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October 2022 Issue [Letter from Iowa]

Standing Trial

Should we care about animal liberation?
Tractors collecting dead pigs at an Iowa Select Farms facility. All photographs and video stills courtesy Direct Action Everywhere

Tractors collecting dead pigs at an Iowa Select Farms facility. All photographs and video stills courtesy Direct Action Everywhere

[Letter from Iowa]

Standing Trial

Should we care about animal liberation?

Matt Johnson wanted me to watch a protest at a chicken slaughterhouse, and I didn’t want to go. As the press coordinator for the animal-rights group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), Matt’s job is to get journalists interested in these kinds of events, and he was trying pretty hard in his texts to me, insisting that the event was a big deal. It didn’t sound like one to me; it sounded like something I’d already read about dozens of times. I figured that if I went, I’d loiter at a lawful distance from the activists chaining themselves to private property, take notes, have trouble finding somewhere to pee, and wonder when it would be acceptable to leave without appearing rude or lacking in compassion for the chickens. Then it would end. I would puzzle over how to make this particular protest interesting to readers who, I’m pretty sure, would likewise have seen the scene depicted many times before, and who therefore would not be surprised by another afternoon of civil disobedience at a chicken plant, which, as far as I could tell, was bad in all the usual ways—the facts of which, however bloody and scary, are described as legal by the agencies governing the conversion of animal to meat, and in which I suspect few people are all that interested.

I don’t eat any animals or products made from animals, but my family and friends do. I imagine that if they were to read an article about a protest at a giant slaughterhouse, they’d say they don’t eat chicken produced in such an inhumane facility. (They would be wrong, since nearly all the animals eaten in the United States are raised and slaughtered at such places.) Or they just wouldn’t read it, ignorance—real or feigned—being the condition that allows us to keep doing the things that we sort of suspect are not aligned with our morals. Or, most likely, they would read the article and promptly forget it.

So I didn’t go. It was a September morning in Berkeley, California, and I met Matt in a basement apartment where he was sending emails to journalists he hoped would attend and write about the event. I was hoping he could tell me something about how to get other people not only to say that they care about animals, but to act like it. He seemed like someone who would know, and not just because it is his job to persuade the press and the public to pay attention. Matt was nearing the end of the Animal Liberation Conference, an annual week of training sessions, parties, and protests that DxE hosts in the Bay Area. The festivities had begun days earlier with a joyous march through San Francisco (“I think they want to get rid of all the chickens and pigs,” an onlooker muttered into his phone. “No, no, I don’t know why”), and were reaching an apex with the protest at the Foster Farms slaughterhouse in the California inland. The activists were going to park a U-Haul sideways across an entrance and chain themselves to the vehicle, thereby preventing trucks full of chickens from entering the plant.

DxE is what you might call a radical group. It is not like the Animal Liberation Front, which in the Eighties set fire to laboratories that tested products on animals. Nor is it like more polite organizations, such as the Humane Society or your local animal shelter, whose activities, like exposing dog abusers or sheltering stray cats, fall well within the law. DxE’s civil disobedience is non-violent, but it is still civil disobedience—which is to say, its members do break the law. DxE members, of which they estimate there are around a thousand, have to date been charged with more than ninety felonies, mostly for removing animals from slaughterhouses or factory farms, and for documenting these places on camera. They have done so at goat farms and beagle breeders, and at facilities that supply eggs to Whole Foods and Costco.

The apartment from which Matt was making press calls belonged to Almira Tanner, a former occupational therapist who has served as the lead organizer of DxE since 2019, and who was kneeling on the floor, trying to send thirty thousand text messages about the protest, pressing enter on her computer keyboard over and over again. Another DxE member was running a Facebook Live video, toggling between cameras trained on Foster Farms and one fixed on Cassie King, a twenty-four-year-old Berkeley graduate who was sitting next to him in front of a green screen, eating leftover Chinese takeout for breakfast. At the slaughterhouse, one activist filmed police officers amassing around the U-Haul. “They’re not going to admit it, but they have no idea what to do,” she said. In the apartment, Matt reported that the local Fox affiliate had responded affirmatively to his emailed pitch, as had a local paper, the Merced Sun-Star.

By noon, the police had begun to get the activists out of their chains. This was surprising to the organizers, who had hoped that the restraints would withstand whatever tools the local police had at their disposal. The activists discussed redoing the blockade, in part to boost the morale of the activists who were going to spend the weekend in jail. But they decided against it. Cassie told the audience that the day had been a success. “It’s got me really inspired that the world just changed for four individuals”—by which she meant four chickens that DxE members had taken from the delivery truck.

That evening, I drove to Matt’s apartment. He appeared to be more frustrated than his colleagues about the protest, which in his opinion hadn’t been a good strategic move. Better, he thought, to have chosen a target of more interest to the press—something that advertised itself as organic and humane, and which thereby could be condemned as deceitful, because, chances are, it wasn’t as clean as it claimed. If you want to convince people to care about an issue, you might have to proceed at an angle, posing the issue as something they already feel passionate about, such as truth in advertising. The political scientist Erica Chenoweth has argued that you have to persuade about 3.5 percent of a population to take action for a cause before you can enact real change. This sounds simple, but depending on the location that figure can represent an enormous number of people (in Berkeley, where DxE is concentrated, it amounts to about four thousand residents; nationwide, the number is nearly twelve million). Achieving that goal requires the constant conversion of hostile opponents into passive supporters, and passive supporters into active participants. According to Matt, that means you have to get media attention, and to do so Matt believed you needed something beyond protests. His suspicion is that journalists don’t give a shit about protests, but that they do care about people going on trial. Most readers care about humans, not pigs. What gets us going is a compelling main character facing many years in prison, not several million pigs spending a lifetime in circumstances that make prison look comparatively relaxing.

“This stuff is not as interesting to press as you would think,” Matt said. “To get people to care about an issue, even if it’s an animal issue, you have to make it about you, a person. Which is playing into people’s speciesism, but it’s kind of what works. People are so much more interested in human suffering.”

I could see what he meant. After all, there I was, meeting with a man who was about to go on trial for trespassing on an Iowa pig farm. In three months, Matt would attempt to convince twelve jurors that a possibly radical and definitely felonious choice he made in 2020—to take a piglet off a farm—was a moral one for which he should not be sent to prison for eight years. The district court in Iowa called what he’d done burglary and trespassing; one Iowan official called it “disgusting.” Matt called it a rescue, and he didn’t deny that he’d done it. He considered it necessary. By that he meant not just that the piglet was entitled to his life, but that he was running out of ways to convince people to hear him out.

Matt Johnson holding Gilly

Matt Johnson holding Gilly

It’s hard to get people to listen to animal-rights activists anywhere, animal rights being the neglected youngest sibling of even the most committed leftist. Yet it’s particularly challenging in Iowa, where bacon is an unusually good metonym for money. The pork producers are rich, and it’s their cash that funds the lawmakers who in turn help the pork producers get richer. The paradox of animal-rights activism is that the states with the greatest number of animals in the poorest shape—California has judged the means by which Iowan pork is produced so appalling that it has de facto banned the import of most Iowan pork—are the most resistant to change. This is why Matt was excited to have found, in his opinion, the perfect Iowa case: perfect because it involved a corporation so objectionable that not even a meat-eating Republican could be indifferent to the suffering of its animals. Also, if he could be so bold, perfect because he would make a stellar defendant. Matt, who is thirty-six, was born in Iowa, and lived there until his mid-twenties; he is also a former national guardsman who, with his buzz cut and rigorous weight-lifting routine, looks like he might follow a keto diet, or attend the occasional MAGA rally. In other words, Matt is the kind of straight white man a lot of people in Iowa feel inclined to trust.

When Matt told me it made practical sense to go to prison for a piglet (whose name, by the way, is Gilly), and for however many animals would be saved by the press attention his trial would receive, by the legislative reforms that people, having read about him, would pressure their legislators to pass, or by the people who might be inspired to follow his example, I believed him. “I think about the grand accounting of the universe, the harm and suffering and violence, versus well-being and goodness, and who can even wrap their head around that?” he asked. “I’m just trying to move the needle in this one way that makes sense.”

Most people, actually, probably think that Matt’s logic is at least somewhat sound. A 2019 poll found that almost 70 percent of respondents supported ending all animal cruelty and suffering; four years earlier, another poll had found that almost a third of Americans said they believed animals should be given the same rights as people. Yet in 2018, meat consumption reached a record high in the United States; the average family of four ate 197 animals. The reasons for this cognitive dissonance are complicated, an obvious one being that change is hard. Eating meat is not unlike all the other ways in which we destroy our own ideals; we forsake our principles when it is convenient to do so. Most of our moral choices are unpoliced, except by way of our own conscience. Coming to see animals as moral beings, then, is not unlike a religious conversion. Like the converted, who hope for others to feel God’s love, so too do vegans hope for others to know a world other than the one darkened by factory farms—a world less cruel, more merciful.

When Matt was in middle school, his parents divorced. He was raised in the faith of his father, who was a Jehovah’s Witness. Matt believed what his preacher said about the end times. Still, he would have liked to know how many doors he had to knock on to guarantee salvation. Evangelizing was embarrassing. He wouldn’t even do it for the animals, whom he had by then decided not to eat (at age four he had already connected “meat” with “animal”) while also trying to make it extremely clear that he’d rather people overlook this oddity. He pushed food around at Thanksgiving, ate quickly at school, and generally deflected when asked why he didn’t eat what everyone else did. At the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, he joined a frat, got a job in construction, and fried his face red. He graduated with a degree in accounting, but jobs being largely unavailable in 2008, he ultimately joined the National Guard. He had no particularly good reason for doing so, except that it was something to do.

He was neither happy nor unhappy when, one night in 2013, he saw a video on Facebook in which a DxE member walked into a steak house and began to shout. The organization had been founded earlier that year. Matt started clicking on other DxE videos, and as he watched he began to cry, then laugh, unsure of what he was feeling aside from a certainty, rising within him, that he had found his purpose. He got in touch with the group and started participating in protests in Iowa, which he found lonely. The people there seemed interested in only mild progress, like persuading restaurants to add vegan burgers to their menus.

In 2016, Matt moved to California on a DxE stipend and found friends who agreed that the urgency of animal rights required more investment than someone working a typical nine-to-five could offer, and often more than someone with a spouse or a child could provide. It seemed to him that there was something topsy-turvy about the way that the world was organized—not just the subjugation of animals, but the way that people were so determined to create and sequester themselves in closed-off family units, without regard for the desperate needs of many beings, including millions of farm animals.

It was around 2018 that Matt began to seriously consider setting himself on fire. But when he looked into the idea, he found that a climate activist who had self-immolated in Brooklyn that year hadn’t garnered much press. It may or may not have been a coincidence that it was around then that he started to spend time with a woman named Kecia Doolittle, a fellow activist. Like Matt, Kecia was the child of a truck driver. She was from a small town in Washington and had gotten involved with DxE after admiring its efforts to ban fur sales. The two met at a party. Kecia has dark hair and dark eyes. When she looked at him, she perceived an amazing warmth. After they’d gotten together, one of her new DxE friends remarked to her that she had never seen Matt so interested in a woman. Kecia found this surprising—to her, Matt didn’t seem interested in talking about anything besides animal rights, and he especially did not want to talk about feelings. But when she asked Matt to please try to tell her how he felt, he said, “I find myself wanting to be with you all the time.”

They’d been dating for a week when Matt asked Kecia if she wanted to go to his brother’s wedding, in northeast Iowa, but also, more importantly, if she wanted to investigate some Iowan pig farms. She said yes. In April 2019, the couple went to the wedding and on unsanctioned tours of farms owned by the Iowan state senator Ken Rozenboom, taking photos of pigs whose rectums were hanging out of their anuses. (When DxE published the images, the senator told a reporter that “there were things that not ought to have happened, that we’re not okay with.”) Matt and Kecia went back to Berkeley and moved in together. The next year, an employee at Iowa Select Farms contacted DxE to say that while Rozenboom’s farms were awful, those run by his employer were much worse.

Iowa Select Farms (ISF) is a private company that operates eight hundred pig farms. In 2011, undercover investigators with Mercy for Animals documented abuses so shocking inside one of its facilities (piglets’ testicles were ripped off without anesthetic; sows labored with open sores) that many of the Midwest’s largest meat suppliers temporarily stopped carrying its products. But by 2019, Kim Reynolds, the state’s Republican governor, was appearing at a charity gala run by ISF’s owner, Jeff Hansen, who had given nearly $300,000 to her campaign. An auctioned-off lunch with her sold for more than $4,000, and the winning bidder was the owner of yet another giant pork company, which would later be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for fraud. ISF now sells its pigs to distributors like Tyson Foods and JBS, which are responsible for brand names like Jimmy Dean, Swift, and Hillshire Farm. And, like all of Iowa’s massive pork producers, ISF is very important to the state: in Iowa Falls, where ISF is headquartered, the hospital is called the Hansen Family Hospital.

The whistleblower, who later identified himself as Lucas Walker, was an ISF truck driver. As a small-time cattle farmer, Walker did not object to eating animals, but he did object to the industrial farming processes that make mass meat consumption possible. In April 2020, shortly after receiving his email, Matt and Kecia flew back to Iowa. It was a busy month. Matt and his colleagues snuck into an ISF facility, set up a recording device, and removed a piglet who, veterinarians said, was suffering from a blood-borne bacterial infection. Separately, they planted cameras in an ISF farm performing an unusual practice called “ventilation shutdown,” or VSD. Killing a pig in this manner involves cutting off the air supply and pumping steam into a room. At the time, in the early months of the pandemic, with a lot of slaughterhouses closed and the National Pork Producers Council reporting that 10,069,000 hogs were coming of age (meaning they had been alive for 135 days) with nowhere to go for “finishing,” the industry had alighted upon VSD as the solution, a process which the American Veterinary Medical Association permits in “constrained circumstances.” The animal-rights scholar and lawyer Justin Marceau wrote in the Harvard Law Review that VSD kills pigs “by essentially cooking them to death.” ISF tried the method a few times before performing it to management’s satisfaction, which Matt recorded on his hidden camera. (A spokesperson for ISF told me the decision to use the method was “extremely painful,” and noted that they were “dedicated to humanely raising animals, so people have a nutritious protein source.”)

DxE released the footage to The Intercept, which published it. In the recording, the pigs scream and scream and scream. Two and a half hours later, the workers tramp over the porcine corpses, shooting those that aren’t already dead. At 5 am, the police in Des Moines found Matt at a Super 8 motel, woke him up, and took him to jail, where he announced that he was on a hunger strike and would not pay bail. He was kept for a day and then told to leave. Hungry and sleep-deprived, Matt returned to the farm, where he suspected they would use VSD again. Three activists chained themselves to the farm’s fence as Matt filmed them on Facebook Live; when they got arrested, he kept the camera rolling.

Matt’s mother, Pam, was watching all of this. She called out of work at a Wisconsin factory that makes croutons and stuffing. She wasn’t sure what to think. On the one hand, her son did not look entirely well. On the other, he seemed better than ever—purposeful, confident, excited. She watched while considering that she was almost sixty years old and still had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, but her son sure did.

Two counties charged Matt for the spring 2020 incidents: Grundy County, for trespassing, and Wright County, for trespassing, setting up a camera, and stealing a pig. All of his alleged crimes occurred on ISF properties. In January, Matt traveled to Grundy County for the first case—only to be told, two days before trial, that ISF had asked prosecutors to drop the charges. Frustrated, Matt went back to the farm to start a Facebook Live stream at its perimeter. “They didn’t want to show up,” he said of ISF. “They wouldn’t go into a courtroom.” It seemed obvious to him that ISF did not want to publicly defend its right to secretly roast pigs alive. It was nineteen degrees, very windy, and it was also his birthday. Matt turned around only to notice that the activist who had driven him was having trouble with the car.

While waiting for a tow truck to arrive, Matt wanted to discuss the charges he was still facing in Wright County. “The reality is that these are real opportunities for us to expose what’s happening with this industry, and to really put the industry on trial,” he told his viewers. While the charges there were not related to VSD—which was unfortunate, because VSD had stunned the public in a way that more routine violence does not—Matt was nevertheless hoping to show in court that VSD was not a horrifying anomaly but the logical conclusion wherever pigs are treated as commodities.

He also reminded his virtual audience that he had been charged under a new law that makes trespassing on agricultural facilities more serious than almost every other kind of trespassing. Rozenboom, the state senator whose farms Matt documented, spearheaded the so-called ag-gag legislation under which Matt is charged. The law stipulates that if you merely set foot on a pig farm, you will face an aggravated misdemeanor, and that if you do it again, you will face a felony charge. In contrast, it is only a minor misdemeanor to abuse a pig so terribly that the pig dies. Legally, pigs, as well as horses, cows, sheep, emus, and other creatures you might scientifically and emotionally consider “animals,” are categorized as “livestock,” and are therefore exempt from Iowan laws that prohibit animal cruelty. (The distinction between animal and livestock reflects, of course, our peculiar division of animals into those we eat and those we don’t.) “Livestock abuse” is covered by an entirely separate set of laws that are used extraordinarily rarely; in 2008, workers whom PETA caught smashing underweight piglets against concrete in an attempt to kill them were sentenced to probation.

Matt’s Wright County trial was set for January 2022. To defend him, DxE had hired an Iowan lawyer named Adam Junaid. When I called Junaid, he said he was not sure that he had ever had a client who wasn’t exactly trying not to get convicted. DxE paid for an analysis with mock jurors. The results were excellent: almost three-fourths of the faux jurors voted to acquit Matt on the most serious of the charges (burglary), and nearly 90 percent said they were “shocked” by how ISF treated the pigs. When asked to describe Matt, even jurors who voted to convict him used words like “brave,” “compassionate,” “concerned,” “kind,” “dedicated,” and “righteous.” And 93 percent said they respected his “commitment to a cause.”

Twelve days before the trial, Matt stopped at his brother’s house in Dubuque. Trent lives with his wife and two-year-old son Harlow in a chilly house with a 9mm handgun above the dining room doorframe. Matt and Trent played Settlers of Catan and then sat on the couch, talking. Trent was hoping to testify in Matt’s trial. He wanted to tell the jurors that Matt was the most honest person he had ever known, and that, even if they didn’t agree with his tactics, they had to understand that he always acted in good faith. Trent hoped to tell the jurors this as someone who admired but did not agree with brother. Trent believes that as long as animals are treated well, it is the natural order of things that they get eaten.

Trent once told Matt that the best thing he could do for the world’s animals was to walk out into the woods and shoot himself. That way, Matt wouldn’t run over any squirrels or accidentally squash any gophers. Taking the provocation seriously, Matt had replied that the urgency of caring for so many animals required that he not bow out, but try to save as many as he could. Trent had then tried another argument, which was, Okay, but how much trying is too much? Isn’t there a point at which standing up for your principles comes to so surpass your other priorities that you’ve got to rethink things?

Recalling that conversation, Trent began to cry. He pulled his hat low over his eyes. He had always known, he said, that his brother was going to go to prison. There was no such thing as moderation for Matt, who would keep trying to free pigs until the state had no choice but to lock him up. Trent could also see that Matt would always choose to serve time for animals rather than spend time with him. “It’s one of the reasons that I tear up, because it’s not that important to him,” Trent said. “His goals are more important. So I shouldn’t selfishly be like, ‘Oh, I might not get to hang out with Matt for eight years or four years or one year or whatever.’ If the goal is more important to him then I guess that’s . . . why should I tell him not to? Right?”

Matt looked into the distance, embarrassed but cool, and said that this was true: he does believe that he owes it to the untold number of animals living in abject suffering to prioritize them over any single human relationship. Trent smiled and shrugged. They have had this conversation many times. Harlow began to play with a toy farm set that made pig and rooster sounds and sang the praises of Old MacDonald. “I do find myself saying I wish I could clone multiple versions of myself,” Matt said. Then he could both play board games with his brother and try to help animals. “There’s forty-eight hours worth of things I wish I could fit into every day. Which is better than the opposite I guess, when people feel like they have nothing to do with their time, or nothing to live for or whatever.”

I asked Trent if he’d ever wanted what Matt has—if he ever envied Matt’s idealism or purpose. He thought about it, placing Harlow on his lap.

“Well, once every two weeks, you have a shitty day at work, and you’re just like . . . I don’t know, you kind of do envy people who do devote . . . I don’t know, I just, I don’t think I necessarily do.”

I asked Matt if he’d ever wanted what his brother had—a wife, a child, a house without a roommate sleeping in the closet—and he said, as you might expect, absolutely not. He found his life interesting and fulfilling. It’s possible that if he’d found someone he’d wanted to marry after college, he wouldn’t have left for Berkeley. Who knows, he said, “maybe when I’m seventy years old, and I’m in a home, there will be regrets.”

“I think you will,” Trent said. Have regrets, he meant.

By the time the trial started, Matt and Kecia had broken up. During their nearly two years together, Kecia had grown so incensed by the abuses of Iowa’s farms that she had acquired one of their raccoons, which was being raised for medical experimentation. After an early gender misidentification, she had named her Ronald, and boarded her at first in the apartment she shared with Matt. When a neighbor threatened to call animal control, she found a rewilding expert in Colorado and took Ronald there. Kecia had planned to let the expert take it from there, but when it turned out that Ronald took poorly to the training without her, Kecia moved to Colorado—into a room above a garage that had no heat, no water, and no electricity. It was the dead of winter. In Matt’s view, this was not a strategic decision. Ronald was precious, but she was also just a single animal, and there were other things that Kecia could be doing. For example, she was also working on an online map of farming facilities in the United States. Matt hoped that she would continue her work on the project.

Kecia thought that most of what Matt had said was true: she had devoted herself to Ronald. But she didn’t think this was wrong. Ronald had become like a daughter to her. “I’m glad that I didn’t know that Ronald was going to come along and uproot my life and cost me everything,” Kecia said to me later, “because would I have made that decision, strategically? I couldn’t have. I didn’t intend for this. But you have a child and everything changes.” Kecia didn’t return to California until late summer, when Ronald began to live full-time in the Colorado wild. By then, she and Matt were over.

Four days before his trial, Matt’s lawyer called to tell him that the prosecution wanted to offer a plea deal. Matt would be able to plead guilty to a deferred entry, which might not even go on his record; and he wouldn’t have to go to prison. Matt had been wondering when they might offer him this deal, and had been looking forward to saying no, which he did. The next day, Matt tested positive for COVID-19, and his fellow DxE activists gathered on Zoom to discuss how to avoid a delay. Matt looked extremely unwell. During the meeting, one of the activists ran through a list of items that needed to be packed for Iowa, including leaflets soliciting whistleblowers, blue DxE shirts, hand warmers, extra batteries, a drone, flashlights, placards denouncing ag-gag laws, COVID tests, two boxes of pens, blue smoke flares, and board games.

Two days before his trial, Matt, having declared himself very much on the mend, was on a call with a jury consultant, for whom DxE had paid fifteen hundred dollars, making last-minute adjustments to his testimony. In the middle of it, his lawyer called to say that the prosecution had asked the judge to dismiss the charges entirely; they hadn’t provided a reason. His lawyer’s co-counsel asked the judge to deny the prosecution’s request, arguing that ISF had impugned Matt’s name, and that he had the right to defend himself. “I cannot force the prosecution to bring a case,” the judge said, sounding bewildered, and he dismissed the charges.

The activists went to Iowa anyway. They’d already booked rooms at an inn near the courthouse, which had agreed to charge them less than thirty dollars a night. Kecia flew into Minneapolis and drove down from there. On the day that the trial was supposed to start, a day so cold that many schools were closed, about twenty activists got out of their cars on the town’s main street and arranged themselves in a line. Facing an audience of one—a sheriff who had parked at a distance—the activists chanted, “Pigs wanted to be with their families! Just like us!” Over a large speaker, Matt, still quarantining with COVID, addressed the street from his hotel room. “The only way that we are going to fix this is for ordinary people to rise up,” he said. “We say to all institutions of power that are tormenting animals for profit, you’ll probably be hearing from us again.” A man leaned out of his car window to suggest the activists get jobs; another instructed them to go home. “You’re a joke,” said one onlooker. Forty minutes later, the activists packed up and drove back to the hotel. That week, they saw Spider-Man: No Way Home at the Clarion movie theater and attended a trivia night at the local brewhouse. They also protested at the Iowa State Capitol and disrupted an event at an Oskaloosa restaurant, confronting Rozenboom with the audio recording of pigs screaming. “Yesterday, I assume you were at the Capitol, causing a ruckus,” the senator said, “but you didn’t get on the news, and I’m sure that disappointed you.” (Rozenboom later denied saying this.)

Driving away from the restaurant, the activists spotted a number of dumpsters along the road, foregrounded against the snowy prairie. They approached, and found that inside the dumpsters, and all around them, were piglets—hundreds of them, all dead. They weren’t sure what had happened, but suspected the pigs had been euthanized for being, in some way, unfit for consumption. The activists looked closer. One of the piglets was still alive. Someone wrapped it in a jacket. It was no more than four degrees; at night, it was negative fifteen. Kecia held the piglet and said, I love you. She said, “Everyone is already in love with you, even though they haven’t heard about you yet.” They called him Lucas, after the whistleblower who had told them about ISF. A local veterinarian told the group that Lucas was hypoglycemic and had a low body temperature. The veterinarian struggled to find a viable vein for an IV, but eventually located one. An activist named Cheyanne Holliday looked at Lucas in amazement, wondering if it was divine intervention that Matt’s trial was canceled, so that they could find him. In videos that the activists shared in their group chat, Lucas is pink and a little bit furry, kicking his hooves as the veterinarian bends over him, trying to take his temperature, trying to save his barely begun life. Lucas lived for a little while longer, and then he died.

In his hotel room the following day, Matt found himself in a bad mood. What was he supposed to do? What was next? A writer for the Animal Agriculture Alliance wrote that activists like Matt “seem desperate for the chance to take their cause for ‘animal liberation’ to court,” and while the writer meant it as an insult, it is factually correct. Earlier that afternoon, Matt and other DxE activists had called off a plan to get him arrested at a nearby pig farm. Matt had wanted to do it, but some of the others had felt it was time to move on from Iowa. Just that week, they’d driven almost two thousand miles across the state. Some of them thought they were being hasty. Alright, Matt conceded. They wouldn’t do it.

That night, Kecia went to Matt’s hotel room, arguing that he couldn’t back down. What was he going to do to finally make his case in a courtroom? They were no longer dating, and Kecia did not love everything about him, but what she did love about him was his relentless commitment to animal liberation. If there were ever a time to stand up for what he believed, she said, it was right then. Matt told her he needed to sleep on it. She told him to do that, but when he woke up, she would be right there, waiting for an answer. “Matt is such a great puppet master of creative mayhem and balls-to-the-wall escalation and inspiring fear,” she told me. “He says he sees himself spending ten years in prison. He’s getting to be an old man, he better get on that now.”

Matt woke up resolved: Kecia was right. He needed time to plan what he was going to do, but he needed to do something. He called me to say he was going home for a bit, and would return to Iowa later. “Time to get out and get on the hook for some more years,” he said. Okay, I said, but how do you really feel about no longer facing eight years, about the chance to just walk away from all this? He said, “You mean behind the machismo?” I said yes. “Okay, are we doing therapy hour now?” he asked, which is how he’d come to refer to the point in our conversations when I’d ask him questions about his feelings (which he’d at least try to answer earnestly). He said, “The media likes personalities.” By now, he’d become a character in Iowa, so it would be good to keep that story line going. The state was paying attention to him, as was the press. A few months later, he rented an apartment in Cedar Rapids.

As the activists prepared to leave the state, at least for a while, I decided to try and get some perspective from the opposition. At the annual Iowa Pork Congress in Des Moines, I parked between pickup trucks and, waiting in line, very quickly became concerned that the event might go poorly. I had registered as media, under my real name and contact information. The event advertised itself as open to “anyone interested in the swine industry.” But at the desk, a staffer told me that my registration had been flagged with a note: “do not print ID badge.” Around me, there were little girls in silver crowns and shiny sashes, designating them the winners of the summer pageants for pork royalty.

For a long time now, the communications strategy in industrial farming has been to avoid communicating altogether. The industry’s theory is not unlike Matt’s own. It goes something like this: If, by way of defending itself, industry representatives were to talk about what happens inside its facilities, a significant number of people would stop eating their pork. Or, more likely, while many people would still eat Big Pork’s products, the very act of having to defend itself would indict an industry that prefers to maintain that it has nothing to defend. What company wants to acknowledge that it is complicit in choices that many people don’t want to admit they’re making? Implicit in Big Pork’s embrace of ag-gag laws is the desire to avoid needing a defense.

At the welcome desk, I told the staffers that I was a journalist who, having heard the stories of animal activists, wanted to attend one of the keynote speeches, which was to be about storytelling in the pork industry and promised “a look into why Ag’s critics are so good at creating stories that spread among consumers.” One of the staffers said I had to leave. “We need to protect our producers,” she said. When I retreated upstairs to a coffee stand, security guards approached me with a police officer. I understood this to mean the end of my visit. “I don’t want to arrest anyone today,” the officer said. And so I left.

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