At 4 am one morning in October of last year, animal rights activist Raven Deerbrook sat on a bed in a cheap hotel in East Los Angeles, looking at a live video feed on her phone. She’d barely slept that night, waking every hour or two to check that the feed was transmitting from three pinhole infrared cameras she’d hidden in the Farmer John meatpacking plant 20 miles away. The facility was located in the LA suburb of Vernon and owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world. She waited, both anticipating and dreading what her cameras were about to reveal.
A day earlier, Deerbrook had snuck into the slaughterhouse with 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, pigs in cages are lowered into the shaft’s invisible swimming pool of suffocating, heavier-than-air CO2, where the animals asphyxiate over a matter of minutes before being dumped out of the chamber onto a conveyor belt, hung up, drained of blood, and butchered.
Deerbrook had hidden one camera pointed at that chamber from the plant’s wall. She’d mounted two more with microphones on the car-sized cages within. When she’d tried to descend further down the shaft’s ladder, a burning “air hunger” from residual CO2 in the chamber had forced her to climb out again, gasping for breath, unable to plant her remaining cameras.
Safely back in her hotel room across the city, Deerbrook hoped to record the slaughterhouse gas chamber, inside and out, for the first time in a US meat plant. In doing so, she aimed to disprove claims from the pork industry and the gas chamber manufacturer that this form of suffocation represents a humane—even “painless”—form of killing.
At 5:25 am, as the plant’s operations began for the morning, she saw the first half-dozen pigs herded into the chamber. Deerbrook’s first thoughts were a mix of excitement and practical anxieties: Were the camera angles right? Was the frame rate high enough?
Then the light in the video began to dim as the cage lowered into the carbon dioxide below. As Deerbrook watched, the pigs began to squeal and thrash violently around in the cage, struggling to escape for nearly a minute before finally collapsing. “Pigs are very human-like in their screaming. And I wasn’t expecting to see them suffer for so long,” she says. “I knew it was going to be bad. But I wasn’t really prepared for the screaming.”
Deerbrook, still in her pajamas, sat in the hotel bed, staring at her phone screen in horror. The images and audio that she recorded would haunt her nightmares for months to come. “The only silver lining was the fact that I was able to download the footage,” she says. “Because once I started getting those first video clips, I knew: At least this is going to be documented.”