Pigs who survived the hurricane and escaped their farm swim through flood waters in North Carolina. © Kelly Guerin / We Animals

Drowned body of a broiler chicken on a porch in North Carolina. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Cows who survived the hurricane, stranded on a porch, surrounded by flood waters in North Carolina. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

When the filmmaker Kelly Guerin was on the ground in Duplin County, North Carolina, in the wake of Hurricane Florence, she encountered a group of pigs stranded on a highway bridge. It was already getting dark, but she and local activists Daniel Turbert and Caroline Byrd couldn’t leave the pigs behind. After coordinating with local sanctuaries, Guerin and Turbert stayed with the animals all night, counting them, checking that they were still breathing, and waiting for their rescue. Many of the pigs in the area had never seen the outdoors before Florence; raised for meat, they had spent their lives confined to factory farms, and when the hurricane came, they had been taken by the water.

Guerin spent that morning seated next to a cold and shivering female pig who was no longer strong enough to stand. As the other pigs rose to get the food she’d brought, the filmmaker placed some salted beans close to this pig’s nose and watched her eat for the first time in four days. “I wished more than anything for a blanket to put over her,” the filmmaker tells me. “Not able to comfort her physically, I just started talking to her. I told her I was so sorry for what she had gone through, not just in the floods, but in the farm she came from. I told her the bad part of her life was over, that she was about to go on a wonderful adventure. Every now and then, she would open her eyes and watch me gently. Her breathing slowed and her shivering faded as the sun warmed her.” 

Guerin is part of We Animals, a project created by the photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur to document the treatment of animals around the world. The two of them traveled to North Carolina to tell the stories of individual animals who lived, breathed, suffered, and died in the hurricane. Their location, Duplin County, is a hotbed of industrial farming, and according to reports, 5,500 pigs perished during Florence, along with 3.4 million chickens. “These are industry numbers, self-reported, so the actual number may be much higher,” Guerin explains. Looking back, the filmmaker says the survival of those ten individual pigs was “nothing short of a miracle.”

But even though some animals somehow found a way to make it out of Florence alive, the odds were always stacked against them. At the last moment before the rescue of the stranded pigs by Ziggy’s Farm Animal Refuge and Brother Wolf Animal RescueChinquapin County Animal Control showed up and ordered Guerin, Turbert, and a number of rescuers on the scene to surrender the animals. The farmer had come back, and he refused to relinquish the pigs. There was nothing the activists could do to save them. “The whir of adrenaline in those last hours with them left no time to process our loss until we were forced off the highway,” Guerin remembers. “I couldn’t see my girl over the bridge, but I knew she would be the first to be caught, and I whispered my apologies to her and the others as we drove away.” 

Later, the farmer would claim that those pigs, despite having nearly drowned in “toxic floodwater sludge,” passed their health inspection, though the report hasn’t been verified. If they haven’t been already, they will be slaughtered very soon, and then they will be eaten. “Documenting animals, I’ve left so many behind,” Guerin says. “But never like this, with another life so miraculously within reach.”

In North Carolina, she and McArthur had their hearts broken and their hopes dashed more than once, but still, they continued to bear witness to what they saw. They weren’t able to rescue these animals, but perhaps their photographs can help others by encouraging us to live more compassionately. I was initially hesitant to ask Guerin about the story of the lost pigs because the wound was still fresh, but she was eager to share it. “Since none of them could be saved in the end, the story is really all we have in our power to bring them some semblance of justice,” she said.

I asked her some more questions about the experience. If you’d like to support the We Animals team and their crucial work, you can make a donation here. You can also visit their “How to Help Animals” section here.

Pigs who survived the hurricane and escaped their farm, sleep next to flood waters in North Carolina. © Kelly Guerin / We Animals

Was anything done to help the farmed animals of North Carolina prior to the hurricane, or were they left completely to fend for themselves?
“We heard this question a lot: ‘Why didn’t the farmers just evacuate the animals?’ What is problematic with this question is that it places the responsibility and blame solely on the farmers, and not on those who consume these kinds of animal products. Our demand for fast, cheap meat keeps animals living in these brutal conditions, in these vast numbers, and in these vulnerable areas in the path of recurring natural disasters. That being said, the industry is of course not without blame; time and time again, they have proven to the public that their priorities lie not with caring for the animals but in protecting their profits. In the days before Florence struck, animals that were close enough to a profitable weight were sent to the slaughterhouse. Those that were not were left behind.”

Drowned bodies of broiler chickens in the flood water in North Carolina. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

How did some of the animals we see in these photos escape?
“Some farmers left the doors of their CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) open to give their animals a chance to escape, but we heard from local activists that fewer farmers are making that choice. Lost livestock are covered by insurance, but if an animal washes up dead or alive somewhere where it can be seen and photographed, (such as the story of Flo, a pig who was rescued), that sparks a discussion the industry does not want to happen.

“The experiences of these trapped animals are unimaginable. Chickens are physically incapable of swimming and therefore stood no chance of surviving rising waters. We documented the drowned, bloated bodies of thousands of broiler chickens slowly draining from a cracked door of a CAFO and bodies washed up in residential areas.

“Pigs, who can swim, have at least a remote chance of escaping; however, those who did survive have lived through a nightmare. It was a terrifying feeling to watch the sunset on that highway bridge with that group of pigs, knowing we were stranded in a flash flood area with no water, no jackets, and no idea if the bridge was going to hold out. There were alligators and water moccasins in these toxic waters. It was a long night swatting away the mosquitos and hearing these strange soft thumps beneath us on the bridge. Some sounded like branches; others did not. The arrival of light in the morning revealed to us the source of the noises: bodies of dead pigs were caught in branches downstream. Their legs splayed out straight into the air and bobbed in the current.”

Drowned bodies of broiler chickens in the flood water in North Carolina. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Do you remember the smell in some of these areas?
“You could smell the water miles before you reached it. It smelled like raw sewage and chemicals and, worse than the smell, it burned your throat and eyes and left rashes on your skin. Certain areas were worse than others, such as a pond where thousands of fish suffocated in the toxic floodwater and floated dead and rotting on the water’s edge. The worst smell by far, though, was at the cracked open door of a flooded CAFO wherein thousands of broiler chickens had been locked inside and drowned. Rotting bodies, feces, the smell of toxic water… It was difficult to get close enough to film without vomiting. In fact, my shots inside the barn were so brief because I was afraid I would faint and fall into the sludge.”

Aerial view of a CAFO farm, damaged by winds and surrounded by flood waters in Duplin County, North Carolina. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Dead fish floating in floodwaters after Hurricane Florence in North Carolina. Mass dying caused by depleted oxygen and nutrients in the water after Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina. Toxins also run into the lake due to the floods, from CAFOs, and factor in to fish deaths in both the short and long term. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

I know you’ve witnessed the worst of the worst, but was this mission especially difficult for you?
“It was. The word that kept coming to mind was ‘apocalyptic.’ Documenting Florence’s aftermath in Duplin County was like stepping into one of those articles about climate change which forewarn the consequences if we do nothing to stop it. Before visiting Duplin, I think there was a part of me that still believed that there had to be a point where we realized, ‘This has gone too far. We’re killing the planet. We’re killing ourselves.’ But that future has already arrived in some parts of the country, and still, we don’t make the connection. Residents already cannot drink their tap water and suffer debilitating respiratory problems, cancers, and skin conditions from the fumes from manure spray fields. Hurricanes and flooding have repeatedly decimated their homes, killed millions of animals, and washed deadly bacteria and toxic substances into their water supply.

“A number of moments brought me to tears, but one I will never forget occurred on the day we documented the fish kill in a small pond in Wilmington. Thousands of fish bodies floated by with their eyes bulging and mouths gaping open, looking very much like the faces of suffocation. This was enough to overwhelm, but the part that broke me was finding the survivors. A small cluster of fish were straining weakly to swim up a small current of fresh water trickling out of a drainage pipe at the pond’s edge. Some of their fins had open sores, bright red against the yellow/gray polluted water. They were just swimming in the current, trying to escape but making no headway. We stayed with them for a long time, watching them fight but helpless to rescue them from the slow and painful death. Occasionally, we could see a fish give up the fight, stop swimming, and float backwards, succumbing to the floating pile of dead bodies. This moment gave a face to the otherwise faceless millions of wild animals who will die as a result of their ruined waters. The sheer numbers and my inability to help is a haunting memory.”

Close up of dead fish floating in floodwaters after Hurricane Florence in North Carolina. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Close up of dead fish floating in floodwaters after Hurricane Florence in North Carolina. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

Did you speak to any local people about what they were seeing?
“Damage to the most heavily-affected communities was devastating and unfortunately recurring, but responses from the community about the local farms were varied. Duplin County is the second-largest pig producing county in the U.S. and therefore employed a large portion of the population. We did have the honor of speaking with local resident Elsie Herring, who became an environmental activist after a hog CAFO moved in next door to her family’s property. The manure sprayed next door drifted onto their homes daily and soon began inflicting serious health problems on the family, including respiratory and skin infections. She talked about how different farming was compared to when she was a child, how massive and industrial and toxic the industry had become, and how cruelly the animals in the farms were treated. She lamented that hurricanes had come before and would come again, flooding farms and polluting the land. The farm began spraying manure in the middle of our interview and Elsie had to fetch a paper towel and hold it over her mouth in order to continue. Both Jo-Anne and I left with sore throats from that brief interaction with the mist.”

Horses take refuge on a raised porch, surrounded by flood waters in North Carolina. © Kelly Guerin / We Animals

Does anything give you hope for the future?
“Yes, as with any other story that is difficult to document, the light at the end of the tunnel is always seeing the images go out into the world and spark real, informative debate about the issues. It was a sign of changing times to see prominent media outlets going beyond where they’ve dared to go in the past, reporting not only how many animal lives were lost but actually including their photographs in the articles. It felt like a very real shift in journalistic culture to not report solely on the ‘losses’ of the farmers. Instead, we saw angles of climate change, industry negligence, and animal welfare, and the shift in public dialogue that followed was incredible to witness.

“It was also incredible to see the outpouring of support for the animals from all over the country. Many animals were saved thanks to the tireless efforts of activists on the ground. In fact, one rescuer we worked with ended up adopting a dog he found stranded on a porch. We were able to join a team from Brother Wolf as they searched a deeply flooded neighborhood for animals in need of rescue, or at the very least some clean water and food. The groups were often specialized–cats, dogs, horses, and large animal rescues, etc. Most of the efforts were centered on companion animals, at least in part due to the comparative ease of rescuing small animals who are protected by welfare laws and have shelters to go to. Those groups who attempted to rescue farmed animals faced enormous challenges, often going head-to-head with the industry and farmers keen to get their property back. A small number of rescued animals have found happier endings in sanctuary or adoption. We hope they can live out the rest of their lives as ambassadors for their species and living reminders of all those who tragically never made it out.”

Cows who survived the hurricane, stranded on a porch, surrounded by flood waters in North Carolina. © Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

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