In 1986, while investigating Lancaster Stockyards in Pennsylvania, I found a living sheep collapsed among the carcasses of the stockyard’s “dead pile.” She was a “downer,” an animal too sick or weak to stand, and she had been left there to die. She was the first animal rescued by Farm Sanctuary, then a fledgling advocacy organization. We named her Hilda, and we shared her story, illustrated by a photograph of her lying on that dead pile.
Hilda inspired us to intensify our investigations of Lancaster Stockyards, where we discovered that the mistreatment and neglect of downers was business as usual. We organized a protest, which garnered media attention and exposed the stockyard’s disregard for animal welfare. The public was outraged, and Lancaster Stockyards was compelled to announce that it would humanely euthanize downed animals instead of leaving them to suffer on its premises. By documenting and publicizing conditions at this facility, we were able to bring about necessary reforms.
Were I to advocate in the same way for an animal like Hilda today in North Carolina, I would be committing a criminal act.
On Jan. 1, the North Carolina legislature enacted a law banning photographs and the collection of information at workplaces, including farms and slaughterhouses, and specifically targeting whistleblowers who seek to release such information to the public. This is the latest in a slew of “ag-gag” bills introduced in state legislatures across the U.S. Proponents of the factory farming industry are fighting hard to suppress whistleblowers. Just what is it they don’t want the public to see?
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On today’s farms, animals are confined in cages and crates so small they can barely move. They are unable even find a comfortable position to rest, much less satisfy their natural desire to stretch their limbs, explore their environment and interact with each other. These conditions cause muscular atrophy, painful joint injuries and profound mental anguish.
Diseased animals are routinely slaughtered for human food, and, shockingly, the USDA allows it. The majority of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to farm animals, to keep them alive and growing in crowded, stressful, disease-laden conditions. This practice promotes the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, destroying the efficacy of formerly lifesaving drugs and putting us all at risk.
This cruel and reckless industry can only continue operating if consumers remain uninformed and disengaged. That’s why factory farm proponents have been pushing for ag-gag laws, which prevent activists and whistleblowers from revealing unsavory truths about our food system. These laws are designed to stifle awareness and discussion. They are an affront to free speech and freedom of the press, and they express utter contempt for American consumers.
Citizens have a right to know how their food is produced in order to make informed choices. North Carolina’s ag-gag law is being challenged, and I am optimistic it will be overturned, like Idaho’s recently nullified ag-gag law. Free speech and transparency are values that are as important to our democracy as compassion is to our humanity.
Gene Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection organization.