Editorial feature: Ag-gag laws & changing frameworks of perception

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  May/June 2013:

Editorial feature: Ag-gag laws & changing frameworks of perception

The most deeply held conviction shared among U.S. meat industry executives and advocates of not eating meat may be the belief that if most people witnessed slaughter,   they would not eat meat. For the U.S. meat industry,  this is a visceral fear,  associated with declining U.S. per capita meat consumption since 2007 and,  more significantly,  declining demand for meat relative to price.  As the web site www.countinganimals.com explained in November 2012,  with extensive supporting economic data,  “Nearly 70% of the decline in per capita consumption of beef since 2006 is likely due to a decline in demand.  More than 93% of the decline in per capita consumption of chicken is also likely due to a decline in demand.” Aware of the economic realities,  which have come parallel to increasingly frequent video exposés of slaughter and other meat industry practices, agribusiness is pushing hard for the passage of ag-gag laws,  as even agribusiness spokespersons now call them,  in blunt admission that their purpose is to silence critics. Written to criminalize any unauthorized undercover investigations of animal agriculture facilities,  ag-gag laws especially target investigators who produce visual images of either illegal forms of animal abuse,  or routine practices that much of the public quite rightly perceives as abusive. Summarized Emily Meredith,  communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance,  in a recent edition of the meat industry trade journal Meatingplace:  “States including New Hampshire, Wyoming and Arkansas are the most recent in a slew of legislative battleground states where the animal agriculture industry,  and those that support it,  have faced off against the likes of the Humane Society of the U.S.,  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Mercy for Animals,  and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  Why are these groups so interested in this legislation?  The answer is simple––this legislation would destroy any opportunities the above-referenced groups would have to film,  photograph or otherwise exploit farmers,  ranchers or processors.” Seeking humane,  ethical,  and merciful treatment of animals,  including prevention of cruelty to animals,  thus argued Meredith,  “exploits” the industry that exploits more sentient,  suffering beings than all other industries combined. A similar inversion of moral logic appeared in the language used by Michael Fielding of Meatingplace to describe the April 2013 failure of a proposed ag-gag bill in Indiana.  “The bill,”  wrote Fielding,  “would have criminalized the recording of photographs or videos on private property with the intent to expose alleged illegal or unethical practices.” In other words,  alleged illegal or unethical practices could continue,  but attempting to expose them would have been interdicted. The most insidious aspect of ag-gag laws may be the meat industry claim that they are meant to compel undercover investigators to turn over images of illegal abuse to law enforcement agencies within a matter of hours after they are captured on video or film.  This is presented to legislators and the public as an indication that the meat industry is serious about stopping illegal violence against animals on their way to slaughter.  Such violence has repeatedly been exposed by undercover video,  and has resulted in recent successful prosecutions of abusive workers in at least four U.S. states and the United Kingdom. But,  as Mercy for Animals founder Nathan Runkle has pointed out,  having directed more undercover videography operations against the meat industry than all other animal advocacy groups combined,  undercover investigators have seen nominally illegal violence against animals within days,  if not hours,  at practically every facility they have infiltrated.  Immediately reporting such incidents would preclude documenting the extent to which they are a pervasive pattern,  ignored if not actually condoned or even encouraged by management. In addition,  immediately reporting potentially illegal abuses would expose the identity of the undercover operatives––which is exactly what the meat industry wants:  to identify and exclude any employees who might expose not only overt abuses,  but also the routine abuse that is inherent in practices such as macerating alive the newly hatched males of egg-laying poultry breeds,  and castrating and clipping the teeth of piglets without anesthesia. Idaho,  Kansas,  Missouri,  Montana,  North Dakota,  and  Utah now have ag-gag legislation.  Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam on May 13,  2013 vetoed an ag-gag bill passed by the state legislature.  At least seven other states considered ag-gag bills during spring 2013 legislative sessions. The desperation of the U.S. meat industry to keep routine practices out of sight,  especially slaughter,  was demonstrated by the first known attempted prosecution for alleged violation of an ag-gag law.  Amy Meyer,  25,  was charged with an ag-gag violation on February 19,  2013 in Draper,  Utah,  eleven days after using her cell phone while standing on a public sidewalk to document conditions at the Dale T. Smith & Sons Meat Packing Company.  The Smith & Sons slaughterhouse is co-owned by Draper mayor Darrell H. Smith.  Defense attorney Stewart Gollan told Jim Dalrymple II of the Salt Lake Tribune that judges in the Draper Justice Court are appointed by the mayor with assent of the town council. Wrote Meyer in an April 29,  2013 public statement,  “I visited the Smith Meat Packing slaughterhouse because I heard numerous reports that any bystander standing on the public thoroughfare could witness the horror of cows struggling for their lives as they were led to their violent deaths.  Cows being led inside the building struggled to turn around once they smelled and heard the misery that awaited them inside.  I also witnessed what I believe to be a clear act of cruelty to animals––a live cow who appeared to be sick or injured being carried away from the building in a tractor,  as though she were nothing more than rubble.  At all times while I documented this cruelty, I remained on public property. I never once crossed the barbed wire fence that exists to demarcate private and public property.” A Smith & Sons employee called police,  claiming Meyer and another woman were seen on company property,  inside the fence.  But the police found only Meyer,  and found no evidence that she had climbed over or through the fence. Pending for nine weeks,  the charge against Meyer was dropped on April 30,  2013,  just 24 hours after it was exposed by Green is the New Red blogger Will Potter and Jim Dalrymple II of the Salt Lake Tribune.

Keeping consumers in the dark

“Factory farms, like all homes and businesses,  are already protected by laws against trespassing,”  editorialized The New York Times on April 9,  2013.  “So-called ‘ag-gag’ laws have nothing to do with protecting property.  Their only purpose is to keep consumers in the dark,  to make sure we know as little as possible about the grim details of factory farming.” “Close to 27 million land animals are killed each day in the U.S. by dispossessed humans laboring under horrific conditions,”  New York City political science professor Timothy Pachirat recently recited to HSUS president Wayne Pacelle,  “and yet this massive work of violence is completely normalized and,  for the most part,  completely hidden from the sight and consciousness of those who rely on its products.” Researching his 2011 book Every Twelve Seconds:  Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight,  Pachirat worked for five months in a Nebraska slaughterhouse. “I don’t think anyone sat down and said,  ‘Let’s design a slaughtering process that creates a maximal distance between each worker and the violence of killing and allows each worker to contribute to that work without having to confront the violence directly,’” Pachirat told Pacelle.  “Most of the architectural elements of the kill floor,  including the extreme compartmentalization of the killing work,  is overtly motivated by efficiency and food safety logics.  But what is fascinating is that the effects of these organizations of space and labor are not just increased ‘efficiency’ or increased ‘food-safety,’  but also the distancing and concealment of violent processes,  even from those participating directly in them.” Ted Conover,  author of a recent Harper’s magazine feature about slaughter work,  did his research by working for two months as a USDA meat inspector in a Cargill slaughterhouse.  Questioned by Meatingplace interviewer Rita Jane Gabbett about why he did not interview slaughterhouse designer Temple Grandin about whether cattle feel stress on their way to be killed,  Conover expressed skepticism of Grandin’s recent remark to a New York Times reporter that,  “When catttle go to the meat plant now, they just walk up the chute;  it’s no more stressful than going to the veterinary chute.” Conover recalled what a Mexican wrangler told him while working at the slaughter ramp: “Huele mal,  no?”  Meaning,  “It stinks, doesn’t it?” The worker “held his nose against the ammoniac smell of urine.  The ramp really did stink,”  Conover continued. “Why does it smell so bad?” Conover asked. “They’re scared.  They don’t want to die,”  the worker replied. Suggested Gabbett,   “Cattle sometimes urinate because they drink water,  not necessarily because they are scared.” The meat industry would like everyone to accept that Grandin’s innovations have spared everyone involved in slaughtering from experiencing suffering, including the cattle,  because the fear and pain involved are no longer as obvious as when “knockers” felled cattle with sledgehammers in front of each other and pigs were shackled and hoisted to be bled to death on giant wheels dominating local skylines like amusement park rides tipped sideways.  But a wrangler and others with experience around cattle should know the difference in the mild odor of urine of cows who have only drunk water,  and the rank,  hormone-suffused odor of cows who are terrified. There is as yet no efficient means for animal advocates to demonstrate that difference to the public,  even if the public could be persuaded to put meat industry claims to a smell test.  However,  the organization Farm Animal Rights Movement,  formerly called Farm Animal Reform Movement,  has since mid-2011 trucked a four-minute video depicting agribusiness practices to heavily visited locations and paid passers-by $1.00 each to watch the video.  FARM claims that more than half of the viewers agree afterward to reduce their meat consumption. Whether the viewers actually do eat less meat would take extensive follow-up to confirm. But among opponents of eating meat,  the influence of visual images of animal suffering in connection with meat production is an article of faith,  supported by more than 60 years of experience with exposing cruelty in visual media.  Almost every advance in the technology used to reproduce and distribute visual images,  from color printing to smart phones and social media,  has been promptly used by animal advocates to positive effect. Reality,  though,  is that the psychological influences of witnessing slaughter and cruelty are neither ubiquitous nor uniform.  Until barely two generations ago in the western world,  and still today in much of the rest of the world,  slaughter was and is widely witnessed,  without producing a decline in the demand for meat.  Killing animals in classrooms became controversial in the U.S. and India in the mid-1980s,  by which time the animals killed were mostly amphibians, dissected in science classes;  but some of the mothers and many of the grandmothers of the students of the 1980s had learned to kill and butcher poultry, decades earlier,  in mandatory home economics classes.  Boys in those times were expected to learn the basics of slaughtering and butchery through joining the men of their families in killing pigs,  sheep,  and cattle,  and in sport hunting. The lessons were reinforced by 4H Club activities and Scouting merit badges awarded for accomplishments related to animal husbandry,  slaughter,  and hunting. Slaughter and butchery disappeared from school and after-school curriculums only after the advent of home refrigerators enabled most meat-eaters to buy animal remains already dead and frozen. Despite frequent exposure to slaughter,  few of even the people most sensitized to animal suffering became vegetarians in the 19th and first four-fifths of the 20th centuries. Among those who founded the Royal SPCA of Great Britain in 1824,  only the industrial inventor Lewis Gompertz (1779-1865) was a vegetarian––and he was drummed out of the RSPCA for it,  after saving the organization from bankruptcy. American Anti-Vivisection Society founder Carolyn Earle White (1833-1916) was a vegetarian,  as was Henry Salt (1851-1939),  who authored Animals’ Rights in 1905.   Yet,  despite their influence,  and despite the prominence of vegetarianism among Buddhist,  Hindu,  and Jain animal advocates for more than 2,300 years, vegetarianism only emerged as a focal theme in western animal advocacy within the past few decades. Indeed,  animal advocates in the western world moved toward vegetarianism only about a generation after slaughter disappeared from view of most Americans,  Canadians,  and western Europeans.  Perhaps this was long enough for video exposure to slaughter to have an enduring life-changing influence on the millions of young people who are now the first several generations in the west to voluntarily eat less meat than their immediate forebears.  On the other hand, people who are already animal advocates may be more attentive than others to video depictions of slaughter.

What is seen matters less than how

The paradoxical range of possible effects of witnessing slaughter may be observed in many an Indian marketplace.  Butchers,  traditionally Muslims in India, kill and cut apart animals at curbside in front of their shops,  in plain view of vegetarian Brahmins,  Marwathis,  Buddhists,  and Jains,  and meat-eating Viasya, Sudra,  “scheduled castes,”   “tribals,”  and Christians.  The influence of witnessing slaughter varies according to both acculturation and individual personality. Clearly the same sight does not have the same effect on all passers-by;  and most passers-by are not so moved by the suffering of the doomed animals,  market day after market day,  as to change their food habits. A lesson to be inferred from this is that what a person sees matters less than how the person sees it. The most widely witnessed public slaughter of animals,  and the slaughtering in which the most people participate,  by far,   is the annual massacre that marks the Feast of Atonement,  observed throughout the Islamic world.  Mohammed himself,  though he ate meat,  clearly recognized that slaughter could be performed in an unacceptably cruel manner,  and prescribed hallal slaughtering laws to try to minimize the suffering of animals as they were killed.  Mohammed also instructed against slaughtering more animals than those whose meat would actually be consumed or be distributed usefully to the poor,  for their consumption,  and allowed devotees to make other gifts to charity in lieu of killing animals. Unfortunately,  the amateur slaughter practiced before the Feast of Atonement today frequently falls far short of hallal standards,  often leads to gross waste,  and further impoverishes poor people who believe they must kill animals they can barely afford to buy.  For many participants,  the Feast of Atonement is much less an observation of a requirement to perform charitable works than a demonstration of cultural identity,  undertaken in defiance of the disapproval of people of other cultures,  and growing numbers of people of their own religion and nation.  The killing must come to be perceived by the participants in a different light before it will end.  The killing continues not because it is not seen,  but because it is not recognized for what it is.  For influential people, especially clerics,  to perform other acts of charity at the Feast of Atonement in a visible way,  instead of slaughtering animals,  is likely to accomplish far more to end the killing than any amount of further exposing the mayhem. The largest and most overtly cruel and wasteful public slaughter anywhere is the Gadhimai sacrificial orgy held every five years in honor of a local Hindu goddess at Bariyarpur,  a Nepalese village near the border of Bijar state,  India.  About a quarter of a million animals were killed at Bariyarpur in 2009,  40% of the total killed throughout Saudi Arabia at the Feast of Atonement,  and 12% of the estimated total killed worldwide. “The history of this bloodthirsty event began when Bhagwan Chaudhary,  a feudal landlord,  was imprisoned about 260 years ago,”  wrote Anil Bhanot for The Guardian,  of London.  “He dreamed that all his problems would be solved if he made a blood sacrifice to Gadhimai.”  Bhagwan Chaudhary and a local faith healer conducted the sacrifice upon his release from prison.  It became a tradition,  but appeared to be fading out until the now-deposed Nepalese king Gyanendra and the Maoist-dominated elected government began competing for favor about a dozen years ago by sponsoring it. Purchasing some animals for sacrifice to encourage participation,  the governmental factions reportedly profited by selling to private contractors the remains of animals brought by devotees at their own expense.  Two-thirds to three-quarters of those devotees come from Bijar,  making the Gadhimai massacre in effect a transfer of assets from the poor of India to some of the most affluent people in Nepal. Historically,  some of the meat from Gadhimai sacrifices was distributed among the local dalits,  the poorest of the poor,  but––feeling exploited to justify the unjustifiable––in 2009 the local dalits reportedly refused to accept any of the meat. The Gadhimai bloodbath is next scheduled to occur in fall 2014.  It is far from universally accepted among Nepalese people,  and among Hindus of either Nepal or India.  Pramada Shah,  president of Animal Welfare Network Nepal and ex-wife of Gyanendra’s nephew,  has campaigned globally against the Gadhimai sacrifice. “I stopped animal sacrifice at my parents’ house when I was eight,”  Pramada Shad told the Times of India News Network in 2009. When perception of the Gadhimai killing as a religious and cultural necessity wanes among the rural poor of Bijar and Nepal,  it will end;  but those in Bariyarpur to whom it is an economic boon are likely to defend it at least until it is no longer profitable. Jedidiah Purdy,  who did an undercover slaughterhouse investigation in 1999 for The American Prospect,  in an April 2013 op-ed essay for The New York Times argued––much as Temple Grandin has––that the meat industry itself should “Open the slaughterhouses” by broadcasting what goes on inside them on live action webcams. “At first,  transparency would mainly inform consumer choice.  The pictures might persuade some people to stop eating meat,  or to buy it from a more humane source,”  Purdy suggested.  “People who start out by changing how they eat might end up supporting laws for more humane treatment of farm animals…The images might still appeal to emotion and prompt visceral revulsion…But we are not going to decide how we should treat animals through cold reason alone…Emotional response is part of moral reasoning,”  Purdy reminded,   “and in this case we need more information,  not less.  The images…would motivate us to ask the right questions.”

Cross-cultural considerations

One of those questions,  for animal advocates,  must be whether campaign imagery is appropriate to the audience and purpose.  A memorable campaign against meat consumption in the U.S.,  for instance,  was begun circa 1996 by the late Henry Spira.  Spira asked in newspaper ads showing a cat and a piglet sniffing each other,  “Which do you pet and which do you eat?  Why?”  The Northwest Animal Rights Network redesigned the ads as bus placards and continued the campaign in Seattle for some time after Spira died in 1998.  The Spira and NARN campaigns succeeded in the U.S. by influencing some people who eat pigs to perceive them differently. In the U.S.,  as of 1998,  27% of the human population had lived with pet cats,  according to the American Veterinary Medical Association U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook.  This was significantly fewer than the 36% of the populations of Beijing and Shanghai who had lived with pet cats,  according to surveys done for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in March 1998. As ANIMAL PEOPLE detailed in a March 2000 cover feature entitled “Kindness:  where east meets west,”  more than 90% of the Beijing and Shanghai respondents agreed that animals can feel pain and can feel happy and sad,  and from a third to almost half perceived moral equivalency between eating “companion” species and eating livestock.  This was approximately twice the perception of moral equivalency displayed by Americans in public opinion surveys––and still is. Yet the perception of moral equivalency can be double-edged. In the U.S.,  where eating cats has never been socially acceptable,  the perception of eating pigs as morally equivalent to eating cats makes a persuasive argument to many people against eating either species.  In China,  growing numbers of activists are reviving an ancient vegetarian tradition with foundations in Taoist teachings about harmony with nature,  built upon by the introduction of vegetarian Buddhist teachings between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago,  and eventually reinforced by the ascent of the Buddhist ruler Liang Wu.  Like U.S. counterparts,  Chinese animal advocates sometimes raise the idea of moral equivalency among species as an argument against eating any animals,  but in China this can backfire,  especially in Guangdong,  where Marco Polo observed cat-eating with disgust circa 1350,  and where dogs and wildlife are also commonly eaten.  Defenders of cat,  dog,  and wildlife consumption on the Chinese social network Sina Weibo commonly counter pro-vegetarian arguments with comments to the effect that if there is moral equivalency among species,  then any animal may be eaten. As in the examples of the Feast of Atonement slaughters and the Gadhimai sacrifice,  the challenge confronting animal advocates is not to show what is unseen,  but rather to change how what is already seen is interpreted.

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