Here is Part II of our interview with Whistleblower Insider’s 2015 Whistleblower of the Year winner — Perdue chicken farmer Craig Watts. After more than twenty years in the business, working on the farm his family has owned since the 1700s, Watts decided to speak out against what he saw as Perdue’s gross mistreatment of chickens. He invited animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming to come to his farm and document first-hand the sordid conditions in which the hundreds of thousands of Perdue chickens he raised each year exist. After spending months with Watts, Compassion in World Farming released a video exposing the horrid life of a Perdue chicken. Here is how Mr. Watts details first-hand his story from chicken farmer to whistleblower and his plans for what comes next.
Whistleblower Insider: Would you do it again? Would you do anything differently?
Craig Watts: (Laughter) I guess. It was easier for me to be in a position to speak out; my houses were almost paid for. I could have just been quiet and rode it out and become debt free. So would I do it all over again? Absolutely. Would I do things a little different? Maybe. I don’t know if I would have done as much by myself. Initially when the video was released I didn’t have any legal representation. I was defending myself in the media; so when they were calling I would be pleading my case. It was big time media, but it just seemed like it was too much.
Whistleblower Insider: I could understand that; kind of an onslaught where you go from zero to sixty in terms of media attention. That sounds pretty intense.
Craig Watts: And I felt that telling the story over and over, the story would lose its sting.
Whistleblower Insider: Do you think that Perdue will listen? And do you think they’ll start implementing practices that are better for animals, farmers, and consumers?
Craig Watts: Back in the late summer or early fall [Perdue] created a position: a farmer advocate and [animal] welfare specialist for lack of a better term. And the guy they put into that position has been with them for decades; [he is] entrenched in the old ways of doing things. So I don’t really see him as an agent of change. Personally, other than the PR team working a little harder, as far as logistics and meaningful change, “No.”
So as far as any [animal] welfare changes, I’m not aware of any. You know, the whole standards of the industry are written by the industry. Overlaying welfare standards on a commercial model is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
If you were to think of animal welfare, and think of that video, you wouldn’t think that that’s good. You think welfare, keeping the chickens out to pasture and that kind of stuff, it would be a much better environment. The industrial model is what it is. Homogenizing widgets.
Whistleblower Insider: On a slightly different line of questioning, are there any interesting things in your background or about you that you think made it more likely that someday you would come forward as a whistleblower.
Craig Watts: When I was probably about five and had some puppies at my home, I would stay with my grandmother during the day, but it was just a walk across the woods. So I would tell my grandma and grand-dad that I was going to go do something else and I would slip in and see the puppies. But my grand-daddy figured that out. So he comes up the road and he’s whistling and he says yeah those are some pretty puppies and he grabs me and he WEARS me out pretty good [for lying]. So I always felt that a lie doesn’t do anybody any good. So that was kind of one of those hard lessons learned.
And I got small kids, if I die tomorrow and they have been instructed to write the message on my tombstone, what’s it going to say? And standing up isn’t easy. Would I do it all over again? I mean it hasn’t been any pleasure cruise or anything like that. But I have a very clear vision of right and wrong. There’s no grey area, that’s for you lawyers to dance in. (Laughter)
Whistleblower Insider: I really respect that. You had mentioned your family, were you worried about them; or any fears about that? Like how far Perdue might go after your livelihood and everything you had on the line?
Craig Watts: My wife knew going into this that I could risk lose my contract. I have support here. And yes we had to hunker down. I didn’t quite have the buildings paid off but I was close enough. They say the first 90 days out of prison are the roughest. So I have about 70 more to go (Laughter).
Whistleblower Insider: What would you like to do in the future?
Craig Watts: I’d rather promote a more sustainable system. I’d like to protect that way of doing things. And I would really like to be there as someone who could listen to farmers. If they got financial trouble, there is stuff out there for them; they need someone there to point them in the right direction. I would just really like to do that. You know, work on the ground level with farmers as an advocate–really get down one on one and help people.
Whistleblower Insider: Any advice that you would give to farmers who are out there and thinking about blowing the whistle on something? Or just to whistleblowers in general, from your experience?
Craig Watts: You know, that’s just a decision that people need to make for themselves. If you’re not sleeping good at night, probably a good indication that you have to do something. I mean it will eat you alive. That’s what it did to me. I’d be up at two o’clock in the morning. It never left my mind. It’s like the day [Leah] released that video. It’s like the world was lifted from my shoulders. It really was. Just a lot of apprehension leading up to that point. But since then in regards to what had happened I have felt so much better.
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