An interview with founder & Executive Director of Mercy For Animals, Nathan Runkle
As I wrote in my first post of this series, three state legislatures (Iowa, Florida and Minnesota*) have introduced bills to criminalize taking photos and videos of animals being mistreated on factory farms—while doing absolutely nothing to stop the widespread animal abuse that these undercover investigators document. Today's installment: my interview with founder and Executive Director of Mercy For Animals (MFA), Nathan Runkle.
|Photo courtesy of MFA|
Runkle grew up on a farm in rural Ohio, and founded MFA there as a high school student in 1999 in response to a local pig farm cruelty case he got involved in. He has led teams of undercover MFA investigators in exposing animal cruelty at factory farms and other agriculture operations, including the state's four largest egg producers. In the course of his investigative work, Runkle has also rescued and helped rehabilitate dozens of abused and neglected farm animals. In addition, he coordinates MFA's outreach, advocacy and media campaigns, and is a nationally-recognized speaker on farm animal advocacy who has given hundreds of interviews to major newspapers, radio shows and television programs.
Anyway, here's Runkle's take on the proposed bans of undercover factory farming investigations:
AR: Why do you think agribusiness and some politicians are pushing so hard to pass these bills?
NR: Because undercover investigations have been so effective at exposing the inhumane treatment of animals inside factory farms and slaughterhouses. They have led to civil and criminal animal cruelty convictions against employees and companies, major corporate policy changes, and passage of landmark legislation banning veal and gestation crates, battery cages, and some forms of painful mutilation. They've also elevated the level of awareness and discussion among consumers about the plight of farm animals.
Agribusiness knows that their practices are out of step with most American's values, so they're desperately scrambling to conceal factory farming cruelties from public view with these bills. Obviously, rather than blinding consumers to what they're doing, it would make a lot more sense for the industry to be proactive about improving conditions for animals. Instead, they're resorting to censorship because it's essentially cheaper and easier than improving animal welfare.
One of the most common claims made in defense of these bills is that investigators “selectively edit” them to make it seem like there's more cruelty going on than there actually is. Some people even accuse investigators of “staging” the acts of animal cruelty they capture on video. Personally, I don’t see how that’s possible, especially given that the footage basically depicts other employees abusing animals.
We get many hours of footage from each investigation, which we then have to edit down to hold viewers' attention. People are used to watching short YouTube videos that are a few minutes long, and that's generally the amount of time we have to present the evidence. Plus the footage is so shocking and painful to watch that most people can only take it in small doses.
Whether it's raw footage or the YouTube version, however, our undercover videos accurately depict what actually happens to animals on factory farms—and law enforcement officials can testify to that. That is, whenever we document what we believe are violations of animal cruelty laws during our investigations, we hand over all of our unedited footage to law enforcement, who then review it for applicable violations. We have a history of successfully criminally and civilly charging companies and individuals for animal cruelty based on our undercover videos. So, if the footage is so strong that law enforcement is willing to take action, and it's used as evidence in a court of law to convict factory farmers of animal cruelty, then of course our videos are true-to-life representations of the abuse being perpetrated in these facilities.
So why then do some people insist that investigators manipulate video footage for their own ends?
I think they're habitual liars who know that the public will not, under any circumstances, find animal abuse acceptable. They therefore have to claim that we've staged acts of animal cruelty. What it boils down to is that we've caught them red-handed—literally, with blood on their hands—and they cannot defend what's going on, so they're trying to shoot the messenger. What they really need to do is look at these investigations, admit that they have real problems, and address the endemic cruelty taking place in their facilities. Instead, the industry is showing how little regard they have for animal welfare and public opinion, and that they are willing to tell outrageous lies to maintain the status quo and their profit margin.
For example, State Representative Annette Sweeney, who introduced the bill in the Iowa House, is a cattle rancher, and she's just been spewing outright lies to the media about how undercover footage is staged by animal activists. MFA has directly contacted Sweeney's office asking for any proof or evidence of a single instance in which undercover farm investigation footage has been staged. They've refused to respond, so I think it's safe to assume she doesn't actually have any facts to support her accusation.
These bills seem to especially emphasize how tight the relationship is between agribusiness and some politicians. What are your impressions?
Iowa is the largest egg producing state in the nation and one of the largest pork-producing states. Agribusiness therefore has tremendous economic pull, which translates into political power in the legislature. The organizations lobbying in support of this bill, companies like Monsanto, for instance (along with all the major meat, dairy and egg production companies and trade organizations), have a lot of money and financial clout. However, we hope that legislators will have the backbone to stand up to these special interests by rejecting these bills.
We also hope lawmakers realize that, aside from preventing the documentation of animal abuse, these bills would essentially shield farming operations from public scrutiny in terms of environmental regulations, workers' rights violations, tax fraud—a whole host of issues. If employees witness any type of laws being broken, they would be legally prevented from documenting them, which makes it much more difficult for regulators to hold these companies accountable. Take the Hallmark/Westland case in California, for example, which resulted in the largest beef recall in U.S. history and animal cruelty convictions as a direct result of an undercover exposé. If someone was there saying “Sick and injured cows are going into the human food supply” but they weren't able to document their claims, that recall and those convictions would have never happened.
And that's essentially what agribusiness wants: to operate in secrecy without any public scrutiny or regulation. Factory farmers want to create a one-way communication system in which they can promote their sanitized, glamorized, propagandized view of farming without any alternative views contradicting it. The problem is that lack of transparency leads to abuse of power, and makes it impossible for consumers to make informed decisions about what they buy and eat.
Critics also accuse animal protection groups of not really caring about animals because investigators who witness animal cruelty may wait several weeks before reporting it to law enforcement. How would you respond to that charge?
Each case is different, and there are instances in which there are technically no legal violations: that is, the cruelty is just standard industry procedure and therefore exempt from animal welfare laws, so there's no one to report it to. Often the owners and managers are engaged in the abuse, so there's no one in the workplace to report animal welfare violations to. When we document violations, we do bring our evidence to law enforcement as quickly as possible. But the industry's abuse is long-standing: it goes on year after year in these places, and it would continue unchallenged if our investigators didn't expose it.
It's really the obligation of these companies to monitor their operations, but our investigations show they're not doing that. For example, at Willet Dairy we filmed an employee bragging about abusing animals, and management acknowledged that they knew about this ongoing abuse. This employee worked there for 19 years, but it was only after our exposé that they fired him and he was charged with animal cruelty. So who was actually turning a blind eye to criminal behavior: the investigator who'd been there a few weeks, or the company that employed this guy for almost two decades?
When we wrap up these investigations, we have experts and veterinarians analyze the footage to determine whether laws have been broken. We try to present the strongest possible evidence so that we can have the company held criminally accountable for what's going on there. Making a case for prosecution requires a long-term investigation that establishes an ongoing pattern of abuse rather than just a single instance of cruelty.
It seems like most of the animal advocacy groups doing undercover investigations would be strategically categorized as reformists or pragmatists rather than strict abolitionists. Is there a connection?
I think so, because whenever we do an investigation, we look at how we can help the greatest number of animals possible. On the other hand, we also strongly encourage people to completely remove their financial support from the animal agriculture industry by going vegan. But there are enormous opportunities with these exposés to make real-world changes through the introduction of legislation, criminal prosecution, and removing the worst abusers from these facilities. All of these tactics reduce animal suffering to some degree, and we have an obligation to push for these outcomes in every single investigation we do. They also generate discussion and focus attention on the cruelty and exploitation that farm animals are subjected to, which elevates people's awareness of this issue and motivates more consumers to explore veganism as a compassionate alternative.
Economically speaking, is one motivation behind these bills to attract agribusiness to these states? That is, wouldn't factory farms be enticed to move their operations there because they'd be legally protected from unwanted exposure?
Iowa is already an attractive state for factory farmers because it doesn't have a ballot initiative process, and if they can shield producers from public scrutiny by banning undercover exposés of animal cruelty, obviously that's going to elevate agribusiness' interest in doing business there. Yet all of these factory farmers using cruel methods are out of step with how most Americans want animals to be treated, and I think this disdainful attitude is going to hurt producers financially in the long run.
Another claim is that investigators get these jobs under false pretenses, and that this is somehow illicit and dangerous. What's your response to that?
We have certainly never been prosecuted or pursued for that. Our investigators provide their real names and social security numbers, and apply for jobs at these facilities just the same way anyone else would. There are also existing laws to prevent fraudulently applying for employment. Agribusiness is trying to sell these bills under a larger umbrella of issues that are already covered by other laws for the sole purpose of trying to make them seem legitimate. I mean, they can't just come right out and say they want to prohibit people from taking and distributing undercover videos of farm animals because they're bad for business: they have to invent false claims to make these bills appear reasonable and necessary.
The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act was the first, and remains the only, federal law that protects a particular industry, specifically agribusiness, and provides harsher penalties for people who hold particular beliefs, specifically in animal rights. Are these proposed bans an extension of this type of discriminatory law?
Yes, on the state level, at least. Outlawing investigations could easily be applied to, say, someone who works in a nursing home, daycare center or hospital secretly videotaping incidents of abuse. If these bans on undercover exposés are legitimate, then why do they apply only to animal enterprises? Obviously, we don't want anyone to be restricted from exposing abuse, whether the victims are humans or animals. But the fact that these bans would apply only to animal enterprises makes them discriminatory and unconstitutional.
- Watch MFA's undercover factory farm investigation videos.
- Iowa Residents: Use this convenient HSUS Action Alert to encourage your state senator to oppose S.F. 431. Also contact your state senator directly, and ask him or her to oppose this bill.
Tune in again on
Thursday, April 28 Friday, May 13
for my interview with Jeff Kerr,
for my interview with Jeff Kerr,
General Counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
* The Minnesota and Florida bills have been defeated since I posted this interview. However, New York legislators proposed an Ag Gag bill afterwards.