Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Putting Factory Farm Investigations on the Map

New AnimalVisuals infographic geographically displays video exposés by species and state for easy access & panoramic analysis

Egg-laying hens in a battery cage
from an investigation by
Compassion Over Killing
Undercover video investigations are inarguably among the most effective means of exposing the legal and illegal animal cruelty being committed in laboratories, fur and puppy mills, circuses, and rodeos. Recent technological advances in video surveillance devices have made them both smaller (and therefore easier to hide) and able to capture higher-resolution images—facilitating the proliferation of such muckraking exposés. In the last decade, clandestine activists have increasingly turned their cameras toward factory farms and slaughterhouses, revealing a hidden world where many “food” animals raised for meat, milk and eggs are sadistically beaten, confined in cages so small that they can barely move, and slaughtered while still visibly conscious.  

The impact of these shocking images on public opinion and the animal agriculture industry has been profound. They’ve led to criminal animal cruelty convictions against farm workers and agribusiness companies, plant closures, major food recalls, significant corporate policy changes, public demands for stricter animal welfare laws as well as increased enforcement, and passage of landmark legislation in numerous states. It’s therefore no wonder that animal enterprises see video exposés as a threat to their profits, and have enlisted some state legislators in a cynical bid to criminalize the very act of documenting the animal cruelty being routinely perpetrated on factory farms.

I recently wrote extensively about these proposed “Ag Gag” laws in a series of interviews with representatives of the “Big Four” animal protection groups that have conducted most of the undercover factory farm investigations: namely HSUS’s Paul Shapiro, COK’s Erica Meier, MFA’s Nathan Runkle and PETA’s Jeff Kerr. Of the four bills proposed so far, those in Minnesota and Florida have been defeated, but political pawns of the animal agribusiness industry in Iowa and New York are still trying to pass these misguided attempts at censorship. Ironically, their efforts to ban undercover video investigations have backfired in that they have drawn more attention to the abuses these exposés reveal, further educating people about where their food comes from and emphasizing the importance of this information to society at large.

The Factory Farm Investigations Map

Heres a prime example of such unwanted publicity. In response to the recent legislative attempts at outlawing undercover investigations, graphic designer, illustrator and computer whiz Mark Middleton created a new map on his AnimalVisuals website that gathers together in one place the 48 undercover factory farm exposés conducted by the Big Four animal advocacy groups in the US since 1998. Take a look at the map for yourself, then come back here to learn how animal activists can use it to both inform the public about factory farm cruelty, and why the movement should strategically strike out into virgin territory with new investigations.  

As you can see, the map is very easy to navigate: colored pins represent the Big Four organizations, and cartoon animal icons indicate the type of investigation by species (or animal use, in the cases of broiler chickens vs. egg-laying hens and beef cattle vs. dairy cows). Switch to “satellite view” (in the upper right-hand corner of the map) and zoom in to see a photo image taken from outer space pinpointing a factory farm’s precise location—something that only government spies would have been able to do just a few short pre-Internet 2.0 years ago. You can also scroll down past the map for a chronological list of investigations that specifies the state, date and species associated with each one.

Benefits of Mapping

AnimalVisuals’ factory farm investigations map can be an incredibly useful tool for raising awareness of agribusiness’ systemic animal abuse and the informational value of undercover exposés:

- The Public: Putting all the key investigations on one website gives people easy access to videos and information about factory farming’s abuse of animals. The fact that there are so many exposés also highlights the breadth of animal cruelty taking place on factory farms. As Middleton writes on the AnimalVisuals site, “Viewed individually, the actions shown might be dismissed as isolated incidents. Taken together, however, they reveal a pattern of disregard for animal welfare and routine cruelty-to-animals throughout animal agriculture.” People who view the map and videos cannot deny that cruelty is horrific and endemic throughout the animal agribusiness industry, making them more likely to question their dietary habits and consider more compassionate alternatives (such as eating fewer animal products or becoming vegetarian or vegan).

- Activists: Watching videos of animals being tortured and slaughtered may not be your idea of a good time, but it is eye-opening. Many vegetarians and vegans have told me that they already know what happens on factory farms, so they don’t need to watch any more videos documenting the horrors hidden behind their walls, and don’t want to because it upsets them. Of course, meat eaters are the ones who really need to see these videos because they probably don’t know what happens on factory farms—but how can we animal advocates expect them to watch if even we won’t? So view a video (or two or three), then click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen to share the map on Facebook, Twitter or email with a note encouraging your friends and followers to watch a specific video exposé that personally affected you. 

- Investigators: The map highlights the country’s informational “black holes”—especially the 29 states where none of the Big Four animal protection organizations has yet conducted an undercover investigation. Some states may be “blank” right now for various reasons. For instance, investigations tend to cluster around the areas where the Big Four are based, and there are ten states where trespassing on private property to conduct surveillance is illegal. However, in states without such laws, there would be considerable advantages to putting more factory farms “on the map” with undercover exposés. For one thing, it would make people living in those areas more aware of what is being done to animals on farms in their states. For another, it would put factory farmers throughout the nation on notice that they are not invulnerable to exposure just because they operate in a state that hasn’t yet been mapped by pioneering undercover investigators.

- 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.

- New York ResidentsUse this convenient HSUS Action Alert to encourage your state senator to oppose S 5172. Also contact your state senator directly, and ask him or her to oppose this bill.

- Check out other resources on AnimalVisuals such as data visualization tools, the 3-D battery cage, and the “Farm Rescue” Facebook game. Also read my 2009 VegNews magazine article “The Road to Vegetopia: (Re)Imagining the Future of Food” featuring Middleton’s fantastic sci-fi illustrations.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

James McCaffry: 1954-2011

A fond farewell, my dear friend

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And, until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

                         – Traditional Gaelic blessing

“James is dead.” That’s what the voice in my head has been repeating periodically since the afternoon of Saturday, May 21st, when I first heard the devastating news—and every time those ethereally-inaudible words eviscerate my consciousness, my heart cries out and my eyes bleed tears, instantly turning my face into a flesh-and-bone Greek tragedy mask. How do you say goodbye to someone you love who’s already gone? In the face of that haunting question/koan, I feel not only heartbroken but utterly soulbroken.

James was my friend for almost five years. We met when we both worked at In Defense of Animals (IDA) (he as a photographer/graphic designer/art director, me as a writer/editor) and we remained friends and creative collaborators even after we’d both left the organization in 2008. In some measure that was because we live(d) in basically the same San Francisco neighborhood, so it was a quick-and-easy 10-minute bike ride to his place. Yet our friendship was based on more than just geographical proximity: it blossomed and flourished because we shared so many common interests, values and passions—and, perhaps most importantly, a mysterious connection that can’t be described or defined (except perhaps by a poet, which is something I am not), but only known and felt.

That emotional and spiritual connection I shared with James resonates like an electrical pulse throughout my very being now even though he, the man, has departed this world. While mere words cannot convey who James really was when he was alive, I can share the memories and impressions of him that remain with me still. I will certainly always remember James for the rest of my days, and hopefully my experiences of him will stay with me just as long. Yet I feel compelled to express them in some form now while my feelings are still so raw and images of James flash like sunbeams through my grief-clouded mind. I will therefore tell here of the different sides of James that I knew best: the friend, the artist, and the animal lover.

James, My Friend

James and I generally hung out together about once every week or two, mostly either in his Lake Street apartment (with a stunning picture-window view of the Golden Gate Bridge), or at one of the local beaches (usually Baker—his “power spot” where we are holding his memorial on Saturday, May 28th at 6:00pm). We often watched the sunset as the waves of the Bay lapped the shoreline, with the verdant Marin Headlands and dazzling span of the Golden Gate Bridge as backdrop. It was a perfect spot for escaping the hyperwired urban grid, appreciating nature’s mystical beauty, and (for James) photography. He’d drink cheap canned beer (Bud or Tecate 24-ouncers) and I’d sip at least equally-cheap red wine from my stainless-steel thermos with the screw-off cup-cap. James was a good drinking-and-cigarette-smoking buddy: an emotional rock and a good listener who was always ready with support, encouragement, wise counsel, or a spontaneous joke to lift my mood.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have set a better, healthier example—it might’ve helped save James’ life. On the other hand, in fairness to my conscience, it probably wouldn’t have made any difference in his lifestyle choices. James was stubborn to the core about doing whatever he pleased. In my defense, I did often bring him hearty homemade vegan vittles prepared in my own kitchen: mason jars filled with lentil soup, minestrone and chili that he raved about. He liked my cooking so much that he said I should start my own vegan food line, and that he would design the labels. More of this food would have improved James health: he was really skinny, and several weeks before his death some of our mutual friends who hadn’t seen him for awhile remarked  that they’d noticed significant weight loss and were worried about him. I suppose I didn’t notice because I saw him on such a regular basis, and the physical changes took place gradually.

Nevertheless, I was still essentially an enabler, especially given the fact that James had been hospitalized in 2007 for heart problems. When I visited him at SF General with our friend Mark, James was haggard and unshaven, wearing one of those flimsy aquamarine medical gowns, bedridden with a clear plastic tube feeding drugs into his arm. He looked so small, so frail, and I remember seeing him then, for at least a moment and for the first time, as a transient entity. But even though his body was depleted, James was mentally energetic and excited to see us, so my awareness that he could actually die quickly faded. Anyway, I would certainly choose to do things differently if given the chance, but I’m not feeling guilty per se: James is gone, and theres nothing I can do now to bring him back. Besides, James was an adult, a free agent as it were, and he had a perfect right to make his own choices about how to live. We had a traditional “guy” relationship: I tried to respect his boundaries and not interfere with his free will as a human being, and he treated me the same. 

Born in 1954, James was also about 15 years older than me, so he was essentially from a different generation, and that might have influenced the interpersonal borderlines we staked out with one another. Yet our age difference didn’t prevent us from forging a close brotherly bond: if anything, it added a profound cultural/historical dimension to our relationship that intensified my interest in his storied past. A native Canadian, James arrived in San Francisco in 1977 at the tender age of 22, so I was enthralled by his animated anecdotes recounting the exhilarating days of early SF punk and other watershed events that I am far too young to have experienced myself. It might sound cliché, but James’ life experience was etched into his face like the crags of a mountain range are worn by millennia of glacial drift and shifting seasonal cycles. 

James was a passionate music lover with wide-ranging, genre-defying tastes and a particular love for jazz, American roots, 60s psychedelic rock, modern-classical, and world music. In fact, he earned a degree in Music from Grant MaCewan University in Edmonton right before moving to the states. We went to many concerts, festivals, street fairs, and other events together to groove on live music. We saw Iggy Pop’s 60th birthday concert at the Warfield with his good friend Louise, Steve Earle at the Palace of Fine Arts, and a host of major stars and legendary performers at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park over the years. “Ears wide open,” he once told me. James turned me on to so much sublime music—Spearhead, John Adams, the Decemberists (and the list goes on). His musical knowledge was so vast that I was delighted when I could blow him away with some great album he hadn’t heard before—like Johnny Cash’s “Unchained,” John Zorn’s “Naked City,” or Lou Reed’s “New York.”

Speaking of which, James was fascinated with New York City. The Big Apple’s a bit too maddeningly frenetic for my fragile constitution, but I think my being originally from New York (well, Long Island, anyway) earned me some street cred with him. Even though James was a Canook, he had a distinct “Noo Yawka” air about him, which might be one of the reasons we got along so well. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy: honest and direct, stoic but secretly thin-skinned, yet also exceedingly kind, generous and empathetic. It’s a rare combination, and perhaps why he was able to make so many friends in diverse social circles. I mainly knew James as an animal advocate, visual-creative force, and nature lover: but he was also immersed in the worlds of avant-garde art, jazz and blues music, Irish-Americanism, and more. Though I know some of James’ friends personally, I only heard tell of the many others he knew (and who knew him) in different contexts: people I am sure are amazing in their own rights, and could illuminate other facets of his unique personality and essence.

James the Artist

James had over three decades worth of experience as a photographer, graphic designer, and art director. In the late 70s and early 80s, he created posters and programs for the San Francisco Ballet, and worked as the art director for a newspaper called City Arts Monthly. He also designed dozens of covers for blues and jazz albums by the likes of John Lee Hooker, Holly Near and Billie Holiday. By sheer chance, he was the last person to take professional photos of Jerry Garcia at the legendary Greatful Dead guitarist’s Marin County home before he died in 1995. Although he was highly respected as a visual artist by those he worked for and with, James never made the kind of money a talent such as his should have brought him. In the last two years of his life especially, after he resigned his position at IDA and the Great Recession hit, he struggled financially to make ends meet.

"Soul Food-For-Thought" promotional brochure
I was privileged to be one of James’ most constant creative collaborators over the past few years. We worked on projects together at IDA, and then later for others such as vegan bodybuilder Kenneth Williams and the International Fund for Africa. The most thrilling aspect of teaming up with James was seeing his powerful images and professional design exponentially enhance the impact of my mere words. We strove to develop an integrated holistic style that blurred the distinction between textual and visual content, and highlighted the substance of what we wanted to express. This was only possible because we were essentially on the same creative wavelength; a state of mutual congruity that has unfortunately been the exception rather than the rule in my professional career. Perhaps this resulted from us both drawing creative inspiration from similar and often shared sources—music, literature, art, film, nature, and life itself. We talked a lot of shop, incessantly expounding on the mechanics and metaphysics of our respective crafts, which is sadly something I rarely get to do with anyone else.

I’m extremely gratified that James often expressed his respect and admiration for my writing, especially since I valued his intelligence and insights so highly. His assessment of my work was all the more meaningful for the fact that he would honestly tell me his opinion. There were times when I’d ask him what he thought of something I’d written, and he’d say something like “It’s OK, but it’s not your best work.” I took his feedback seriously because it helped me grow as a writer, and I prefer people who don’t pull punches to those who say what they think you want to hear. Truthfulness is the mark of a trustworthy friend and true creative peer.

Ark magazine cover
I believe that James’ dream was to be the art director of his own magazine. He therefore produced a beta issue of Ark, an animal rights imprint, but it never gained any traction. After that, we drew up a prospectus and financial plan for another proposed publication called The Vegan Age, with him as art director and me as editor-in-chief, but that too failed to attract investors. We’d also tried somewhat half-assedly to start a small two-man communications business together for more than a year, but it never got off the ground because neither of us had any pragmatic entrepreneurial skills whatsoever. Nevertheless, James came up with the name “Propeller, Ink.” and I had a whole convoluted explanation for why I thought it was cool. Ultimately, we completed numerous projects together, many of them on spec, and I’m rightfully proud of what we accomplished together.

James the Animal Lover

On their website, IDA posted an obituary about James that I wrote focusing on his history with the organization and some of the influential work he did for the animal rights movement. We had many spirited discussions about animal issues, with James expressing righteous outrage over ongoing atrocities like the annual Japanese dolphin slaughter, the barbarity of primate experimentation, and his own Canadian countrymen’s clubbing of baby harp seals for their fur. But James’ affinity for animals was most evident in his love for cats, especially his beloved feline companions Luna and Bobcat.

Luna was truly James’ cat. When I (or anyone else I think) would visit his apartment, Luna would usually hide away, or at best let me pet her head at arm’s length. But she would meow for James’ attention and affection, scratching the fabric of his dilapidated tan armchair and hopping up into his lap. Luna is a tiny cat, 12-years-old, with swirly black-and-silver marble patterns adorning her luscious coat. One day, a co-worker from IDA named Max came over James’ apartment with his mellow old shaggy dog. Luna seemed a bit freaked out, but also curious about the copasetic canine guest. Max was clearly taken with Luna’s delicate beauty and princessesque bearing, dubbing her “The Elizabeth Taylor of Cats”—a moniker that James thereafter took up.  

James also fed a colony of feral cats in his apartment building’s courtyard for several years. Last year, when only one feral remained, James took “Bobcat” into his home. A large, muscular tabby with bright-orange striped fur, Bobcat earned a special place in James’ heart through her sweet and gentle nature. However, even living indoors, she still spent at least half her day outside, and was, sadly, not exactly gentle with the rodents and other small prey she hunted (according to the tales of tiny horror James recounted to me). She was always kind and accommodating towards Luna, though, and freely affectionate with any human visitors. James therefore theorized that, rather than being born feral, Bobcat must have once had human guardians who perhaps abandoned her when they moved away. Yet he couldn’t conceive of how anyone with a functioning heart could ever leave such a loving cat behind.
James expressed his love for his cats creatively every New Year with cards featuring fabulous photos of his feline friends. While Luna was slow to warm to Bobcat, who she perhaps felt had encroached upon her territory and usurped some of her guardian’s affections, the two are now close companions. James’ good friend Colleen is currently seeking a permanent home for both cats so they can continue to be together—which is especially important now that they no longer have James. (Editor’s Note: Soon after this writing, James’ cousin in Oregon adopted Luna and Bobcat.)

Colleen told me that Bobcat went missing after 
James’ death, but unexpectedly returned to the apartment a few days later. As Colleen and members of the McCaffry family stood in the living room, Bobcat elocuted a plaintive, heartrending cry while staring at the chair where James often sat. Shy Luna had hidden from human visitors since James’ death, but came into the living room when she heard her feline friend wailing, and the two kissed noses, comforting one another. Clearly, both Bobcat and Luna miss James just as much as his human family and friends do. He loved them dearly, and they continue to love him, mourning his absence and perhaps even understanding that he is gone.  

The Last Time I Saw James…

…was on Thursday, May 12th, just nine days before he so suddenly passed away. He was tasked with walking his friend’s dog, Francis, and called me to ask if I wanted to meet him at the Rose Garden in Golden Gate Park around 4:30 that afternoon. The garden being close to my apartment, I arrived on time, but James wasn’t there. I walked around for about 45 minutes, and just as I was heading back home James showed up with Francis in tow. He apologized for being late: some unexpected delays, as happens with everyone sometimes. James was eccentric in his refusal to own a cell phone, so he couldn’t get in touch with me when he wasnt at home. I said no problem. I recall just being really glad to see him. It was cloudy when I’d first gotten to the garden, but sunny by the time James and Francis arrived.  

James and I sat down on a bench amongst the brilliantly-colored flowers that were already in bloom, as Francis immediately tumbled onto his back and writhed with canine pleasure in the grass. After his roll in the blades, Francis begged for some biscuits by placing his paw on James’ knee, first whimpering while tilting his head, then barking his demands loudly. James gave him some treats and explained to Francis that there weren’t that many, so he should savor them. Yet Francis seemed to swallow the bone-shaped goodies whole without so much as chewing. We then gave him a tennis ball that lay on the ground nearby, and that vice-jawed dog literally tore it with gleeful abandon to fuzzy rubber shreds (which we gathered up so he wouldnt swallow them).

As we sat, James drinking beer and me sipping wine, we talked about a project that we were planning. James had recently done a photo essay as a volunteer for the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association documenting the city’s historic fireboats. He’d ridden on the Phoenix just weeks before, and had tentatively arranged a fireboat ride for both of us so that I could interview the seafaring firemen and he could shoot more photos. We planned to turn the results into an article for one of SF’s lifestyle or travel magazines, or a promotional booklet for the fire department. He was very excited about all this, and promised to set a date for our nautical voyage in the very near future. Fittingly, Francis was the dog of a woman named Kaki who worked at the Maritime Association and had befriended James. Francis even wore a bandana around his neck decorated with little flags from all the nations’ oceangoing vessels.

After a couple of hours, we started home through the Redwood grove that borders the Rose Garden and stretches three city blocks eastward. It just so happens that this is my most customary outdoor spot for reading, writing and relaxing (and where I am right now as I write this on my laptop). As we walked, Francis frequently stopped to sniff the ground and mark selected territory as his. Francis is an older dog, a Golden Lab with hip dysplasia (an ailment that is somewhat endemic to dogs of that breed as they age), so he walks slowly with a bit of a limp. Sensitive to animals’ nature and individual needs as he was, James patiently waited while Francis explored the woods along the footpath, never dragging him away before his canine curiosity was quelled. “Dogs’ sense of smell is so much stronger than ours,” James observed. “They experience the world through scent, and know things about it that we can’t even imagine.”

At the corner of Cabrillo Street and 10th Avenue, James and I said our final goodbye. James always had a flair for goodbyes…or at least farewells. Whenever we’d part ways after hanging out, his voice would turn noticeably warmer, softer, and he would say something like “We’ll talk again real soon,” or “We’ll get together again real soon.” It always made me feel good about myself, that a person of James’ character and caliber wanted to talk to me, spend time with me. He always meant what he said, too—he wasn’t one to fake feelings or exchange false sentiments—so I know that his words were genuine.

James & Smokey at "Jerry Day"
The last time I spoke with James was around noon on Thursday, May 19th—less than two days before he died. I phoned him asking if he wanted to hit the beach later that day, the weather being fairly nice, even if a bit chilly. He said he’d like to, but he was too busy with work, or trying to hustle up some jobs, but would call me if he could get enough done to spare a couple of hours for fun. Otherwise, he said he’d spoken with the fire department, and was close to finalizing a date for our fireboat trip: it would be in the next week or two. There were no discernible traces of sickness or encroaching mortality in his voice: he just sounded like the same old familiar James to me. After making tentative plans to hang out over the weekend, we said goodbye, he with his trademark farewell phrase: “We’ll get together real soon.”
This, James, is my final goodbye to you. As an agnostic, I neither believe nor disbelieve in a God or an afterlife. It therefore doesn’t seem altogether unreasonable to at least hope that someday, some way, my friend, we’ll meet up once again.

If you too knew James, I encourage you to click on the "comments" link directly below and 
write your memories of and tributes to him. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

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

An interview with General Counsel to PETA, Jeff Kerr

As I wrote in my first post of this series, three state legislatures (Florida, Iowa 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. The good news is that the Florida bill officially died on May 9, 2011 because state lawmakers failed to vote on it before the legislative session ended. Good job, Floridians! However, the Iowa and Minnesota bills remain active and could still pass. On that note, here’s the fourth (and final) installment in this sequence: my interview with General Counsel to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Jeff Kerr.

Photo courtesy of PETA
Kerr earned his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School in 1987, and worked as a civil litigator for six years. At the age of 30, while employed as corporate counsel for a national health care charity, he went to attend a lecture that he found had been cancelled and replaced by one entitled “Did Your Food Have a Face?” being presented by an animal rights activist. The talk opened his eyes for the first time to the suffering of other species, and he quickly adopted a vegan diet—and nine months later signed on as PETA’s general counsel, a post that he has held for fifteen years.  

Kerr leads a team of six in-house attorneys who handle issues ranging from contracts, intellectual property and litigation to property acquisitions, non-profit tax-exemption and corporate governance. His main responsibility is overseeing all legal activities relating to PETA’s nine international affiliates around the world. Kerr has successfully defended PETA’s undercover investigators in numerous trials, most famously when the group documented and exposed extreme animal cruelty at a Covance testing laboratory in 2005. He insists that undercover investigations are essential to democratic society—and perfectly legal. “Investigation gathers proof,” he has said, “and the whole point of undercover work is to expose illegal conduct.”

Here is Kerr’s analysis of the bills proposing to ban undercover farm investigations:

AR: From a Constitutional Law perspective, do these bills violate activists’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression?

JK: The bills are unconstitutional on several grounds under the First Amendment. They violate free speech, and arguably freedom of the press, because they preclude the publishing or even possession of photos and videos. They also violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because they single out animal protection advocates, who are specifically targeted by this proposed legislation.

Essentially, these bills seek to criminalize being the eyewitness to a crime—which is absurd. Society should be encouraging citizens to come forward with information about crimes, and criminalizing people for taking photos and videos of criminal animal abuse thwarts their ability to come forward to law enforcement with that proof. These bills actually obstruct justice. What are people supposed to do when they see cruelty to animals in these facilities: draw a picture of it? It’s ridiculous! To prosecute somebody for cruelty to animals you need proof, and the videos and photos taken by undercover investigators are that proof.

In addition to making it illegal for activists, journalists and employees to document animal abuse taking place in agricultural facilities, would these bills also make it illegal to document other crimes?

Yes, these bills could have seriously deleterious effects in other ways, and that’s an aspect of this issue that deserves more attention. For example, what if employees witness criminal behavior such as drug use, theft, anti-union activities, or workplace safety violations? Under these bills, it would be a criminal act to photograph or videotape these crimes and show the evidence to appropriate law enforcement authorities or regulators. The consequences could be devastating to food safety and workers’ health, so it’s no wonder that the proponents of these bills are unwilling to even talk about this.

So I take it then that legislators are not writing exemptions into the language of the bills to address these ancillary effects?

The way these bills are written, they would prohibit people from exposing illegal activity of any kind. Legislators can’t add such exemptions because that would draw attention to the fact that they’re specifically targeting animal activists, which is blatantly unconstitutional.

Those proposing and supporting these bills argue that they are necessary to prevent what they allege are destructive acts committed by animal advocates. One of the most common accusations is that animal protection groups wait several weeks or months before reporting animal abuse to law enforcement. What’s your response to that?

First, looking at this from a legal/law enforcement perspective, we have to get proof that the animal abuses taking place in factory farms, slaughterhouses and other agribusiness facilities are standard practices for the businesses we investigate. If we can’t prove that through documentation, the prosecutors aren’t going to prosecute, and the facilities themselves hide behind the age-old ruse of claiming that “these are rogue employees, it’s just a one-time thing, this isn’t how we do business.” Yet over 30 years of investigative work by PETA has shown that cruelty is not an aberration: this is how business is conducted in these facilities on a daily basis, and the perpetrators cannot run from that fact. In every single undercover investigation PETA has conducted, we’ve found evidence of illegal animal abuse.

Second, when we did an undercover investigation of a Hormel food supplier in Iowa in 2008, one of our investigators did report illegal animal abuse to management—and was immediately fired on the spot. So we actually do report abuse, and that’s what happens. The people making these accusations about delays in reporting just don’t know what they’re talking about.

One of the most common accusations made against undercover investigators is that they literally “stage” acts of animal cruelty themselves and then claim they were committed by farm workers. However, all of the footage I know of shows farm employees, managers and owners abusing animals. So this makes me wonder, how could investigators possibly “stage” these abuses? Do these critics ever explain how investigators allegedly stage them—like by using CGI special effects or something?

There is literally no way our undercover investigators could possibly stage the video footage they capture, and here’s why. After every investigation PETA conducts, we create a detailed complaint, with all of the supporting evidence—including all of the unedited videotape, all of the investigator’s log notes, and a comprehensive legal analysis—and we turn it over to the prosecutors and regulators. We have gotten landmark felony and other animal cruelty convictions, the first of their kind, against factory farms in North Carolina, Iowa, and other states because of the strength and power of the proof we’ve presented to prosecutors. If there was any possibility whatsoever that our evidence was not authentic, prosecutors never would have used it to prosecute.

The legislators and others who make these unfounded accusations are defaming per se because they’re falsely accusing animal protectionists of providing fake evidence, which is a felony. Meanwhile, not one person making these accusations has ever identified a single instance in which any undercover investigation video has been staged. PETA regularly takes action to make people cease and desist from making such false claims. For example, I recently sent a letter to State Representative Annette Sweeney, the main sponsor of the Iowa House bill, calling her out on her defamatory statements suggesting that these videos are staged. She made those statements publicly, outside of the legislative framework, and has no immunity for making those allegations. People who make these ludicrous claims back down when we threaten them with legal action, and we have every expectation that Sweeney will do the same.

When people claim that videos have been staged by activists, aren’t they basically insinuating that prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officials are stupid because they can’t tell the difference between real and faked footage?

(Laughs) I think implicitly, sure. The other thing factory farmers try to hide behind is the false notion that they’re heavily regulated and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Well, in 2004 and 2005, we did two separate investigations of Agriprocessors, a kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa, in which we caught workers on video shocking cows in their faces with electric prods, ripping their windpipes out while they were still conscious, and dumping the animals onto the floor as they struggled and blood gushed from their throats. These violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act were taking place while federal inspectors looked on and did absolutely nothing. The USDA’s own report stated that one of their inspectors accepted gifts of meat from Agriprocessors, failed to report violations by them, and committed, in their phrase, “other acts of misconduct.” So even the regulators aren’t doing their jobs. In this kind of environment, the only way to bring about meaningful reform and an end to this abuse is by doing undercover investigations.

Are there laws in some states that already restrict or prohibit undercover investigations?

Before conducting any investigation, we look at that state’s laws so we can comply with them. Certainly there are differences in the laws across various states, but there are no laws that even come close to what the bills being proposed would do.

Factory farmers constantly proclaim how much they “care” about animals—especially, it seems, when confronted with overwhelming evidence to the contrary from undercover investigations. If they really cared about animals, why are they and the legislators behind these bills so dead-set against showing the public how they treat animals?

Here’s an example from a historical perspective that makes a sadly ironic comment on contemporary politics. Upton Sinclair basically invented the field of investigative reporting in the early 1900s when he went undercover as a worker in the Chicago stockyards and wrote The Jungle.  This novel led to the first regulations of animal agriculture in U.S. history. So back then, over a century ago, the government did the right thing when egregious abuses were exposed: they regulated the industry to try to halt the abuses. But today we’ve got legislators doing the exact opposite: instead of implementing additional, stronger penalties and regulations to protect not only animals but the safety of the country’s food supply, they are trying to slam the shutters closed so that no one can see what goes on inside these facilities. They are aiding and abetting the abusers.

What elected officials really need to be doing is introducing legislation requiring that cameras be placed in animal agriculture facilities so we all can see, all the time, what goes on in there. In fact, PETA’s position is that this footage should be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. Facilities should be required to turn the footage over to inspectors, and it should be part of the state and federal regulatory file so that people can see it. No one has the right of privacy to commit acts of criminal animal abuse. I’m originally from Missouri, the “show me” state. As we say there, if farmers are really doing everything right, as they always claim, then they should show us! 

Generally speaking, what do you think these bills might mean for the animal advocacy movement? 

These bills are clearly having an effect that their proponents didn’t expect, in that they’re generating opposition and shining a light on the animal abuse and criminal behavior uncovered in these investigations. Consumers, including those who eat meat, want animals to be treated decently and not abused. So in a way, these bills have helped the animals’ cause because they’ve put the issue back into public debate in the same way that our undercover investigations do all of the time—and I believe this is a debate that factory farmers are ultimately going to lose.

- 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.

* The Minnesota bill has also been defeated since I posted this interview. However, New York legislators proposed an Ag Gag bill afterwards.