How Undercover Animal-Rights Activists Are Winning the "Ag Gag" War

Cody Carlson had no way of preparing for this moment. He was a Manhattan kid, days removed from working as an analyst for a business-intelligence firm, where he scrutinized corporations and their executives.

Now he was standing in a bleak barn at New York's largest dairy farm.

There was a medieval feel to the place. Cows were wedged head-to-tail in pens carpeted with their own waste. The air was an acrid blend of urine, manure, and chemicals. Some animals were left unattended with open sores that leaked pus. Others lay dying in pens, too sick or weak to stand.

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.

"It's incredibly overwhelming," Carlson says. "Your brain can't process seeing this many animals crammed together in one place."

His first job, technically speaking, was to repair the mechanism that pulled manure from the barn.

His real job: covertly filming it all for Mercy for Animals.

As espionage goes, it was easier than infiltrating a Pizza Hut. Experience told the Los Angeles animal-rights group that it could send an undercover operative to a factory-style farm anywhere and it was certain to find abuse.

Carlson simply had been told to find a job in upstate New York. While the work requires punishing labor while surrounded by stench — all for the princely sum of $8 an hour — it isn't like spying on North Korea. Two days later, he was hired by Willet Dairy.

His hidden camera caught employees kicking and shocking animals that wouldn't bend to their will. 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.

"Fucking kicking her, hitting her," he chortles while recalling one incident. "Fucking jumping off the top of the goddamned gate and stomping on her head and shit."

After five weeks of filming, Mercy for Animals took the footage to ABC's World News. Niles subsequently was charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. His penalty for 19 years of beating cows in every way imaginable: a $555 fine.

Prosecutors cleared Willet Dairy of any wrongdoing. But the company did take an uppercut to the wallet. After the video went national, Willet was dumped by one of its major buyers, Leprino Foods, the world's largest mozzarella producer.

Carlson didn't wait around for the fallout. He soon re-emerged at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania, where nearly 3,000 pigs live as pork-products-in-waiting for Hatfield Quality Meats. Once again, his camera caught the gruesomeness of the factory food chain.

Workers threw piglets by their ears, ripped out their testicles with bare hands sans anesthesia. Constantly impregnated sows were kept in cages just two feet wide, unable to turn around and allowed to walk just four days a year.

"It's about the most sensory-deprived life you can possibly imagine," Carlson says. "Pigs are incredibly smart animals. They're said to be smarter than dogs. Pigs go so insane from these conditions that they bang their heads back and forth against the cage. It looks like a scene from The Matrix."

But like most states, Pennsylvania provides farmers with sweeping exemptions from cruelty statutes. These laws are simple: If it's commonly practiced in agriculture, it can't be construed as abuse.

Country View veterinarian Jessica Clark admits that the video showed violations of the farm's own standards but says those issues were corrected before Mercy posted the video to the Internet. Because Pennsylvania grants farmers a wide berth in dealing with livestock, no charges were filed.

Carlson soon took a new job working undercover for the Humane Society of the United States. This time, he resurfaced in Iowa at Rose Acre Farms, the nation's second-largest egg producer, with nearly 5 million chickens.

His video showed hens packed into cages the size of a filing drawer, where each creature spent life in a space whose floor had the dimensions of a single sheet of paper.

Carlson's job was to cull the dead, the 100 or so hens each day whose wings and feet became caught in the caging, leaving them to die of thirst or be trampled to death by their cellmates.

"One of my colleagues called it 'pulling carpets,' because they stuck to the bottom of the cage," he says. "I actually had a worker tell me he had nightmares from tearing mummified birds off the cage."

Rose Acre was doing nothing illegal. But to the Humane Society, that was the point. The video depicted something akin to an aviary concentration camp. And not a single government agency showed the slightest concern.

Since the Internet first granted activists a direct pipeline to the public, groups like the Humane Society, Mercy, and PETA have waged guerrilla war via undercover video. Each time they've uploaded footage, Big Ag has struggled to explain away what Americans could see with their own eyes.

Today, the guerrillas are winning.

It doesn't seem to matter where the operatives have landed. Be it a slaughterhouse in Vermont or a pig farm in Wyoming, the videos portray factory farms to be "like something from Dante," Carlson says. According to one Kansas State University study, media attention to the welfare of livestock has reduced demand for poultry and pork.

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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!!!