Undercover Activist Details Secret Filming of Animal Abuse & Why "Ag-Gag" Laws May Force Him to Stop
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AARON MATÉ: In recent years, activists and investigators have gone undercover to reveal shocking cases of animal cruelty at some of the nation’s largest plants and farms. In many cases, they have made secret videos of the abuses, leading to prosecutions, closures, recalls and vows from the offenders to change their practices. In 2008, this undercover investigation by the Humane Society exposed wrongdoing by a California meat processor. A warning to our viewers, some of the images are very graphic.
HUMANE SOCIETY INVESTIGATION: An investigation by the Humane Society of the United States uncovers abuse of downed dairy cows, cows too sick or too injured to stand, at a California slaughterhouse. What’s more, the meat is being served to children through the National School Lunch Program.
AARON MATÉ: That undercover investigation by the Humane Society resulted in the largest meat recall in U.S. history. In the last two years, activists have also caught on camera employees of a Tyson Foods supplier in Wyoming flinging piglets into the air, workers at Bettencourt Dairies in Idaho shocking cows, and the searing of beaks off of young chicks at Sparboe Farms in Iowa. In the case of Tyson and Bettencourt, the employees were charged with cruelty to animals. In the case of Sparboe Farms, the company lost one of its biggest customers: the fast food giant McDonald’s.
AMY GOODMAN: But the videos have also sparked a reaction in the oppose direction: criminalizing those who blow the whistle. Afront-page article in The New York Times this weekend noted that a dozen or so state legislatures have introduced bills that target people who covertly expose farm animal abuse. These so-called "ag-gag" bills, as they’re known, make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms or apply for a job at one without disclosing affiliations with animal rights groups. They also require activists to hand over undercover videos immediately, preventing them from publicizing findings and sparking public outcry or documenting trends.
Five states already have ag-gag laws in place. North Carolina has just become the latest state to consider such a law, joining a list that includes Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont. Many of these bills have been introduced with the backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a mechanism for corporate lobbyists to help write state laws.
We’re joined by one of the activists whose undercover work has sparked their passage. The activist agreed to join us on the condition he could use a pseudonym and conceal his identity. He asked us to refer to him simply as "Pete." Pete is an undercover animal rights investigator who has secretly captured animal abuse on farms and slaughterhouses for the past 11 years. He has released footage to groups such as Mercy for Animals, helping spark national outcry and charges against the abusers. His investigations have led to at least 15 criminal cases, and his videos have been used in a number of documentaries.
Pete, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what it is that you do?
PETE: Sure. Thank you for having me.
What I do is go undercover to work for an extended period of time, maybe two weeks, maybe longer, maybe six weeks or so, at farms, ranches and slaughterhouses. And the main thing that I do is focus on any and all criminal activity that exists at a facility. So, an undercover investigator’s job is to show everything that occurs, whether it’s legal or illegal. There’s a lot of standard practices that may look cruel, but they’re legal. And that is up to a campaigns department and lobbyists and the public to decide if they want to change that.
For an investigator, the main objective is to document all illegal activity and get that information to the authorities. And every single facility, whether it is a corporate facility or a family farm, whether it has a couple hundred animals or whether it has a million chickens on it, every one that I’ve worked at has been breaking the law. And because we keep finding illegal activity, and because we’re getting more cooperation from law enforcement now, I believe that has fueled some of these ag-gag laws in an attempt to try to stop us.
AARON MATÉ: And Pete, how do you go about doing it? Obviously, here we’re calling you Pete, not your real name. Do you give your real name when you’re applying for these jobs?
PETE: Yes, I do. I give—you know, because I have to fill out a W-2, and so I’m obligated to put my real name. You know, these investigations are done legally, so we don’t use fake IDs. You know, we don’t use fake names. And the most critical point is that when we’re hired, we do everything how they tell us to do it, so, you know, we try to fit in. We generally—you know, an investigator’s—part of the job is to always make sure that if you’re doing a good job, you get them to note that and let you know you are in fact doing your job: They can’t blame any problems on you.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about your time working at the Ohio hog farm in 2006. You captured this footage showing hundreds of impregnated pigs crammed into gestation crates that restrict their movement. They’re held in these crates, standing up or collapsed on the floor, for up to 116 days. The investigation was featured in the HBO documentary Death on a Factory Farm. Let’s go to a clip.
PETE: It’s a large farm. Basically, their operation is to birth and raise the pigs, then send them off to become hogs ready for slaughter. They use gestation crates and farrowing crates, just like most other hog farms in America. Gestation crates are where sows are impregnated in those crates, and they’re waiting while they’re pregnant.
How do they know which ones are pregnant? How do you know on a pig?
HOG FARMER: Huh?
PETE: You just see on the belly?
HOG FARMER: All these are pregnant.
PETE: You can just tell on the belly?
HOG FARMER: Yeah.
PETE: They are totally confined, shoulder to shoulder so they can’t move, for about 113 to 116 days. If they lie down, they have to plop straight down.
AMY GOODMAN: That is an excerpt of the HBO documentary. Pete, what happened here? How did you document it? And what resulted from your findings?
PETE: So, in that investigation, that was a little bit different. And in that, we actually had a whistleblower complaint that they were hanging crippled sows to death. They would—they would wait until they had too many sows, the female hogs, that were downed, and they started to become a nuisance. And so then they would be dragged out. They’d put a chain around their necks, then hang them from a front loader. And it would take about four to five minutes for them to be hanged to death.
Normally in an investigation, the targets are actually chosen randomly, and we consistently find violations of the law, regardless. But in this case, I went in because there was a whistleblower who complained about that specific act. However, a judge determined that hanging hogs to death was a legal means of euthanasia, and so they were not prosecuted for that act.
AARON MATÉ: Pete, I just want to clarify, you said earlier that you find cruelty 100 percent of the time?
PETE: One hundred percent of the time. You know, I mean, it would stand to reason that there has to be a farm out there, at least one, that’s not breaking the law. That would stand to reason. The only thing I can tell you is that I have not found it yet.
So, I have worked at a—for example, just with the dairies alone, I’ve worked at Bettencourt Dairy in Idaho, which at the one site that I was at, one of their numerous sites, there were about 6,000 cows, and, you know, people were breaking the law every day there. I’ve worked at the Conklin Dairy Farm in Ohio. It was a family-owned farm, had about 200 cows, the most sadistic animal abuse that I’ve ever seen. And I’ve worked at the E6 Cattle Ranch in Texas, also family-owned, and the owner was convicted for cruelty to animals. Another MFA investigator worked at a large dairy in New York, and he worked alongside a mechanic. And it just so happened that the one worker that he was working alongside was also convicted for breaking the law for cruelty to animals.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about one of the dairies, Pete. You recently infiltrated Bettencourt Dairies in Idaho and released some shocking footage. The video shows a cow being dragged on the floor by a chain attached from her neck to a moving tractor. It also shows dairy workers viciously beating and shocking cows and violently twisting their tails. Additionally, your hidden camera captured unsafe and unsanitary conditions, including feces-covered floors that cause cows to regularly slip, fall and injure themselves. There were also sick and injured cows suffering from open wounds, broken bones and infected udders left to suffer without veterinary care. Now, Bettencourt Dairies is Idaho’s largest dairy operation and cheese supplier for Kraft and Burger King. Three of the dairy workers were charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty due to your investigation. Tell us exactly what happened, how you got the video out, how you made it public, and who these people were who were convicted.
PETE: Absolutely. So, the entire purpose behind the Bettencourt investigation was that—I guess I should start by saying that my identity has been made public by the Animal Agriculture Alliance, and they’ve been trying to prevent me from getting undercover at farms and slaughterhouses. So the whole reason that I went to Idaho is specifically because Mercy for Animals hired me to just work at any facility that I could. And so I went to Idaho because I’ve never been there, and I chose the dairy industry because I hadn’t worked at a dairy in over two years. On that alone, I decided to go apply at Bettencourt. They were the first place to hire me.
And within 45 minutes of arriving on my first day, there was the—I filmed the incident that you discussed of someone putting a chain around a downed cow’s neck and dragging her out of a stall. The manager, Felipe, of that site, the Dry Creek Dairy site, he shocked the downed cow about 50 times with a hand-held device. He was the one who put the chain around her neck. I still don’t understand why he was not charged for that crime. But there it was, on my first day, that management was involved in the most hideous act of abuse that I saw while I was there.
The investigation lasted three weeks, and there were acts of unnecessary cruelty, of people beating and punching cows in the face and punching them in the eyes, and so forth, throughout that time. Once we felt that we had established a pattern of abuse and showed everyone who was involved in it, though no cow during that time had an imminent threat to their so that we felt we needed to cut the case immediately, we then went to law enforcement.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to these people? Are they still working in the plant, though they were charged with misdemeanor? And the companies that use Bettencourt, the largest plant in the state?
PETE: Right. So, I guess first I should say Felipe, to my knowledge, is still running that site. He was not charged. There were three workers that were charged. Two fled. One was convicted. And the company itself was not charged.
So, the Bettencourts said that, you know, they’re going to put up cameras and that they’re going to have people sign a policy saying, "Don’t abuse animals." I want to make this very clear: Most facilities that I’ve worked at, you have to sign a form that says you will not abuse animals. I have worked at more than one facility that has cameras that are operating there. I don’t know who’s behind the camera, but certainly they’ve never uncovered anything that I’ve been able to find with my hidden cameras. So I don’t believe that that’s going to actually do anything to minimize the amount of illegal cruelty at Bettencourt.
AARON MATÉ: Pete, I also want to ask you about what you uncovered at the Martin Creek Kennel in Arkansas. Your investigation was featured in the 2006 HBO documentary called Dealing Dogs. Let’s go to a clip. And again, a warning to our viewers: These images are very graphic.
PETE: Up at the trench, there’s a table sitting right next to the trench with a bloody knife on top. And the whole table is just covered in dried blood. The area around the table is just littered with dog organs.
These are lines of trenches. Started out here, and he keeps digging new trenches as he fills them up. More dogs, whole dogs. OK, this dog here had been cut open.
AARON MATÉ: That’s a clip from the 2006 HBO documentary Dealing Dogs. Pete, talk about what you found there.
PETE: Sure. So, that facility, they had been suspected for a long time of abusing animals. And it was a place that was licensed by the USDA to sell random-source dogs and cats to research labs. That’s called a Class B license. A few of those still exist, and most of them now buy their dogs and cats from pounds. So they go to the local shelter and then—or animal control facility, and then they’ll resell them to research. That facility was the largest in operation, having over 600 dogs at a time, over 100 cats at a time. And they would sell to universities for research all over the country. Not only were they abusing the dogs on a daily basis, but they were also getting a lot of stolen pets.
That facility was eventually shut down. The U.S. attorney’s office got involved, because they were also involved in a felony fraud. They had a veterinarian pre-signing their interstate health certificates without checking the dogs. And so, for every one of those that crossed state lines, it was a felony. It’s kind of like hitting Al Capone for tax evasion. But anyway, all of the animals were rescued once the U.S. attorney’s office raided the facility, and they were permanently shut down.
That said, there’s an interesting point about that case, which is that, you know, you look at—you look at a facility like that, it’s licensed by the government, and you wonder how can they be doing these things. Like, how can all of these farms and slaughterhouses be breaking the law, and no one but undercover activists finds out about it? Well, at Martin Creek Kennel, I watched a USDA inspection. I watched two federal inspectors walk through the facility, and they did not find a single dog that was dying of open wounds that I was able to document that day at that facility. I’ve seen federal inspections at several facilities that I’ve worked at, and they don’t find any of the crimes that I’ve uncovered while I’m there. So, I applaud the USDA for all of the action that they take, and I’m not trying to—I’m not trying to come down on them. But what I’m trying to say is that an inspection alone or third-party verification does not find the kind of criminal activity that an undercover investigation will find. And there is no law enforcement agency that exists in this country to do undercover work of puppy mills, factory farms and slaughterhouses.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete—
PETE: It’s up to nonprofit groups.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the so-called ag-gag bills that would criminalize the undercover work you do? Republican State Senator David Hinkins of Utah told his local station, KSL-TV, he doesn’t understand opposition to the so-called ag-gag bills. Hinkins said, quote, "If a wife were abusing her husband, we wouldn’t sneak into their living room and set up a hidden camera. We don’t want people mistreating animals. ... There are authorities they can contact. They don’t need to be detectives or the Pink Panther sneaking around." Your response?
PETE: Two things. Number one, animals cannot speak for themselves. So, of course, domestic violence is a complicated issue, but ultimately, you can question a battered spouse and try to get the truth from them. You cannot ask an animal, "Who kicked you?" or "Who’s neglecting you?"
The second thing—and I hesitate to say this because I have so much respect for law enforcement, and we’ve seen so much cooperation from law enforcement especially in the last few years, but corruption and apathy from law enforcement still is a big problem that we find when we’re dealing with animal cases. And if you’re a cop, and if you hear that, and that shocks you, it’s because you’re a good cop. But I can’t tell you how many times it is that we find clear violations of the law, and the local authorities won’t do anything. And it’s tough. You know, it’s very hard, if you’re a police officer in a rural county, you go to church with, and you live alongside, or you’re involved in the same business as the people who some activist comes in and starts showing conditions that, you know, they point out are illegal, but that you may—you may do yourself, or your friends may do themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete, how would the ag-gag bills—
PETE: So that makes it a very complicated issue.
AMY GOODMAN: —affect you and your work?
PETE: They would make it illegal for me to do my job.
AMY GOODMAN: How?
PETE: It’s pure and simple. Well, so, the ag-gag laws generally say that if you document conditions at a facility, if you take a photograph or video of an animal agriculture facility, you’re breaking the law.
What they’ll also say—and this is the most clever—is they’ll say that if you see an act of illegal abuse, you have to report it within 24 hours. That’s misleading. It’s misleading because if you just show illegal activity from one individual, you can’t then show who else is involved in that illegal activity. And when one person is busted—and I absolutely swear to this—they’re not going to—it’s not going to stop other people from breaking the law. It’s going to let everyone else know they need to be more careful about how they do it, or they just need to make sure that they’re more careful about who they hire.
The second thing is that it’s not always clear what is illegal. The first dairy that I worked at, I saw someone kick a cow right in the side of her head to try and get her to stand. I documented it, thought it was illegal. Turns out, it’s perfectly normal to try to do to a cow to make her stand, that the first thing you should do is kick her right in the side of the head or the neck. When I saw people hanging crippled sows to death in Ohio, I assumed that surely that’s illegal. In fact, it looked sadistic. Turns out that’s perfectly legal. So you don’t always know.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happens when you get to continue to record? What is your point that when you turn it in after 24 hours, it hurts what you do?
PETE: Well, so let’s say that you go to a facility, and you believe that someone has—in fact, let’s set it up as best we can. Let’s say you see an act that you believe is illegal, someone admits that it’s illegal, and you have an attorney standing by within 24 hours to tell you it’s illegal. You’re very unlikely to meet all three of those conditions. You are then missing out on any pattern of abuse to determine if this is a one-off incident. You’re then missing out on an opportunity to determine if anyone else is involved in breaking the law. And you’re missing out on an opportunity to find out if management at that facility is aware of this, to see if it’s more of a systemic problem, like we found at Bettencourt and like we found at multiple facilities when we do these investigations. So it really hinders—it prevents you from working a criminal case.
AMY GOODMAN: Pete, you wanted to be a police officer when you were young?
PETE: Yes, absolutely. That’s the reason that I started doing this. I wanted to go into law enforcement, but, you know, I realized there’s a lot of people that are going into law enforcement, and there’s very few people doing this. And there is just no such thing as a cop whose sole job is to go undercover to look out for farmed animals or for dogs in puppy mills. So I decided to combine my two passions, since I was an animal rights activist and I wanted to be a cop, and try and do this job.
AARON MATÉ: And, Pete, since these ag-gag laws have been passed, have you stopped your work in any of the states where they have gone into effect?
PETE: Yes, I have. The main group that I work for is Mercy for Animals. They are an extremely gutsy group. They are extremely professional. And they are very, very focused on not only campaigning for animal welfare, but for finding illegal activity on farms and slaughterhouses. It’s why I love working for them. And they do everything completely legally. So, any states where the ag-gag laws have passed, it’s a no-go to work there.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you for being with us. Pete is the name he asked us to use; it’s not his real name, though he does use his real name when he goes undercover; is an undercover animal rights investigator who has secretly captured animal abuse on farms and slaughterhouses. He has released the footage to groups such as Mercy for Animals, helping spark national outcry and charges against abusers. He’s using the pseudonym to conceal his identity, not disclosing his whereabouts, so he can continue to get hired by unknowing slaughterhouses, farms and other facilities suspected of animal abuse. HBO and others have used his video in their documentaries.