How do ‘ag gag’ laws affect farm transparency?

Do you feel that the so-called “ag gag” bills are prohibitive? Will these laws hamper efforts to stop animal cruelty? Does this impede our efforts for transparency in the food systems?

dairy cattle abuse animal cruelty ag gag bills law undercover video mercy for animals
Mercy for Animals is one group frequently collecting, editing, and later releasing footage of animal abuse. Why hold on to the footage? Why not report the abuse immediately?

I will start this off with a disclaimer that I am not very familiar with the legislation being passed. I am not educated in legal issues, nor do I wish do become involved in politics. I could care less about getting tied up in the money and power games. That being said…

There are several critics of bills being passed into law at the state-level across the country. These so-called “ag gag” bills are making headline news for publications like The New York Times. Articles like this Opinion piece, “Open the Slaughterhouses” bring about much support and in return NYT posts Letters to the Editor with the heading “Silencing Witnesses to Animal Abuse“.

What does the threat of undercover video mean to me as a cattle producer or as an employee of a CAFO?

These locations where undercover footage is being obtained are not just “large, corporate factory farms”. These places are potentially the homes and businesses of farming families across the country.

When someone walks into my family’s cattle barn, they are more than welcome. Next to making sure our animals are being taken care of, we are in the business of hosting our customers. If we are not in the middle of feeding, handling, or marketing cattle, we will be glad to entertain questions and even allow reporters and cameras in for a story about what we do. A perfect example of this is last year’s visit from CBS News and numerous visits from local television affiliates.

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Farmers like my father are willing to talk, answer questions, and show you their farms. You just have to ask.

If those folks walked into our barns and saw an act of animal abuse occurring, they should report it immediately. There’s no need to wait, let it stew, and hope for more “proof” to stir up some dust. There’s no need to edit the footage for content or add a narrative. Report it to the supervisors, owners, or call the authorities. Be done with it and let the criminal system do it’s job. There’s no need to hold to footage for prime spotlight opportunity for yourself.

If those folks walked into our barns with an intent to capture footage, piece it together, and narrate it to depict scenes of animal abuse, we would feel violated; as would our neighbors, friends, and other family businesses like ours. This is what has happened and likely led to an apprehension for many farmers to be more open and transparent to those asking questions.

That fear of being the next target is what I felt one morning working in the Texas feedlots. It was Sunday, so I was splitting time, helping the pen riding crew ride through their cattle for the day, when I saw an unfamiliar black car slowly rolling down the drive a few rows over. The car crept along, driving close to the feed bunks with the back window rolled down half-way, then a camera came out the window.

I wasn’t sure what they were doing, but I knew that there wasn’t any particular reason for someone to be taking pictures of the cattle in our hospital pens. Yes, the cattle looked unhealthy. That’s why they were pulled away from the general population to be monitored and allowed to have free access to water and fresh feed as they recuperated from what was often respiratory illnesses or digestive upset. There was nothing wrong with taking pictures of those cattle, but at the same time I wasn’t sure what reason an unfamiliar car would have to drive up and starting taking photos without stopping to introduce themselves first.

Turns out, one of our cowboys had the day off and his in-laws had come to visit. They were out for a Sunday drive and wanted to see where he worked. It just as easily could have been someone with negative intentions like the many other scenes I had witnessed online. We didn’t want to be the next target of inaccurate propaganda.

I cannot speak from personal experience about slaughterhouses, but can tell you there have been several efforts made in recent years to improve transparency and put in place audit systems to ensure proper animal welfare measures are effective.

The issue here for me isn’t trying to cover up animal abuse. It is allowing those who are not familiar with livestock production, who have motivation to do harm, paint the picture first without making sure the statements are accurate. Farmers like my family are more than happy to walk you through our farms, but first let’s introduce ourselves and find out what you want to learn.

Our country doesn’t need another law telling us how to act behind the gates. We need encouragement for better transparency without harassment from others seeking to place blame and slander for personal gain.

Read another viewpoint on the issue from my friend Carrie Mess, a Wisconsin Dairy farmer.

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