Farm animal cruelty convictions lead to “ag-gag” laws rather than reform

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  March 2013:

Farm animal cruelty convictions lead to “ag-gag” laws rather than reform

RALEIGH,  N.C.,  BOISE,  Idaho––Former Butterball employees Terry Johnson and Billy McBride were on February 24,   2013 convicted of abusing turkeys at a farm  in Shannon,  North Carolina,  in 2011.

 “Johnson and McBride join Butterball workers Brian Douglas and Ruben Mendoza,  who were convicted in 2012 of criminal cruelty to animals arising out of the same investigation,”  said Mercy for Animals founder Nathan Runkle.  Mercy for Animals conducted the undercover video investigation that led to the charges.

“Douglas’s conviction marked the first-ever felony conviction for cruelty to factory-farmed poultry in U.S. history,”  Runkle added.

“The investigation found workers kicking and stomping turkeys,”  summarized WECT-TV of Raleigh.  “The investigation also found evidence of workers bashing in the heads of live birds with metal bars.”  In addition, the Mercy for Animals investigation led to the conviction of Sarah Mason,  director of animal health for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture,  for improperly sharing information about the investigation with Butterball.  Mason pleased guilty in February 2012.

Mercy for Animals was disappointed,  however,  that Ernie Lee,  chief prosecutor for Onslow,  Duplin, Sampson and Jones counties,  refused to prosecute similar behavior videotaped by an undercover investigator in late 2012.  Released on November 14,  2012,

“The video shows employees kicking turkeys as they herd them and throwing them roughly by their wings,”  reported Kyle Jahner of the Raleigh News & Observer.  “The video does not show the same level of violence and gore as the video shot in Hoke County in December 2011,”  Jahner assessed,  “though it contains similar elements.”

Gary Burkett,  an adjunct assistant professor at the N.C. State College of Veterinary Medicine,  told Jahner that the 2012 video also showed actions that were “cruel,  inhumane,  and injurious to the birds,”  but Lee concluded that “The workers’ contact with the turkeys appeared to be with the intent of moving the turkeys.” Butterball, headquartered in Garner,  North Carolina,  suspended the crews involved in the 2012 incidents,  pending consideration of possible discliplinary measures.

Another Mercy for Animals under-cover video brought the January 16,   2013 criminal conviction in Twin Falls,  Idaho,  of Bettencourt Dairies worker Jesus Garza. Garza,  who pleaded guilty to cruelty,  was reportedly videotaped in the act of beating,  kicking, and jumping on cows at the Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen,  Idaho,  one of the 13 farms belonging to Bettencourt.  Bettencourt manager Jose Acensio and worker Javier Rojas-Loayza were also charged in the case,  but at last report had not yet been apprehended.

“Following the undercover investigation,  conducted in July and August of 2012, Mercy for Animals immediately alerted authorities and presented a detailed legal petition and evidence of violations of Idaho’s anti-cruelty laws to the Idaho Department of Agriculture,”  said Mercy for Animals spokesperson Gary Smith.

Colorado State University livestock handling expert Temple Grandin has long advised agribusiness to prevent the possibility of being embarrassed by undercover videos by installing their own closed-circuit video monitoring systems and making sure for themselves that animals are not being abused or neglected.  Much of the agribusiness sector,  however,  is instead promoting “ag-gag” legislation meant to criminalize undercover investigations.

“Ag-gag” bills were reportedly pending in at least 10 states as the March 2013 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press.  Similar bills were defeated in seven states in 2012,  but were passed in Missouri,  Iowa,  and Utah.

“In all,  six states now have ag-gag laws,”  summarized Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins for AlterNet, “including North Dakota,  Montana and Kansas,  all of which passed the laws in 1990-1991.  Most of the ag-ag laws introduced since 2011 borrow the premise,  if not the exact language,  from model legislation designed by the American Legislative Exchange Council,  a 40-year-old far-right organization with close ties to agribusiness.

“Wyoming HB 126 is the perfect example of a direct link between an undercover investigation of a factory farm and the introduction of an ag-gag law,”  Paul and Cummins continued.  “The bill was introduced mere weeks after nine workers at Wyoming Premium Farms were charged with animal cruelty following an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the U.S.”

The HSUS video,  collected in April 2012,  showed “workers kicking live piglets,  swinging them by their hind legs,  and beating and kicking mother pigs,”   Paul and Cummins summarized.  The video was promptly shared with law enforcement,  but misdemeanor charges were not filed until late December 2012.  Wyoming state representative Sue Wallis and state senator Ogden Driskill introduced HB 126 in January 2013.

“Wallis,”  recalled Paul and Cummins,  “was the subject of a conflict-of-interest complaint filed in 2010 by animal welfare groups.  The groups accused her of improper and fraudulent abuse of her position as a legislator after she introduced a bill allowing the Wyoming Livestock Board to send stray horses to slaughter.  At the time she introduced the bill,  Wallis also was planning to develop a family-owned horse slaughter plant in the state.”

Wyoming HB126 was tabled in the state senate,  HSUS farm animal campaigns manager Paul Shapiro said, after the Casper Star-Tribune editorially called it “an egregious lapse in judgment” by Wallis.

“Ag-gag bills come in two packages,”  observed Farm Sanctuary senior director for strategic initiatives Bruce Friedrich.  “The first version criminalizes making false representations while applying to work at an industrial farm or slaughterhouse.  If you are affiliated with a charity that cares about animals,  the environment,  or workers,  you don’t get the job.  The second version requires that any witnessed illegal activity be reported to authorities and all video documentation turned over immediately.

“It’s certainly possible that animal-friendly legislators are supporting this bill out of concern for animals,” Friedrich continued,  “but undercover investigations,  whether of a drug ring or organized crime syndicate or factory farm,  require that the investigator document the full extent of the illegal activity.  If the FBI or CIA stopped an investigation at the first sign of criminal activity,  wrong-doers would be inadequately punished,  if they were punished at all,  because the full extent of the criminal behavior would not be known.  Similarly,  if an investigator witnesses illegal abuse of animals and immediately turns in the evidence without thorough documentation,  the plant may receive a slap on the wrist,  at best.  The real goal,  and effect,”  of ag-gag legislation,   “is that no investigations happen in the first place.”

Friedrich pointed out that “Time and again during undercover slaughterhouse investigations, plant management has been made aware of abuse,  or actually has participated in it themselves,  and federal inspectors were on site at all times,”  without taking action.  This occurred,  Friedrich recounted,  at the Butterball facility in North Carolina,  the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in California whose abuse of downed cattle was exposed by the Humane Society of the U.S. in 2008,  and at AgriProcessors in Iowa,  exposed by a PETA undercover videographer in 2004.

“If there are no problems on factory farms or slaughter plants, then the proprietors have nothing to worry about,”  said HSUS president Wayne Pacelle.  “I myself walked through the dairy operations at Fair Oak Farms in Indiana,  like tens of thousands of people do every year.  There was no ban on picture taking or videos, because the owner of the place oversees a sound animal-care program and does not tolerate abusive practices.”

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