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

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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.

Last year, Big Ag decided to fight back. But not by playing a kinder, gentler game in search of better publicity. Instead, it sought to make criminals of the people exposing its underbelly.


By 2012, Iowa was taking a beat-down.

Its massive egg farms were the subject of online exposés. Its hog factories were portrayed as porcine versions of puppy mills, where sows are housed in two-by-seven-foot "gestation crates," their lone options in life being to stand up, lie down, or give birth.

Costco no longer bought from farms using the crates. Companies like McDonald's, Kroger, and Safeway were in the process of booting them from their supply chains.

For the state's agricultural interests, it was a public-relations nightmare.

Worse, America's appetite was also shifting. Vegetarianism and veganism were on the ascent. The foodie movement had turned to artisanal meat, mostly local and raised by more altruistic hands.

Factory farms still produce more than 90 percent of the country's food supply, but Big Ag could do little to stop the young, urban, educated, and moneyed from buying elsewhere. And then there were the videos constantly playing on YouTube, illuminating its sins.

So Iowa decided to outlaw the likes of Cody Carlson.

Last year, the state made it illegal to lie on a job application regarding association with an animal-rights group. It also banned the filming of farms without an owner's consent.

The law was backed by Iowa's largest ag forces, including Monsanto, DuPont, and Iowa Select, the state's largest hog producer, which had been stung by an undercover Mercy video a year earlier.

The bill flew through the Legislature in a matter of hours, effectively making exposing cruelty a greater crime than abuse itself. Those found guilty faced up to a year in jail, with felony charges for repeat offenses.

Mary Beth Sweetland heads the Humane Society's investigative unit. She won't speak to the nature of her operation or its people or methods for fear of tipping her hand. But Sweetland readily admits she no longer targets Iowa.

After Iowa passed its law, Missouri and Utah followed, joining Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota, which had passed similar statutes two decades earlier, when a more violent strain of activists threatened arson at animal-testing labs. Other "ag-gag" bills have since appeared on dockets in 10 states, from California to Florida.

The bills tend to be variations of the Iowa law, combo platters of video bans and the criminalization of job-application lies. Most also mandate that anyone with evidence of abuse hand over the footage to police immediately — usually within a day or two.

Those favoring the bills say the stringent reporting requirements will bring a swifter halt to cruelty. They compare them to laws forcing doctors to report the first signs of child abuse.

"We would see the videotape, and the inevitable question is, 'Why didn't you go to the farm owner or the plant manager?'" asks Dale Moore, former chief of staff of the Department of Agriculture under President George W. Bush. "Typically they did, but only after they did their fundraising or sensationalizing."

Yet activists see such rhetoric as painfully disingenuous. If Big Ag truly wishes to fight abuse, they argue, it would expand penalties for animal mistreatment, not for those who uncover it.

"I think any rational person can see how absurd it is to criminalize people who expose illegal behavior," says Jane, a Mercy investigator who wishes to remain anonymous.


The not-so-hidden hand behind the new laws is the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. It's a conservative, pro-business think tank backed by some of the country's largest corporations, including ExxonMobil, Pfizer, and Koch Industries.

ALEC was a catalyst behind the "Stand Your Ground" shooting laws and various voter-suppression methods used in the last election. Its specialty is the "model bill," essentially pre-written legislation that allows conservative officials around the country to copy and paste to their desire.

Want to sabotage some environmental laws? ALEC has a menu to choose from.

Want to stop neighbors from suing corporate farms over issues of odor and waste? ALEC can help you do it by this afternoon.

A decade ago, the group began peddling the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which contained rhetoric so overwrought that it bordered on parody. It sought to make filming a farm an act akin to bombing the Boston Marathon. The guilty would be placed on a "terrorist registry."

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Pete Kotz
Contact: Pete Kotz