At 4 in the morning One morning last October, animal rights activist Raven Dearbrook was sitting on a bed in a cheap East Los Angeles hotel watching a live video feed on her phone. She hardly slept that night, waking up every hour or two to check on transmissions from three pinhole infrared cameras she had hidden at Farmer John’s meatpacking plant 20 miles away. The facility was located in Vernon, a suburb of Los Angeles, and was owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world. She waited, both anticipating and dreading what her cameras were about to show.
A day earlier, Deerbrook had snuck into the slaughterhouse wearing a fake uniform and badge and climbed 26 feet underground into a “stunning chamber” — essentially a three-story deep elevator shaft designed to be filled with carbon dioxide. Here, caged pigs are lowered into an invisible mine pool filled with suffocating carbon dioxide, which is heavier than air.2where the animals suffocate for several minutes before being thrown out of the chamber onto a conveyor belt, hung, bled and slaughtered.
Dearbrook hid one camera aimed at this camera from the factory wall. She set up two more with microphones on cages the size of a car. As she tried to descend further down the shaft stairs, a burning “air hunger” due to residual CO2 in the cell forced her to climb out again, out of breath, unable to install the remaining cameras.
Safely back in her hotel room on the other side of town, Dearbrook hoped for the first time to film the inside and outside of a slaughterhouse gas chamber in a US meatpacking plant. In doing so, she sought to refute claims by pork producers and gas chamber makers that this form of asphyxiation constituted a humane—even “painless”—form of murder.
At 5:25 a.m., as the plant began morning work, she saw the first half dozen pigs herded into a cage. Dearbrook’s first thoughts were a mixture of excitement and practical concern: Is the angle right? Was the frame rate high enough?
The light in the video then began to dim as the cell sank into the carbon dioxide below. As Deerbrook watched, the pigs began to squeal and thrash about furiously in the cage, trying to break free and convulse for almost a minute before finally freezing. “Pigs are very similar to humans in their call. And I didn’t expect them to suffer for so long,” she says. “I knew things were going to be bad. But I wasn’t ready to scream.”
Dearbrook, still in her pajamas, sat on the bed in the hotel and stared in horror at the screen of her phone. The images and audio recordings she recorded would haunt her in her nightmares for months to come. “The only good thing was that I was able to download the footage,” she says. “Because as soon as I started getting those first video clips, I knew at least it would be documented.”