Disappearing Pigs

By Jane M. Casteline and Mary Shannon Johnstone

Lucy’s teeth and tail had already been clipped. Less than a month old, she was still too young to consume solid foods when she was found on the side of a rural highway. It’s likely she either fell or jumped off a truck on her way to a “finishing” farm.

Lucy lives in North Carolina, which boasts the two counties with the highest pork production in the United States. In Duplin and Sampson counties, pigs outnumber humans 29:1, yet seeing an actual pig like Lucy is very rare. She and millions of other animals are hidden away in large-scale factory farms where their social, mental, emotional, and physical needs are ignored as their bodies are fattened up in preparation for us to consume. This is almost certainly where Lucy was headed.

The pork industry goes to great lengths to hide what goes on at their farms. For instance, it lobbies legislators to make it a criminal offense to photograph inside or outside, or even fly a drone over, these farms. These are known as “ag-gag laws,” and North Carolina’s, until the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck it down in February 2023, was among the most restrictive.

When Lucy was taken to the animal shelter, the staff didn’t know how to feed a piglet and  gave her inappropriate food. She had gastro-intestinal distress, stopped eating, and grew lethargic. Lucy needed hospital care, but North Carolina State University (NCSU) Veterinary Hospital declined to admit her, citing lack of space. So, Lucy had to make the six-hour journey to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital in Knoxville. Furthermore, once Lucy was released from the hospital, under North Carolina law, she would still have to be auctioned off.  As part of North Carolina law, any “livestock” that comes through state animal shelters must be auctioned off. Pigs cannot be adopted or rescued. Therefore they run the very real risk of being placed back into the consumable “livestock” life-cycle: slaughtered for food.

We know about Lucy because of “Picturing Pigs,” a project we launched with two billboards on Interstate 40 in Duplin and Sampson counties, featuring rescued pigs living out their natural lives at two farmed animal sanctuaries in North Carolina. Instead of showing the reality of the vast majority of pigs in the area, we call attention to the lucky few who can live out their full lives and express themselves as individuals. Juxtaposing the image, we included a text that simply states that animals are like us. For instance, in one billboard we show Daisy basking in a field. The text reads, “Enjoying summer? Pigs like sunshine too.”

Our intentions were clear. Yes, we wanted to make people think about the animals they consume, but we did so with love and compassion. We didn’t want to depict violence against the animals, nor did we aim to demean farmers, or the industry, or consumers of pork.

So, we were stunned when Admiral Outdoor, the Duplin-based billboard company we’d contracted with, wrote saying they were unable to fulfill the contract we’d signed. Neither of us received a response from Admiral Outdoor when we asked why. Assuming this was a one-off, we reached out to four more companies and were met with similar resistance from each of them—once they learned what we were advertising. One company cited restrictions (which they refused to identify) and then quoted exorbitant prices. Another said they didn’t understand and asked if our project was a joke. Even the national billboard chain, Lamar Advertising, declined, saying they “decided not to participate in this campaign” and also refused to offer a reason why. Ultimately, we were able to find a company to work with us; however, the billboards have been hidden behind overgrown foliage since they were installed. The N.C. Department of Transportation will need to trim the foliage so, for now, they’re hidden behind trees. We see our hidden billboards as a metaphor for the disappearance of pigs as sentient beings from our lives.

Why are these companies so frightened of showing piglets at all, let alone ones enjoying sunlight or smelling fresh air? Why does NCSU’s vet hospital, one of the top veterinary schools in the country situated in a state with almost as many pigs as humans, not have enough space to admit a piglet in distress? Why do animal shelter staff (through no fault of their own) not know how to feed a piglet?

Before the advent of industrial farming, most farmers and vets knew their animals individually: they were proud of their job, not scared. The evidence suggests, however, that the pork industry is terrified that consumers might realize that the animals we eat aren’t slabs of flesh, or units of production, or cartoon logos, but living creatures with personalities, families, needs, and pleasures. This prospect is so terrifying to Big Ag, it seems, that they’re willing to criminalize or silence those who might want to show or help piglets like Lucy.

Since the billboards are still obscured at the moment, we’re resorting to this op-ed and these pictures. We invite you to view the pictures of pigs here and start a conversation about pigs to make sure lives like Lucy’s don’t remain invisible.

As for Lucy, she successfully made it to a sanctuary and was adopted. She’s currently in quarantine, after which she can meet her piglet companion, Winston. While in quarantine, Lucy has made good friends with the house cat and a resident chicken. She is happy, healthy, and loved. And she is seen.

Jane M. Casteline and Mary Shannon Johnstone are photographers who developed “Picturing Pigs” with a 2023 grant from the Culture & Animals Foundation.