Confining breeding sows in tight crates is among the long-standing farm practices that are exempted from animal cruelty laws in Illinois. (photo: Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)
Whipped, Kicked, Beaten: Illinois Workers Describe Abuse of Hogs
By David Jackson and Gary Marx, The Chicago Tribune
08 August 16
Weeks after taking a job as a breeding technician at Eagle Point Farms, an anguished Sharee Santorineos sat down and wrote a three-page whistleblower complaint.
"I seen pigs that are pregnant beat with steel bars," said her letter to the Illinois Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare. "I seen them kicked all over their body."
Santorineos knows about raising animals. At a friend's rural Illinois farmhouse, she grows pigs and poultry that they eventually will have slaughtered.
Still, what she saw at the western Illinois confinement appalled her, and she hoped her December 2015 letter would prompt a thorough state investigation.
Instead, like other worker allegations about animal abuse in Illinois' 900-plus hog confinement facilities, Santorineos' account went nowhere.
After Eagle Point executives gave a state bureau inspector a guided tour of the 6,000-pig operation, he wrote a single-page report.
"I did not observe anyone mistreating the animals," it said. "No violations found. Docket is closed."
The state has regularly discounted or dismissed such worker complaints, a Tribune investigation has found. In the Illinois hog confinements that send 12 million pigs to market annually, the bureau did not find a single animal welfare infraction or violation during the past five years, the Tribune found in reviewing thousands of pages of bureau records.
A lack of inspectors — the bureau has just six — contributes to the scant enforcement, while weak Illinois and federal livestock protection laws do little to safeguard animals.
Questions about how the pigs, cows and poultry we eat are treated — what the animals are fed, how they are medicated and how they live and die — are putting new pressures on a U.S. livestock industry that until recently has focused almost exclusively on productivity and profit.
Animal rights activists have lifted the welfare of livestock into the public consciousness by taking jobs in hog confinements and secretly recording pigs being pummeled, dragged with hooks and pinned for life in crates. But Illinois law makes it a potential felony to record a conversation without the consent of all parties, and no undercover stings have emerged from the state.
Using worker compensation claims, court records and animal abuse reports filed with the state Agriculture Department, Tribune reporters for the first time pieced together a disturbing portrait of abusive treatment in pig confinements here amid lax scrutiny from the state.
In on-the-record interviews, Santorineos and more than a dozen other Illinois swine-confinement workers told the Tribune they witnessed fellow employees whip pigs with metal rods and gouge them with pliers and ballpoint pens to hurry the animals from one stall to the next or onto the trucks that took them to slaughter.
They described employees abusing pigs for amusement and encouraging colleagues to take out their frustrations on the animals.
Worker accounts of cruelty and torture arose in hog confinements across the state run by market-leading firms.
Some workers said their supervisors meted out punishment to speed up lame or unwilling pigs. "He'd kick them," said Kelley Shannon, a former employee of a Professional Swine Management confinement in western Illinois. "I'm talking, full-bore kick. Bloody its nose and punch a pig so hard it damn near popped its eye out."
Pork industry representatives and Professional Swine executives told the Tribune they do not tolerate mistreatment and increasingly are taking proactive steps, including internal hotlines for workers to report problems.
Facility operators also cautioned that former workers can be biased. They are likely to embellish, industry representatives said, because they are angry at their bosses, upset about their experiences or simply trying to impress journalists.
When the state receives an allegation of abuse, it is the job of an obscure and understaffed bureau in the Illinois Department of Agriculture to investigate.
The six inspectors in the Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare, down from 12 in 2005, must handle complaints about not just the mistreatment of livestock but also dead goldfish in dirty pet store tanks, dogs in kennel cages and filth in petting zoos.
The number of animal welfare violations the bureau issued across all of these settings fell from 200 in 2005 to 29 last year, while referrals for prosecution dropped during that period from 22 per year to just one, state records show.
When the bureau fielded a 2013 whistleblower allegation that employees were hitting pigs with metal bars at the Win Production LLC hog confinement in Scott County, a state inspector's investigation consisted largely of a few phone calls. In his report, he wrote that he spoke with a facility manager whose name was listed only as "Betty" and an owner "whose name eludes me at this time."
In that phone call, facility executives denied the allegation. The veterinarian at the facility, Alan Wildt, sent the inspector a short email stating he had visited the farm monthly for years and had "never witnessed any production practices that could be considered abusive."
On the basis of that email and the phone calls, the inspector reported: "There is no proof the (abuse) claim can be verified so the docket is closed."
Illinois state veterinarian Mark Ernst, who oversees the animal welfare bureau, said his inspectors do not have police powers and typically do not question fellow workers who might corroborate a whistleblower's account.
"Our investigations are handled a little differently than what you would think of as a criminal investigation," Ernst said. "The primary goal is to try and get compliance and to educate those people so they don't make the same mistake."
A lot of pressure
Smart, strong-willed and muscular, pigs can be frustrating to handle even when raised on pastures or small family farms. Still, Illinois' massive, modern-day confinements create new pressures that contribute to animal abuse.
Pig handlers deal with hundreds or thousands of animals at a time. Animals bred for their lean meat can be aggressive and resistant to handling, and some facilities use feed additives that promote hog growth but also can stimulate hyperactivity and belligerent behavior. For immigrant workers, a language barrier can impede communication about acceptable handling practices.
"A lot of things have come together that put workers and animals under a lot of pressure," said Emily Patterson-Kane, a top animal welfare scientist with the American Veterinary Medical Association and a former "pigger" in Scotland.
Some workers told the Tribune their colleagues often abused pigs when hustling the animals from pen to pen or onto slaughter trucks.
Hog confinement workers are trained to walk behind groups of animals, usually shaking "rattle paddles" to make a sharp noise that repels pigs. But the leader can't be guided that way if workers are trying to move more than a handful of pigs, meat industry consultant Temple Grandin told the Tribune.
"The No. 1 mistake that people make is trying to move too many market pigs at a time," said Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University.
In those situations, workers said, it becomes tempting to abuse the pigs to make them move. Terry Clement, a former employee at a downstate Christensen Farms facility, said young female pigs, called gilts, would often freeze as they were moved into the area where they were to be isolated in metal cages known as gestation crates.
"I've seen a lot of guys beat on the gilts," Clement said. "I've seen their backs. Big long scratches that bleed."
He added: "I seen pregnant sows being beat on with the rattle paddles. I've seen them scratched on the back with pens. We had fiberglass sort boards — you'd catch them hitting the hogs with those."
When a supervisor walked the floor, "you had to go by the book," Clement said. "But when he wasn't there, everybody just wanted to hurry up and go home."
Christensen Farms CEO Glenn Stolt did not challenge the Tribune accounts of abuse from Clement or other former company workers, calling them "troubling," but said his firm has significantly strengthened its protections for the animals by bolstering training, implementing an anonymous employee hotline and conducting unannounced audits. In a costly pilot program, the company in May installed video monitors inside one facility.
With 113 workers in its Illinois hog confinements, Christensen Farms last year had nine internal reports of animal abuse across the state, company officials said. The company deemed two instances to be "willful" and terminated both employees. One admitted kicking a sow, and the other let baby piglets go hungry rather than train a new employee how to feed them.
"My expectation is that it's zero, and that's the expectation we communicate all the time," Stolt said. "There is no place for any animal abuse."
Ernst, the state veterinarian, said he couldn't estimate how often pigs are abused in Illinois confinements.
"You've got to keep in mind, any good producer, this is their livelihood. It's how they feed their families and put their kids through school. And obviously if they don't have healthy and happy animals, it's going to be very difficult for them to make a living. The very good ones, I think they're right on top of it, and like anything else, you also have the other end of the spectrum."
Still, some executives told the Tribune they rarely enter their facilities, leaving to line workers the difficult job of handling the pigs day to day.
Facilities often pay little more than minimum wage and use the agricultural exemption from overtime laws. Confinement workers described bruising attacks from frantic pigs, as well as headaches and persistent respiratory ailments caused by animal dander and gases from the waste storage pits below.
"I wouldn't recommend anyone to do that job," said Jacob Allen, whose eight-month term at a southern Illinois facility run by The Maschhoffs LLC ended when a charging 250-pound pig shoved him into a gate, according to Allen's claim with the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission and a Tribune interview.
But in his economically challenged part of the state, Allen said, "there's not much else, so you take what you can get."
Grandin, who has worked in the field for decades, recalled how commonplace abuse was in "the bad old days of the '80s and early '90s."
Back then, Grandin estimated, "20 percent of the people did a good job of handling pigs." Today that percentage is much higher, she said. But when facilities are understaffed or employees have to perform repetitive tasks for hours — such as vaccinating, impregnating, castrating or moving hundreds of pigs — "workers get tired, they get frustrated and impatient. It's very difficult to care," she said.
"I've been around for a long time and there's some people that — they enjoy hurting animals and they should not be there."
'We hit 'em hard'
Even at facilities run by a company that champions animal welfare, the Tribune found allegations of mistreatment.
The Maschhoffs, the nation's third-largest pork producer, was one of the first large companies to create a top-level animal welfare division eight years ago, and workers said their barn bosses did not tolerate mistreatment.
"Maschhoffs wouldn't even let you use a clothespin (to prod a pig). They'd fire you on the spot," said Randall Hall, who worked until 2012 at one company complex.
But when supervisors weren't around, "workers beat the pigs with paddles, with hoses, boards and metal rods," said Raymond Hamilton, who worked until last year at a facility in downstate Carlyle.
"The pigs got beat up so bad they don't move," Hamilton said.
When a pig buckled under that kind of abuse, employees euthanized the animal with a shot between the eyes from a livestock bolt gun, workers said.
"I've seen one guy actually shoot one because he done stressed it out too bad. He's like, 'Oh we got to kill this,'" said former Maschhoffs worker Joshua Owens.
"Some of the employees, it was fun to them to be mean to an animal," Owens said. "When the bigwigs came, they straightened up."
Maschhoffs President Bradley Wolter said he was outraged to hear allegations of abuse from a Tribune reporter.
"I am just appalled by it. It goes against everything I believe in and we believe in as a company," Wolter said. "We're in the practice of pig production and there is a nobility to it. These animals trust us to take care of them. We don't think there is anybody else on the planet that cares more about these animals than we do."
Wolter said employees make about 70 to 100 calls per year to the company's internal animal abuse hotline, and since 2015 Maschhoffs has terminated seven of its 1,300 workers nationwide after finding evidence of abuse, neglect or mistreatment of a pig. The firm recently alerted government authorities to an abuse allegation at one facility that is not in Illinois, Wolter said, although he provided no further details.
"Do I believe we have individuals that lose their temper and harm an animal? The data says it happens. We've terminated those people. It disgusts me," Wolter said.
One Illinois worker discharged by Maschhoffs, Michael Cavins, told the Tribune he frequently witnessed co-workers abuse pigs to get them to move — and soon took part in the violence.
"Yes, that happened. We hit 'em hard with the paddles to get 'em to move," Cavins said. "That was one of the reasons I was discharged."
Cavins told the Tribune he had worked with pigs for more than a decade and Maschhoffs had retrained him on how to move animals without harming them. Yet he joined other workers who aggressively moved the sows, until a supervisor spotted him.
"I wish I'd went by the book and not even done it," Cavins said. "I just hit 'em too hard. It's going on all the time; they're constantly being hit when the supervisors aren't around."
'It doesn't look pretty'
Deliberate torture of farm animals can be a crime in Illinois, but only veterinarians are mandated to report it — not facility workers, supervisors or operators. Many Illinois confinement veterinarians visit the facilities only once or twice a month, and none has reported abuse in the facilities since 2011, the Tribune found. No companies have reported incidents to the state bureau during that time.
Illinois also is among the 38 states where long-standing farm practices are exempted from animal cruelty laws. These include castrating piglets and clipping their tails, teeth and ears without pain relief, as well as confining breeding sows in tight gestation and farrowing crates.
"Normal husbandry practices means anything farmers have done in the past, even if they are extremely cruel," said Joan Schaffner, a George Washington University Law School associate professor. "If you were to do the same thing to your dog or cat, it would clearly be criminal."
Another example of practices that livestock handlers accept but consumers find deeply disturbing is the way piglets are euthanized.
Breeding facilities like Eagle Point cull deformed and underweight piglets because high-speed slaughterhouses require uniformity in animal weight and size, so that their processing machines and line workers can quickly make repetitive motions that pull the carcasses apart.
Illinois confinement workers often are trained to euthanize the runts and sick animals by grabbing their back legs and smashing the animals' heads into the concrete floor or metal crates. If done correctly, veterinary experts say, this head blow destroys a piglet's brain and causes no pain.
State veterinarian Ernst said of the practice: "It doesn't look pretty, but it is instantaneous and humane."
Ernst added that the head smashing can be emotionally difficult for workers who took jobs in livestock confinements because they wanted to care for animals. "That is a challenge, getting people trained up to do these duties."
It was certainly a problem for Santorineos, who refused to kill pigs and recoiled at the actions of her co-workers.
Some workers who failed at killing a piglet on the first try would frequently toss it aside and leave it to die, she and other Illinois confinement employees told the Tribune. The workers also described stressed colleagues whipping piglets against the floor out of anger and frustration.
Santorineos told the Tribune that the youngest Eagle Point workers would bet on how many hits it would take to put out a piglet.
The American Veterinary Medical Association says "blunt force trauma" can be a merciful way to kill piglets less than 3 weeks old. But the association's most recent guidelines recommend that producers consider alternatives ranging from a bolt gun to small carbon dioxide chambers, electrocution and barbiturate overdose supervised by a veterinarian.
Some companies are already making changes. Starting in September, Maschhoffs will exclusively use carbon dioxide chambers to euthanize piglets, company officials said.
And U.S. pork retailer Tyson now discourages the head-smashing technique. The company in 2014 issued a letter telling pig suppliers the practice "had been historically acceptable" but did not meet the expectations of consumers.
Bill Hollis, a partner with Professional Swine Management, the Carthage, Ill.-based company that manages Eagle Point and 26 other confinements in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, said he was unaware of the Tyson advisory.
Santorineos said she was threatened with termination for refusing to euthanize piglets at Eagle Point and then fired for wearing street clothes in a restricted area. Days later, she filed her abuse allegations with the state.
While she was employed she sent notes to her confinement supervisor detailing injuries to pigs, but nothing came of it, she said. "The farm boss ... told me not to worry about it," Santorineos wrote in her complaint to the state.
"The sows get beat when they are trying to move them from the big barn to the farrowing room," she told the Tribune. "Their legs give out. They walk real slow. (Workers) take the rods that hold the cages closed and beat 'em and kick 'em."
Regarding Santorineos' allegations, Hollis said he concluded that "there was no animal abuse or mistreatment." Still, the firm held a retraining session for Eagle Point employees.
Professional Swine is managed by veterinarians but does not contact the state bureau when abuse allegations surface, company officials said. Instead it conducts internal investigations. The firm says it has dismissed four employees so far this year for mistreatment and animal welfare infractions at its facilities.
At Tyson's behest, Eagle Point went through a scheduled, four-hour-long animal welfare audit in July 2015. The third-party inspection reported "no willful acts of abuse observed" on that morning.
A former co-worker of Santorineos', Beverly Hopping, told the Tribune that she also complained fruitlessly to her supervisor about animal abuse. "They did nothing about it. I went to them many times," Hopping said.
"There was a guy who was really mean to the hogs," she said. "He would leave deep scrapes on them. Some of them would be bleeding."
When piglets had a rupture following a botched castration, "they just take them by the back legs and smash them on the ground," Hopping said. "Sometimes they wouldn't die immediately. They kept kicking and twitching. They told us that is part of our jobs. Some people there would do it just for spite."
Eagle Point fired Hopping in January.
Santorineos said some workers also tormented the animals by sticking vaccination needles in an eye or into their spines, making them shudder convulsively. "They would laugh about how long they would shake."
Patterson-Kane said she believes few confinement workers take pleasure in inflicting pain. "A really tiny proportion might be sadists, but workers don't get up in the morning and say, 'I'd like to beat me some pigs,'" Patterson-Kane said. "Somehow they've gotten frustrated. They are trying to meet a performance standard and get something done, and they don't see another way to do it. That's a failure of the system."
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