The Gag Reflex

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The Gag Reflex

[Ed. Note: To find out how important undercover investigations have been in exposing animal abuse, visit our Video Library. Read about just a few of these investigations - Got Milk? How about Mercy for Day-old Calves? MFA Investigation Reveals Barbaric Violence on Texas Dairy Farm, Investigation Exposes Farmed Animal Suffering During Interstate Transport, Minnesota Bill Targets Anyone Who Exposes an “Image or Sound” of Animal Suffering at Factory Farms, Puppy Mills. AND, another undercover investigation released June 30, 2011: Mercy for Animals Undercover Investigation Exposes Shocking Abuse at Pork Factory Farm.]

By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute (ASI)
May 2011

By using its considerable financial and political resources to enact these “ag gag” bills, agribusiness is hoping the whole issue of factory farm cruelty will be nudged away, by adding another layer of legal intimidation toward those who already take great risks for the purpose of bearing witness to violence.

It has the potential to prompt even more undercover activity and to raise awareness among a newly suspicious public. Either way, animals who already suffer in silence must not be forced to suffer in darkness as well.

Those of us who were not raised vegetarian or vegan all have individual stories about how we changed our lives to became so. However, few of the testimonials I’ve heard from others had much to do with simply reading about animal cruelty – the catalyst was often an image, either in person or on film, that made a deep emotional and intellectual impact.

It is that very impact that corporate agricultural interests in Iowa, Minnesota and other states are trying to thwart. Naively hoping that “out of sight” also means “out of mind,” state legislatures are pushing measures that would specifically outlaw filming inside farms where cruel practices are suspected, or distributing such footage. After all, you can’t be on the TV news or the subject of a damning documentary if there's no visual evidence, right?

Exposés about horrific abuse of farmed animals have become more frequent lately. The Conklin Dairy Farms investigation in Ohio, the brutal beatings and hangings of pigs documented in HBO’s “Death on a Factory Farm” and other high-profile cases have proven that abuse is not rare or random; it happens on many farms with sickening regularity. Americans are slooooowly starting to figure out that “standard industry practices,” as they are called by agribusiness don’t mesh with the blithe industry assurances that animals raised and killed for food are well treated. Just the opposite is true, and it’s bad for business.

So because the meat, egg and dairy industries are quickly realizing that they can’t explain away these cases as atypical, they’ve decided that they simply have to find a way to prevent the abuses from being seen so often.

By using its considerable financial and political resources to enact these “ag gag” bills, the industry is hoping the whole issue of factory farm cruelty will be nudged away, by adding another layer of legal intimidation toward those who already take great risks for the purpose of bearing witness to violence. Trespassing is already illegal, but by singling out filming on farms for special punishment, these states are hoping activists will take their cameras elsewhere or simply give up.

I strongly suspect that’s not going to happen.

If anything, these companies are setting themselves up for an even bigger fight on multiple levels. It’s quite logical to ask that if they don’t have something to hide, why are they going to such lengths to keep cameras away and silence whistleblowers? Factory farms and slaughterhouses may not (unfortunately) have glass walls, but a hidden camera is the next best thing for showing consumers exactly where their meat, eggs and milk come from. The pictures don’t lie when the animals die.

This legislation is now setting the stage for debates over free speech and corporate accountability in addition to humane standards. Neither the industry nor the government is doing its job to prevent animal cruelty if these undercover investigations keep unveiling abuse after abuse. The footage is like a horror movie with an endless number of sequels. It’s building closer to a tipping point at which the public, merchants, politicians and the industry itself are going to have to collectively redefine what our society will and will not tolerate. You can’t claim ignorance once you’ve seen the proof.

Progressive legislation in California, Florida and elsewhere that such practices as veal crates, gestation crates and battery cages are being phased out have panicked the industry into realizing that the U.S. status quo is about to change, just as it has in Europe. Even modest reforms targeting the worse abuses are met with a knee-jerk reaction to close ranks and, by all means, close the doors and windows so no one (least of all your paying customers) gets a peek inside.

It’s a different kind of gag reflex, one that will likely backfire. It has the potential to prompt even more undercover activity and to raise awareness among a newly suspicious public. Either way, animals who already suffer in silence must not be forced to suffer in darkness as well.


Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.