New Mexico state Senator Cliff Pirtle is wary of the reporter on the phone. The Republican dairyman can trace his family's farming roots in this country back to the 1700s. He can't comprehend how people like him — once viewed as the salt of the earth — now are being framed as agents of misery.

In February, Pirtle introduced a bill that would outlaw undercover videos in his state. But a strange thing happened between last year's legislative successes and what was supposed to be 2013's triumphant tidal wave.

Behind the scenes of the death match between Big Ag and undercover animal-rights activists.
Brian Stauffer
Behind the scenes of the death match between Big Ag and undercover animal-rights activists.
The bodies of slaughtered pigs.
Mercy For Animals
The bodies of slaughtered pigs.

The ag-gag movement began to self-destruct.

Measures attempting to criminalize activists' activities in states from New Hampshire to Minnesota, Pennsylvania to Indiana, either stalled or died.

While Big Ag has attacked, activists gathered allies.

After Tennessee's law passed the Legislature, country singer Carrie Underwood tweeted: "Shame on TN lawmakers for passing the ag gag bill. If Gov. [Bill] Haslam signs this, he needs to expect me at his front door. Who's with me?" (Haslam vetoed the bill last week.)

In New Mexico, Pirtle tried to sell his measure under the mantra of property rights. But it's hard to convince consumers that they're best served by less information. His proposal sunk.

The bills have faced resistance on multiple fronts. The American Civil Liberties Union argues that they violate the First Amendment's promise of freedom of speech. Unions like the United Farm Workers claim the laws could cloak unsafe working conditions. The Consumer Federation of America worries they might be used to cover up safety problems in the nation's food supply.

Making matters worse for the ag lobby, Underwood has been joined by celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Katherine Heigl, and Emmylou Harris.

Farmers' frustrations are exacerbated by the fact that many of the activists are essentially calling for an end to eating meat. At the close of every Mercy video, for example, the narrator urges viewers to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet. Why would anyone blame agriculture for fighting back?

"These groups want to put an end to meat consumption in this country," says Emily Meredith of the Animal Agriculture Alliance. "The goal of the videos is to repulse the meat-eating public."

Adds Lou Nave of Tennessee's Farm Animal Care Coalition: "The animal-rights organizations don't think we should use animals in any way."

As Pirtle sees it, America no longer is on speaking terms with its chief source of nourishment.

"I think 100 years ago, the majority of people were one or two generations off the farm," he says. "They would understand the great sacrifice animals make for us to survive. Very few people understand what it takes to get food from the farm to the table."

Take those tight gestation crates used for sows. They're designed not to make pigs crazy, but to keep mothers from accidentally suffocating their children, says Tony Bolen, a Wisconsin veterinarian. "The mothers lay on a lot of piglets if they don't have them," he says.

Moreover, there's little science to suggest that cows seek room to roam. "Cows aren't that social, where they want to go and explore," says Bolen. "The average cow will lay down eight-plus hours a day. They just eat and lay down."

What the public doesn't understand, he says, is that only stupid farmers abuse their animals. The unhappy or unhealthy produce less milk, lay fewer eggs, and have fewer babies.

"Most of the farmers, they're treating them right," Bolen adds. "And the animals are pretty much happy, or the farmers aren't making money."

The problem for agriculture: These "most" rarely show up on film.

In 2011, Jane went undercover at a Butterball turkey farm in Shannon, North Carolina. By this point, catching abuse on film was almost routine.

Her hidden camera showed workers stomping birds and bashing their heads with pipes. "We don't need to torture our food before we eat it," she says.

Mercy offered the tape to police. The cops responded by raiding the place with arrest warrants.

They would end up with five convictions. The case also showed why activists are leery of handing over footage before their investigations are complete.

Among the convicted was Dr. Sarah Jean Mason, director of North Carolina's Animal Health Programs, who had seen the tape after police went to the state seeking advice about how to proceed. Mason pleaded guilty to leaking word of the impending raid to Butterball a week before it took place.

Pete encountered the same sort of governmental duplicity while undercover at a Vermont veal slaughterhouse. Workers kicked and prodded downed calves with electric probes, pouring water on them to heighten their pain.

Also featured on the tape: a USDA inspector warning Pete not to tell him about the most egregious violations, since it would force him to shutter the plant.

Both cases reflect the reluctance of some authorities to fight animal abuse. Meanwhile, Big Ag still hopes to criminalize the few people willing to expose it.

This past February, it bagged its first catch.

Twenty-five-year-old Amy Meyer was standing on a public road in Draper City, Utah, watching the cows at the Dale Smith & Sons Meat Packing Company.

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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!!!