Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

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Direct Action Everywhere protests inside Whole Foods

Why is the FBI looking for a couple of sick pigs?

Last summer, FBI agents visited animal sanctuaries in Utah and Colorado, seeking piglets that had been removed from a large-scale hog farm in Milford, Utah, by an animal-rights group called Direct Action Everywhere (DXE). The diseased piglets were rotting to death, says Wayne Hsiung, a founder of DXE, who admits taking them and calls it an act of compassion. Smithfield Farms, the Virginia-based meat producer that owns the farm, says the pigs were stolen, and that DXE violated the firm’s “strict biosecurity policy,” according to The Washington Post.

But the FBI? Really? It turns out that under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a 2006 law passed by Congress,, a person who “intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise” can be charged with a federal crime. Incidentally, Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, was a Senate sponsor of this industry-backed law, which turns peaceful protesters into terrorists.

The FBI investigation is “a demonstration of our effectiveness,” Hsiung told me the other day, via Skype. DXE is growing fast, and its raid on the Smithfield Farm property generated coverage in The New York Times.

“We are an existential threat to Smithfield, one that they have never faced before,” Hsiung says.

A constitutional amendment for animals

DXE stands apart from animal-welfare organizations because it vocally supports the liberation of all animals, ultimately, by passing an amendment to U.S. Constitution granting personhood to animals. (You can read its 40-year roadmap to animal liberation.) This may sound far-fetched — heck, it does sound far-fetched — but social movements to abolish slavery, grant voting rights to women and legalize gay marriage all sounded far fetched, until they didn’t. Interestingly, a 2015 poll found that a third of Americans believe that animals should have the “same rights as people,” about the same percentage as those that supported LGBT equality in the mid-1990s.

Hsiung, who is 36, has studied social movements, as well as behavioral science, to better understand how change happens. He has a B.A., M.A., and J.D. from the University of Chicago, studied behavioral economics at MIT and co-authored a paper with Nudge author Cass Sunstein about the impact of climate change on animals.

DXE is working to build an animal-rights movement with the political power to change laws and social norms. “We want to change institutions, especially our political institutions, and the way we think we can do this is by mobilizing a large number of activists,” Hsiung told me.

This approach, too, makes DXE an outlier in the animal-welfare world. Hsiung has doubts about the efficacy of two popular tactics of the movement: welfare reforms and vegan advocacy. He does not believe that campaigns to get laying hens out of cages, led by groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, will bring about an end to meat consumption. “Cage-free falls far short of what animals deserve,” Hsiung says. It runs the risk of reinforcing  the egg industry’s “fraudulent marketing strategy,” he says. What’s more, although Hsiung does not consume animal products (about which, more, below), he does not believe that changes in personal consumption will drive political change. “Our fight is for equality, justice, and freedom — not for a plant-based diet,” he once wrote, in a paper titled Boycott Veganism.

CtsQ34tVUAAVjPaInstead of corporate campaigns and vegan advocacy, DXE pushes open rescue and in-your-face protests. (Hsiung was once slammed to the ground by San Francisco Giants outfielder Angel Pagan after running onto the field at AT&T Park to protest the killing of pigs to make hot dogs.) Protests, he argues, get the plight of animals into the public consciousness, sustain current activists and bring newcomers to the movement.

Targets of DXE’s advocacy have included Whole Foods Market and Costco, companies that have been praised by some animal-welfare groups. Two investigations by DXE into suppliers to Whole Foods found farms — one growing turkeys, the other growing chickens — that would appear to violate animal-welfare promises made by Whole Foods. Whole Foods says it didn’t acquire meat from the particular barns where DXE recorded video. But, at the very least, the investigations raise troubling questions about the effectiveness of the Global Animal Partnership welfare standards developed, funded and relied upon by Whole Foods and its customers. They also makes a mockery of the welfare claims made by Whole Foods supplier Pitman Farms, whose Mary’s Free Range Chickens are anything but, as The Intercept explains.

Other animal-welfare labels, too, have been challenged by DXE, including during protests inside Whole Foods. “The Certified Humane label is the only response the industry can offer to justify its existence in the face of public outrage and public scrutiny,” Hsiung says. “When people feel they’re deceived, they’re motivated to make change.”

The liberation pledge

DXE asks supporters to sign what it calls The Liberation Pledge. It commits signers to:

  1. Publicly refuse to eat animals – live vegan.
  2. Publicly refuse to sit where animals are being eaten.
  3. Encourage others to take the pledge.

This is, obviously, harder than simply changing one’s own habits. But DXE says:

We have to make a public stand and create social norms around the idea that animals are not ours to use. Refusing to sit where the bodies of victims lie, and publicly displaying your commitment with a fork bracelet, is a powerful way to do this.

About 2,250 people have taken the Liberation Pledge, according to Hsiung. A small number, but it’s a start.

Founded in northern California in 2013 by a group of activists, DXE is a network of local groups that, in terms of its structure, has been compared to Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street. DXE says it has active chapters in about 160 cities in 30 countries. Friends of DXE, a small nonprofit, provides grants for some DXE campaigns and fellows, but neither the network nor the nonprofit has full-time, paid employees. Hsiung supports himself by practicing law.

DXE isn’t popular with animal-welfare advocates. It hasn’t been supported by Open Philanthropy Project, the biggest institutional funder of farm animal welfare. OPP won’t comment, but it tends to support groups that can demonstrate that their work has alleviated the suffering of animals. That’s hard for advocacy groups to do, and DXE is a young organization. Nor has DXE been identified as a standout charity by Animal Charity Evaluators, although an ACE staff member has donated to DXE.

I can’t decide what to think about DXE. The moral clarity of its message is appealing. What’s less clear is whether telling people that they are doing something wrong by eating animals is an effective way to persuade them to change. Some studies have found that animal-rights messaging can backfire, and there’s little doubt that the softer approaches, exemplified by Meatless Mondays or the “reducetarian” movement, are easier to, er, swallow. The question is, will they do the most good for animals?

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