[16 March 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
This job becomes you. You eat it, you breathe it, you sleep it.
“Pete” lives in scare quotes. He doesn’t go by his real name, and has changed his legal name more than once, to protect his family and hide his past from current acquaintances. He spends his time on the road and alone, living in motels and working crap jobs. Specifically, he works undercover at places where animals are abused, an investigator equipped with a hidden camera and a sense of mission. “There’s a lot of different evils in the world,” observes “Pete.” “But to animals, it happens on a mass scale.”
Pete appears in a minimalist disguise—facial hair, trucker’s cap, and sunglasses—and speaks earnestly, his outrage contained but obvious. Death on a Factory Farm, a documentary by Sarah Teale and Tom Simon, tracks Pete’s efforts to produce evidence of abuse at the Wiles Hog Farm in Creston, Ohio. He’s sent in by the Humane Farming association (HFA), a group that monitors and tries to make legal cases against abusers. “More than 10 billion animals are raised for consumption in the U.S. every year,” reads an explanatory title card at the start of the film. “Most on sprawling, industrialized ‘factory farms.’”
The Wiles operation is both typical and shocking. As Pete says more than once during his assignment, he’s instructed to obtain footage of an especially heinous practice—hanging downed sows to death, by chains on forklifts—as this constitutes the best hope of HFA and their attorneys to convict the Wiles of animal cruelty. “It’s definitely one of the most cruel things I’ve done in my life” Pete says when the animals are killed. “And I will never forget it, but to the rest of these guys, it seemed to be not a big fucking deal” footage shows them smiling and joking, their grins ugly.
When he gets these images, his camera low and the dying animals screaming, the painful mission seems accomplished: “It was the best day for the investigation because I got what I was there to get, but it was a bad day.” He and the original tipster to HFA, a worker on the farm named Ingrid, watch the footage on his laptop. She cries. He’s quiet as she burbles, “That pig wants to live, just like everybody else.”
The problem is that farmers don’t see pigs as anywhere near “like everybody else.” The framers see their livestock as just that—commodities to be produced and sold. This premise, Pete surmises, allows them to toss the pigs like sacks into bins and against walls, pile them on top of one another, keep sows in breeding and farrowing crates for months, such that the animals cannot move and develop sores from rubbing against crate walls and suffering the unstoppable demands of their hungry litters. As Pete says on his first day of the assignment, listing the maltreatments, “This stuff looks really nasty, pigs cannibalizing each other and beating little piglets over the head, that kind of shit… I think this is gonna be some nasty nasty work.”
It is that and worse Much like his previous work for Dealing Dogs, another HBO documentary, on the horrors inflicted by “Class B” dealers of animals to veterinary schools and research labs, this film showcases the undercover footage—usually accompanied by plaintive piano and strings. It further frames and directs your horrified responses to such imagery through Pete’s personal story, his sacrifice, commitment, and anger. A photo of Pete with his childhood best friend, his dog (Pete’s eyes blurred, like the suspects on Cops), he explains, “I have made a conscious decision that I put the animals before myself… It is a lonely fuckin’ life. You’re either out in the middle of nowhere somewhere, working with a bunch of people that you hate, or even if you do make friends out there and some people treat you well, that’s it. You’re not gonna be able to keep in touch with them and say, ‘Hey it’s me, this is what I was really doing, this is why I had to lie to you.’ You just fuckin’ split, and that piece of your life is gone. It is gone forever and you’re never gonna get it back.”
Repressing his emotions in order to do the job, Pete says he’s too much of “an asshole” to sustain a relationship. Instead, as the film shows, he sacrifices himself to the cause—appearing in court and enduring humiliations, seeing video evidence re-read to seem “ambiguous,” or not quite proof of cruelty. If one veterinarian called by the prosecution of the Wiles (father Ken, son Joe) asserts the sow hanging is “animal cruelty” and not in line with Ohio’s vague “protocols on swine euthanasia,” the defense brings in another vet to say, “I can’t tell if the pig is suffering. Tell me what the pig was before it came to this state.”
The film has set up the courtroom scenes so your emotion runs with HFA and Pete. The defendants look snidely, their lawyers wily, and their fellow farmers, who understandably resent such investigations, seem ignorant (“I don’t think we can have these types of people come in here and destroy our business,” offers one dairy farmer outside the courtroom). The over-used piano, the personal melodrama, and the sheer horrors exposed here don’t detract from the central point, however. And that is, that the farmers don’t come up with their cruelties in vacuums and they’re not “bad apples.” While many do follow humane practice guidelines—even if, as the film points out, “Virtually no federal laws mandate the humane treatment of farm animals. Most state laws are weak and rarely enforced”—many others treat their commodities as such. In exposing this behavior, both viscerally and sentimentally, Death on a Factory Farm inspires your outrage, a first step toward changing those laws.