The documentary is from the point of view of the activists and is arguably more important to their efforts than the resulting court case was. The Wiles Farm, owned by Ken Wiles and managed by his son, Joe, handled at the time of the alleged abuses about 6,000 hogs. The footage includes shots of hogs restrained in the narrow pens common in modern large-scale operations, and shows the sores some of the animals develop from rubbing against the edges of the pen, as well as cuts caused by jagged edges on some rusted gates. Though unpleasant to view, such pens are standard operation in the industry these days and are completely legal. Whether they are a fit way for any creature to live is the more emotional question HFA and the filmmakers are raising.
Worse is the handling of piglets. Video footage shows the standard process at the Wiles farm for weaning pigs from the sows: Grabbing the pigs by either the ears or the hind legs and flinging them into a rolling bin about three or four deep. One shot shows an employee’s “pitch” miss the center of the bin, resulting in the pig’s head striking the edge of the bin. The shrieking animal then falls to the ground and attempts to run off. Another shot shows a pig being flung into the bin from around six feet away.
Sick or injured piglets were put down by swinging the animals by the back legs, striking their heads against the wall. Footage shows Joe Wiles handle a pig this way, then drop it in a plastic bucket. When “Pete,” as the undercover worker was known to the Wileses, looks down into the bucket, the pig is still twitching. He informs Wiles, who replies that he should leave it alone, that “it will bleed out.” Another employee in the barn is so visibly disturbed, Wiles takes the next piglet outside, out of view of “Pete” and the other employee, and dispatches it with a hammer.
Extensive shots and pictures show isolation pens for “downers,” which are sows that are no longer able to stand on their own. Though later testimony indicates that there were pans and troughs for hand feeding of such animals, “Pete” saw no such efforts made to bring the animals back to health by hand feeding. In order to maintain his status, “Pete” did not attempt to rescue any of the downers, either. Once the downer pens became overflowing, the hogs started cannibalizing their weak and dying neighbors. At this point, the Wileses elected to euthanize some of the downers, and did so by putting a chain around each animal’s neck and hanging them one at a time from the elevated forks of a front-end loader. Pete’s undercover footage shows a sow struggling and twitching for four to five minutes after being hung.
In the court case, dueling veterinarians made it clear that even experts lack a clear idea of what livestock goes through in a death by hanging. One expert testified that the four- to five-minute span which hanging required was outside what he considered a quick and painless death, therefore he felt it was unnecessary cruelty. Another veterinarian testified that he believed the animal underwent a quick brain death during strangulation, and that the subsequent four or five minutes of twitching were only reflex actions. The prosecution pointed out that hanging hogs is not on the list of recommended methods for livestock euthanization published in extension guides, though the defense countered that there are no standing laws nor regulations forbidding the practice in Ohio. The defense also said that hanging was safer for the farm’s employees than shooting, and more economical than veterinary lethal injection.
The Wayne County judge, himself a farmer, said that he found the hanging of the sow to be “distasteful and offensive,” but that there were no regulations which specifically outlawed the practice and no expert testimony that could affirm beyond a doubt that the practice was cruel to the sow. Thus Ken Wiles was found not guilty. His son, Joe, was found guilty of improper handling in throwing the piglets, and received a $250 fine and one year of probation.
The documentary doesn’t pretend to be unbiased, dwelling with sentimentality on images of the animals and using poignant music to underscore disturbing scenes. Likewise, it skirts the issue of the activists’ morally questionable practices of working undercover and not helping animals which, by their own definition, should be helped. When “Pete” describes his lonely, impermanent, depressed life working undercover, it raises some disturbing questions about unhealthy fanaticism.
But this is not to dismiss the HFA’s point of view, which is the disastrous public relations mistake American farmers keep making. Instead of disingenuously defending modern farming practices as “normal,” it’s about time that farmers own up to it: We, meaning our entire society, have made a “deal with the devil.” Factory farming is not the way farmers have handled animals for thousands of years. But if farmers are asked to supply a huge population with cheap fast food, meat seven days a week, and bargain prices at mega-stores, while at the same time only using minimal space and running it all on minimal commercial margins, then the desensitized, brutal methods of factory farming will be the inevitable result. It’s simple math.
If we want to live “high on the hog,” then we must accept that the hog is going to be on the bottom of the pile. On the other hand, if we want to give hogs better living conditions, we have the right to push for legislation to do so. But we have to choose what we want and not merely blame the farmer for the corner in which we, as a society, have painted him.
“Death on a Factory Farm” debuts Monday at 10 p.m. on HBO, and will be repeated a number of times on that channel and HBO2.