Friday, April 22, 2011

States to Outlaw Factory Farm Investigations? (Part 2 of 4)

An interview with Executive Director of Compassion Over Killing, Erica Meier

As I wrote in my first post of this series, legislatures in three states (Iowa, Florida and Minnesota*) have recently 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 Executive Director of Compassion Over Killing (COK), Erica Meier.

Photo courtesy of COK
Before Meier took over the helm at COK in 2005, she spent four years working as an Animal Control Officer in Washington, D.C. Her experience enforcing the city's animal welfare laws while rescuing sick, injured, homeless, and sometimes abused companion animals continues to inform her work in the farm animal protection movement today. In addition to overseeing COK's undercover factory farm investigations—which have garnered national media attention and influenced legislative efforts to ban cruel confinement systems—Meier is also intricately involved in the organization's outreach, advocacy and media campaigns.

Here's her personal take on the proposed bills to outlaw undercover factory farm investigations:

AR: Why do you think agribusiness and some politicians are pushing so hard to pass these bills?

EM: They're specifically targeting undercover video investigations because these are perhaps the animal protection movement's most powerful tool for exposing the cruelty inherent in factory farm systems. Farm animal welfare laws are few and far between, but over the last decade, farm animal advocates have focused on passing ballot initiatives and legislation that prevent cruelty by banning some of the worst forms of intensive confinement. The industry is responding by trying to prevent us from getting and broadcasting this footage because it causes public outrage and persuades people to support animal welfare measures. Agribusiness is also trying to establish industry norms as legal regulations in different state codes, as well. They're coming at this from many different angles to ensure that the cruelty to animals taking place on factory farms and in slaughterhouses remains above the law and hidden from public view.  

If undercover investigations are effectively criminalized, at least in some states, how will the public know how farm animals are treated?

I believe that where there's a will, there's a way, but farm animal advocates would have to get even more creative. The truth can only be hidden for so long, and the industry knows that they're vulnerable to exposure, so they're taking every extreme step they can to keep these cruelties hidden behind closed doors. I think, however, that our movement, and many individual investigators, are so committed to exposing these cruelties that we will find a way to document animal abuse even in states where such bills pass. Ultimately, passage of these bans would be a big blow to COK and the movement, but they would not shut us down the way the industry hopes they will.

Is there any precedent for these proposed bans on undercover farm investigations in existing state laws?

There are some states that are riskier for investigators because they already have laws that prohibit certain types of activities done by animal advocates on animal enterprises. So these attempts at shutting down whistle-blowing activities (and other advocacy tactics) aren't exactly new, but the ones being proposed now cast a wider net, specifically targeting the entirely legal activity of taking a photograph or recording of a farm, and may carry more severe penalties.

Proponents of these bills have accused undercover investigators of “selectively editing” videos and even “staging” animal abuse to make it seem like cruelty is happening when it's not. How do you respond to that claim?

Of course we have to edit video footage down before posting it online because we record dozens or hundreds of hours per investigation. Therefore, in publicly-released videos, we highlight the instances in which animals are clearly being abused. 

No matter how we edit the videos, however, what's been documented on camera is what investigators observed, and they clearly aren't staging acts of cruelty but rather witnessing firsthand the abuse of animals by other employees. In virtually every courtroom where factory farming footage has been presented as trial evidence, the farmers argue that the footage has been staged—but no one has ever submitted any proof or evidence of any kind to substantiate this claim. So I'd seriously like these critics to explain exactly how we could possibly stage the cruelty we've captured on camera being committed by other employees. 

Diverting attention away from video evidence clearly showing animal abuse is factory farmers' first-ditch effort to claim they've been victimized by ideologically-motivated investigators who faked footage to frame them. They know they are guilty, and when they are caught, they try every trick in the book to deflect attention away from the concrete proof of their crimes caught on camera. One way they do this is by accusing us of lying and abusing animals.

A related charge is, if undercover investigators really cared about animals, they wouldn't spend several weeks documenting animal abuse before reporting it to law enforcement. What's your response to these accusations?

That's another one of agribusiness' classic deflection tactics. Even if the video shows managers or supervisors perpetrating the cruelty while training the investigator as a new employee, their argument is always, why didn't the investigator stop the cruelty if he or she thought it was so wrong? According to them, it's the responsibility of the trainee—rather than the facility's manager, supervisor or owner—to stop animal abuse. Ironically, it's the corporation's policies that allow the cruelty to happen in the first place, and yet they try to pin the blame on people who've dedicated their lives to stopping animal abuse.  

Also, when our investigators capture video footage of animal cruelty at a factory farm, we usually bring it to a prosecutor immediately with a legal argument as to why he or she should take the case. However, a lot of what we document is commonly exempt from state animal cruelty laws simply because a lot of farms are doing it. The logic is that if something is done routinely on multiple farms, then it must be standard industry practice, and therefore legal. Even though this exemption clause is rarely defined and many of these practices are actually very cruel, they are effectively immune from the law. The point is that, in many cases, telling law enforcement about the cruelty we witness won't lead to prosecution, but we can increase our chances of success by compiling as much proof as possible over an extended period of time.

Critics also charge that investigators only target the industry's few “bad apples” that allegedly don't represent the majority of agriculture producers, just so animal protection groups can damage the entire industry's reputation. What's your response to that claim?

It's another attempt by the industry to defend itself when investigators actually document clear violations of anti-cruelty laws. They're basically admitting that what's shown on video is cruel, but claiming that it's just the exception rather than the rule. But what we've found by doing factory farm investigations is that cruelty is standard practice throughout the industry. In every single facility our investigators have gone into, they’ve documented both run-of-the-mill suffering and criminal acts of cruelty. Almost all of our targets have been chosen at random, too. So when agribusiness claims that there are just a few bad apples and that the vast majority of farmers take good care of animals, they're either lying or in denial.  

Critics also charge that undercover investigators threaten food safety: that they could intentionally or accidentally transmit communicable diseases to whole herds or flocks of animals, making people who eat them sick. What's your response to that?

Investigators who gain employment at these facilities follow the exact same biohazard procedures that every other employee follows, so if they’re claiming that investigators are potentially bringing in diseases, every other employee poses the same exact risk. In many cases, we've found that facilities don't even follow the basic biosecurity measures they claim to, so these companies are actually the ones endangering public health, not investigators.

Also, factory farms have given rise to bird flu, swine flu and mad cow disease, which pose far greater public health risks than investigators ever possibly could. This argument therefore seems like just another attempt by the industry to divert attention away from their own faults by accusing animal activists of what they themselves are guilty of.

Do you think the agribusiness representatives and politicians making these unfounded claims sincerely believe them, or are they just cynically spreading disinformation to prevent animal advocates from exposing the cruelty taking place on factory farms?

It's probably different for different people. Some people grow up around cruelty to animals, so it becomes acceptable and normal to them. It can also be a defense mechanism that kicks in when someone is accused of wrongdoing, and they convince themselves they're not guilty, so there must be something wrong with their accusers. For example, in Nick Cooney's book Change of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change, he writes about how, when you present people with evidence that counters their beliefs, many will cling even more tightly to those beliefs and try to come up with any and every reason they can to dismiss facts that contradict their beliefs. So instead of using logic and reason to question their assumptions, they push back the other way and cling even more tightly to their beliefs.

When animal protection groups expose farm animal abuse, do they not only make agribusiness look bad, but also the government for not doing its job of enforcing animal welfare laws?

That may be another reason that some states are trying to pass these bills. The problem is that there's rampant animal abuse going on throughout the industry, with producers and the government turning their backs on it. The solution, from their perspective, is to stop people from documenting the cruelty so they don't have to spend time, money and effort on improving conditions for animals. It's similar to other factory farming “solutions” such as overcrowding pigs in pens where they get so bored, frustrated and aggressive that they bite each others' tails off. But instead of giving pigs more room so they won't get so stressed, farmers just amputate their tails, usually without painkillers. Basically, they try to solve problems by creating more problems.

If the government was really concerned about cruelty to farm animals, wouldn't they just do what COK does: send undercover investigators in with hidden cameras to document conditions in factory farms?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for enforcing what meager federal farm animal welfare laws are in place, but this is the same government body whose main function is promoting agribusiness' economic interests, so they have an incentive to avoid shutting facilities down for violations. There's a huge conflict of interest there, and both industry and government look at it from a cost-benefit perspective. That is, taking measures to improve the treatment of farm animals would cost agribusiness money, and require the government to invest more resources in enforcement. That's basically why agribusiness and some politicians are trying to pass these misguided bills.


- 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 Monday, April 25 for my interview with Nathan Runkle,
founder and Executive Director of Mercy for Animals (MFA)

* The Minnesota and Florida bills have been defeated since I posted this interview. However, New York legislators proposed an Ag Gag bill afterwards. 


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