Longform

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

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"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.

As she would later tell independent journalist Will Potter, she noticed "a live cow who appeared to be sick or injured being carried away from the building in a tractor as though she were nothing more than rubble."

Meyer took out her cell phone and started recording. A Smith manager called the police, claiming Meyer had trespassed. But a Draper City officer allowed her to leave, believing she had remained on public land.

Two weeks later, city prosecutor Ben Rasmussen charged Meyer with "agricultural operation interference," a crime under Utah's new ag-gag law. She became the first person in American history to be ensnared for the crime of filming cows.

In April, Potter posted the tale of Meyer's travails on his website, Green Is the New Red (greenisthenewred.com). The story went viral, attracting hundreds of thousands of readers before the site crashed from the volume.

Within a day, Rasmussen decided Meyer didn't make a very good criminal after all and dropped the charges.


Editor's note: The Humane Society of the United States and its Arizona branch successfully pushed in 2006 for Proposition 204, a measure that banned gestation crates — the small confinement cages that don't allow animals to turn around or stretch their limbs.

Humane Society officials said at the time that passage of the law would "provide more humane treatment of farm animals and will stop the spread of corporate factory farms in Arizona."

Voters overwhelmingly (67 percent) adopted the measure, an effort toward aiding an estimated 16,000 breeding pigs housed in such confining spaces on factory farms across Arizona.

The Humane Society was aided in its effort by the Animal Defense League of Arizona and Farm Sanctuary. Leading the opposition was the Arizona Farm Bureau and the Center for Consumer Freedom. A $2.5 million campaign was waged in a vain attempt to stop the proposition.

This isn't to say that farm and slaughterhouse abuse of animals isn't happening in Arizona, says Nathan Runkle, founder and executive director of Mercy for Animals. The gestation-crate issue is a narrow part of the huge problem, he says.

Runkle says, however, that his organization hasn't conducted investigations in this state. Neither has the Humane Society nor any other national animal-welfare association, according to the society's records, says Anna West, a national spokeswoman for the organization.

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Pete Kotz
Contact: Pete Kotz