolution never to be that hurt again, never to be that vulnerable again. And he built a wall around the place where the pain had occurred, the place where his love and attachment to that pig was located—his heart. And now here he was, slaughtering pigs for a living—still, I imagined, seeking his father's approval. God, what we men will do, I thought, to get our fathers' acceptance.
I had thought he was a cold and closed human being, but now I saw the truth. His rigidity was not the result of a lack of feeling, as I had thought it was. Quite the opposite: it was a sign of how sensitive he was underneath. For if he had not been so sensitive, he would not have been that hurt, and he would not have needed to put up so massive a wall. The tension in his body that had been so apparent to me upon first meeting him, the body armor that he carried, bespoke how hurt he had been and how much capacity for feeling he carried still, beneath it all.
Excerpted from NO HAPPY COWS by JOHN ROBBINS. Copyright © 2012 John Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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