Though similar efforts in other states have failed, a bill moving swiftly through the Idaho legislature this week is trying to criminalize the activities of animal rights advocates who expose the mistreatment of farm animals and livestock by documenting abuse by their human handlers.
Known broadly as 'Ag-Gag' legislation, the specific bill in Idaho is titled SB 1337 and is pitched by its backers—which include large agribusiness interests in the dairy and meat industry—as an “agricultural security measure” defending farmers, dairies, and processing plant owners against "ag terrorists," their unkind moniker for those who might secretly videotape abuse of animals without express permission.
"Consumers want better treatment of animals used for food not for the agriculture industry to cover up illegal acts and penalize those who try to expose cruelty." —Matthew Strugar, PETA
But opponents of animal cruelty say laws like the one in Idaho not only endanger animal welfare, but are an assault on the public's right to know about the treatment these animals receive in certain facilities when operators think no one is watching.
"Consumers want better treatment of animals used for food not for the agriculture industry to cover up illegal acts and penalize those who try to expose cruelty," said Matthew Strugar, senior litigation counsel for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in an email sent to Common Dreams.
SB 1337, sponsored by State Senator Sen. Jim Patrick (R-Twins Falls), would ban unauthorized video recordings on agricultural facilities and treat those found engaging in such activities as criminals, with punishments of up to one year in prison and fines up to $5,000.
On Tuesday of this week, the bill was voted out of committee and is now headed to the full Senate for a vote.
As local journalist Kimberlee Kruesi reported for the Twin Falls Times-News:
The bill is being endorsed by Idaho’s $2.5 billion dairy industry just two years after an animal rights group released undercover footage of abuse at Dry Creek Dairy southwest of Murtaugh, owned by large-scale dairy owner Luis Bettencourt.
The video was obtained after an investigator – who was employed by Los Angeles-based Mercy for Animals – began working on the Bettencourt dairy in July, 2012. Within three weeks of working on the facility, he recorded employees using a tractor to drag a cow on slippery concrete by a chain wrapped around its neck, employees punching and stomping on milk cows and one employee beating a cow with a pink cane.
Though animals rights groups have helped defeat similar laws in other states, the tensions in Idaho are strong. Backers of the bill have repeatedly vilified those with animal rights concerns while couching the law as one that defends the rights of private property owners.
"The cruelty [documented at the Bettencourt Dairies] drew nationwide attention and condemnation, but instead of taking meaningful steps to improve animal welfare, the state’s dairy industry is simply trying to silence its critics." —Matthew Dominguez, Humane Society
According to the Associated Press, during Tuesday's committee hearing, Sen. Patrick described those who film animal abuse in dairies or slaughterhouses as "comparable to marauding invaders centuries ago who swarmed into foreign territory and destroyed crops to starve foes into submission."
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“This is clear back in the sixth century B.C.,” Patrick said. “This is the way you combat your enemies.”
And another supporter of the law, state Sen. Jim Rice (R-Caldwell), said farmers shouldn't have to worry that someone is monitoring the treatment of animals on their property. “Do you have a right to control your own activities on your property or not?" he asked at the hearing. "Throughout our history, the answer has been yes."
But animal rights activists say these arguments are both absurd and a distraction from the real issue: preventing cruelty to animals and improving the public perception of all farmers by creating a culture of transparency, not secrecy, when it comes to farming and food processing operations.
"If the Idaho state legislature passes this bill and it becomes law, people all over the country will think Idaho's agriculture sector has a lot to hide," said PETA's Strugar.
PETA has long used undercover investigators to expose animal cruelty like that found in Bettencourt case.
"It's vital that the public retain the right to document abuse wherever it occurs," Strugar explained to Common Dreams, "because there are no inspections of farms for cruelty violations and workers who report abuse are often ignored, evidence from undercover investigations is crucial in prosecuting criminal acts."
The Humane Society of the United States, which has been active in opposing the Idaho law, released this television ad to help make its case to the public:
Matthew Dominguez, who works on farm policy for the Humane Society and has been actively lobbying against the bill, says the argument about private property rights is a red herring pushed by agribusiness to confuse the issue.
"The real motivation behind these dangerous ag-gag bills," Dominguez told Common Dreams, is "to prevent the public from learning about the horrors occurring on factory farms."
He continued: "The cruelty [documented at the Bettencourt Dairies] drew nationwide attention and condemnation, but instead of taking meaningful steps to improve animal welfare, the state’s dairy industry is simply trying to silence its critics."
Both Strugar and Dominguez agree that though the AG-Gag bill now before Idaho's full senate is designed to insulate the dairy and agriculture industries from outside critics, what its really doing is making consumers in the state and across the country less trusting of the people who are responsible for caring for the many millions of animals used for food production each year.
"This dangerous effort by Idaho’s dairy industry is going to hurt the public’s trust in all of Idaho agriculture," said Dominguez. "Other farmers should resent that the dairy industry for giving the impression that all of the state’s food producers have something to hide."