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When Documenting a Crime Becomes a Crime

Posted  March 27, 2014

By Marlene Koury

Last month, Idaho passed the latest of the so-called “Ag-Gag” bills that have been introduced in state legislatures over the past few years.  This law, much like the Ag-Gag laws already passed in Iowa, Utah, Missouri, North Dakota, Montana and Kansas, bans anyone — including journalists, employees, and animal rights activists – from photographing or filming anything inside factory farms and slaughterhouses in order to document animal abuse or other violations.  This law is currently under Constitutional challenge in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU, PETA, and a who’s who list of animal rights groups and journalists.

The agriculture industry presents Ag-Gag laws as a protection against privacy.  But it is hard to see how these laws are anything other than not-so-veiled attempts to keep hidden what goes on inside factory farms.  Nathan Runkle, executive director of animal rights whistleblower group Mercy for Animals, says “not only will [Idaho’s] ag-gag law perpetuate animal abuse, it endangers workers’ rights, consumer health and safety, and the freedom of journalists, employees, and the public at large to share information about something as fundamental as our food supply.”

Whistleblowers have exposed horrific abuse and other violations at factory farms and slaughterhouses in recent years.  Some of the more memorable cases include, ironically, the video that prompted Idaho to pass its Ag-Gag law in the first place.

Bettencourt Dairies

Idaho’s new law was prompted by a clandestine video that the animal rights group Mercy for Animals released showing cruel abuse of cows at Idaho’s Bettencourt Dairies, including beating, stomping, dragging and sexually abusing cows.  Once the video became public, Bettencourt fired the employees responsible, with one of them ultimately being charged with and convicted for animal abuse.

Quanah Cattle Company

Our Whistleblower of the Year winner Taylor Radig exposed animal abuse at Quanah Cattle Company in Colorado – and was wrongly charged with animal abuse herself!  Her story began in July 2013, when she was hired by Compassion Over Killing to go undercover at Quanah and stealthily filmed the horrific animal abuse she encountered there, including employees routinely abusing newborn calves, including violently dragging them by their legs, lifting them by their tails, and throwing them onto the ground.  She turned over the video to the local Sherriff’s office two months after ending her investigation – and was arrested for animal cruelty for not turning over the video sooner.  But the story has a happy ending.  Following a huge public outcry, including a petition that garnered more than 186,000 signatures, the animal cruelty charges against Taylor were dropped earlier this year while charges went forward against the three workers she filmed.

Tennessee Walking Horses

The Humane Society went undercover and filmed horse trainers dripping caustic chemicals onto horses’ ankles and clasping metal chains onto the injured tissue in order to force the horses to thrust their front legs forward to exaggerate the distinctive high-stepping gait favored by breeders. The walk, known as the “Big Lick,” is prized in Walking Horse competitions.  The video documenting the abuse prompted a federal investigation that led to four trainers being charged in a 52-count indictment.

Tyson Pork Farm

In another video shot by Mercy for Animals, a whistleblower filmed inside a Tyson pig factory farm in Oklahoma severe animal abuse, including employees kicking, throwing, and hitting pigs, along with appalling living conditions for the pigs.  Following the investigation, Tyson immediately dropped its contract with the factory farm, and the farm is now under investigation by local law enforcement.

Given the public outcry that followed these and other exposures, it is clear that this type of treatment goes against our widely held beliefs that all animals – even those raised for food or sport – deserve humane treatment.  If Idaho’s new Ag-Gag law survives its Constitutional attack and other states follow suit with their own anti-whistleblower legislation, practices like these would be allowed to continue unchecked, raising serious concerns not only over the way we treat our animals but how we manage and protect our food supply.

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