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

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Recent rhetoric from ag-gag supporters has been equally over the top.

Take Tennessee state Representative Andy Holt, whose own farm produces pork, beef, and goat meat. Two years ago, the Humane Society caught Tennessee horse trainer Jackie McConnell slathering caustic chemicals on the ankles of his animals. The pain causes the horses to lift their legs higher during competitions. Footage also showed workers whipping and shocking horses and beating them on the head with sticks.

The Tennessee Legislature's response: Crack down on the people who would expose such a thing.

When the state's ag-gag bill passed last month, Holt wrote a letter to the Humane Society that was so blistering — and incoherent — that readers could practically see the spittle as he typed:

"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.

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.

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Pete Kotz
Contact: Pete Kotz