In the summer of 2014, Leah Garcés, the president of Mercy For Animals and author of Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry, sat across from a man who, by every definition, was her enemy. His name was Craig Watts, and he was a chicken factory farmer. Her career is devoted to protecting farmed animals and ending factory farming. And, until this point in her life, Leah had spent every waking moment standing up against everything this man stood for and now Leah was in his living room.
As Leah sat there, the questions were swirling in her head. Leah had been trying for years to get footage from inside one of these chicken factory farms when it was nearly impossible.
Leah had failed every other attempt. Why had this man invited her to his home on his farm? Leah had driven that day from her home in Atlanta to his in Fairmont, North Carolina, and Leah was so scared that she gave her husband the address, and told him, “If I don’t come back, look for me rotting in the chicken litter.”
Leah was convinced this must be an ambush. Her life would change that day forever. The day Leah met Craig Watts, he had been raising chickens for 22 years for a company called Purdue, the fourth largest chicken company in the entire country.
As a young man, he had yearned for a way to stay on the land in one of the poorest counties in the state. When the chicken industry came to town, he thought it was a dream come true. He took a quarter of a million dollar loan out and he built these chicken houses.
Purdue would give him a flock. He’d raise them and each flock he’d get paid, and then he’d pay off the loan in small increments. The chickens got sick and started dying.
There are 25 five thousand chickens that are stuffed wall-to-wall living on their own feces, breathing ammonia soaked air and when they get sick, some of them die. A farmer doesn’t get paid for dead chickens and Craig struggled to pay off his loan, he realized he made a mistake, but he was all but an indentured servant at this stage.
When Leah met him, he was at a breaking point. The payments seemed never-ending, as did the death, despair, and illness of his chickens. Now, if the humans tried to think of some super unjust, filthy and cruel food system, they could not have thought of anything worse than factory farming.
Every year, 80 billion farmed animals around the world are raised and slaughtered. They’re stuffed in cages in warehouses, never to see the light of day and that’s not just a problem for those farmed animals, animal agriculture.
It accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the planes, trains and automobiles put together, and one third of our arable land is used to grow feed to feed factory farmed animals rather than ourselves. All that land is sprayed with immeasurable chemicals and important habitats, like the Amazon, are cut down and are burned.
Our global appetite for meat, dairy and eggs, is voracious. Leah’s villain was Craig Watts. It’s easy to hate someone you’ve never met before and, as Leah sat there in his living room, her fear and anger turned into something else.
Shamed her entire life, Leah had been blaming and hating him and people like him. Leah even wished him ill. Leah had never once thought about his struggle. His choices. Could he be a potential ally? Leah never had realized he might feel as trapped as the chickens.
So they had been sitting there for hours and the mid-day turned into afternoon turned into dusk. Then darkness and he said: “Okay, are you ready to see the chickens?” Why had he waited for it to be dark? He worried about raising suspicions with his neighbors, so under the cover of darkness, they walked towards one of these long gray houses and he swung open the door and they stepped inside and an overpowering smell hit while every muscle in her body tensed. Leah coughed and her eyes teared, her own physical discomfort overwhelmed her.
Lean didn’t even look around at first, but when she did what she saw brought her to tears. Tens of thousands of chicks in this darkened warehouse with nowhere to go and nothing to do, and Leah knew within a month they would grow at an fast pace.
They would suffer and end up on someone’s plate over the next few months. Leah returned many times with filmmaker Regan Hodge, to record, understand, and build trust with Craig. Leah walked his houses with him as he picked up dead and dying birds, birds with messed-up legs and trouble breathing and difficulty walking.
And all of this they caught on film, and they did something Leah never expected to do. When they first met, they released that footage and that was risky for both.
It was risky for him because he could lose his income, his home, his land, his neighbors hating him, and Leah could risk getting her organization sued or being the reason that he would lose everything, but they had to do it, anyway.
The New York Times broke the story and within 24 hours a million people had seen the video. It went viral by every definition, and they had this global platform for talking about factory farming and working with Craig got them thinking what other unlikely allies were around.
It will not get us to the solution. They have to enter other people’s space because often they neither have the power to change the problem we’re trying to solve. In her case, “I’m not in charge of a single chicken.”
The farmer is, and so are the meat companies, so Leah needs to enter their space. If Leah wanted to solve the problem and a couple years after working with Craig, Leah did something again, Leah never expected to do. Leah sat down with an even bigger potential enemy Jim Perdue himself.
The man Leah had made the villain of her viral video and again through difficult conversations and being uncomfortable Perdue, came out with the first animal care policy of any poultry company, and they agreed to do some things they had been criticized for not doing in the viral video like put windows into houses and pay for them, and that was a good lesson for many.
The second lesson is that when they sat down to negotiate with the enemy, they needed to remember there was a human being in front of them that likely has more in common than they care to admit – and Leah learned this firsthand. When Leah was invited to visit a major poultry company’s headquarters, it was the first time that they had invited her organization to visit. As they walked through the corridor, there were people who were peeking out from the cubicles to get a quick look at what an animal rights activist looks like? Leah didn’t know what they were expecting, but as they walked into the boardroom, there was an executive sitting there and his arms were crossed, and he did not want her to be there.
Leah flipped open her laptop and her background photo came up and it was a picture of her three kids her daughter looks different from her sons and he when he saw that photo, he uncrossed his arms and he tilted his head and he leaned forward, and he said, “Are those your kids,” and Leah said they were. Leah just got back from adopting her daughter and babbled on way too much for a professional meeting and he stopped her and he told her he has two adopted kids and for the next 20 minutes, they just talked about that.
They talked about adoption and being parents. In those moments they forgot who they were supposed to be at that table and this wall came down and a bridge was built and they crossed this divide and progress was made with that company because of that human connection than they ever made, ever. When people sit down with the so-called enemy, they need to look for the win-win.
Instead of going in with farmers like Craig Watts and thinking she needed to put them out of farming. Leah thought: “How can I help them be different kinds of farmers like growing hemp or mushrooms, and one farmer, Leah later worked with, did exactly that.
He did the tapng with her and filmed. They went to the New York Times again, but he went beyond that. He quit chicken factory farming and it turns out that those big long gray warehouses are the perfect environment for growing something else which sells.
Hemp. An environmentally friendly way to stay on the land, and pay the bills in a way that an vegan and animal rights activist and the chicken farmer can get behind.
Instead of thinking, how can she get these big meat companies out of business? Leah started thinking: how can she help them develop into a different kind of business, one where the protein doesn’t come from slaughtered animals, but rather plants.
Believe it or not, these big companies are moving their ships in that direction. Cargill and Tyson and Perdue are adding plant-based proteins into their supply chain and Perdue himself said, “Our company is a premium protein company and nothing about that says it has to come from animals.” In their own hometown of Atlanta, KFC did a one-day trial with plant-based chicken nuggets, and it was insane there were lines wrapped around the corner and traffic stopped in all directions.
You would think they were giving out free Beyonce tickets. People are ready for this shift. They need to build a big tent. Then everyone, from the chicken factory farmer to the mega meat company to the animal rights activists, can get under it and these lessons they can apply to many causes, whether it be with a problem with an ex neighbor or an in-law or with some of the biggest problems of Exploitation and oppression like factory farming or misogyny or racism or climate change, the world’s, smallest and biggest problems.
They won’t be solved by beating down our enemies, but by finding these win-win pathways together, it requires us to let go of the idea of us versus them and realize there’s. Only one of us is against an unjust system and it is difficult and messy and uncomfortable.
But it is critical and may be the only way to build that compassionate food system that they all want, from the chicken to the chicken farmer to the mega Meat Company.
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Jerry is a recognized writing pro on Fiverr.