A person steps out of a pickup truck and begins walking into a farm building. The words “Undercover on the Wiles Hog Farm, Creston, Ohio” come onto the screen. The picture is shaky; the images are grainy and reflect odd angles as the person walks through a grimy pathway.
“February 2006” flashes up next. The first in-focus image is a large hog, presumably dead in an alley way. The next shot, taken through fan louvers, shows more dead hogs piled up outside, with two dogs climbing on the carcasses.
If you don’t have HBO find someone who does and invite yourself over for a viewing on March 16. Warning: You are not going to like what you see.
At 9 p.m. Central time, HBO will air a documentary film called “Death on a Factory Farm.” I’m not trying to boost HBO’s ratings for this film, but you need to see it. (If you do miss it, check the listings because HBO tends to re-run shows; also you can often rent a copy.)
I received an advanced copy from HBO’s public-relations agency because a representative thought I would be interested in the documentary. Indeed I am, and you should be too.
The nearly 90-minute film follows an investigation of the Wiles hog farm in central Ohio. You may remember hearing about the case. The Humane Farming Association hired an independent animal-rights investigator, “Pete,” to work on the farm to shoot undercover video and photos for an animal cruelty case. Another employee, Ingrid, contacted HFA asking the animal-rights group to investigate the farm. She eventually helped “Pete” get a job there. The documentary moves through six weeks on the farm, offers personal insight into “Pete” and follows the case into a municipal courthouse in Wooster, Ohio, on June 19-20, 2007.
Make no mistake, this is not about one farm; it’s about an industry, and not just the pork industry — it’s about animal agriculture. They even worked turkey slaughter images into the film. “The farm is typical of the industrialized ‘factory’ farms,” according to the PR pitch.
“More than 10 million animals are raised for consumption in the U.S. every year, most on sprawling, industrialized ‘factory farms’,” are the next words on the screen.
“Virtually no federal laws mandate the humane treatment of farm animals. Most state laws are weak and barely enforced.
“Animal-rights groups have turned to undercover investigators to help expose abuse on factory farms.”
The implication, if the animal-rights groups don’t bring you the truth, no one else will.
It’s not even five minutes into the film and the documentary has already painted you as the bad guys and the animal-rights groups as the good guys — “who else will speak for these animals” is the repeated message. You get painted in less caring and greedier shades from that point on.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of the on-farm practices, although I will say that many were not acceptable in my book. There is simply no reason to handle hogs that roughly, and there was a definite macho tone and attitude among the workers, including the owner’s son, which needed serious adjustment. The farm’s sow euthanasia method was not among the industry’s “approved” options. (See “Euthanasia: It’s about Animal Care” on page 14.)
In all, 10 counts of animal cruelty charges were filed. Five were dismissed before the trial. The defendants — the owner, his son and an employee — were acquitted of the remaining charges, except one. The son received a $250 fine and a year of probation for “improperly carrying or transporting animals.”
That was by no means a victory. In some ways the trial has just begun, and it’s going to include you. California’s passage of Proposition 2 in November has emboldened the animal activists. The documentary even cites Prop 2 as well as the measures in Florida and Arizona.
As I write this, the Humane Society of the United States has announced similar efforts targeted in Illinois and Ohio, and will likely move to more states. HSUS’ president is charged-up to expand such efforts in Congress. “The time is right for responsible reforms,” he says.
The film plays heavily on people’s pet-based emotions. At one point, an HFA staffer, explaning his frustrations in getting the sheriff to go to the farm and investigate, says, “I finally equated it to stringing up a dog in a park….wouldn’t you do something about that?”
He continues, “That’s one of the problems. People haven’t evolved their compassion to farm animals.”
The film’s most dominant message leaves the viewer with is: There are no laws to protect farm animals, only recommendations and guidelines, and even the industry’s own experts can’t agree on what’s right or wrong, what’s torture and what’s not. The resounding implication is it will never change unless you, the voter, do it through legislation.
As the HFA president points out, “People all across the country have seen this video footage. It has been a window to the daily operations of the pork industry in this country.”
Of course, that’s not true, but viewers won’t know that.
The film ends with “Pete” petting a large, white sow lying in pen with wood shavings. “If more people saw farm animals like this, a lot less people would be eating them, that’s for sure,” he says.
Watch this film. Pick it apart all you like, but take it seriously. This is not one film, this is not one viewing, this is not even one farm’s or one industry’s issue. It is long overdue that all sectors of animal agriculture seriously and cohesively work together.