And here is one of the most interesting exchanges I've ever witnessed in a design presentation:
Fletcher: "I'm simply not comfortable with those letters, something is missing."
Low: "Well yes, the cross stroke is gone from the letter A."
Fletcher: "Yes, and that bothers me."
Fletcher: (long pause) "I just don't feel we are getting our money's worth!"
Others, not just the designers were stunned by this last comment. Then the discussion moved back to the strong red/rust color we were proposing. We had tried many other colors of course, including the more predictable blue range, but settled on red because it suggested action and animation. It seemed in spirit with the Can Do nature of the Space Agency.
Fletcher: And this color, red, it doesn't make much sense to me."
Low: "What would be better?"
Fletcher: "Blue makes more sense... Space is blue."
Low: "No Dr. Fletcher, Space is black!"
A few hens lay on the ground, unmoving, ill or dead. Many were injured, with festering sores on their feet. Some bled from their posteriors—they were likely suffering from a prolapsed cloaca, a painful, potentially fatal condition often caused by repeated egg-laying. Others looked dirty and ragged, though chickens, given a choice in the matter, tend to be fastidious. Everything, everywhere in this farm for “free-range” chickens was covered in excrement. The industrial hangar was so enormous, filled with so many clone-birds, that I felt like I was staring into an infinity mirror.
It was a moonless night not long ago in Northern California. With me were Alicia Santurio and Lewis Bernier, two activists from an animal-rights group called Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE. We had met a few hours earlier in a supermarket parking lot, where I wrote a lawyer’s phone number on my ankle and slipped my cellphone into a Faraday bag, which blocks wireless signals. The three of us got into a car; its driver stubbed out a cigarette and drove us to an unlit lane amid acres of paddocks and fields.
“From here, we’re going to walk single file, no lights,” Bernier said. “If we see anyone or hear anyone, we’re going to get down and lie on the ground.”
We hiked silently across dark farmland, shimmying through a series of barbed-wire and electric fences. A tense half hour later, we passed a red lagoon filled with feces and chemical runoff, and arrived at a set of industrial hangars, home to tens of thousands of birds laying eggs for high-end foods stores in the region. These birds were supposed to have access to fresh air and open space. But the open spaces available to them—wire lean-tos with a few tiny doors cut into the side of the hangar—were free of feathers and feces, meaning the birds were not using them.
The lights turned on in the hangar next to us, illuminating thousands of hens. “The fact that lights are being turned on at this time of night—they’re never getting a full sleep cycle,” Bernier explained in a whisper. Waking them up tricks their bodies into laying more eggs. We put on sterile coveralls and booties and went inside.
This is chicken farming in America, but what I was in was not a farm, not really. It was an industrial operation for delivering animal parts as cheaply and efficiently as possible. For a moment, I entertained the idea of running to the far side of the hangar and flushing the birds out into the cold night air. How often do you have the chance to save thousands of lives? But I recognized how naive the impulse was as soon as I had it. Instead I just stood there, tears welling in my eyes, imagining what it would be like to live my whole life standing in other creatures’ shit, sores on my feet, struggling to move my own weight, my organs falling out of me.
The DxE activists were there to document animals’ conditions. The group aims to stop the brutalization of farm animals and bring about the end of animal exploitation, ideally by way of a constitutional amendment granting personhood to nonhuman creatures. The mission is clearly a good one: to alleviate extraordinary, omnipresent suffering. Americans eat roughly 10 billion land animals a year, many raised in worse conditions than those chickens.
In service of that goal, DxE performs undercover investigations, rescues animals, publishes whistleblower reports, engages in nonviolent protest, shuts down slaughter lines, files legal complaints, trains activists, and lobbies the government.
But it is perhaps best known for its viral stunts. There was the time an activist wearing a poop-emoji costume disrupted a planning-commission meeting in a small town in Virginia; the time the group sprayed manure all over the lawn of an executive at Smithfield, the world’s largest producer of pork; the numerous occasions when members have seized the microphone from politicians at stump speeches; the time a DxE member named Matt Johnson pretended to be Smithfield’s CEO for a chaotic Fox Business hit.
Last year, Santurio snuck into the Target Center in Minneapolis, where the Timberwolves were playing the Los Angeles Clippers. Just before halftime, she tried to superglue herself to the court while wearing a T-shirt that read GLEN TAYLOR ROASTS ANIMALS ALIVE. Taylor, the owner of the Timberwolves, also owns an egg-farming business, which had recently killed more than 5 million birds using a technique called “ventilation shutdown plus,” in which workers heat a barn until the birds inside are essentially roasted alive. (Taylor did not respond to requests to comment.) Guards hoisted Santurio up before the glue dried.
I believed in DxE’s mission. About its tactics, I wasn’t so sure.
I’m a vegan, if an imperfect and non-strident one. Like many vegans, I’ve always seen it as a personal choice. I don’t see myself as having any kind of authority to tell other people not to eat meat or fish, especially because I was an omnivore for much of my life.
Being vegan means forgoing many of life’s pleasures—cheeseburgers, peppermint ice cream, warm sourdough with cold butter. It means absenting yourself from your own culture—not taking the piece of birthday cake, not going to the amazing new restaurant. It means constantly feeling like you are failing, given the difficulty of avoiding animal products in a world where animals are a commodity. It means living in a way that makes other people feel judged and uncomfortable. It is exhausting, abstemious, weird. One paper found that omnivores view vegans more negatively than any other stigmatized group except for drug addicts.
It is not surprising that the share of people forgoing animal products has barely changed since at least the late 1990s. Just 5 percent of Americans say they are vegetarian, and only a sliver of the population, perhaps 1 percent, truly never eats meat. Globally, the number of animals consumed per capita has nearly doubled in the past five decades, as has the share of animals raised in confined, industrial environments.
DxE believes it can change that, not by turning omnivores into vegans but by turning vegans into vegan activists. It has attracted thousands of donors and participants, mostly Millennials and Gen Zers, over its 10 years of existence. (There’s no formal membership count, as there’s no formal membership process.) But it has also amassed plenty of detractors, who see the group as cultish and its activities as pointless and obnoxious. Social change is hard enough for movements that don’t ask people to give up anything, let alone their grandmother's brisket.
Direct Action Everywhere got its start when Wayne Hsiung, a Buddhist and a former law scholar at Northwestern University, moved from Chicago to the Bay Area. In Chicago, he told me, he’d been a “comfortable activist”—protesting and distributing leaflets about the virtues of veganism. But he had started to become disillusioned with the animal-rights movement.
The modern animal-rights era dates to the 1960s, when a coterie of academics began pushing people to go vegetarian or vegan not on sentimental grounds (because animal suffering is sad, distressing, a shame) but on moral and legal ones (because animal suffering should not be allowed). The human exploitation of animals amounts to “speciesism,” the psychologist Richard Ryder argued; animals are “the subject of a life,” the American philosopher Tom Regan held, and thus should be able to live their own lives. After the Australian utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer published his bombshell book, Animal Liberation, in 1975, hundreds of thousands of people absorbed these arguments. A radical international movement began to build.
The new animal-rights activists differed from animal-welfare activists in that they did not see the exploitation and suffering of living creatures just as unfortunate. Many saw it as an affront akin to racism or misogyny—and thus saw factory farming as a system akin to slavery, dairy production as a crime akin to rape, cosmetics testing as a violation akin to torture. Radical tactics were therefore not only justified but necessary. In the movement’s heyday, in the 1980s and ’90s, protesters with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals hurled paint at fur-clad supermodels. Groups such as Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and the Animal Liberation Front engaged in what some described as intimidation, vandalism, even terrorism.
But by the mid-aughts, a few forces had quelled the movement. The first was aggressive legal prosecution. In the United States, United Kingdom, and Europe, governments went after animal-rights groups for trespassing, larceny, and racketeering, and dozens of activists ended up in jail. At the behest of the agricultural industry, politicians passed “ag gag” laws, hindering the ability of independent investigators to document and publicize abuse.
The second subduing force was the data showing that liberationist browbeating was not actually working. People cared about animals but would not stop eating them, a sticky cognitive dissonance described as the “meat paradox.”
Over time, the animal-rights movement came to focus more on incremental change than on disruption, and more on institutional pressure than on individual persuasion. “Instead of just being rowdy in the street, we have corporate liaisons who go meet with retailers. We have lawyers. We have scientists,” Ingrid Newkirk, the founder of PETA, told me.
This toned-down approach has secured some victories. Groups such as the Humane League, the Humane Society, and Mercy for Animals have been instrumental in getting grocery stores and fast-food chains in the United States to switch to cage-free eggs, dramatically improving the living conditions of millions of creatures. They have also successfully pressured several states to ban battery cages for birds (tiny shoeboxes in which laying hens most spend their lives, unable to spread their wings) and gestation crates for pigs (metal cages in which pregnant and newly delivered sows spend most of their lives, unable to turn around or walk).
But the goal was the end of animal exploitation, and incremental changes were not getting us there. The movement, Hsiung said, “was afraid to ask for what it wanted.”
So, in the late years of the Obama administration, Hsiung and some friends created an informal study group to see what they could learn from successful protest movements of the past. Over soy milk and “nice cream,” they studied how the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—better known as ACT UP—had destigmatized HIV infection, how Freedom to Marry had found a legal fulcrum for marriage equality, and how the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had shaped the civil-rights movement.
History and social science seemed to support the idea that nonviolent direct action—meaning things like boycotts and sit-ins, rather than legal appeals or public-relations campaigns—was a crucial element. They also found that radical factions shift the Overton window for moderate ones. “Movements that have a broad range of tactics tend to be more successful, because the threat posed by the radical flank grants more legitimacy and credibility to the moderate wing of the movement,” Douglas McAdam, the Stanford sociologist, told me, mentioning that Hsiung had shown up at his office in Palo Alto one day to discuss movement building with him.
Hsiung cited as inspiration the work of the Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth, who has shown that when 3.5 percent of a population engages in nonviolent public protest—that’s 9 million American adults, give or take—political change reliably follows. “There was this huge part of every social-justice movement that’s been successful throughout history and just doesn’t exist within today’s animal-rights movement,” Lewis Bernier, the DxE organizer, told me. “That is the direct-action contingent, who’s not afraid to ask for what we actually want, a group of people who are willing to take risks, willing to make personal sacrifices, and willing to be embarrassed.”
Priya Sawhney, a DxE co-founder, told me that the research cemented their belief that vegans had become overly accommodating. “We needed to focus on the needs of the animals,” she told me, while we talked in the bathroom of a safe house north of San Francisco, and she petted a rescued duck. (The duck was destined for a sanctuary in Central California.)
In 2013, the study group became a direct-action group, targeting retail stores in the Bay Area. Members camped in front of the meat counter at a Whole Foods, and dumped dead chicks in front of horrified shoppers at another supermarket. They posted the videos on Facebook and YouTube, and many went viral.
Focusing on radicalizing vegans rather than converting meat-eaters allowed DxE to embrace a revolutionary message: “Animal liberation in one generation!” rather than “Try out meatless Monday!” But the activists adopted some tactics that were unpopular even with vegans. In addition to targeting big grocery chains, DxE went after small businesses devoted to slow food and humane meat, including Chez Panisse, the beloved originator of California cuisine. The group stopped weekly protests outside a revered Berkeley butcher shop only when the owners agreed to put up a sign reading Animals’ lives are their right. Killing them is violent and unjust. (The owners described this as “extortion.”)
The aim, Hsiung told me, was to give vegans a “ladder of engagement,” from low risk to high risk. Pretty high up the ladder were the rescues. Activists carried out dozens of missions to take (well, steal) animals from farms and slaughterhouses and put them in sanctuaries. “That gives people an individual to identify with,” Cassie King, who manages DxE’s communications, told me. “It’s not just this huge quantity of animals that you can’t put a face on or understand what their personality is like or what their suffering is like or what they deserve.” Even higher up the ladder were undercover investigations.
The activist network grew and grew, from a few friends scattered across group houses in the East Bay (Hsiung used to live, Harry Potter–like, in a windowless closet in a house called the “Dingo Den”) into chapters around the world. Anyone could start a cell and begin doing animal-liberation work themselves. “We had the replication aspect embedded in DxE at the very beginning,” Hsiung told me. “We’d create template documents with scripts, banners, instructions for video. We told people, ‘Go take them and do what you’d like with them.’ People did.” As Newkirk, of PETA, put it, DxE “really lit a fire under these young people, who think the best way to promote veganism is to eat vegan cupcakes.”
In the fall of 2021, a few hundred activists gathered on UC Berkeley’s campus for DxE’s annual conference, featuring breakout sessions on protest tactics and a keynote speech by the whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Then some 300 protesters got into vans and buses and set out for a Foster Farms chicken farm and processing plant in the Central Valley.
A handful of activists had already taken footage in the facility showing birds that had grown so big, they struggled to move or even stand. The group’s hidden cameras also identified issues with the plant’s method of slaughter. At the point of processing, chickens are generally hung by their legs, stunned in an electrified pool, exsanguinated by having their throats slit, and dunked in a chemical bath to loosen their feathers for removal. DxE’s footage showed some chickens were missing the stunning tank, meaning they were awake for the next steps. It also showed birds being crushed or suffocated to death. Government inspectors later found evidence that some animals had been alive and awake during defeathering. (Foster Farms denied any wrongdoing and declined to comment for this story.)
Meatpacking and poultry processing is generally hard on people too. It’s dangerous and, for many, traumatizing work, often done for poverty wages by refugees and undocumented immigrants. Repetitive-use injuries are endemic; grievous accidents are common; workers are exposed to pathogens and toxic chemicals at high rates.
DxE’s goal at the Foster Farms facility was to make the assembly line stop, if only for a moment. One phalanx of activists took a moving truck bearing a huge No More Factory Farms banner and blocked the plant’s entrance. Three people climbed on top and lashed themselves together using “sleeping dragon” devices; four sat by the truck’s wheels and did the same.
Another phalanx entered the facility and chained themselves to the assembly line on which the birds were stunned, exsanguinated, and defeathered. Finally, a third, large group gathered outside to protest. “They’re killing thousands of chickens right now as we speak!” Zoe Rosenberg, a DxE activist seated on top of the truck, said while another activist filmed her. DxE livestreamed the fracas on Facebook with video from a half dozen smartphones and a drone.
The police arrived shortly after. As the squad cars rolled up, I walked through the crowd asking people why they were there—not so much literally as philosophically. Why engage in this kind of protest? What effect did they think it had? A former slaughterhouse worker named Susana Chavez, now part of DxE’s leadership team, told me that taking part made her feel like a “full activist,” not just a person who cares for animals. “It is a completely whole new level when you actually take action in person, and you put your body on the line to stop the killing,” she said.
Others echoed that sentiment. “Some activists have almost been killed doing this, just to save animals,” Alyson Burton, an animal rescuer from Los Angeles, told me. “It’s inspiring.” Indeed, I had interviewed one of them at an earlier DxE protest at a duck farm in Sonoma County. Thomas Chiang had used a bicycle U-lock to attach himself to a stopped slaughter line. The machinery turned back on, dragging Chiang forward until he got pinned against a metal pole. “I couldn’t breathe,” he told me, just before an ambulance took him away.
At Foster Farms, police used a jackhammer and a circular saw to break the sleeping dragons, after throwing a tarp over the tied-up protesters to protect them from the sparks. In the end, more than a dozen activists were arrested and charged with resisting arrest and obstructing or intimidating a business operator.
DxE branded those who had blocked the entrance the “Foster Farms 11.” Videos of the crowd roaring when activists walked out with a few rescued chickens went viral. The protest didn’t stop the slaughter, but it did become content used to motivate members. Everything is about “activating people who care about animals,” King told me. “We have hundreds of people who are willing to go to farms and slaughterhouses and take the roles that are needed.”
But what roles are needed? What kind of activism works? DxE argues that if more activists were committing civil disobedience, the country’s politics and culture would change in a way that would hasten the end of animal agriculture. “Within a few years, no one will be able to walk the streets of Berkeley without seeing animal-rights posters, vegan businesses, and, yes, nonviolent direct action happening on every street corner,” the group wrote in an introduction to its animal-liberation road map. “We will take the methods, the strategy, the people, and the power we are cultivating in Berkeley and deploy it in cities and states across the world until we’ve built an unstoppable global engine.”
First Berkeley, then the world. Perhaps. Yet DxE’s understanding of Chenoweth’s often-cited work, done with Maria J. Stephan of the Horizons Project, struck me as a little off. It’s true that their research shows that nearly every nonviolent-protest movement in the past century participated in by 3.5 percent of a population has resulted in political change or regime disintegration. But the study does not suggest that having that sliver of a population protest alone guarantees political change. It finds that in addition to the active support of 3.5 percent of a population, successful protest movements also have the tacit assent of a larger share. Broad support doesn’t just matter; it is where you cultivate that 3.5 percent vanguard. In that sense, DxE has the Chenoweth study backward. (The research also looks only at changes in a country’s political leadership, not policy shifts.)
More than that, it is not clear that a return to the animal-liberation tactics of the 1990s will help the animal-rights movement reach that 3.5 percent target. PETA has 9 million “members and supporters” worldwide. DxE has a tiny portion of that. The group can’t even win over all vegans, many of whom are turned off by its tactics. Carol Adams, the acclaimed vegan and feminist thinker, for instance, refuses to speak at or attend events where DxE members are also speaking.
As for DxE sharpening a radical edge on a movement that has lost one, most Americans already consider the animal-rights movement radical. Vegans might think that the movement needs more abolitionists, but omnivores think that vegans need to shut up. And at some point, vegans need the omnivores to care.
“If you want to shift power, you have to engage in the system,” Hahrie Han, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, told me. “A movement has to go from being purely disruptive to figuring out how it’s going to engage a broader constituency.”
The animal-rights movement has failed to engage that broader constituency. There’s a big gap still between your average animal-loving American, who wants the government to ensure the welfare of the cow in her burger, and your average animal-rights protester, who wants to grant that cow constitutional rights. Even the country’s most prominent progressive politicians—Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Gavin Newsom—have little or nothing to say about animal welfare. And all of them eat meat.
I put these arguments to Hsiung, who is no longer officially on the DxE leadership team, but writes and hosts a podcast about animal rights. (He is currently defending himself against charges of trespassing and conspiracy for rescuing ducks and chickens; if convicted, he would face a two-year sentence.) I was surprised to get little counterargument. “There’s something legitimate about these critiques,” he told me. “You can’t be afraid to be annoying, but you have to watch for things enduring negative reputational impacts.”
Change takes time, he said. Nothing seems to work until it does. Indeed, so many activists for so many righteous causes toil and toil only to have nothing come of it, many of them tortured by the necessity and fruitlessness of their efforts. Something Han had said stuck with me: “Most movements fail.” The No. 1 outcome is failure, even for causes that are a far easier lift.
The animal-rights movement might be more likely to succeed if it knits itself in with other progressive causes. Cows are heating the planet and destroying what rainforest we have left; factory farms are polluting our groundwater and engaging in rampant labor abuse; agricultural consolidation is crushing small farms and raising prices for consumers. There is a way to reduce animal cruelty and curtail meat consumption by improving labor standards, ending factory farms, pricing carbon, and enacting stricter regulations for humane animal treatment.
Or perhaps the movement will succeed when lab-grown meat becomes commercially viable.
Or maybe the movement will simply progress slowly and sideways, failing at ever achieving its ultimate goal. That might be the best it can do.
On that moonless night in the egg farm, as Santurio and Bernier finished collecting evidence, Bernier whispered, “Should we save someone?” Santurio nodded, grabbed a chicken, and swaddled it in a jacket. We left the same way we came in, with Santurio carrying the hen outdoors for the first time in its life.
On our way out, I noticed a retrofitted shipping container hooked up to a carbon-dioxide tank. I knew that such egg operations euthanized hens when they started laying fewer eggs, generally around age 2. But the farms have no practical way of tracking how many eggs each individual hen lays. When the production numbers start to tick down, farms will typically just gas the whole hangar. Soon all of these birds, except for the one, would probably be turned into dog food.
This is what the debate about animal rights and animal cruelty is really about: this unspeakable horror hidden from us, the suffering borne by billions of creatures on our behalf. I have watched hours and hours of the footage DxE activists have collected over the years: pigs screaming as they choke to death; piglets with broken bones trying to stand and nurse from their mothers that are unable to turn around to nuzzle them; calves thrown onto trash heaps, left to die. What I saw enraged and radicalized me.
Being in that egg farm made me want to glue myself to the floor of a basketball stadium or chain myself to an assembly line. It made me want to confront people picking up their plastic-wrapped cuts at the grocery store, nourishing themselves with another creature’s misery while telling themselves they love animals, because in some contradictory way they really do. And it made me furious that whenever the animal-rights movement suggests that we as a society should stop doing this, it gets a barrage of criticism about its messaging and tactics and strategies.
That is true even though the critiques of radical vegans are well founded. Nothing I saw in my months of reporting persuaded me that DxE or any other animal-rights group has a plausible theory of success. And DxE’s efforts at mobilization seemed likelier to alienate potential supporters than to persuade them.
But if vegans can be annoying, they are also profoundly right. They are burdened with advocating for billions of suffering creatures and being able to help only a few. They are burdened with the futile, enraging task of trying to get people to live by their own articulated values.
Why do the vegans always have to explain themselves to the omnivores? The omnivores, somehow, never have to explain themselves to the animals.