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Two new studies examine the impact of shocking photos and video on outreach efforts.
A decade later, the photograph still haunts me. I had recently gone vegan and was looking for ways to turn my newfound passion into action when I received an email from Humane Society International about the annual slaughter of seals in Canada. Accompanying the message was a particularly gruesome image that showed the bloody bodies of dozens of freshly skinned seals scattered across the frozen landscape. Near the bottom of the photo, pondering this horrible scene, was a lone seal who had managed to escape the carnage. What must she be thinking? I wondered. Was she looking for her mother? A friend? Some answer to what had happened—and why? A few years later when I addressed in my book and in talks the role upsetting images can play in activist burnout, this was the photo that occupied my consciousness and kept me awake at night.
Not that such images don’t have a place in animal activism; they certainly do. Vivid pictures from factory farms, slaughterhouses, canned hunts, research labs, fur farms, and the like reflect society’s mistreatment of animals. They are important markers in our ignoble history. But as the animal rights movement matures—along with technology and social media—and discusses how best to frame its message to the public, the use of potentially off-putting images has become a hot topic. How and when should we use photos and videos with graphic detail in our quest to change consumer behavior? Evidence shows the repulsive approach is working in the anti-tobacco campaign, for instance, where cigarette cartons carrying images of diseased lungs are more effective at delivering the anti-smoking message than any blithe warning from the Surgeon General ever could.
Photos vs. Video
Last month, the results of two studies on the use of images in vegan outreach—each with apparently conflicting conclusions—were released. One study, conducted with funding assistance from the nonprofit FARM, showed three different photos to survey participants: one with a low level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a muddy slaughterhouse floor), one with a medium level of graphic detail (a dead pig on a bloody slaughterhouse floor), and one with a high degree of graphic detail (a dead pig with his throat slit on a bloody slaughterhouse floor). Each image’s effect on attitudes toward animal rights was measured using the Wuensch animal rights scale: a high score indicates positive attitudes toward animal rights, and a low score indicates negative attitudes toward animal rights. As explained in this FARM blog, “the low graphic detail image was the most effective, the moderate graphic detail image was less effective, and the high graphic detail image was the least effective, although this effect was not statistically significant. What this means is that, though the images affected attitudes towards animal rights to different degrees, there’s about a 15% chance we could have gotten this result even if the images had no effect.”
The second study, conducted by the Humane Research Council (HRC) on behalf of VegFund, asked people between the ages of 15 and 23 to watch vegetarian/vegan outreach videos and then complete a survey. Following the popular pay-per-view outreach model, each participant received $1.00 to watch one of four short videos. The videos were:
- Farm to Fridge (Mercy For Animals): An intensely graphic appeal to ethics/compassion using footage of farmed-animal abuse sourced mostly from undercover investigations.
- Maxine’s Dash for Freedom (Farm Sanctuary): An appeal to ethics/compassion by telling the story of a cow who escaped slaughter and was rescued.
- A Life Connected (Nonviolence United): An appeal for consumers to connect with concerns about the impact of factory farming on animals, the environment, and/or human health.
- Geico Couple (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine): An appeal to health concerns by telling the story of a couple who adopted a vegan diet and successfully lost weight.
After watching the video, participants were asked questions about what they learned; if they wanted more information about eating vegetarian or vegan; about their current levels of meat, dairy, and egg consumption; and whether they intended to reduce consumption of any animal products. In contrast to the study carried out with partial funding from FARM, the HRC survey found that graphic images had the biggest impact, with the grisly candor of Farm to Fridge resulting in 36 percent of participants saying they were considering a reduction of the animal products they consume—that is an average of 7 percent better than the other, much less graphic, videos, even though viewers on average were only able to endure 78 percent of Mercy For Animals’ video.
There Will Be Blood
Based on these results, it’s tempting to conclude that when it comes to photographs, milder images rule, while shocking depictions of animal abuse are more effective in videos. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
“I think the FARM study is a bit flawed in how it was created, the questions asked, and the images selected,” says Mercy For Animals founder Nathan Runkle. The study measured attitudes about animal rights, for example, and didn’t ask if the image changed their perception of animal agriculture or prompted a behavioral change—such as going vegan. “The HRC study did that,” says Nathan. “It looked at behavioral change, which is really what is most important to animal advocates. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who says they want to see graphic images, but those who do see them often show more behavioral change.” Nathan says the controversial use of violent images reminds him of this—and every—presidential election. “Voters claim to be tired of and turned off by negative ads. But politicians continue to use them year after year, because they work.”
While Nathan concedes the images used in the first study are upsetting, he doesn’t believe they necessarily depict cruelty. “All three images showed an animal who was already dead,” he says. “In my opinion, that doesn’t show cruelty in a graphic light, since the animals are already dead and unable to be experiencing pain. So, you can see how in this study what is considered ‘graphic’ is already open to debate.”
Studies aside, animal advocates agree graphic images work. “Doing outreach in person, I like graphic movies in a pay-per-view or classroom setting, if you can get a teacher to show Farm to Fridge,” says Chris Van Breen, who gauges the impact in part by the comments he receives. “I have had complaints such as, ‘You should have warned me. Now I can never eat meat again. If I knew that’s what that video was, I would not have watched it.’” He’s gotten similar responses while distributing graphic leaflets. One recipient told him, “You should not be handing these out. I got that leaflet last week and have not eaten meat since then. It made me sick.” Hmm. Sounds like a winning strategy to me.
“After being a long-time vegetarian, it was ultimately seeing footage of factory farming that made me go vegan,” says Jasmin Singer, co-founder (with Mariann Sullivan) of Our Hen House. “So, yes, I think the graphic imagery works in a lot of cases. I just don’t think it necessarily will always draw people in, which is the catch-22.”
The Middle Way
“I tend to take a middle ground,” writes Doris Lin on her About.com guide on animal rights. “Probably the most graphic image I’ve published is this one of a whale being butchered in Japan. I believe that graphic images can convey a message that no words can, but I am cautious about their use. The whale is dimly lit, and the photo is from a distance, which lessens some of the horror of the scene.” A survey of readers on her page suggests that most people agree graphic imagery—provided it’s used thoughtfully—has its place in the movement.
“I think they both work,” says Jo-Anne McArthur, whose photographs of oppressed and rescued animals can be both haunting and beautiful. “It depends on the viewer. Just as one person will see a graphic image and make a positive change based on the experience of seeing it, another person will turn their eyes from it. We are all affected by different images and therefore different tactics, which is why a variety of tactics is crucial to creating change, as history has shown in all movements.” Graphic images move some people and not others, Jo-Anne observes, but they must be part of the movement, along with softer images and softer messages, academia, sanctuaries, letter writing, public demos, leafleting—all of it. She offers an example: “When I went veg, difficult and graphic images helped me to do so. Tim Pachirat, author of Every Twelve Seconds, was undercover at a slaughterhouse for six months and still didn’t go veg! But when he did, it was after he met a rescued cow at Woodstock sanctuary.”
Jasmin sees the logic in this. “I personally have a difficult time believing that your average meat-eating Joe would click on a graphic image to look for more—but, according to these studies, I am wrong. The thing is, I am actually not wrong—but neither are they. Because posting ‘cute, fuzzy kitten’ photos—or their farmed animal equivalent—also works, right? I think in that instance, the important part would be the messaging, which would obviously need to be incredibly compelling and strategic.” That’s a point Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, also stresses. “Right now, there are many images of human-caused animal suffering on the Internet,” she says, “but if they are not matched by a passionate verbal message—not necessarily or always exactly where the images are being shown, but as the overall ethical language and context—it seems likely that most people seeing them will say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible,’ but will not connect what they are looking at with personal responsibility or action. I also think that images of animals suffering and abject need to be in contrast to images of these same animals living in happiness—images that are not just ‘postcard’ pretty, but expressive, evocative, and moving.”
Again, Karen and Jasmin are in agreement here. “Sometimes,” says Jasmin, “it’s the happy stuff that packs more of a punch, because—as in my case—the viewer says, ‘LOOK WHAT WE ARE TAKING AWAY FROM THEM!’ The most heartbreaking thing for me about VINE Sanctuary in Vermont, for example, is that many of the chickens choose to sleep in the trees, even in the winter, even though it’s so hideously cold there.” (This natural environment is in stark contrast to the filthy, industrial conditions billions of chickens are raised and confined in every year for their flesh and eggs.)
Indeed, in addition to showing animals suffering, it’s essential they are portrayed as individuals so we don’t promote the concept of them as commodities, says lauren Ornelas, founder of Food Empowerment Project. “If we only show them suffering, we’re not showing them enjoying some semblance of a normal life,” she says. “Take ivory, for example. If you only show images of dead elephants with their tusks cut off, it affects people because we’ve all seen images of these animals walking on the savanna. Most people have a better understanding of them in a more normal situation than, say, most people do of animals like chickens.” lauren, who has taken more than her share of upsetting undercover video, believes explicit images play a crucial role in showing people how animals raised for food are treated. “Though I do tend to worry that focusing on what some might view as extreme scenes of abuse—which we know are possibly routine—might detract more than help.” A better approach, she says, are depictions of abuse that cannot be disputed, such as animals in confinement and even the mutilations inflicted on them (beak searing, tail docking, de-horning, etc.).
The last word on images has yet to be uttered—and likely never will. We can count on further discussion and more studies as the movement hones its methods and message. But for the moment, grim depictions, particularly scenes from undercover videos, seem to hold sway. Adds Nathan: “As I said before, no consumer will tell you they want to see graphic images, but the fact remains that they are undoubtedly effective in changing attitudes and behaviors. Graphic images, which are hard to ignore and impossible to forget, create an emotional connection to the issue and raise ethical discussions, and these things impact consumer behavior.”
Like the egg industry, the dairy industry is often overlooked by otherwise compassionate diners as innocuous. Some vegetarians even believe that hens and cows live pretty decent lives. But as most vegans will tell you, the horrors that take place inside battery-egg sheds and dairy farms are as egregious as anything that happens in other factory farms ― maybe even more so. Which is why the latest investigation by Mercy For Animals (MFA) is so important. For two months early last year, an MFA investigator worked inside the Willet Dairy in Locke, New York, recording the callous treatment of cows. The largest mega-dairy in New York State, Willet confines 7,500 cows and ships 40,000 gallons of milk a day, mostly to New York City.
Armed with a hidden camera and keeping a detailed written account, the Mercy For Animals investigator witnessed workers cutting off cows’ tails (tail docking) and burning off their horns (a procedure known as disbudding). The investigator’s notes explain what he observed: “A worker restrains the calves and ties their mouths shut with rope, then burns off the newly budding horns with a hot iron. The calves struggle but, bound and gagged, there is not much that they can do. The worker sticks his fingers in their eyes as he restrains them. They make gurgling noises, kick, and several fall over. Some calves choke up what appeared to be vomit from the pain.
“The worker then docks the tails using a tool that is mainly used to castrate bulls. He attaches it to the calves’ tails and turns it until the ends of the tails tear off, after which he cauterizes the exposed vertebrae. The animals receive no anesthesia, and are clearly in extreme pain.”
The investigator says he saw dozens of calves with fresh, bloody wounds where their horns had been burned off. “My supervisor told me that this was his favorite job. ‘(We) burn ’em… It’s this little iron… and you put it on the little nubs on their head and it kills it off. It’s like, ‘sssssss.’ I used to love doing that.’
“’The cows don’t like it?’ I asked.
“‘Would you?’ he replied. ‘Oh fuck, it’s gotta be fucking very painful…. Oh yeah, I used to love that shit… blood and smoke all over the place. YEAH! Hamburger.’”
“During one particularly slow day,” writes the investigator, “my supervisor entertained himself by punching cows in the head. Additionally, he told me stories about prior instances in which he had battered the animals. Last year, he broke his hand by punching a cow in the eye. Another time, he ripped his hand open when he punched a cow in the nose and caught her tooth. He claims that he once clubbed a bull with a 2×4 ‘like Babe Ruth,’ and then repeatedly kicked him in the testicles while he was down. He also said that he locked a cow’s head in a gate and cracked her over the head with a wrench, dropping her to the floor. He thinks he got arthritis from punching cows.”
Not surprisingly, Lyndon Odell, Willet’s CEO, defends his mega-farm’s practices. After viewing the video, he said, “They picked out a few isolated incidents and they’re trying to portray them as something that is malicious on our part, that we don’t do a good job with our animals.” He added that he would fire any employee who abused one of the farm’s cows. “We have a history of firing people who have mistreated animals because that is not where we belong.”
As a result of their investigation, MFA will be announcing that a new bill has been introduced in New York to ban the practice of tail docking cattle. Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal has submitted the language for this bill, and MFA will be holding a news conference tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. at the Midtown Executive Club in New York City to release the investigation details and to announce the tail-docking ban bill.
Despite overwhelming evidence of animal cruelty at the Willet factory, authorities refused to pursue criminal charges. “We put together a 40-page legal complaint that we submitted to the DA’s office, as well as to the ASPCA and the local SPCA, all of which have some sort of law-enforcement power,” says MFA’s executive director, Nathan Runkle. “Essentially, we came to a dead end. They just don’t want to take on Big Ag and ag communities.” In December, Nathan says, MFA learned that the DA’s office had no intention of enforcing the law. “We felt there were clear violations of New York animal cruelty laws, because New York is one of the states that does not have common farming exemptions. So we moved forward with working with Assemblymember Rosenthal to introduce a tail-docking bill in New York State. We feel that if they’re not going to uphold the law, then the law needs to be more specific and outlaw tail docking. There’s a good precedent for it since it’s been outlawed in California, and many of the dairy industry’s own publications discourage it.”
Portions of the MFA video will be played in reports to be aired tonight (January 26) on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer and later on Nightline.
What You Can Do:
- If you’re still drinking cow’s milk and eating other dairy products, please go vegan. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to enjoy a delicious, nutritious plant-based diet. Visit ChooseVeg.com for dairy-free recipes and tips for making the transition to a vegan diet.
- If you live in New York State, please support the soon-to-be-announced bill that will ban tail docking.
- Support the work of Mercy For Animals. This is an outstanding organization that relies on the generosity of compassionate people to help fund investigations like this one.
- Finally, please share this story with family and friends ― it’s important that others know what goes on inside mega-dairies.
One of the agribusiness cruelties that has always made me shudder is the practice of killing newborn male chicks, whom egg producers deem as having no monetary value. Each year in the US, 200 million male chicks are killed shortly after hatching, and many of these birds are ground up in large machines called macerators while still alive. Taking these innocent babies, fresh from their eggs and searching for their mothers, and subjecting them to such a callous execution is one of the dirty little secrets of agribiz. The hens, meanwhile, are born into a bleak life of intensive confinement and suffering; they will most likely spend up to 24 months crammed into a battery cage and laying eggs for human consumption until, their bodies depleted, the hens will be yanked out of their wire prisons and slaughtered for dog food or some other low-grade chicken product.
Inspired to help these sensitive beings, activists from Mercy For Animals have been quietly engaged in an undercover operation inside the world’s largest breeder of egg-laying hens. At a press conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, today, Mercy For Animals executive director Nathan Runkle released video footage shot covertly inside the Spencer, Iowa, location of Hy-Line International. Taken with a hidden camera by a Mercy For Animals investigator who worked at the hatchery from May 20 to June 6, 2009, the disturbing video depicts newborn chicks being dumped onto a swiftly moving conveyor belt and hanging by their beaks in a de-beaking machine. But it’s the haunting scene of chicks being dropped into a high-pressure macerator that will probably upset viewers most. And rightly so: Each day at this Hy-Line facility, nearly 150,000 male chicks are grabbed by their fragile wings, separated from the females and tossed into chutes that eventually lead them to a machine that will tear their tiny bodies to pieces. Every inch of the way the baby chicks are fully conscious.
Keeping a detailed written record, the Mercy For Animals investigator reported numerous instances of inhumane treatment and animals denied food and water. “I saw a bloody chick on the floor slowly twitching and breathing,” he writes. “I asked a worker if the chick would live, and he told me to throw it away. Like every day, dozens of chicks from broken eggs were left to die in trashcans.”
Nathan says Mercy For Animals selected the Hy-Line hatchery for its investigation because it is the world’s largest and the conditions documented there ― including throwing, mutilating and grinding up live animals ― illustrate the harsh and brutal nature of the entire egg industry, which treats animals as mere egg-producing machines, placing profit over animal welfare. “If egg producers threw, mutilated and ground up puppies or kittens in the manner they do baby chicks, they could be prosecuted for animal cruelty,” he said.
Several animal welfare experts have viewed the video footage and remarked on the cruelty exhibited by Hy-Line workers.
“The video depicts compromised chicks struggling on the floor,” observed Dr. Sara Shields, an animal welfare scientist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “Some are undoubtedly still alive after falling through the separation machine…. These animals are in need of immediate attention and should have been euthanized without delay or given care to assist their recovery. It is disconcerting that these animals are simply left on the floor with dead chicks and egg debris.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns, stated that “Based on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge of the neurological and behavioral complexity of birds, including chickens at the time of hatching, … my opinion of the hatchery footage I observed is that the chicks shown in the footage are experiencing extreme mental and physical trauma at the hands of the workers and in the devices of the machinery designed to mutilate them.”
Nathan also used the press conference to announce that Mercy For Animals will be sending letters to the 50 largest grocery chains in the US asking them to voluntarily require that all eggs sold in their stores bear a label that reads “Warning: Male chicks are ground-up alive by the egg industry.” These egg retailers include Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway, Costco, Albertson’s, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Meijer.
“To the shock of most compassionate consumers,” Nathan said, “each year egg producers kill hundreds of millions of male egg-laying breed chicks at hatcheries because they will not lay eggs and do not grow large or fast enough to be raised profitably for meat. This is another violent and cruel side of the industry that consumers have a right to know about so that they can make informed and compassionate purchasing decisions.”
What You Can Do:
- If you’re still eating eggs ― even “cage free” or “free range” eggs ― please go vegan. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to enjoy a delicious, nutritious plant-based diet. I bake all the time, for example, and never need to use eggs, thanks to the many alternatives now available. And who needs more cholesterol? For some great advice on going vegan, visit ChooseVeg.com.
- Share this information. Most people ― even many ethical vegetarians ― are unaware of the cruelties behind egg production. The abusive practices at Hy-Line are common throughout the industry and, in the case of grinding up live male chicks, considered standard. Let family and friends know what’s happening by sharing this story with them.
- Support the work of Mercy For Animals. This is an outstanding organization that relies on the generosity of compassionate people to help fund investigations like the one announced today.
As documentaries such as Meet Your Meat and Earthlings illustrate, there’s nothing quite as jarring as seeing animal cruelty with your own eyes. Because few people are able to venture inside a battery egg farm, slaughterhouse or other animal factory (nor, frankly, would most people want to), activists are using hidden cameras as a tool to confront consumers with the suffering animals endure behind closed doors. These videos could also lead to animal-cruelty charges against those perpetrating abuse.
The latest example of this is Mercy For Animals’ investigation into Quality Egg of New England. From December 16, 2008, to February 1, 2009, an MFA investigator worked undercover at Quality Egg in Maine documenting such abuses as management and workers callously kicking live hens into manure pits, where they either drowned in liquid feces or likely died slow and painful deaths from illness, injury or starvation; employees killing birds by grabbing their necks and swinging them around in circles; and hens suffering from broken bones, bloody open wounds and untreated infections.
MFA turned their video over to authorities, and yesterday policed raided Quality Egg, spending eight hours gathering additional evidence. Eggs from Quality Egg, one of the largest producers of brown eggs in the United States, are sold primarily under the label of “Eggland’s Best” and are distributed in Shaw’s, Stop & Shop, Wal-Mart, Hannaford and other stores.
I caught up with Nathan Runkle, Mercy For Animals’ executive director, as he was changing flights today, and we chatted about this new investigation and what it takes to be an undercover investigator.
First of all, Nathan, can you describe what your investigator found?
The birds at Quality Egg are kept in battery cages that are stacked three tiers high. Each cage, as you know, is the size of a file-cabinet drawer. At this facility, they confine four to six birds per cage, so each bird has less space than a notebook-size piece of paper on which to live. We found birds suffering from broken bones, uterine prolapse, untreated infections. There were birds who were trapped under the wires of their cages, many of them left to die of starvation or dehydration; dead birds left to rot and decompose with birds still producing eggs for human consumption. Our investigator documented 49 separate incidents of live birds being thrown away into trash cans and left to suffer there, sometimes for three days. He also witnessed employees dumping dead birds on top of live birds in trash cans so that these birds were left buried, sometimes two feet under the bodies of dead birds, to suffocate or to be crushed by the corpses.
Did the investigator tell management at the egg facility about the abuse?
Yes, he brought this to the attention of other workers and supervisors, including Jay DeCoster, the son of Jack DeCoster, who is infamous for violating environmental laws, workers’ safety laws, not only in the state of Maine but in Iowa and Ohio, where he has facilities. Whenever our investigator brought this to the attention of upper management and other employees, they told him it was not a big deal and that he should just leave the birds there. They showed a callous attitude and complete disregard for even the most basic animal care.
The investigator also documented numerous cases of employees ripping birds out of their cages, holding them by their necks and swinging them around in circles, tossing them into shed aisles and then kicking them into manure pits while the birds were still flapping, struggling and clearly alive. He found cages with large holes in the flooring, most of these cages still confining live birds. There was sharp wire protruding into the cages with the majority of floor missing, which puts the birds at risk of either getting impaled by the wire, falling into the manure pits or having difficulty accessing food in the front of the cages. He also witnessed a large hole in one of the ceilings for the entire six weeks that he worked there, even though it was in the dead of winter and exposed a lot of the birds to extreme temperatures. Again, this was something he brought to the attention of management, and they failed to take any action.
Why is it necessary for an investigator to work at a facility for six weeks to collect evidence? Is that a long time?
We don’t consider six weeks to be a long time. When we handed our footage over to some of the news stations, they asked, “How long did the investigator work there?” and we told them six weeks, and they were like, “Really? That’s it? We would have thought he’d have to work there for a year to get all this evidence.” So this is really just a snapshot of what’s taking place there. It just scratches the surface of the abuse against these animals. But for these places, it’s important for us to show that this abuse is systemic and widespread, and it’s important to document numerous conditions because the industry always tries to say a plant is a bad apple, an isolated case or say it’s just a few employees, when the truth is much of this abuse is inherent in factory farm systems and it runs rampant and largely unchecked. So for us, it was important to show a pattern of disregard and cruelty.
Bob Leclerc, the safety and compliance manager at Quality Egg, said what was in the video is not general or acceptable practice. Yet it seems every time MFA goes into an egg farm we see this kind of cruelty.
Exactly. Egg producers know that the public does not accept these conditions. We know that they are standard practices within the egg industry and that these abuses take place across the country at egg factory farms. This is the seventh undercover investigation at an egg farm that Mercy For Animals has conducted, and every single time that we enter these facilities we find a laundry list of horrific abuses to animals. The best that the egg industry can do once they’re caught red-handed on video abusing animals is to try to isolate the abuse and distance themselves from it as much as possible. We see this time and again with investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses. They try to say they had no idea this abuse was taking place, which is usually a bold-faced lie, as is documented in our investigation; as I said, our investigator brought it to the attention of supervisors time and again. So we know they were aware of this.
When the public is watching, the egg farm’s strategy is to try to paint it as a picture of a few bad employees. But in reality, most of the abuse that the employees are engaged in is the way in which they were instructed to handle or kill birds. I don’t believe this is a case of sadistic abuse; I believe this is how most of those employees were trained to kill birds.
You mean swinging hens around by their necks?
This is a common technique used to kill birds who are potentially injured or were trapped in their cages. The employees are attempting to use cervical dislocation, but this is certainly not an appropriate way of doing that. Investigators in our last three investigations have been told that is the way to kill birds. This is what’s taught.
What are the qualities you look for in an investigator?
Well, they have to be someone that can be a chameleon and blend in with their environment. They need to have nerves of steel, be quick-thinking and have a sense of adventure. Most of all, they need to be willing to give up their personal comfort and many of the luxuries of safety and being around like-minded people. They need to be willing to submerge themselves into cultures of cruelty and be around people who simply don’t care about animals the same way they do and be able to stomach it while documenting the conditions and understand that that’s what’s needed to ultimately expose and end the cruelty.
People have a false notion that being an undercover investigator is somehow glamorous, and that is certainly not the case. It’s very depressing work. You have to witness egregious cruelty on a daily basis. It’s very isolating. Our investigators are working in facilities that are located in very rural areas and they’re not able to have the same sort of friendships and support system that most activists have because they have to work undercover in secluded areas for extended periods of time.
How much contact do they have with you while they’re working undercover?
Our investigators check in and give us daily reports on what’s taking place, which allows us to make judgments on how much longer the investigation needs to continue and what evidence has been gathered.
How do you decide when you have enough evidence in a particular case?
The goal is to document enough instances of abuse to show there is a pattern. For example, in this case, we documented 49 different live birds being thrown into trash cans. This happened 70 percent of the time he was there, so seven out of 10 days live birds were being thrown away. Our investigator documented 150 cases of birds trapped in the wire of their cages without access to food or water. Certainly, if he had stayed there longer, he would have documented 300 instances of that. There are sometimes key points of information we need to obtain, such as what the corporate structure is or who the suppliers are, and sometimes it takes time to get that information.
How can activists and consumers help?
The very best thing that anyone can do to stop this abuse is to eliminate eggs from their diet. Behind the abuse of animals in agriculture is consumer demand for the product, and we can choose kindness over cruelty every time that we eat.
We’ll certainly keep people posted on this case. If it gets to the point where we’re calling on people to contact the district attorney or contact some of these grocery chains to take action, activists can get involved that way, but right now we are optimistic that cruelty charges will be filed. The Maine Department of Agriculture has been extremely proactive and receptive to this ever since we brought it to their attention ― gaining the warrant, executing the raid ― so we would like for them to have the time they need to go through the evidence and file charges.
Mercy For Animals is a nonprofit organization, funded by contributions from supporters. If you’d like to help MFA continue their investigative work ― or any of their other outstanding efforts ― please consider making a tax-deductible donation.
Josh Balk is the outreach director of the Humane Society of the United States’ factory farming campaign, where he works with corporations to end their purchasing from factory farms that use the most intensive confinement devices, such as battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates. As part of HSUS’ “No Battery Eggs Campaign,” grocery stores, fast food chains, food service providers and hundreds of universities have moved away from buying and selling eggs from caged hens. Josh took time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding his activism, what brought him to the movement and how even one person can make a difference for animals.
What was your “a-ha” moment when you decided to go vegan?
I went vegan about eight years ago after watching the documentaries The Auction Block and Hope for the Hopeless. The first video is about the cruelty endured by dairy cows and other animals at livestock auctions and the second is about the battery cage-egg industry. Ironically, prior to coming to HSUS, I went on to work for Compassion Over Killing for three years, where I conducted undercover investigations, worked with Washington, DC, restaurants to add vegan items to their menu and did tons of vegan outreach to consumers.
Could you describe the industry cruelties you saw in those two documentaries?
The Auction Block, filmed by Compassion Over Killing, is a behind-the-scenes look at several farm animal auctions where dairy cows, their calves and other animals are sold to the highest bidder, many times to factory farms and slaughterhouses. Inside the closed doors of auction houses, animals are often kicked, shocked with electric prods, dragged by their legs and beaten. I can’t imagine the confusion and fear they’re undergoing, especially the calves who only a short time earlier were taken away from their nursing mothers.
Hope for the Hopeless, another Compassion Over Killing documentary, shows what’s it’s like inside a giant egg factory farm where hundreds of thousands of hens are confined inside barren battery cages. These living, feeling beings are turned into egg-producing machines within an industrial assembly line. There’s little consideration for their welfare other than providing them water and food — the barest necessities to keep them alive for another day’s worth of production. They’re given so little space they can’t even spread their wings. It’s like forcing someone to live in an elevator with six other people for your entire life.
You’re well known in the movement for working with college campuses, getting their dining halls to buy cage-free eggs. Does that take up the bulk of your activism?
So far, more than 350 universities in the country have eliminated or reduced their use of battery eggs. While I’d love to take credit for this enormous success, most of the victories are due to the relentless and effective activists on college campuses I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years.
That said, most of my time is spent working with major retailers, helping them move away from using the cruelest animal products and adding vegan items to their product line. Working with corporations to enact purchasing policies that help animals is one of the most effective things we can do for farm animals.
Can you explain what the Cage-Free Campus campaign is?
The Cage-Free Campus campaign is one of HSUS’ signature campaigns to help abolish battery cages. University cafeterias often use hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of eggs a year. Whether anyone likes it or not, this will be the case for the foreseeable future. The question is: Is it better that these eggs come from hens confined in cages so small they can barely move for their entire lives, or from hens living in a cage-free environment where they’re at least able to lay eggs in a nest, dust bathe, perch, flap their wings and walk? I think the answer is clear.
Of course, “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “cruelty-free.” However, while cage-free hens can and do still suffer, it doesn’t mean we should ignore that the alternative for most major egg buyers, including universities, is eggs from caged hens who are given less space to live than a single sheet of paper. In other words, cafeterias aren’t likely to stop serving eggs anytime soon, but they may stop serving the cruelest types of eggs.
I think most animal advocates would agree that putting an end to battery cages would reduce an immense amount of animal suffering. It’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and force millions of hens we all know are going to be exploited to wait until a future utopia exists before they’re at least freed from the misery of battery cages. In order to so, we have to get major egg users in the country to stop buying eggs from these extreme confinement systems.
You’ve also helped activists overseas working on the same goal. For example, Mahi Klosterhalfen has made some real progress for hens in Europe. Are you open to working with activists in other parts of the world to help them with cage-free campaigns?
Over the past few years I’ve had the honor of working with some of the best animal advocates from around the world. Mahi’s unbelievable work in Germany getting major retailers to end their sales of eggs from caged hens is a testament to his tenacious and effective activism. He’s one of the best activists the animals have; Compassion in World Farming is lucky have him run its German campaigns.
Up in Canada, Bruce Passmore has engineered a campaign that has resulted in numerous cities passing government resolutions opposing battery cages and has convinced some of the largest universities in the country to stop using battery eggs in their cafeteria.
And down in Australia, Kathleen Chapman is launching a veg commercial campaign similar to what Compassion Over Killing and Mercy For Animals have done in the U.S. This is after she got her university to be the first to switch away from battery eggs.
There’s no reason why others can’t duplicate the efforts of these dedicated individuals. I’d be more than happy to work with anyone from any part of the world on campaigns to help farm animals. Billions of animals suffer worldwide, and it’s going to take a global effort to win tangible advances for them.
What’s the best piece of activism advice you ever received?
Something I learned from many of my heroes in the animal protection movement is that I should make strategic decisions as an activist with the end goal being reducing as much animal suffering as possible. Since roughly 95 percent of animal exploitation in the U.S. goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms, I’ve made it may life’s mission to help those animals raised for food. You get the best bang for your activist buck, so to speak, by working to help farm animals.
The path I chose — corporate and university outreach ― isn’t the only way to help farm animals, but it’s the way I think I’m most effective. Others, like one of my heroes, Jon Camp from Vegan Outreach, give out tens of thousands of booklets every year to college students encouraging them to eat less meat as part of the Adopt-A-College program. Another hero of mine, Kath Rogers from Animal Protection and Rescue League, is in the midst of transforming her hometown of San Diego into the most vegan-friendly, anti-factory farming city in the country. Whatever our interest or our skill set, there’s always something each of us can do to have a major impact in the lives of farm animals.
Can you offer any parting advice to the individual activist who doesn’t work with an organization? Are there any simple things they can do to reach out to restaurants, for example, or approach their college?
The great thing about animal activism is that one person can make a tremendous difference. One way for students to get involved ― on the individual level ― is to meet with their dining director about moving away from using eggs from caged hens and/or add vegan options to the menu. There are numerous universities that have stopped serving battery-caged eggs and added vegan options because one student brought this issue to the attention of the dining staff.
For instance, at Georgetown University, just one student met with the director of dining, and only a few weeks later the entire university ended its support for battery-cage confinement and went exclusively cage-free. The university used one and a half million eggs a year, meaning that one victory led to improving the lives of literally thousands of animals. If someone is interested in doing this type of effort at his or her university, they should feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last weekend, Nathan Runkle, founder of Mercy For Animals (MFA), was the victim of a brutal anti-gay attack. Now that word is gradually reaching the public, I feel it’s OK to add a brief post about this crime against Nathan.
Nathan was at a gay nightclub in Dayton, Ohio, on Friday night/Saturday morning when an unknown assailant lashed out at him in an unprovoked assault. Nathan suffered two facial fractures, a broken nose, a deviated septum and severe facial bruising. I spoke with someone close to Nathan on Tuesday, and he told me Nathan has undergone surgery for the deviated septum and is doing well.
Nathan is one of the kindest and hardest-working activists I know, and I am heartsick beyond words that anyone would hurt him.
Rather than post a long blog, I refer readers to today’s wonderful post by fellow activist pattrice jones, who puts into words what I am unable to articulate right now. You can also read MFA’s press release here.
Our thoughts are with you, Nathan!
Food is an incredibly powerful component in the activist’s toolkit. It is imbued with special meaning in the psyche of humanity: we need food to nourish our bodies, but we also look to food as the centerpiece of many of our rituals and ceremonies.
Because of food’s unique position in our lives, it also offers the promise of transformation, for what we place in our bellies can be the bridge to a higher level of compassion — a rich appreciation of life itself. The simple act of sharing a delicious plant-based meal with someone more accustomed to dining on dead animals may not inspire them to immediately embrace a cruelty-free lifestyle, but it removes another brick from the massive edifice built upon the myths of ethical eating: that vegan food is strange, that it is hard to prepare and, perhaps the biggest false premise, that a meat-based diet is ideal for optimum health.
If you’re new to vegetarianism or veganism, or you’ve just never used your love of plant-based food in your activism, getting started can seem a bit daunting. How does one begin? You needn’t be a professional chef or cooking instructor to have an impact on another person. Erica Meier of Compassion Over Killing recommends starting with your immediate circle: friends, family and co-workers. “Bringing vegan treats to the office or hosting a vegan dinner party for your neighbors or meat-eating friends are two simple yet effective ways to introduce others to animal-friendly eating,” she says.
One crucial point about using vegan food in your outreach: Make sure the food is delicious. “I will happily eat good vegan food, but I will never offer good vegan food to non-vegans,” says Erik Marcus, author of Meat Market. “Any food I offer to non-vegans has to be outstanding, or I won’t offer it at all. We don’t want non-vegans to try vegan food and decide it’s only okay. We need them to think this is some of the tastiest food they’ve ever eaten.” This attitude applies not only to the food Erik offers, but to the food products he recommends, the cookbooks he suggests and the restaurants he takes his friends to. “Vegan food is indeed a powerful outreach tool, and that’s why I make sure that non-vegetarians get only the very best of what the vegan world has to offer.”
Whether you’re bringing in treats to the office or having friends over for dinner, if you’re hoping to encourage someone’s own vegan culinary adventures, don’t start them off with anything too complicated or that contains hard-to-find ingredients. “The food must be easy to make, so that those eating might actually make it at home,” advises activist Monica Engebretson. Chilled Avocado, Tomatillo and Cucumber Soup with Saffron-Lime Ice may be impressive and delicious, but any recipe that calls for saffron threads and toasted Hungarian paprika is not for beginners, and we want to emphasize that veganism is easy! Fortunately, one outreach effort that Monica and countless other activists have found particularly successful uses some of the easiest vegan foods you can find.
The idea is pretty simple: Hand out free vegan food to the public. After all, who doesn’t like free food? For a feed-in, activists prepare some vegan versions of popular meat-based foods, such as veggie burgers and “chicken” nuggets, and pass out samples at a location with lots of foot traffic ― like the front of a fast-food restaurant. Passersby get to try some tasty vegan treats, have a non-confrontational encounter with an animal activist and, we hope, walk away feeling that veganism isn’t that strange after all. Feed-ins can be as basic as one person with a platter of Tofurky sausage samples and some vegan literature or several activists going all out with a table, veggie dogs with condiments and a banner declaring “FREE Vegetarian Food!”
“The challenge with feed-ins is that the food has to be really good,” says activist Nora Kramer. “Plus, you need to present it in a way that looks good and tastes good at that moment, like on a street corner. Vegan chicken nuggets, for instance, taste really good, if they’re hot, with ketchup or barbecue sauce. If they’re cold? Um, not so good. You’re really not helping any chickens. Same thing with giving out vegan ice cream – you’ve got to keep it cold. If it’s a hot day, no one’s going to want you’re melted, liquidy ice cream. So, keeping things hot or cold and presenting it in a way that will make people want to try it is important.”
Nora also notes that it’s important people know why you’re there. “It needs to be clear that you’re not representing Soy Delicious or whatever,” she says. “You’re there volunteering your time because you care about animals and you want people to know that vegan food tastes really good.”
Nathan Runkle of Mercy For Animals (MFA) advises getting the food donated, if possible. “When soliciting food donations,” he says, “keep in mind what will be easiest to prepare and how you’re going to distribute it. Soy ice cream in tubs, for example, is going to be more difficult to distribute than Tofutti Cuties, which come pre-wrapped.”
Getting companies to donate food is not that difficult, according to Caroline McAleese of Vegan Campaigns, which organizes annual food fairs and monthly vegan food and information stalls in busy shopping areas. “If you do not already have a contact name at the company,” she says, “I would send an email to the general address, then follow it up with a phone call and keep the contact name for next time. I normally write quite a detailed email about the event or stall. I would include how many people you would expect to come, the venue and the aim of the event.”
Caroline also recommends giving the company an incentive, such as adding their name to a flier for the event, offering to give out their leaflets at the event and posting a link on your Web site to theirs. “It’s good to feed back to the companies afterwards, to show them photos and let them know how it went.”
If this all sounds like feed-ins are a complicated exercise demanding many people, relax. “Most of the feed-ins we do are just a couple people,” Nathan says. “It’s taken us a little while to master the marketing of feed-ins, because if you just go the street corner wearing regular clothes, and you’re handing out food, it seems kind of sketchy, and people get a little nervous taking food from strangers.” So now Nathan and his fellow activists don black aprons and plastic gloves, giving their feed-ins an air of professionalism. “We also have a large banner that reads ‘For the Animals, Earth and Your Health ― Enjoy a Free Vegan Sample.’ This makes it look more like an event so people will come up to try the food.” To really make an impact, MFA sometimes sets up a table with the dipping sauces, vegetarian starter kits and local veg guide. “The veg guide also lists health food stores, so we can tell people how to find specialty items,” he says.
Of course, there are countless other ways to use vegan food in your outreach, from bringing homemade cookies to work or school to asking your favorite restaurant or campus cafeteria to carry (more) vegan entrees.
Although there are many other tactics for helping animals, when we speak of animal cruelty, the overwhelming majority of abuse is suffered by animals who are bred, raised and eventually slaughtered because humans happen to enjoy eating them. And because most of the Earth’s human inhabitants directly contribute to the needless cruelty suffered by so many billions of non-human animals each year simply by eating them, changing the hearts and minds of these people yields extraordinary benefits. So if you’ve never used vegan food in your outreach, give it a try. I’m betting you’ll find it fun.