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Candid Cameras on Factory Farms

Video tapes of farms

Would you want this in your family's business?

Many businesses with intellectual property don’t allow cameras; think John Deere, Ford, Google. Homes are protected from such invasions on privacy; imagine how you’d feel to discover a hidden camera in your bedroom. But what about farms? If you’re a part of animal agriculture, you need to consider how you’d look on candid camera. Ongoing videos from animal rights activists and legislation proposed to make such such actions illegal in Iowa, Minnesota and Florida have brought the issue to the forefront.  On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who believe every operation should install cameras.

The nasty videos aren’t going to stop. There are bad apples who don’t deserve to be called farmers. There are also terrible humans, who have gone through rigorous screening by a farm and signed paperwork against abuse, but still end up in the barns doing terrible things to animals. And, yes, there are groups who stage such abuse to further their cause.  We have to accept that these videos will keep coming. The question is what we do to protect both the families and animals involved.

Do farms have something to hide? The proposed legislation is certainly being viewed that way. I struggle with this; it should be  as wrong for trespassers to be video taping on a farm as it is for someone to walk in a school and film children. Both should require permission – and have legal ramifications if none is given. Likewise, any abuse that’s filmed should be turned over to the authorities – immediately.  Not waiting 3 days or 3 weeks to execute a strategic campaign to raise funds or publicity for your organization – but immediately.

Farmers aren’t hiding animal abuse, but animal agriculture isn’t pretty.  As I write this, we’ve had record-high rainfalls in the central Midwest – which means cattle are standing knee deep in mud in some locations. These same cattle graze in lush green pastures and lounge in the sunshine in summer (to the envy of this human). But it’s simply not pretty right now – no matter how much cleaning and care is given – or if it’s a “factory farm” or small operation.

Another not so pretty reality; animal agriculture practices can look terrible, even when done in the best interest of the animal. We had a cow go down on pasture last summer on a 90 degree day. Keeping this animal alive required me smacking her across the face and kneeing her chest as hard as my human weight could muster.  Before you judge me; consider the shock it takes to keep a human heart going – and then multiply that by 10. Once we had the heavy equipment ready (a necessity with downed animals) we got her off the ground by putting a metal device around her hip bones and then raised the hip lifts with a tractor so she could stand. When she was steady enough to walk, we helped her back to the barn, with urine pouring out of her and manure all over (cows don’t use bed pans).

Is this an image we want on camera? I think not. It would have looked terrible on CNN and would been incorrectly labeled as animal abuse. Yet, the cow lived and did not suffer needlessly – because two women cared enough to do some “ugly” things in the interest of animal husbandry. The same scenario is played out a hundred different ways on farms (large and small) across the country every day. Animals get hurt, need to be euthanized and do stupid things like getting their heads jammed into places they don’t belong. If you work with animals, you know this. But I’d wager 99% of the population does not know these things about farm animals firsthand. And more to the point, they won’t have any knowledge unless you help them.

property rights on farmsDoes this mean I think all farms and ranches should install cameras, upload their footage to YouTube, then tweet it and cross-populate to Facebook?  Absolutely not. I’m not a fan of putting video cameras in barns because animal agriculture isn’t pretty. And until the public is more familiar with this reality, I’m not sure they’re ready to see the scenario that I describe above – which was not on a “factory farm.” I also believe it should be a farmer’s choice on his/her own property.

I applaud those that have installed cameras, including J.S. West with chickens and Belstra with pigs – and know many more are considering it. What is recorded should remain as a farm’s choice. But the lack of desire to have “candid cameras” on farms doesn’t mean that farmers and ranchers aren’t being transparent. It simply means that farms are a place of a business, a family’s livelihood and yes – a place of privacy.

What do you think? How does agriculture bridge the gap?

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12 Responses to “Candid Cameras on Factory Farms”

  1. Larry Sailer says:

    Again a very good story. Even if we did have a camera in every barn, there would be doubters and this footage would give dishonest people footage to twist to their own advantage. We must continue to educate about how we care more than anyone about our animals!

    • Michele Payn-Knoper says:

      Education is going to be critical and folks are going to have to be creative in how they do that. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I completely agree that even under the best of circumstances, if farmers do everything right and completely by the book, the general public would look at some activities that occur on a farm and simply shake their heads. Most people only have one set of experiences with animals – that of their loving family pets. These pets are pampered, cooked for, welcomed into the home, loved on, and treated like surrogate children. (Disclaimer: I have three dogs and “animal abuse” in my family is relocating one from my bed to his own bed on the floor.) If they are hurt they are carried to the car, treated at the vet, or taken to a hospital for blood tests, X-rays, and sometimes very expensive surgeries. These pets join their owners on outings to Petsmart, picking out their favorite squeaky toys and getting treated to more aisles of different kinds of food than most people on the planet have available to them.

    So how can farmers who care for hundreds, often thousands of very large animals, share their realities so these two worlds can be bridged? In the immortal words of Aretha Franklin, the answer is R-E-S-P-E-C-T. What Michele describes when she revived the cow was clearly a sign of care and respect for the animal. What all farmers MUST do is demonstrate not only proper animal husbandry practices, but help explain to others who don’t understand farming that their actions are done out of great respect for the animals in their care.

    And by all means, if abuse is real, every farmer should take the responsibility to stop it. Period. No excuses. Only then will the general public see our commitment to making sure the animals in our care are respected and taken care of.

    • Michele Payn-Knoper says:

      Your perspective on the fact that people have one set of experiences with animals (that of their loving family pets). My cow is not your dog. However, respect (and your comment makes me feel like dancing for some reason) is the common link. Farmers have great respect for animals or they wouldn’t be in the business. We have not done a good enough job translating our actions to others. Explaining what we do is going to be critical and if we wait, there are many out there who will be glad to explain it for us.

  3. Heather Lilienthal says:

    Great post, Michele.

  4. Chuck Jolley says:

    I agree with Michael. But let me add this. Part of educating the public means showing them what needs to be done – the unpleasant parts as well as the ‘pretty’ parts. It will all be shown on video sooner or later. We’re all better off to get ahead of it because kneeing your downed cow to help rouse her and keep her alive might show up on a PETA tape with audio ‘explaining’ the terrible thing you’re doing. Your explanation will be far better for the industry. Bottom line: almost everyone has a still or video camera in their pocket and internet access just a few steps away. Transparency is the norm whether you control it or not.

    • Michele Payn-Knoper says:

      Chuck, that’s why I went ahead and wrote this post. It’s not especially pleasant, but it is reality. Educating the public must start off with activities that are a little more digestible to people who only have their pets as a frame of reference. I do agree we have to have these tough conversations in a PROACTIVE manner because you are correct; PETA, HSUS, et al will be glad to ‘explain’ what we do.

      I struggle with the whole transparency thing. What EXACTLY does that mean? Aren’t we transparent if ag is out there talking and being authentic? It’s a term that’s thrown around more and more, as though we’re not transparent. And by the way, I wished I was kneeing the to get her up; it was actually to keep her heart going. Not a great day, but one that serves a valuable lesson. And that’s very transparent.

  5. Zack says:

    It’s definitely a tough call … Images speak for themselves. If the public saw something they didn’t agree with any number of negative reactions could be conjured up … which, could result in their discontentment being positioned towards the farmer.

  6. Max says:

    With all the food scares we have had maybe it is a good idea that we know more about what goes on in the farm and food industries.

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