SHAWN LYONS WAS DEAD TO RIGHTS—and he knew it. More than a month had passed since People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had released a video of savage mistreatment at the MowMar Farms hog confinement facility where he worked as an entry-level herdsman in the breeding room. The three enormous sow barns in rural Greene County, Iowa, were less than five years old and, until recently, had raised few concerns. They seemed well ventilated and well supplied with water from giant holding tanks. Their tightly tacked steel siding always gleamed white in the sun. But the PETA hidden-camera footage shot by two undercover activists over a period of months in the summer of 2008, following up on a tip from a former employee, showed a harsh reality concealed inside.
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The recordings caught one senior worker beating a sow repeatedly on the back with a metal gate rod, a supervisor turning an electric prod on a sow too crippled to stand, another worker shoving a herding cane into a sow’s vagina. In one close-up, a distressed sow who’d been attacking her piglets was shown with her face royal blue from the Prima Tech marking dye sprayed into her nostrils “to get the animal high.” In perhaps the most disturbing sequence, a worker demonstrated the method for euthanizing underweight piglets: taking them by the hind legs and smashing their skulls against the concrete floor—a technique known as “thumping.” Their bloodied bodies were then tossed into a giant bin, where video showed them twitching and paddling until they died, sometimes long after. Though his actions were not nearly as vicious as those of some coworkers who’d been fired immediately, Lyons knew, as the video quickly became national news, that the consequences for him could be severe.
As we sat recently in the tiny, tumbledown house he grew up in and now shares with his wife and two kids, Lyons acknowledged—as he did to the sheriff’s deputy back then—that he had prodded sows with clothespins, hit them with broad, wooden herding boards, and pulled them by their ears, but only in an effort, he said, to get pregnant sows that had spent the last 114 days immobilized in gestation crates up and moving to the farrowing crates where they would give birth. Lyons said he never intended to hurt the hogs, that he was just “scared to death” of the angry sows “who had spent their lives in a little pen”—and this was how he had been trained to deal with them. Lyons had watery blue eyes that seemed always on the verge of tears and spoke in a skittish mutter that would sometimes disappear all the way into silence as he rubbed his thin beard. “You do feel sorry for them, because they don’t have much room to move around,” he said, but if they get spooked coming out of their crates, “you’re in for a fight.”
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