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Opinion: As Florence Kills Pigs And Millions Of Chickens, We Must 'Open Our Hearts'

Pigs that survived the hurricane and escaped their farm swim through flood waters in Chinquapin, Duplin County, N.C.
Kelly Guerin/We Animals
Pigs that survived the hurricane and escaped their farm swim through flood waters in Chinquapin, Duplin County, N.C.

An amazing animal rescue video surfaced last week, in the wake of the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Florence. In Leland, N.C., six hunting dogs had been abandoned in chain-link kennels, unable to escape the rising waters. The dogs' body language tells the story: first their fear at their entrapment, then their joy when volunteer Ryan Nichols releases them.

Rescues of pets from this storm grab our attention, too — for most people, these animals are members of our family.

Far different is the situation in the state with pigs and chickens confined on industrialized farms called CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, which house thousands of animals in crowded, often filthy conditions.

As Dan Charles reported for NPR last week about Hurricane Florence, "The full picture of damage to farms and the surrounding environment probably won't be known for weeks."

But day by day, the picture is slowly coming into focus, and it's a horrifying one: confirmed deaths of 3.4 million chickens and 5,500 pigs, numbers that may yet rise.

Bodies of broiler chickens that were killed in the flooding in Wallace, N.C.
/ Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals
Bodies of broiler chickens that were killed in the flooding in Wallace, N.C.

We need to look beyond the numbers, though, and the tendency to focus on just the agriculture industry's losses of "swine" and "broiler chickens." As I have written elsewhere, these pigs and chickens, just like the hunting dogs, are thinking and feeling beings. It's all too easy to imagine their terror as the floodwaters rose. No one came to their rescue, and they drowned.

A team from We Animals, a photography project that documents animals in the human environment, has been on site in North Carolina. We Animals photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur wrote to me in an email:

Access to the CAFOs is difficult. Many are inaccessible and they are private property. You can't just walk out, even in waders, because of the poisonous snakes whose dens have been flooded. People are trying to go out in small boats to see what they can see. Our filmmaker, Kelly Guerin, spent the day out on a boat filming the turkey, chicken and pig farms flooded to the roof with locked doors. In some places, bird bodies are floating all around the CAFOs.

We'll just see more of this in the coming days, and then we'll be witnessing body disposal. We've read industry reports saying that "inventory" (chickens!) loss is likely minimal, but I don't see how that's possible with all this flooding and all these barns with hundreds of thousands of animals in them and locked doors.

Beyond the floodwaters and locked doors, the situation is complicated by what an "animal rescue" could possibly mean in the context of these huge industrialized farms. Could some evacuation policy be put into place, so that when hurricanes are forecast, the animals could be sent to safety? McArthur answers that question succinctly: "There is nowhere for them to evacuate and keep millions of animals safe."

Stranded cows in Wallace, N.C., take refuge on a raised porch.
/ Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals
Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals
Stranded cows in Wallace, N.C., take refuge on a raised porch.

In North Carolina alone, there are 9 million pigs; chickens number over 800 million.

Just as animals suffer because of CAFOs, so do humans. The "lagoons" associated with CAFOs, full of pig waste and bacteria, are infamous.

Hog farm neighbors say the stench is intolerable; the pork-processing giant Smithfield Foods has so far lost three lawsuits filed by North Carolinians over the environmental harms of pig waste.

Does any ray of hope break through this bleak picture? I think so, because it's possible to turn this kind of recurrent devastation into an opportunity for positive change.

We can pledge not to turn away from the plight of these animals — illustrated so powerfully here by McArthur's and Guerin's photographs — just as we don't turn away from trapped hunting dogs or our own pets in trouble. The first step is to open our hearts to what is happening.

In this case, such a pledge means realizing that the drowned pigs and chickens would have died soon anyway, if not in floodwaters, then in the slaughterhouse. In other words, it's not just the storm deaths. The whole CAFO network and its entanglement with our food system is rotten.

By far, most of the food animals consumed in America come from factory farms.

As this piece in The Guardian says, "Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet."

A central message I work to get across is that our food choices are more nuanced than just "keep on as a meat-eater" or "go vegan." So here's a personal note for everyone out there who isn't prepared to give up all meat, cheese, and dairy: Taking reducetarian steps makes a beautiful contribution, too. Week in and week out, if you choose fewer meat and animal products, you're doing something to help weaken the power of these CAFOs to hurt both animals and people.

The sorrows of the breaking news in North Carolina can become a catalyst for all of us to do better.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist who wrote weekly for NPR's 13.7: Cosmos & Culture blog. Her most recent book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat. Read more about her work here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.