Shawn Lyons was dead to rights—and he knew it. More than a month had passed since People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had released a video of savage mistreatment at the MowMar Farms hog confinement facility where he worked as an entry-level herdsman in the breeding room. The three enormous sow barns in rural Greene County, Iowa, were less than five years old and, until recently, had raised few concerns. They seemed well ventilated and well supplied with water from giant holding tanks. Their tightly tacked steel siding always gleamed white in the sun. But the PETA hidden-camera footage shot by two undercover activists over a period of months in the summer of 2008, following up on a tip from a former employee, showed a harsh reality concealed inside.
The recordings caught one senior worker beating a sow repeatedly on the back with a metal gate rod, a supervisor turning an electric prod on a sow too crippled to stand, another worker shoving a herding cane into a sow's vagina. In one close-up, a distressed sow who'd been attacking her piglets was shown with her face royal blue from the Prima Tech marking dye sprayed into her nostrils "to get the animal high." In perhaps the most disturbing sequence, a worker demonstrated the method for euthanizing underweight piglets: taking them by the hind legs and smashing their skulls against the concrete floor—a technique known as "thumping." Their bloodied bodies were then tossed into a giant bin, where video showed them twitching and paddling until they died, sometimes long after. Though his actions were not nearly as vicious as those of some coworkers who'd been fired immediately, Lyons knew, as the video quickly became national news, that the consequences for him could be severe.
As we sat recently in the tiny, tumbledown house he grew up in and now shares with his wife and two kids, Lyons acknowledged—as he did to the sheriff's deputy back then—that he had prodded sows with clothespins, hit them with broad, wooden herding boards, and pulled them by their ears, but only in an effort, he said, to get pregnant sows that had spent the last 114 days immobilized in gestation crates up and moving to the farrowing crates where they would give birth. Lyons said he never intended to hurt the hogs, that he was just "scared to death" of the angry sows "who had spent their lives in a little pen"—and this was how he had been trained to deal with them. Lyons had watery blue eyes that seemed always on the verge of tears and spoke in a skittish mutter that would sometimes disappear all the way into silence as he rubbed his thin beard. "You do feel sorry for them, because they don't have much room to move around," he said, but if they get spooked coming out of their crates, "you're in for a fight."
"You do feel sorry for them," says Shawn Lyons of how he was taught to handle sows. But if they get spooked, "you're in for a fight." Photo: Mary Anne Andrei
Lyons had been trained in these methods of hog-handling (many of them, including thumping, legal and widely practiced), but a spokeswoman for Hormel—one of the largest food processors in the country and the dominant buyer of MowMar's hogs—had already called the video "appalling" and "completely unacceptable," and MowMar's owners had responded by vowing that any additional workers found guilty of abuse as authorities pored over the tape would be terminated. Still, it came as a surprise when his boss informed him that he had been formally charged and immediately fired. "We don't want to do it," the supervisor told him, "but we got to—because Hormel will quit taking the sows." He told Lyons to turn himself in at the courthouse.
While Lyons filled out paperwork and had his mug shot taken, his wife's cellphone buzzed again and again: Her husband's name was already on the evening news. Lyons hired a lawyer—but he was on video and he'd confessed to the deputy sheriff. "They got you, dude," Lyons said his attorney told him. He accepted a plea agreement—six months' probation and a $625 fine plus court fees—and signed an admission of guilt. It may seem like a slap on the wrist, but Lyons was the first person ever convicted of criminal livestock neglect on a Midwestern farm—and only the seventh person convicted of animal abuse in the history of the American meat industry. He wasn't alone for long: Five of Lyons' coworkers soon signed similar agreements.
It was a major PR win for PETA—which often appeals to local authorities to make arrests but rarely gets the kind of cooperation they got from the Greene County Sheriff's Office—but it was also a hollow victory. "Who in their right mind would want to work in a dusty, ammonia-ridden pig shed for nine bucks an hour but somebody who, literally, had no other options?" asked Dan Paden, the senior researcher at PETA who helped run the investigation. "And at the end of a long, frustrating day, when you are trying to move a pig who hasn't been out of its crate in [months], that's when these beatings occur—and people do stupid, cruel, illegal things." PETA was urging prosecutors to go beyond plea agreements for farmworkers; they wanted charges against farm owners and their corporate backers, to hold them responsible for crimes committed by undertrained, overburdened employees.
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This prospect scared industrial-scale meat producers into organizing a coordinated pushback. Recognizing that, in the era of smartphones and social media, any worker could easily shoot and distribute damning video, meat producers began pressing for legislation that would outlaw this kind of whistleblowing. Publicly, MowMar pledged to institute a zero-tolerance policy against abuse and even to look into installing video monitoring in its barns. And yet last summer, at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, MowMar's co-owner Lynn Becker recommended that each farm hire a spokesperson to "get your side of the story out" and called the release of PETA's video "the 9/11 event of animal care in our industry."
As overheated as likening that incident to a terrorist attack may seem, such thinking has become woven into the massive lobbying effort that agribusiness has launched to enact a series of measures known (in a term coined by the New York Times' Mark Bittman) as ag gag. Though different in scope and details, the laws (enacted in 8 states and introduced in 15 more) are viewed by many as undercutting—and even criminalizing—the exercise of First Amendment rights by investigative reporters and activists, whom the industry accuses of "animal and ecological terrorism."
Ag gag laws allow industry "to completely self-regulate," says a whistleblowers' advocate. That should "scare the pants off" consumers who want to know how their food is made.
Using a legal cudgel to go after critics wasn't entirely a new tactic for agribusiness. PETA first began undercover investigations around 1981—getting video of rhesus monkeys being vivisected in a Maryland medical research lab by posing as employees—and a few legislatures responded by enacting laws to protect animal research from exposés. (Only Kansas had the foresight to expand its law to cover "livestock and domestic animals.") Then, in 1992, when two ABC PrimeTime Live reporters shot undercover video of Food Lion workers in the Carolinas repackaging spoiled meat, Food Lion sued—not for libel, since the tapes spoke for themselves, but for fraud and trespass, because the reporters had submitted false information on their job applications. (A jury awarded $5.5 million, but an appeals court reduced it to just $2.) In 1996, at the height of the mad cow scare, the Texas Beef Group launched a two-year lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey over an episode that questioned the safety of hamburger. Recently, not only has the rhetoric heated up, but so has the coordinated legislative effort. Deeply invested in industrywide methods that a growing number of consumers find distasteful or even cruel, agribusiness has united in making sure that prying eyes literally don't see how the sausage is made.
"If you think this is an animal welfare issue, you have missed the mark," said Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project's Food Integrity Campaign, who served as a representative for the whistleblowers who tipped off ABC in the Food Lion case. "This is a bigger, broader issue." She likened activist videos to airplane black-box recorders—evidence for investigators to deconstruct and find wrongdoing. Ag gag laws, she said, don't just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. "You are also stopping environmental whistleblowing; you are also stopping workers' rights whistleblowing." In short, "you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate." That should "scare the pants off" consumers concerned about where their food comes from. "It's the consumer's right to know, but also the employee's right to tell. You gotta have both."
Until the 20th century, American meat production, especially in the Midwest, was necessarily seasonal. Cattle, hogs, and chickens were part of small, diversified farms that sustained livestock all year long but tended to fatten animals and bring them to market only after harvest, when feed was plentiful and cheap. After profits ballooned during World War II, packers were eager to keep upping output (and sales) by turning packing into a year-round activity.
But hog farming on the cold, windswept plains of the Midwest was difficult in those days. Even in milder winters, farmers often suffered deaths among their herds, and sows would farrow only once a year. Midwestern stockmen tended to raise either cattle, which were hardy enough to withstand the cold, or chickens, which could be cooped during winter months. But then some enterprising hog farmers began building large confinement barns with slotted floors and pits below to catch manure. Such enclosures not only overcame mortality due to bad weather, but they made it possible to farrow sows twice a year.
By the close of the 1960s, the practice was so successful that Midwestern family farmers worried that meatpackers would build their own confinement facilities, establishing feed-to-market monopolies that would squeeze out small operations. Between 1971 and 1982, laws devised to forbid vertical integration and price-fixing passed in every state between Wisconsin and Oklahoma. Thus, when big meat producers began erecting barns capable of holding thousands of animals, the boom centered in the unregulated South.
Through a series of lawsuits, big meatpackers successfully rolled back the family-farm protection laws, and soon industrial producers were rushing to buy up smaller Midwestern meatpacking plants and finance large-scale confinement facilities and feedlots. Beef packers moved into cattle-rich Nebraska, but hog development tended to focus on Iowa, where three of the biggest packers—Smithfield, Cargill, and Hormel—had gained special exemptions to the family-farm protection law by agreeing to two conditions: They would not engage in price-fixing of feed or livestock, and they would not seek to punish whistleblowers.
This compromise led to a mind-boggling boom in Iowa factory farms. For example, Greene County—which had few large-scale facilities when MowMar Farms applied for its permit a decade ago—now has 70, with at least another 14 permitted for construction. In a county of roughly 9,000 people, the hog population is more than 250,000.
As in any boom, the quick money and minimal restrictions attracted a number of fly-by-night developers. They sold to long-distance owners who, via a few local management companies, often hired inexperienced workers. And before long, Iowa resembled North Carolina of a decade before: a state dotted with giant hog confinements, many operating in violation of health codes, environmental requirements, and animal cruelty laws.
The release of the MowMar Farms video could have been a gut-check for the industry, a moment to reflect on whether the runaway growth had led to conditions unsafe for man or beast, perhaps even an opening for dialogue with animal welfare advocates. Instead, Julie H. Craven, the spokeswoman for Hormel, went on the offensive against PETA, criticizing its practice of methodically building cases over a period of months in order to demonstrate patterns of abuse. "If they are truly concerned about animal welfare," she said, "they should release information when they obtain it."
It marked a transition in the industry's strategy: Where once it had pushed back against journalists and whistleblowers after their videos ignited public outrage, now they were looking for a way to prevent such exposure in the first place. Soon afterward, meat industry lobbyists dusted off a long-dormant piece of model legislation crafted by a conservative think tank that would not only make it harder to release undercover video but would criminalize obtaining, possessing, or distributing it to anyone—including journalists or regulators.
Cindy Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Pork Board, told me she thought such legal protections could be appropriate. "I liken it to somebody walking into your living room and taking video," she said. "If you're at a cocktail party and somebody shoots video of you from behind a candle—like they did to Mitt Romney—is that legitimate?"
Back in September 2003, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released a piece of model legislation it called the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act. Like so many bills drafted by the free-market think tank, AETA was handed over, ready made, to legislators with the idea that it could be introduced in statehouses across the country with minimal modification. Under the measure, it would become a felony (if damages exceed $500) to enter "an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means," and, in a flush of Patriot Act-era overreaching, those convicted of making such recordings would also be placed on a permanent "terrorist registry."
"If you're at a cocktail party and somebody shoots video of you from behind a candle—like they did to Mitt Romney—is that legitimate?"
After a few years on the shelf, ALEC's pet project found new life when radical groups like the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation Front destroyed testing labs and torched SUVs, prompting FBI deputy director John Lewis to say in 2005 that "the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat is the ecoterrorism, animal-rights movement." The bill was overhauled—modifying the ban on shooting video to "damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise" and eliminating the section on creating a terrorism watch list. This defanged version, renamed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, was repackaged to congressional leaders as a needed revision of existing laws protecting medical research from unlawful interference. Though it wouldn't become apparent until much later, it was the beginning of lobbyists and lawmakers conflating radical ALF-type incidents with the undercover work done by PETA and journalists. The bill sailed through the Senate by unanimous consent, and in the House encountered resistance only from Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). Kucinich warned it would "have a chilling effect on the exercise of the constitutional rights of protest," before a voice vote on the bill allowed it to be ushered through.
Application of the law soon nipped at the heels of the First Amendment. Most notably, a jury found a New Jersey chapter of a UK-based anti-animal-testing group guilty of conspiracy for publishing the home addresses of researchers at Huntingdon Life Sciences—handing down convictions for seven, including the chapter's webmaster. The case was chronicled in a low-budget documentary called Your Mommy Kills Animals, which discussed the case for prosecuting animal rights activist groups, including PETA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), as homegrown terrorist organizations. The movie was underwritten by über-lobbyist Richard Berman, who runs the Center for Consumer Freedom and was immortalized by 60 Minutes as "Dr. Evil." Because nonprofits don't have to reveal their donor lists, it's impossible to know exactly how much money Berman takes in from particular corporations. However, a canceled check for $50,000, introduced as part of a lawsuit resulting from the documentary, revealed that Hormel was a backer—and Berman described them in testimony as a "supporter." (Berman sued the filmmakers because, contrary to his wishes, they made a movie that was too evenhanded.)
Lynn Becker says conditions at MowMar have improved, but he's wary of letting reporters take a look. Photo: Mary Anne Andrei
The talk, according to the Agri-Growth Council's newsletter, drew one of the largest and most varied arrays of attendees in the group's history. Ten weeks later, Hamilton and Magnus introduced identical bills that would make it a crime to "produce a record which reproduces an image or sound" inside an animal facility—or even "possess or distribute" such a recording. Daryn McBeth, the president of the Agri-Growth Council, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that the law would be "an important deterrent tool in our toolbox" against videos shot by "fraudulently hired employees." The Star Tribune pointed to a case that rocked Minnesota a few months earlier, when workers at the Willmar Poultry Company—the country's largest turkey hatchery, producing 45 million birds a year—were filmed by HSUS undercover activists throwing sick, injured, and surplus birds into grinding machines while still alive.
Meanwhile, in what some animal rights activists have called an "evolutionary change" in strategy, Missouri and Nebraska lawmakers introduced bills that include provisions for what is termed "quick reporting"—a concept ostensibly intended to protect animals, but that de facto makes it impossible for journalists or activists to build a convincing case of sustained abuse. Under some of these new provisos, activists or whistleblowers would be required to submit written reports of any signs of abuse they witnessed and all supporting evidence to authorities within a matter of hours—or face criminal charges themselves. Whistleblowers would not even be allowed to keep any copies of materials they submitted to authorities. Critics say the measures are a cynical warping of so-called good Samaritan measures that require reporting child abuse or sexual assault. Only in this case, by analogy, a teacher who later came to suspect child abuse could be prosecuted for not reporting the first bump or bruise.
"It's absurd," said Amanda Hitt at the Government Accountability Project. She said she couldn't believe that an industry that has been so regularly recorded breaking the law "would then have the audacity to come to any state legislative body and say, 'Hey, we're sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do us a favor and criminalize catching us?'"
But that's exactly what has happened in Nebraska—under the guise of a new advocacy group called We Support Agriculture. In 2010, the Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Poultry Industries, Nebraska Pork Producers Association, and Nebraska State Dairy Association formed the organization to "defend the responsible animal welfare practices of Nebraska's farmers and ranchers from attacks by outside animal rights extremist groups." The effort was fraught with scandal from the start. First, the group received a $100,000 grant of taxpayer funds from Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning (who was running for US Senate at the time)—even though it didn't yet have employees, offices, or initiatives of any kind. It later came to light that Bruning approved the grant via email just 32 minutes after the request was submitted. Since then, the Omaha World-Herald has uncovered 1,800 phone calls, many of them late at night, between the group's first executive director, its only employee, and Nebraska's married lieutenant governor, Rick Sheehy. (Sheehy resigned over the scandal involving this and other relationships in February.)
Despite the controversy, We Support Agriculture has pressed ahead with distributing material disparaging animal rights activists supplied by none other than Richard Berman and the Center for Consumer Freedom. Ron Meyer, a cattle rancher who attended an early We Support Agriculture meeting, said local meat producers were told that the goal of the Humane Society of the United States was "to destroy animal agriculture and force everyone to become either vegetarian or vegan." But Meyer said that the HSUS spokesman he met in 2011 was a hog producer from Missouri and that 95 percent of HSUS supporters eat meat. "Since 1980, Nebraska has lost 91 percent of its independent hog producers, 80 percent of its dairy producers and 40 percent of its beef producers," Meyer wrote in an editorial for the Lincoln Journal Star. "It was not HSUS that drove them out of business. What drove them out of business was a market increasingly controlled by multinational food corporations that include the large meatpackers, which destroyed competitive and fair prices and operate with no transparency." Still, We Support Agriculture has enjoyed the steadfast support of Gov. Dave Heineman (who said of the HSUS: "We're going to kick your ass and send you out of the state") and a 27-year-old, Georgetown-educated state senator named Tyson Larson.
In January 2012, Larson introduced LB 915, a measure intended "to protect agricultural businesses from attacks by animal activist groups." He claimed that activists were gaining access to farms under false pretenses and injuring animals themselves in order to stage hoaxed videos. "I remember that they stuck a pitchfork in a cow's butt region and took pictures of it," Larson said. He also criticized PETA for its practice of conducting investigations lasting at least 30 days—meaning, he testified, that abuse at the hands of animal activists would last more than a month. His goal was twofold: first, to criminalize "obtaining employment at an animal facility with the intent to disrupt the operations of the business" (a notion lifted directly from the initial draft of the Iowa bill) and, second, to require that any witnessed abuse—or even "suspected abuse"—be reported within 12 hours, accompanied by any and all documentation of that abuse.
But that kind of requirement runs smack into constitutional protections for the press. Floyd Abrams, the renowned First Amendment attorney, told me that videos like those made by PETA and other animal rights organizations constitute newsgathering—and as such the activists are afforded the same protections that any journalist would enjoy. "There are limits as to the burdens that you can impose upon newsgathering," he said. "And while not every effort at newsgathering is protected under the First Amendment, the underlying constitutional reality remains: The state, the government, can't pass a law that so limits, burdens, threatens, or criminalizes newsgathering about important matters of public concern as to chill those efforts." Such a statute "could, in effect, criminalize newsgathering," Abrams said, "by requiring that information that is learned be turned over to authorities." Such a requirement "within any period of time seems to me highly likely to be held to violate the First Amendment." Nebraska's legislators reached much the same conclusion, and Larson's bill died in committee.
In January of this year, however, Larson introduced a revamped version, the penalty portion of which he now modeled after the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Only one person spoke in favor of the bill: Annette Sweeney, the former Iowa legislator who introduced the successful ag gag legislation there—and who now serves as a board member of Iowa Women in Agriculture. At the same time, 14 ag gag bills were submitted across the country, half of them including Larson's quick reporting provision. In New Hampshire, where one such bill was introduced, Berman wrote an op-ed warning that PETA and the HSUS "have developed a cottage industry in filming alleged cruelty for weeks or months and then releasing it with a big media splash later. They get their faces on TV and their names in the paper when they think timing is right for a good PR campaign. And the animals? A few of them might suffer longer bouts of abuse while the activists film and wait." Without a hint of irony, he denounced the groups because they "employ professional media flacks" and have "produced propaganda films."
But Berman's rhetoric comes off as positively mild when compared to the email Tennessee state Rep. Andy Holt* sent the HSUS when his ag gag measure passed: "I am extremely pleased that we were able to pass HB 1191 today to help protect livestock in Tennessee from suffering months of needless investigation that propagandist groups of radical animal activists, like your fraudulent and reprehensibly disgusting organization of maligned animal abuse profiteering corporatists, who are intent on using animals the same way human-traffickers use 17 year old women. You work for a pathetic excuse for an organization who seek to profit from animal abuse. I am glad, as an aside, that we have limited your preferred fund-raising methods here in the state of Tennessee; a method that I refer to as 'tape and rape.' Best wishes for the failure of your organization and it's true intent."
LYNN BECKER, head of LB Pork, describes his hog operation outside Fairmont, Minnesota, as a "good old-fashioned American family farm"—and it might appear that way at first. Everything about the place bespeaks its age, from the weathered, brick-red Dutch Gambrel barn to the simple farmhouse that Becker's grandfather built in the 1930s. But, in truth, Becker is the head of a giant operation. By 2008, when he bought into the MowMar facility, he was bringing more than 120,000 pigs to market annually; today, it's 156,000. The company is sprawling and complex, employing dozens of full-time and part-time workers spread out over 20 sites in Minnesota and Iowa.
Becker notes that the majority of the abuses captured on the PETA video occurred before his ownership, and he points to significant improvements in the last five years. Employees at the facility, renamed Fair Creek, now watch weekly training videos on a large flat-screen TV in the break room, where they are reminded of the fundamentals of "day one" piglet care. Piglets are now kept warm with heat lamps, and sows are moved much less frequently. "We try to leave pigs home with Mom," Becker's health manager told the National Hog Farmer. "Never move more pigs than you have to." The new system has dramatically reduced piglet mortality rates—and, according to one worker, runts are now euthanized via the carbon monoxide system preferred by PETA, rather than the blunt-force thumping of old. "I didn't completely buy into it when we first started focusing on day one pig care," said the new farm manager, "but it really works."
These changes have not only improved conditions for the hogs at the facility in Iowa, but they have also helped increase the profit margin for its owners. Thus, in the end, improved care has been touted as a win for everyone. But would it have occurred without the harsh light of public scrutiny? And why does the industry want to criminalize outside oversight if it leads to higher profits, as well as improved animal care? These are not merely academic questions. In February, the first person was charged under Utah's ag gag law. She was filming from a public road as a slaughterhouse attempted to move a sick cow with a tractor. The cops arrived within minutes; the co-owner of the meatpacker is also the mayor. The charges were swiftly dropped after journalist Will Potter publicized the case—but, it should be noted, had the tractor been moving the cow toward the abattoir for processing, then the woman would have been documenting a crime, an act nearly identical to the one that touched off the largest ground-beef recall in US history in 2008.
Why would the industry possibly want to protect a few bad actors at the risk of major expense and public outcry? According to the Government Accountability Project's Hitt, the push for ag gag is not about concealing illegal abuse; it's about keeping the public from questioning whether legal, industry-standard practices should be allowed.
"Some of these standard operating procedures are things that the general public doesn't like," Hitt said, "and, if by viewing them, your potential customer is turned off, then it is incumbent upon the industry to make changes." Take the use of gestation crates. When public opinion turned against keeping sows in nearly four-month-long confinement during pregnancy, the big producers were quick to change—with Smithfield and Hormel among the first to demand that their suppliers retrofit their operations. It's to avoid these kinds of costly PR nightmares, Hitt said, that industry has pushed to keep consumers from seeing how their food is raised and made.
But the ag gag campaign has come at another kind of cost for the industry. Bills to criminalize undercover investigations have created the impression that something brutal—and potentially illegal—is still going on inside facilities like Fair Creek. I asked Becker if the industry might not be better served by increased transparency, rather than tightened security. Why not open up the operation to journalists to prove that it no longer resembles the days when it was MowMar Farms? He gave a list of reasons—sow health, proprietary practices—it wouldn't be possible. Months of follow-up requests have gone unanswered.
It's not hard to see why such evasiveness makes the public uneasy. In an era where we are all beginning to see the effects of letting industries regulate themselves—from the Deepwater Horizon spill to Wall Street's meltdown to spinach recalls—people are asking legitimate questions about the safety of their food supply. With federal regulatory agencies now hobbled by spending cuts, the secrecy and impunity afforded by ag gag could send meat production back to the days of The Jungle.
Shawn Lyons, who spent two years unemployed after being fired from MowMar Farms, finally got a job with a security company. He installs video cameras in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools for 24-hour monitoring. Before I packed up my things and left his tiny house, Lyons asked me whatever became of Becker's promise to investigate security cameras for his hog barns. "That's what I do now," he said.
His wife, Sherri, chimed in. "They could have some kind of a committee set up that can come in and check anytime that they want, someone that's not associated with the company. I think that would be the better way to do it. So that people are well aware of the fact that there's cameras here, and there's this group of people that can come in anytime and look. So, you know, be on your best behavior."
Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Representative Holt's name.
Ted Genoways is a contributing writer at Mother Jones and editor-at-large at OnEarth magazine. His book, The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food, is newly available from Harper Books. His other writing has appeared recently in The Atlantic, Bloomberg Businessweek, Harper's, Outside, Slate, and Best American Travel Writing. Find him online at tedgenoways.com.
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