Animal Rights
9:12 am
Tue April 16, 2013

California Animal Welfare Bill Creates Controversy, Critics Call It 'Ag-Gag'

A screenshot from an undercover video shot by the group Compassion Over Killing at a Hanford slaughterhouse in 2012. Warning: this video contains very graphic footage.
Credit Compassion Over Killing / http://www.cok.net/inv/central-valley-meat/

A number of states have recently passed laws that seek to restrict journalists and animal rights activists from filming inhumane practices inside slaughterhouses. These so-called “Ag-gag” laws have drawn harsh criticism from animal welfare groups. Now, a new bill from a Fresno lawmaker that aims to mandate the swift reporting of animal abuse has some crying foul. Valley Public Radio’s Ezra Romero reports.

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At this point we’ve all likely seen, or at least heard about cases of widespread animal cruelty or neglect when it comes to cattle, chickens and horses across the Central Valley, such as this video.
[warning: this video contains very graphic footage.]

Narrator: “After spending years on a dairy factory farm, tens of thousands of cows each year wind up at Central Valley Meat, a slaughterhouse in California. A compassion over killing investigator documented the final hours of pain and fear these cows face before their bodies are dismembered for the national school lunch program and other large meat buyers.”

That was an excerpt from an undercover video produced by the organization Compassion Over Killing. Its depiction of cattle being repeatedly abused and treated inhumanely made national headlines last August. It also caused the United States Department of Agriculture to temporarily close down the Hanford slaughterhouse.

Other animal welfare groups and news organizations have produced similar videos. But with them has come controversy and criticism from the livestock industry. And that’s lead several states – including Iowa and Utah - to pass new laws, which aim to make producing those videos a crime. Critics call them “Ag-gag” laws.

In California, the issue of animal abuse has taken a slightly different course, but one that’s no less controversial, thanks to a new bill from Assembly Member Jim Patterson.

“I think we all detest animal cruelty. And I think we want to stop it as quickly as we can. I think there is a duty on behalf of the people who own animals and on the behalf of the people who work with them, if they  do see and have the evidence of animal cruelty, that it ought to be reported to law enforcement quickly so that the cruelty can end,” says Patterson.

The Fresno Republican introduced AB 343 in early February. Unlike the measures in other states, it doesn’t prohibit journalists or activists from taking undercover video. But instead, it would require anyone with video, photographs, or other evidence documenting animal abuse to turn that information over to authorities within five days. Those who don’t comply would face a $250 fine. The bill is supported by the livestock industry.

Patterson says he doesn’t understand why animal rights groups aren’t in favor of the bill.

"My question is do they really want to solve the problem or are they more interested in fundraising and stirring up people who love animals and really misinforming them." - Jim Patterson

“My question is do they really want to solve the problem or are they more interested in fundraising and stirring up people who love animals and really misinforming people about what we are trying to do? Let me just say this, if people were saying the same thing about child abuse that they are saying about my bill to try and end animal abuse, no one would support or understand it, or be willing that we turn a blind eye to it and that we collect data for months into the future,” says Patterson.

But some animal welfare groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, say that the bill is an attempt to stymie larger investigations.

“There’s a reason all of the animal protection groups oppose this bill, while only agribusiness industry officials support it. It may be drafted to appear like an animal protection bill, but in reality, it is intended to obstruct whistleblowers from documenting farm animal abuse. They don't want to stop white blowing. They want to blow the whistle on the whistle blower,” says Paul Shapiro, a spokesperson for the Humane Society.

If AB 343 had been law last year, Shapiro says Central Valley Meat Co. would still be treating cattle inhumanely.

“If this law had been in place the meat industry would of surely just described it as an isolated incident of animal cruelty rather than the pattern of abuse that was taking place there, which lead to the shutdown of that slaughter plant,” says Shapiro.

But Dave Daley, with the California Cattle Association which sponsored the bill, says it’s misunderstood.

“Very honestly, it was proposed by cattleman because we don’t like to see animals abused either and some of the things that occur. If people willfully or knowingly record abuse, I think the real intent is, let's get that information to law enforcement as soon as we can, so we can stop it. It bothers me that it’s been posed as an ‘Ag-gag’ law or trying to stop free speech or trying to stop people from taking pictures. In my mind it’s nothing  further from the truth. Because, in all actuality, it’s trying to prevent systemic abuse rather than to just let it go on for a period of time until, quote unquote, we have a case,” says Daley.

Amendments to the bill were made late last week, after criticism over the time allotted for gathering and reporting evidence. Patterson said the changes were his attempt to work with animal welfare groups. 

“Initially we had a couple of days requirement to report. There was some concern that might be too short a period of a time. And so we were trying to be sympathetic with those that have a different point of view about the bill. We thought, ok,  well, let's amend it to five days. That gives people who want to do more investigating or more documentation. But at some point we’ve got to end the documentation so that we can give it to law enforcement and the animal owners so they're on notice so that in fact the abuse stops,” says Patterson.

Jim Reynolds, a Professor of bovine medicine and animal welfare at Western University, says the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“The idea is really good. See it and stop it. So I think that is what the authors of the bill probably intended. Is that if you see something that's harming an animal  than it needs to be stopped and fixed and dealt with. Limiting it strictly to a video or a photograph is the wrong approach. Really it’s any event that harms an animal needs to be reported and fixed for the animal's sake, and for the animals the next week and the next week,” says Reynolds.

He says the industry needs to embrace animal welfare to prevent future abuses.

“What many of us have been trying to do for a year now is to create a culture of welfare on farms. So that everybody on the farm – the owners, the managers, the workers — all understand what animal welfare is and can recognize when welfare is compromised, for animals, and then do something about it,” says Reynolds.

Patterson’s bill is scheduled to go before the Assembly’s Agriculture Committee on Wednesday.

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