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The Left

The Troubling Effort to Silence Animal Rights Activists

Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune

Last year, The Intercept published an article following the dollars, tracing a link between campaign contributions by big agriculture and laws meant to silence animal rights activists. But what’s happened since?

On October 5th, 2017, The Intercept published an article that started with the story of two piglets gone missing. The article ended by exposing a union between certain government bodies and corporate donors seeking to suppress an animal rights movement. As The Intercept story begins, the FBI went on a full-fledged hunt to find two piglets missing from Circle Four Farm, an industrial farm in Utah. It would later be determined that an animal rights group had removed the two piglets after discovering them during an undercover project to document slaughterhouse conditions.

The Intercept is no stranger to tackling tough issues and opposing the interests of influential organizations. Launched in February 2014, the publication’s claim to fame is its reporting on NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. Today, its journalists cover a wide range of issues and strive for what they call “adversarial journalism,” attempting to uncover instances of corruption and bring them to light.

The animal activists who rescued the two piglets became the victims of a campaign to intimidate those who seek to expose farm conditions. It’s with good reason on the part of the companies since practices on these large farms include burning ankles of horses with chemicals, kicking and flinging pigs, and burning and snapping the beaks off chickens, along with harsh living procedures like gestational crating.

Sometimes, however, activists are able to save or release animals living in exceptionally torturous conditions. This is what the activist group Direct Action Everywhere, the rescuers of Lucy and Ethel (the names the FBI gave to the two piglets), did. The organization would subsequently be raided by the FBI a month after The New York Times wrote a piece about the pigs’ rescue.

According to The Intercept, there are a number of other measures that have been put in place to prevent animal activists from intervening in situations of animal cruelty. Federal law dictates that a nonviolent animal rights activist who damages or interferes with the personal property of an animal enterprise can be labeled as a domestic terrorist under the American Enterprise Terrorism Act.

This falls under what The Intercept describes as a “framework” of legislation that sides with the farming corporations. Agriculture-gag laws, colloquially known as “ag-gag” laws, are a set of bills designed to prevent whistleblowers from revealing acts of animal cruelty on farms. Typically, these laws make the act of undercover filming without consent from the owner of the farm illegal.

The scope of the laws vary from state to state, but they all include one or more of the following stipulations: prohibiting documentation of agricultural practices, prohibiting misrepresentations in job applications to gain access to closed facilities, or requiring very quick reporting to authorities of illegal animal cruelty. Lobbyists hired by the agriculture industry, who are paid very highly, influence this legislation.

All of the evidence uncovered points towards a conspiracy to keep animal activists quiet and to ensure that big agriculture companies have their interests represented. Yet, the issue remains one that gets little media representation. Ag-gag laws are under major scrutiny from activist groups and legislators alike, as critics argue the laws violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech and free press. But the media, and consequently, the general public steer clear of the issue entirely. 

In the weeks and months following The Intercept article, Newsweek wrote a reaction to the report and stated that the story had gone “viral.” A couple of other news outlets, such as Fast Company, also had their own take on the issue. However, following the initial buzz, the article seems to have fizzled, and the issue of ag-gag laws has received little attention in the months following.

The relative silence on the part of the press means that the fight against ag-gag laws remains contained within a political sphere of lobbyists, big agriculture, and politicians, while animal activist groups are largely left to fight without the upper hand. Displays of political activism and investigative journalism threaten the profitability and image of the agriculture industry, so exposing what goes on before the food hits the consumer’s plate is undoubtedly bad for business.

In contrast, the public has shown itself to care about animal rights. A 2015 Gallup poll reported that 32% of Americans think that animals should have rights on par with humans, while 62% believe that they deserve some protection, even if they still think humans can use animals for some benefits. Yet, the public’s knowledge of the topic is being curbed by powers beyond their control.

As a result, the silencing of opponents by agriculture corporations works on two different levels. First, there’s a suppression of activist work on a legal basis. At the same time, there’s no input from the media, which keeps the problem from entering the public eye. It creates an environment that allows big agriculture to remain unaccountable for their actions.

Animal rights is not a topic that commonly finds its way into televised debates or campaign platforms. 

A trail of campaign donations paints a startling picture. Meatpacking powerhouse Smithfield Foods donated $310,000 in soft money to the Republican Attorney General Association, a group that funded Utah’s Sean Reyes campaign for attorney general. After elected, it was Reyes’ office who filed criminal charges against activists who freed Lucy and Ethel from one of their farms.

It’s all part of a vicious cycle. The Intercept has already taken the first step in breaking this cycle by bringing the issue to light.  Now, the question becomes, will other news outlets follow in their footsteps and give airtime to this troubling relationship between agriculture donors and politicians, or will the silencing of animal rights’ activists continue for the foreseeable future, with the public left mostly in the dark? 

Grace Eppinger and Grace Hylinski are summer interns at Merion West.