I've been following animal rights groups for years. It’s a hobby. Some people like to gawk at highway accidents or train wrecks. Animal rights is my weakness. I am horrified at their actions and find it difficult to look away. Animal rights members are all true believers. They’re like Elwood Blues (Blues Brothers). Those of us who have been around for a few extra decades remember his famous quote, "We're on a mission from God."
Animal rights people are convinced of the divinity of their mission. And of that, there can be no discussion. A very few are willing to use legal methods. Most, however, are more than ready to play in that vast, murky landscape between merely questionable and plainly illegal. For them, the ends justify the means and any means deemed necessary to end animal agriculture is fine by them.
Falsifying credentials to gain access to places' off-limits'? Checl. Encouraging employees to commit illegal acts? Check. Surreptitious videotaping? Check. Editing videoed events that took place at one facility so they look like they took place at another? Check. They condone their actions by thinking the moral failings they have are justified by the worse moral failings of the industry they're attacking.
Animal rights groups have become adept at 'borrowed' causes, too. Grabbing onto the coattails of the 'Me, too' movement, they asked people to extend the 'Me, too' concept to ag animals. Why not include the sexual exploitation of hens and dairy cows," PETA asked. Another group has already tried linking up with COVID-19, proving no crisis will go untainted by their actions.
Unfortunately, there is nothing new in their bag of dirty tricks. The attacks on animal ag and the methods used have never changed. No need. To the anguish and embarrassment of animal agriculture, they still work. For the latest on these organizations, I went to Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of communications for the Animal Agriculture Alliance. She watches AR groups, compiling an extensive list of who they are and what they do. If you want to keep tabs on dozens of them like PETA, Direct Action Everywhere, and Animal Outlook, she's the woman to know.
- Animal rights always seems to rear its peculiar head during uncertain times. Possibly trying to latch onto the "Me, too" movement, PETA issued a press release from its president, Ingrid Newkirk. It said, "From humans to hens, we're all made of flesh and blood, desire freedom, love our families, and value our lives," says PETA President Ingrid Newkirk. "PETA is asking women's organizations to be allies across species by rejecting foods that are the product of female subjugation and abuse." Many animal rights groups seem to think the current COVID-19 outbreak is prime time to push their agendas. You monitor AR actions. What have you seen?
- While most of us are choosing to be thankful right now for a food chain that is rising to the challenge of unanticipated demand, there are a few extreme activist groups out there who want to use this time to continually attempt to disrupt our access to safe and affordable choices. Activists with Direct Action Everywhere (DXE) are planning to trespass onto farms as part of their "Cancel Animal Ag" campaign taking advantage of COVID-19. Based on video footage posted on social media we believe they have already started accessing barns without permission. The activists claim animal agriculture is to blame for the coronavirus pandemic and are asking California Governor Gavin Newsom to "cancel animal ag." The Save Movement is also trying to exploit fears around COVID-19 and saying eating meat increases risks. Karner Blue Capital, an investment firm (where former HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle is now an advisor), is calling attention to what they call "the link between infectious diseases like COVID-19 and the mistreatment of animals to highlight the health and economic consequences of these interactions." And of course, PETA is also getting in on the action, publishing a recent article about the pandemic that claims "for animals, the environment and your own health, going vegan is your safest bet." Animal rights activist campaigns will never miss a chance to attempt to exploit something for their own gain, even a global public health crisis.
Q. USA Today recently published a story about an animal rights activist's attempt to exploit the COVID-19 outbreak. "On March 15, vegan influencer Ed Winters, who often goes by the name 'Earthling Ed' on social media, posted a graphic to his Instagram account stating that 'COVID-19 was caused by eating animals. The new coronavirus pandemic would not have started if we didn't farm and eat animals,' Winters wrote. Is there any scientific validity to his claim?
- I'll defer to Gregg Hanzlicek, director of the production animal field investigations unit in the Kansas State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, quoted right here in Feedstuffs. "I want to make it perfectly clear that our cattle coronavirus has no relationship to the coronavirus that is currently circulating in humans. These coronaviruses are very species-specific. There is absolutely no indication that livestock can be carriers of COVID-19 and be a source of infection to humans, either through carrying it on their skin or their hair or anywhere else. Milk, eggs, beef, pork ... whatever proteins that are produced by livestock are absolutely safe to eat. People do not have to worry about those products carrying COVID-19 to the population."
Q. One of the most infamous animal rights actions last year was a video by the Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) showing mistreatment at Fair Oaks Farms. WattAgNet reported that the Fair Oaks Farm video and Feld Entertainment settlement indicate animal rights group members may lack integrity, stating "new allegations have surfaced that put the video's content in question. Prosecutor Jeff Drinski said one witness to the alleged animal abuse told him the ARM employee who filmed the footage encouraged or pressured workers to mistreat the cattle." The claim was similar to one made against HSUS, which had a lengthy legal battle with Feld Entertainment, parent company of the now-defunct Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. HSUS reached a settlement that alleged HSUS paid a witness, who is a former Feld Entertainment employee, to provide testimony against the circus. First, would you comment on the Fair Oaks Farms controversy?
- The Animal Agriculture Alliance (as well as the rest of the animal agriculture community) does not condone any mistreatment of animals. Fair Oaks Farms' response to the campaign said it well - what's shown in the video was unacceptable, and the farm has taken full responsibility. It's reassuring to know that all but one of the employees shown had been terminated before anyone knew about Animal Recovery Mission's 'investigation' because other employees had already reported their misconduct – this demonstrates that the culture at Fair Oaks Farms includes a commitment to animal care. This situation serves as a reminder to all about the importance of careful hiring and employee management.
Q. And second, do those questionable actions by ARM and HSUS suggest a pattern of playing fast-and-loose by many animal rights organizations?
- Animal rights activist organizations have repeatedly demonstrated that they will not let the truth get in the way of a salacious story. In another recent example, PETA released footage it claimed was from a pig farm in Indiana in November. According to local law enforcement, "The investigation established that some of the clips were staged for the purpose of capturing the video and other video clips may have been filmed at a different facility."
It's important to keep in mind that these organizations are focused on animal rights, not animal welfare. Their goal is to erode public trust in animal agriculture and discourage meat consumption, ultimately ending animal agriculture. Their actions need to be viewed through that lens.
Q. Let's make a list. What are the top 10 most active AR groups that animal agriculture should be watching in 2020?
- The Alliance has group profiles on more than 125 different activist groups who are targeting animal agriculture in one way or another. They are all using different tactics that are concerning for various reasons, but the groups we'd consider to be the most active right now would be: HSUS, ASPCA, The Humane League, PETA, Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing (now Animal Outlook), World Animal Protection, Direct Action Everywhere, The Save Movement, Animal Recovery Mission, and the Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return Initiative. Some of these groups (like HSUS and ASPCA) attempt to appear as moderate and animal welfare focused in order to be taken seriously by key influencers.
Others, such as Direct Action Everywhere, are very upfront about their end game and willing to break the law in the name of "animal liberation." Many of our resources on activism are available only to Alliance members, but we do have some helpful information (including our popular Activist Web showing connections between groups) that is publicly available within the Monitoring Activism section of our website – animalagalliance.org.
Q. Some suggestions, please. What should animal ag be doing to combat anti-animal ag activities?
- The most important thing is to be beyond reproach. These groups have demonstrated that they are willing to misrepresent and even fabricate issues, so we need to make sure we are doing the right thing at all times and not allowing any vulnerabilities that could be exploited. All operations need to take steps to ensure that all employees are committed to providing the level of care to your livestock that you expect. This includes having animal care policy statements that employees must review and sign, ongoing training programs, and ways for employees to report anything they witness that they find concerning.
However, we know that we can be doing everything right and still be targeted, so farms and plants also need to be thinking about security measures. We advise farmers and ranchers to be very vigilant in their hiring processes to ensure that everyone hired is there for the right reason – to provide care to livestock – and does not have any ulterior motives that would distract from that. Always verify the identity of applicants, check references, and keep an eye out for any red flags. Also, consider how you would handle a protest at your facility or a suspicious visitor. Proactive planning can help prevent significant issues down the line. You can contact the Alliance at any time for advice on farm security and hiring.