The Ag-Gag War: How undercover animal-rights activists are winning it

The Ag-Gag War: How undercover animal-rights activists are winning it
Brian Stauffer

Cody Carlson had no way of preparing for this moment. He was a Manhattan kid, days removed from working as an analyst for a business-intelligence firm, where he scrutinized corporations and their executives.

Now he was standing in a bleak barn at New York's largest dairy farm.

There was a medieval feel to the place. Cows were wedged head-to-tail in pens carpeted with their own waste. The air was an acrid blend of urine, manure and chemicals. Some animals were left unattended with open sores that leaked pus. Others lay dying in pens, too sick or weak to stand.

Scene from Country View Family Farms
Mercy For Animals
Scene from Country View Family Farms
“One of my colleagues called it ‘pulling carpets,’ because they stuck to the bottom of the cage,” says Cody Carlson of how chickens were kept at Rose Acre Farms.
Samuel Zide
“One of my colleagues called it ‘pulling carpets,’ because they stuck to the bottom of the cage,” says Cody Carlson of how chickens were kept at Rose Acre Farms.

"It's incredibly overwhelming," Carlson says. "Your brain can't process seeing this many animals crammed together in one place."

His first job, technically speaking, was to repair the mechanism that pulled manure from the barn.

His real job: covertly filming it all for Mercy for Animals.

Experience told the Los Angeles animal-rights group that it could send an undercover operative to a factory-style farm anywhere and it was certain to find abuse.

Carlson had simply been told to find a job in upstate New York. While the work requires punishing labor while surrounded by stench — all for the princely sum of $8 an hour it isn't like spying on North Korea. Two days later, he was hired by Willet Dairy.

His hidden camera caught employees kicking and shocking animals that wouldn't bend to their will. Supervisor Phil Niles is heard recounting an abuser's greatest hits: how he beat cows with wrenches, smashed their heads with two-by-fours, kicked them when they were too feeble to rise.

"Fucking kicking her, hitting her," he chortles while recalling one incident. "Fucking jumping off the top of the goddamned gate and stomping on her head and shit."

After five weeks of filming, Mercy for Animals took the footage to ABC's World News With Diane Sawyer. Niles was subsequently charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. His penalty for nineteen years of beating cows in every way imaginable: a $555 fine.

Prosecutors cleared Willet Dairy of any wrongdoing. But the company did take an uppercut to the wallet. After the video went national, Willet was dumped by one of its major buyers, Leprino Foods, the world's largest mozzarella producer.

Carlson didn't wait around for the fallout. He soon re-emerged at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania, where nearly 3,000 pigs live as pork-products-in-waiting for Hatfield Quality Meats. Once again, his camera caught the gruesomeness of the factory food chain.

Workers threw piglets by their ears, ripped out their testicles with bare hands sans anesthesia. Constantly impregnated sows were kept in cages just two feet wide, unable to turn around and allowed to walk just four days a year.

"It's about the most sensory-deprived life you can possibly imagine," says Carlson. "Pigs are incredibly smart animals. They're said to be smarter than dogs. Pigs go so insane from these conditions that they bang their heads back and forth against the cage. It looks like a scene from The Matrix."

But like most states, Pennsylvania provides farmers with sweeping exemptions from cruelty statutes. These laws are simple: If it's commonly practiced in agriculture, it can't be construed as abuse.

Country View veterinarian Jessica Clark admits that the video showed violations of the farm's own standards, but she says those issues were corrected before Mercy posted the film to the Internet. Because Pennsylvania grants farmers a wide berth in dealing with livestock, no charges were filed.

Carlson soon took a new job working undercover for the Humane Society of the United States. This time he resurfaced in Iowa at Rose Acre Farms, the nation's second-largest egg producer, with nearly 5 million chickens.

His video showed hens packed into cages the size of a filing drawer, where each creature spent life in a space whose floor had the dimensions of a single sheet of paper.

Carlson's job was to cull the dead, the 100 or so hens whose wings and feet became caught in the caging, leaving them to die of thirst or be trampled to death by their cellmates each day.

"One of my colleagues called it 'pulling carpets,' because they stuck to the bottom of the cage," he says. "I actually had a worker tell me he had nightmares from tearing mummified birds off the cage."

Rose Acre was doing nothing illegal. But to the Humane Society, that was the point. The video depicted something akin to an aviary concentration camp. And not a single government agency showed the slightest concern.

Since the Internet first granted activists a direct pipeline to the public, groups like the Humane Society, Mercy and PETA have waged guerrilla war via undercover video. Each time they've uploaded footage, Big Ag has struggled to explain away what Americans could see with their own eyes.

Today, the guerrillas are winning.

It doesn't seem to matter where the operatives have landed. Be it a slaughterhouse in Vermont or a pig farm in Wyoming, the videos portray factory farms to be "like something from Dante," Carlson says. According to one Kansas State University study, media attention to the welfare of livestock has reduced demand for poultry and pork.

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11 comments
smeagol_jr
smeagol_jr

I was raised on a farm and the culture of cruelty is not a thing I find surprising, howver, it is incomprehensible to me that rural men cosnider cruelty, ignorance and insensitivity to be necessary masculine virtues.  Yes, it costs MONEY, and often a great deal of it, to provide "comfort" to livestock, but abject cruelty is definitely unnecessary in the rearing of livestock.  And people actually DEFEND these cruel practices.  I'm no "bleeding heart", but intentional ignorance and crueltyfor the sake of profit are simply evil and inhuman.  I can't understand, either why any legislature would encourage the incarceration of anyone trying to expose and stop these cruelties, (unless, of course, they've been bribed by lobbyists in favor of industry...  But that never happens, does it?) 

jlserkes
jlserkes

barbaric and has to stop. these are living breathing mammals. I am so disgusted. Keep the info in front of the public and change will happen. Photos and videos.

Susanne Coyle
Susanne Coyle

Thank you for your article, I was ecstatic to hear my sister say she is not buying factory farm meat after reading the article! The connection between these factories; the crap they expect us to shove in our mouths, and the norm is animal cruelty clicked-really pissed her off. Said meat is now a luxury but worth paying more for a Certified Humane product. So proud of her & one of the best days of my life :).

pclaytene4vip
pclaytene4vip

Even though some activists encourage vegetarian and vegan diets, if farm animals were allowed to live comfortable, natural lives, instead of being subjected to the many forms of sadistic abuse and violence, as well as being shot full of antibiotics, etc., that is commonplace in the agricultural industry, (big Ag and farms alike), there would be no reason for the public to be outraged, would there? Then, after a happy life, if need be, a humane death. Let the sadists get their kicks out on each other and leave the defenseless animals out of it! Thank you for continuing to expose these creeps for what they are!

thavylor
thavylor

Love all the stories!! Thank you brave activists for exposing the truth!! <3

shabawasing
shabawasing

"...the average cow will lay down eight-plus hours a day..."  What a crock!!  That is absolutely untrue!!  Sure they will if they are caged up...but not if they have room to roam and graze.  This veterinarian is a liar.

harrowmichelle
harrowmichelle

Great article!  Thank you for bringing attention to these ridiculous bills/laws!  I think as more of the public finds out about this there will be mass outrage.

karkos
karkos

Glad these young people are doing something good for society.

Lindsay Duggan
Lindsay Duggan

Really horrifying. This abuse should not be allowed to go on. People just want to turn their heads and not think about where their meat is coming from.

Jeff Furlow
Jeff Furlow

If they don't have anything to hide then they shouldn't care.

 
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