In a Final Act of Kindness, Activists Offer Water and Comfort at Pig Vigils

As truckloads of pigs arrive at a Vernon processing plant, activists line up alongside trailers for a powerful and sometimes life-changing moment.

About two times a week for the last two years, people have gathered outside Farmer John in Vernon with water, comforting words and sometimes a calming and gentle touch for the truckloads of pigs bound for slaughter at the processing plant south of downtown Los Angeles.

Warning: Viewers may find some of the scenes in the video below disturbing.

The deeply emotional vigils, often in the cool darkness of night, draw mostly vegans and some vegetarians. Some of the Vernon police officers assigned to patrol outside the building said they've given up meat because of what they've seen. 

"All these people are here to show them the first kindness they've ever experienced," said Shelby Hammond, who attended a recent vigil. 

The activists usually have just a few minutes with the pigs before the trucks are ready to pull into Farmer John. In a solemn ritual that plays out several times each night, they line up alongside the trailers and hold water bottles up to holes — offering a final drink from a water bottle or sprayer and some soothing words, sometimes a soft pat. 

Many are in tears as the gate opens and the truck rolls away onto the property. 

The exterior wall of the Vernon building is painted with depictions of pigs on a farm, a mural that has been there since the late 1950s. Farmer John's roots date to 1931, when two brothers began curing and selling pork bellies and smoked hams to grocery stores. The company run by the Clougherty family was renamed Farmer John in 1953.

Smithfield foods acquired Farmer John in 2016. In a statement, the company said it respects that the group can express its views, and that the vigils do not impact operations.

"At Smithfield Foods, we respect the rights of groups and individuals to express their views," the company said in a statement. "This includes the peaceful protests that regularly occur outside our Vernon, California, Farmer John processing facility. The group involved has been conducting these protests long before Smithfield acquired Farmer John in 2016.

"During any demonstration, Smithfield works with local law enforcement and protest leaders to ensure the safety of the protestors, our employees, our animals, and the public. Because of these coordinated efforts, the public demonstrations do not impact Farmer John’s production process or our ability to serve our customers and consumers."

The vigils, which began in 2017, are organized by Amy Jean Davis, of LA Animal Save, and Ellen Dent, of Animal Alliance Network. They draw people from throughout Los Angeles, sometimes attracting celebrities like musician and animal rights activist Moby.

"It's a life-changing, profound experience," he said.

YouTuber Elton Castee was attending one for the first time, recording for an upcoming video. 

"It’s different when you see a video of it," Castee said. "It’s through a lens, but when you actually see it in your eyes, it's not one truck. It’s two, three, four. The first was heart-breaking."

Moby had some advice for anyone moved by what can be a powerful experience.

"Don't let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good," he said. "If someone is watching, do the best you can and let your conscience guide your actions."

NBC4's Jonathan Lloyd contributed to this report.

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