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 the bottoms of the cages were steel slats, so that excrement from the animals in the upper and middle tiers dropped through the slats on to 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 might 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 like 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 a time.
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, they 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 a thousand times by the accumulated wastes of the other pigs unfortunate enough to be caged in that warehouse. I was in the building only for a few minutes, and the longer I remained in 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, 24 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 it was becoming increasingly difficult to hide my distress, it crossed my mind that I should tell him 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 maybe 15 minutes, I’d had enough and was preparing to leave, and I felt sure he was glad to be about to be 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, though 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, nor that my cholesterol was 125.
I was trying 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, if they were in my town, traveling, and I had chanced to meet them, would I 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 moment.
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 constant keel. Perhaps they sensed it too, for among us, we managed to see that the conversation remained, consistently 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 the TV on loud, presumably preparing 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 running, 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, and for a very simple reason. 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 it, the knot in my stomach was relaxing, 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 him 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 how 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 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. . .
We are talking along, when suddenly he 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 they 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, who were as friends to him. And, he tells me, and this I am quite surprised to hear, he had a pet pig.
As he proceeds to tell me about this pig, it is as if he is becoming a different person. Before he had spoken primarily in a monotone; but 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 would sleep in the barn. It was cooler there than in the house, and the pig would come over and sleep alongside 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 would get excited when he did, and would ruin things. The dog would jump into the water and swim 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 people, stepped in and saved the day.
Evidently the pig could swim, for she would plop herself into the water, swim out where the dog was bothering the boy, and insert herself between them. She’d stay between the dog and the boy, and keep 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.
I’m listening to this hog farmer tell me these stories about his pet pig, and I’m thoroughly enjoying both myself and him, and rather astounded at how things are transpiring, when once again, it happens. Once again a look of defeat sweeps across this man’s face, and once again 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 though 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 had 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, which was the place where his love and attachment to that pig was located, which was 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 a result of a lack of feeling, as I had thought it was, but 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 was 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.
I had judged him, and done so, to be honest, mercilessly. But for the rest of the evening I sat with him, humbled, and grateful for whatever it was in him that had been strong enough to force this long-buried and deeply painful memory to the surface. And glad, too, that I had not stayed stuck in my judgments of him, for if I had, I would not have provided an environment in which his remembering could have occurred.
We talked that night, for hours, about many things. I was, after all that had happened, concerned for him. The gap between his feelings and his lifestyle seemed so tragically vast. What could he do? This was all he knew. He did not have a high school diploma. He was only partially literate. Who would hire him if he tried to do something else? Who would invest in him and train him, at his age?
When finally, I left that evening, these questions were very much on my mind, and I had no answers to them. Somewhat flippantly, I tried to joke about it. “Maybe,” I said, “you’ll grow broccoli or something.” He stared at me, clearly not comprehending what I might be talking about. It occurred to me, briefly, that he might possibly not know what broccoli was.
We parted that night as friends, and though we rarely see each other now, we have remained friends as the years have passed. I carry him in my heart and think of him, in fact, as a hero. Because, as you will soon see, impressed as I was by the courage it had taken for him to allow such painful memories to come to the surface, I had not yet seen the extent of his bravery.
When I wrote Diet for a New America, I quoted him and summarized what he had told me, but I was quite brief and did not mention his name. I thought that, living as he did among other pig farmers in Iowa, it would not be to his benefit to be associated with me.
When the book came out, I sent him a copy, saying I hoped he was comfortable with how I wrote of the evening we had shared, and directing him to the pages on which my discussion of our time together was to be found.
Several weeks later, I received a letter from him. “Dear Mr. Robbins,” it began. “Thank you for the book. When I saw it, I got a migraine headache.”
Now as an author, you do want to have an impact on your readers. This, however, was not what I had had in mind.
He went on, though, to explain that the headaches had gotten so bad that, as he put it, “the wife” had suggested to him he should perhaps read the book. She thought there might be some kind of connection between the headaches and the book. He told me that this hadn’t made much sense to him, but he had done it because “the wife” was often right about these things.
“You write good,” he told me, and I can tell you that his three words of his meant more to me than when the New York Times praised the book profusely. He then went on to say that reading the book was very hard for him, because the light it shone on what he was doing made it clear to him that it was wrong to continue. The headaches, meanwhile, had been getting worse, until, he told me, that very morning, when he had finished the book, having stayed up all night reading, he went into the bathroom, and looked into the mirror. “I decided, right then,” he said, “that I would sell my herd and get out of this business. I don’t know what I will do, though. Maybe I will, like you said, grow broccoli.”
As it happened, he did sell his operation in Iowa and move back to Missouri, where he bought a small farm. And there he is today, running something of a model farm. He grows vegetables organically—including, I am sure, broccoli—that he sells at a local farmer’s market. He’s got pigs, all right, but only about 10, and he doesn’t cage them, nor does he kill them. Instead, he’s got a contract with local schools; they bring kids out in buses on field trips to his farm, for his “Pet-a-pig” program. He shows them how intelligent pigs are and how friendly they can be if you treat them right, which he now does. He’s arranged it so the kids, each one of them, gets a chance to give a pig a belly rub. He’s become nearly a vegetarian himself, has lost most of his excess weight, and his health has improved substantially. And, thank goodness, he’s actually doing better financially than he was before.
Do you see why I carry this man with me in my heart? Do you see why he is such a hero to me? He dared to leap, to risk everything, to leave what was killing his spirit even though he didn’t know what was next. He left behind a way of life that he knew was wrong, and he found one that he knows is right.
When I look at many of the things happening in our world, I sometimes fear we won’t make it. But when I remember this man and the power of his spirit, and when I remember that there are many others whose hearts beat to the same quickening pulse, I think we will.
I can get tricked into thinking there aren’t enough of us to turn the tide, but then I remember how wrong I was about the pig farmer when I first met him, and I realize that there are heroes afoot everywhere. Only I can’t recognize them because I think they are supposed to look or act a certain way. How blinded I can be by my own beliefs.
The man is one of my heroes because he reminds me that we can depart from the cages we build for ourselves and for each other, and become something much better. He is one of my heroes because he reminds me of what I hope someday to become.
When I first met him, I would not have thought it possible that I would ever say the things I am saying here. But this only goes to show how amazing life can be, and how you never really know what to expect. The pig farmer has become, for me, a reminder never to underestimate the power of the human heart.
I consider myself privileged to have spent that day with him, and grateful that I was allowed to be a catalyst for the unfolding of his spirit. I know my presence served him in some way, but I also know, and know full well, that I received far more than I gave.
To me, this is grace—to have the veils lifted from our eyes so that we can recognize and serve the goodness in each other. Others may wish for great riches or for ecstatic journeys to mystical planes, but to me, this is the magic of human life.