"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 [by] 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 seventeen-year-old women."

And that was just the opening sentence.

Yet Holt is trumped by Tim Sappington, a former maintenance contractor with Valley Meat in Roswell, New Mexico, which hopes to become the first U.S. slaughterhouse in years to produce horse meat for consumption in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Pig inside a slaughterhouse.
Mercy For Animals
Pig inside a slaughterhouse.
Bottom of a cage where chickens are crammed in.
The Humane Society of the U.S.
Bottom of a cage where chickens are crammed in.

Sappington uploaded a video to YouTube — since removed — showing him petting a horse. "To all you animal activists," he announced to the camera, "fuck you." He then shot the horse point-blank in the head.

Since Sappington would use the horse for meat, it was perfectly legal. Valley Meat fired him anyway.

Last year, as undercover videos pushed Big Ag to desperation, the industry began to temper its language. Iowa's law is essentially a sanitized version of ALEC's bill, cleansed of hysteria and any mention of terrorist registries.

But despite the more diplomatic approach, farmers have been unable to legislate away the images caught on tape. While Big Ag may have politicians on speed-dial, competing in the egalitarian frontier of the Internet isn't its strong suit.

For activists, the turning point in the fight seemed to arrive in 2007, after a Humane Society investigation of the Hallmark Meat Packing Company.

The Chino, California, slaughterhouse was a major supplier to the nation's school-lunch program, delivering beef to 36 states.

But the Humane Society's video showed "downer" cows — those too frail or diseased to walk — being pushed by forklift to slaughter. The practice is highly illegal, since sick animals heighten the risk of introducing E. coli, salmonella, and mad cow disease into the food supply.

When it came to light, the USDA issued the largest beef recall in the agency's history. Hallmark went bankrupt.

After Chino, the videos kept coming, each showing conditions that seemed more 1913 than 2013. As one veterinarian puts it, "Ninety-nine percent of the people don't know where their food comes from." And what they saw made them queasy.

Mercy alone has produced 20 investigations in just the past few years.

It isn't especially difficult — at least the infiltration part. Undercover workers are merely directed to apply at large farms. Because the labor is hard and the wages poor — usually under $10 an hour — high turnover plays to an activist's advantage. It's not uncommon to land a job within a day or two. "They use their real names and their real Social Security numbers," says Matt Rice, head of Mercy's investigative team.

He's never had an undercover worker caught. Neither has Sweetland of the Humane Society.

Groups like the Animal Agriculture Alliance, the country's largest coalition of farmers and ranchers, occasionally try to run counter-espionage.

Jane says she once caught a spy at an animal-rights conference with a hidden camera in his food. Rice knows of similar attempts, but he dismisses them with a laugh. Video of his group's conferences is readily available to anyone with Internet access.

Over time, the agriculture lobby has appeared increasingly impotent. Even smaller family farms — once the very definition of Americana — have shown up on film as incubators of depravity.

Ask Pete, a Texan who's been an undercover operative for 11 years and had his work featured in two HBO specials.

"I know that it sounds kind of unbelievable, that every place out there is breaking the law," he says. "I always tell people that I challenge anyone to try to prove me wrong. Get hired at a slaughterhouse or a farm and go work there. I absolutely promise you you'll find exactly what we find on our investigations."

One of his favorite jobs — if you can call it that — was going undercover at Conklin Farms in 2010. The small dairy in Plain City, Ohio, had just three employees. But its workers compensated for size with sadism.

Pete's video opens with a worker repeatedly stomping on a cow's head. It goes on to show employees stabbing animals in the face with pitchforks, beating their heads with crowbars, punching cows in their udders, and body-slamming calves to the ground.

One worker is caught on tape exuberantly describing how they "beat the fuck out of this cow. We stabbed her . . . I beat that fucker 'til her face was this big around."

In a rare case of tough justice, employee Billy Joe Gregg was sentenced to eight months in jail after pleading guilty to animal cruelty.

But as Pete notes, Gregg might still be torturing cows if not for Mercy's undercover work. There isn't a single federal law governing the welfare of farm animals, he says. "There's no investigative body in the country that does that — so it falls on civilians to do it."

But if Big Ag has its way, these civilians soon will be criminals.

"It's a huge embarrassment to have investigation after investigation where your employees are beating animals, kicking them, and throwing them," says Sweetland. "I think they're sick of having to make excuses for themselves. One way to stop it is to make it illegal to do these undercover investigations. They refuse to fix the problem, which is this inherently cruel system."

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My Voice Nation Help

I too am at the point of either becoming vegetarian or at least limiting consumption to locally, humanely raised meat. These factory farms are an abomination. It is an excuse for extreme animal abuse. Producers that see their animals as 'products', instead of the living, thinking, feeling creatures that they are, are disgusting. These gruesome torture chambers must be held to the same standards as anyone else when it comes to animal abuse. Sickening.


The theory that "happy" farm animals would not produce eggs, meat or milk, is ludicrous! No animal can be happy in factory farm conditions, and they do not have a choice whether to lay eggs or give milk or gain weight. These are forced on them by biology, as well as the fact that factory farming uses specially bred strains for these purposes, and feeds them hormones and antibiotics. Some of the breeds, particularly among birds, grow so huge so fast that they can't walk and have other health problems. They are typically slaughtered while still pretty much babies but their bodies are huge with meat.  The caged hen lays because she's been bred to lay an egg a day no matter what. The cow standing in her own waste produces milk because she has been artificially inseminated and gave birth, which prompts milk production especially in dairy breeds.  The layer hen industry "disposes" of male chicks by killing them, often horrifically, right after hatching.  Animals gain weight and produce because of breeding and drugs, not "happiness."

When I was a kid I lived in a farming community and never saw the unsanitary and cruel confinement conditions that are now common, until the factory farming model came along. Factory farming IS what is making me work to become vegan.  It isn't that I think the human species is naturally vegan, or that it's any more morally wrong to eat meat than it is for a lion to eat meat. It's that I can't support an industry run by sociopaths.


Thanks to Phoenix New Times and Pete Kotz for this article. I am a board member/volunteer with the Animal Defense League of Arizona, which along with HSUS and Farm Sanctuary, sponsored the 2006 initiative that banned gestation and veal crates.  

There actually was a decade-long investigation into Arizona's livestock auctions, dairies, and slaughterhouses, although it was on a small scale. In the early 1990's I became concerned about the treatment of farm animals and food safety. I joined with two other nurses to document animal cruelty in Arizona livestock auctions, where cows and infant calves too sick to stand up were left to suffer and die, sometimes for days. Thanks to help from Dr. Temple Grandin, local media, and other animal protection groups, our long-term investigation led to some improvements and public awareness.  However, we were no match for the powerful industrial agriculture lobby.

Fortunately some things have changed over the years. As mentioned Arizona voters banned the cruel confinement of pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal in 2006. There has been increasing public awareness of animal cruelty in factory farms throughout the country, thanks largely to those undercover investigators who have videotaped extreme abuse. And thanks to social media, those images are disseminated widely. However, what has not changed is the fact that the agriculture industry refuses to accept responsibility for its cruel treatment of animals and will continue to use its power to punish those that expose it. 

Undercover videos by animal protection organizations have led to cruelty charges and increased public awareness regarding cruel treatment of animals in large scale agricultural facilities. Yet instead of addressing animal abuse, the factory farming industry ramped up its attack on those who expose cruelty with the help of shadowy corporate front group ALEC (as mentioned in the article). 

Arizona State Legislators introduced ag-gag bills in the 2004 and 2005 sessions, which provided that any individual who videotapes animals at a circus, rodeo, or greyhound race could be charged with a felony, labeled a terrorist, and possibly sued for triple damages for economic loss.  These measures were  vetoed twice by then-Governor Napolitano, who eventually signed a version that had been substantially watered down from its original wording. However, it set a precedent by adding “animal and ecological terrorism” to Arizona's RICO (racketeering) statutes.

The fact that the cruel treatment of farm animals we documented 20 years ago has not changed illustrates the importance of whistle-blowers. The other fact that has not changed is that the agriculture industry refuses to accept responsibility for its cruel treatment of animals and instead attempts to criminalize those who dare to expose the abuse behind the closed doors of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

Kim Spencer
Kim Spencer

Outright torture and sadistic behavior towards a domesticated animal doesn't suddenly become an "acceptable standard of humane treatment" simply because an animal is ultimately going to end up on someone's plate. From the article: "supervisor Phil Niles is heard recounting an abuser's greatest hits: how he beat cows with wrenches, smashed their heads with two-by-fours, kicked them when they were too feeble to rise". I am very glad to know that there are more and more people who are demanding a humane level of care for animals, and I am one of those people. Gandhi said it best: "the greatness of a nation and it's moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. Great article, thanks for covering this issue, New Times :)

Kari Nienstedt
Kari Nienstedt

Thank you so much for covering this important issue!

Jennifer Salazar
Jennifer Salazar

Thanks for the article. These people are DISGUSTING. I don't know how you can call yourself a human being when you stab a cow in the face with a pitchfork and brag about how "big that fucker's face is" after you've beaten it with a crowbar. The worst kind of "human being" is the one who casually rips a pigs testicles out because they "can".

Mein Vater
Mein Vater

we deliver livestock & people YOU DON'T WANNA KNOW!! It's pretty disgusting!!!