A group of piglets in the lactation platform, illuminated by infrared lamps used for fast growth.
The body of a dead piglet is laying abandoned on the floor inside an industrial pig farm in northern Italy. Keeping dead animals inside the plant without being legally stocked is absolutely forbidden by EU health regulations, and risky for public health.
Worms on the floor of a swine meat plant. The sanitary conditions in these large-scale plants are often extreme. The piglets reared for meat are often mutilated, without anesthetic; these worms came out because a massive mutilation took place. Pigs grow without seeing sunlight, with little ventilation and very little maintenance cleaning. This type of meat industry is a paradise for zoonoses (infectious diseases that have jumped from a non-human animal to humans) and a threat to global health.

“Entering intensive pig farms is an extreme experience,” the Italian photojournalist Francesco Pistilli tells me. “The pervasive sound is that of the animals’ human-like screams. The nauseating smell stays with you for days, despite numerous showers. It is a circle of hell.” 

In one such farm, he discovered a shed where piglets, along with their mothers, were kept in cages, the floors covered in worms, razor blades, and testicles. The garbage overflowed with syringes and bottles of antibiotics. The baby pigs had just been castrated without any anesthesia. 

Pistilli has been documenting life for animals in factory farms for nearly a decade now, along with activists from the animal charity Essere Animali, who carry out investigations into the (often hidden) meat industry. In 2012, when he first joined forces with the organization, they were a small group known as Nemesi Animale; during this time, these investigations were riskier than ever, as Europe had classified animal activists as eco-terrorists. 

A broiler-chickens shed in northern Italy. Chickens are raised in warehouses that can hold up to 30,000 animals, 20 chickens per square meter, with no outdoor access. The broiler chicken – the most common breed for poultry farming – reaches slaughter weight in 6 weeks. Chickens, when allowed to live out their natural lives, can reach about 15 years of age. Through genetic mutations and hormone injections, these animals reach puberty far earlier than nature intended, so their bodies aren’t designed to support their advanced weight.

Today, Essere Animali is one of the most important organizations of its kind, positioned on the frontlines of the fight for a better future for people and animals. “The relationship we’ve built over the years is one of complete trust and respect,” the photographer says. “The team at Essere Animali has helped me to better understand the animal world and the level of abuse they undergo to get into our supermarkets, as well as the devastating effects the industry has on the environment and the health of the humans who eat these products.”

A group of calves in a cage. During the first weeks of life, a calf lives far from its mother and in single box, then is temporarily moved to a box with other calves of the same age. If they are male, they will be slaughtered at six months of age; if female, they will be destined to become milk cows.

Over the years, he’s photographed pig farms, broiler chicken plants, turkey farms, veal and dairy farms, warehouses for laying hens, rabbit farms, slaughterhouses, and more. Aside from the stench and the cries of animals, what most of these places have in common is the inescapable darkness. Baby pigs grow up under artificial heat lamps, without ever seeing sunlight. 

“If you enter an intensive laying hen farm at night, you will hear a dead silence at first, but the moment you turn on an LED light and shine it down those long corridors, you will see the hens waking up in their overcrowded cages,” Pistilli says. “You will see them starting to eat, noisily and hysterically. For these animals, the vital cycles between day and night are regulated only with artificial light. They will not live a single day in the sunlight.” 

Laying hens are seen trapped in a cage with six to eight hens, each given less than a square foot of space to roost and sleep in. The cages rise five floors and run thousands long in a warehouse without windows or skylights. Laying hens live an average of two years and produce about 600 eggs before being slaughtered.

Even now, these kinds of investigations carry risks, and animals trapped in the food industry remain some of the least protected by law. “The activists at Essere Animali agree to be photographed, despite those risks, because they know they are disseminating information that is increasingly important to the public,” Pistilli explains. “When dealing with an industry protected by silence, every image and every piece of information is valuable.”

A pig with paws broken is left to die just outside the stockyard, without food or water.

Literal and metaphorical darkness allow these systems to continue, as facilities and farms are often erected in rural areas, outside of public view. “The level of hygiene is so low in these places that it creates the perfect environment for the evolution and expansion of new zoonoses and pandemics,” the photojournalist says, looking back on that hellish night in the pig shed, illuminated only by the orange glow of heat lamps and surrounded by worms, with testicles littering the floor and hung on cage doors. 

After weaning, the swines stay in the same crowded cage for 4 to 6 months, then they’re divided in two groups: fattening or reproduction. Pigs raised in intensive farms can reach 150/160 Kg; in one year of intensive farming, a pig grows about 500 grams per day. In Italy in 2019, 11 million pigs were slaughtered, almost half destined for Prosciutto di Parma, and 30% is distributed abroad.

Amid the current pandemic, this work has only become more urgent. COVID-19 might have originated in animal markets, but the next pandemic could just as easily come from a factory farm. “I hope that with this clearly animal-derived pandemic, people will begin to develop a critical consciousness,” the photographer says. “The problem, however, is that social inequality often leads people with fewer resources to eat meat from large distributors or fast food companies, which is practically poisonous for those who eat it and devastating for the environment. The whole system is sick and perpetuates sickness.”

The body of a dead rabbit lying on the floor of an intensive farm filled with feces.

As long as these stories continue to come to light, however, hope persists. Friendships on the frontlines can last a lifetime, and Pistilli has forged an indelible bond with the advocates at Essere Animali. Together, they hold onto a shared dream; although they won’t be able to help the individual animals they’ve met within these darkened corridors, they can pave the way for the next generation. 

These orange lamps are special infrared lamps that duplicate infrared sunlight. Inside an intensive farm, the piglets are never going to see the sunlight, so these infrared rays are absorbed by swines to reach desired weight as soon as possible to be slaughtered and sold.

“The best contribution people can make is to stop eating meat,” Pistilli tells me. “If the vegetarian or vegan choice is not possible, then an alternative solution could be to not buy and eat meat produced in this way, and that almost always means no longer buying meat from supermarkets. 

“I am aware that, as a photographer, I alone will never be able to change the world, but I can certainly inform the public in the most honest way possible. Working on this story for almost a decade now has been a political choice. I’m driven by my desire for a different world–and a different future.”

An activist during a nighttime visit inside a slaughterhouse in central Italy
The bloodstained floor of a slaughterhouse seen at night during a nighttime investigation with the facility closed.

Follow Francesco Pistilli on Instagram at @francesco.pistilli. If you’d like to learn more about Essere Animali and the vital work they do, visit their website or follow them on Instagram at @essereanimali. You can support their investigations here

All images and captions © Francesco Pistilli

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