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Welcome to the Animals Issue of The Highlight

How one pork baron transformed the heartland. Plus: The unfortunate tale of the “it” dog, a fringe idea to protect wild animals from suffering, and more.

Kathryn Gamble for Vox

While this pandemic year has pushed us physically further from one another, it has brought us closer to animals.

Cat and dog shelters experienced a record jump in pet adoptions as so many people found themselves working from home, suddenly cut off from social life but newly able to devote time and care to a new companion. We’re also spending more time outdoors, enjoying nature and wildlife as a reprieve from our increased screen time.

Covid-19 affected the meatpacking industry, too, shuttering slaughterhouses where the virus spread like wildfire, causing many farmers to inhumanely euthanize entire herds of pigs and flocks of chickens with nowhere to go, putting the grim reality of our industrial factory farming food system on full display.

So it seemed a ripe time for an examination of our relationship with animals — those in our food systems, those in our homes, and even wild animals, the ones deep in forests and jungles that we may never lay eyes on. With support from Animal Charity Evaluators, an organization that researches which interventions, and which charities, are best positioned to help animals, the Animals Issue of the Highlight looks at everything from a new reason to reconsider which animals we protect to how industrial animal farming can ravage landscapes and rural economies.

Thirty years ago, Iowa lawmakers — under pressure from business leaders — opened the door to a new way of raising pigs, one that would turn the state into the nation’s No. 1 producer of pork and turn some of its family farmers into true hog barons, responsible for bringing millions of pigs to market each year. In this month’s cover story, we look at one those farmers-turned-meat-titans, Jeff Hansen, and his company, Iowa Select Farms, the state’s most prolific pork producer, as a lens on how some have used money and influence to turn the landscape into a sea of “concentrated animal feeding operations” that residents say have rendered parts of the state unlivable.

Pet ownership is best described as both a benevolent and mutual relationship, but our pursuit of ever-cuter and more unusual dogs could be the undoing of the very breeds we adore. Take, for example, the Frenchie, beloved by celebrities and big on the ’Gram. This year, it became the second most popular dog breed in America: Registrations for the squat, flat-faced, easily house-trained pooch have increased extraordinarily over the past decade. But few dogs are also quite as unhealthy. This month, we explore what happens when a dog becomes an aspirational item. (Hint: It’s not so great for the dog.)

The animal rights movement has long been focused on helping animals exploited by humans: farm animals, animals raised for fur, animals used for testing, endangered animals threatened by poachers. Meanwhile, the environmental movement has been preoccupied with preserving the habitats of animals in order to save species. But a group of philosophers and zoologists is asking whether humans ought to try harder to protect all creatures from predators and disease — to care whether wild animals live good lives, happy and free of pain.

Covid-19 has made it obvious that we live in an interconnected world where one infected animal, smart or not, can turn all our lives upside down. So, are we using the right yardstick when deciding which animals are worth protecting?

And finally, those pets we adopted en masse during quarantine mean more food, more delivery boxes, and a shocking environmental impact. A comic looks at the carbon pawprint of our pet ownership, and what we can do about it.

Kathryn Gamble for Vox

The Hog Baron

How Iowa’s largest hog producer courted power, turned farming into a numbers game, and transformed the American heartland.

By Charlie Mitchell and Austin Frerick

Shyama Golden for Vox

The very cute, totally disturbing tale of the American “it” dog

How the quest to own the tiniest, most Instagram-worthy and low-maintenance pup has bred a world of problems.

By Tove K. Danovich

An owl seen in Van, Turkey. Ozkan Bilgin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The wild frontier of animal welfare

Should humans try harder to protect creatures from predators and disease? Should we care whether they live good lives? A group of philosophers and scientists has an unorthodox answer.

By Dylan Matthews

The Washington Post via Getty Images

Why do we care how smart animals are?

Intelligence plays a role in how we treat them. Maybe it shouldn’t.

By Sigal Samuel

Eleanor Cummins and Maki Naro

Are our pets gobbling up the planet?

From meat-based meals to kitty litter to plastic poop bags, pet care is unarguably bad for the environment. What can we do about it?

By Eleanor Cummins and Maki Naro

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