The campaign to expose the harmful, violent, and destructive reality of the animal agriculture industry.

‘DOWN’ ON THE FARM: Animal cruelty is legal on farms; a U.S. judge is questioning that


Many undercover investigations that document cruelty to farmed animals don’t result in prosecution and are so pervasive throughout the industry, they go unexamined, even though they account for much more animal suffering.

KENNY TORRELLA: In 2018, Erin Wing worked for two months at a 1,000-cow dairy farm in Chambersburg, a small Pennsylvania town about three hours west of Philadelphia, where she was one of 10 employees who milked and fed the cows. But something set her apart from the other workers: Wing wore a hidden camera, living a double life as an undercover investigator for Animal Outlook, an animal advocacy nonprofit.

During her stint, Wing captured a variety of horrors on film. Some were inhumane but legal and not uncommon in the dairy industry, like removing calves’ horns —which is done to prevent the horns from injuring workers — without pain mitigation like anesthesia or anti-inflammatory drugs.

But she also documented acts of cruelty that seemed wholly gratuitous, like employees beating, stomping on, and kicking cows, and many others I’ll omit for the sake of readers’ peace of mind. “All told, we documented over 300 incidents that we believed violated Pennsylvania’s laws,” Will Lowrey, an attorney with Animal Outlook, told me.

The Pennsylvania State Police opened an investigation, and over a year later it announced that the district attorney of Franklin County in Pennsylvania, where Chambersburg is located, would not press charges against the farm as a corporation, the owner, and 14 current and former employees…

The DA’s decision wasn’t surprising. Many undercover investigations that document cruelty to farmed animals don’t result in prosecution… and are so pervasive throughout the industry, they go unexamined, even though they account for much more animal suffering…

And with 9 billion animals churning through the meat, dairy, and egg industries each year and just a handful of undercover investigators documenting how they’re treated, consumers and policymakers are left in the dark. This system persists because farmed animals are largely invisible in the law.

But due to a quirk in Pennsylvania’s legal code — the ability of private citizens to challenge government officials’ decision not to prosecute — Animal Outlook was able to circumvent that invisibility and set a new precedent for animal law. But before that, it helps to understand the legal system under which animals are farmed…

At the federal level, there are no laws that protect animals while they’re on the farm. The Animal Welfare Act, which sets minimum standards for animals used in zoos or research or sold as pets, specifically exempts animals raised for food… Every state has an anti-cruelty statute on the books, and a few exempt farmed animals altogether, while most exempt what are considered “customary farming practices” — or as Pennsylvania law puts it, “normal farming operations.” It doesn’t matter how inhumane those practices may appear as long as they are commonly used, year after year…

Advocates have found some success through putting the vote directly to the people via ballot measures, but those are costly, and fewer than half of US states allow such direct measures. This challenging legal landscape, and the political and cultural factors that block the gaps that could overcome it, have long stymied animal lawyers and advocates who’ve amassed thousands of hours of footage of animal abuse through their undercover investigations. But due to the above-mentioned quirk in Pennsylvania law — the ability to petition a court to overturn the district attorney’s denial of prosecution — Animal Outlook shifted what practices can be deemed “normal” in the first place.

The organization’s initial petition was denied, so it appealed to Pennsylvania’s Superior Court. Last month, in a precedent-setting decision, the court’s three-judge panel ruled that the lower court was required to order the Franklin County district attorney to prosecute Martin Farms for animal cruelty, including over common practices like dehorning without pain mitigation.

“The most obvious evidence overlooked by the trial court was that concerning the dehorning of calves…” the decision reads. Citing Dr. Holly Cheever, a veterinarian who reviewed the investigative footage, the decision went on to state that “the technique used by Martin Farms as shown in the video caused the calves to be ‘in agonizing pain, shown by their violent thrashing and bellowing.’”The judge characterized the district attorney’s position on exempting dehorning without pain mitigation as “absurd,” creating a crack in the meat industry’s ironclad legal armor…

The case would still be influential if it had merely centered on the more malicious acts of animal cruelty, but what makes it more important is that the court also questioned whether dehorning calves without pain mitigation should be considered “normal” in the first place (and if not, it could then be prosecutable). The court also deemed Martin Farms’ dehorning not normal because employees roughly handled the calves and performed dehorning at an age when the practice is more painful.

Since Pennsylvania’s anti-cruelty statute exempts “normal agricultural operations,” this decision could lead to advocates challenging other common farming practices in the courts… even though the precedent is limited to Pennsylvania, it’s important in two other ways. First, Pennsylvania is a major agricultural state, ranking fourth in egg production, seventh in dairy, 10th in turkey, and 14th in chicken. All told, over 235 million animals are raised for food in the state each year. Those who advocate for them now have another tool in their legal toolbox.

Sullivan says it also sets a cultural precedent, which can’t be discounted — and it gives animal lawyers across the country a decision to reference when challenging other states’ exemptions… But whatever the outcome, the Pennsylvania Superior Court decision illustrates what can happen when standard yet horrific farming practices are put under a microscope: The institutions that govern how America farms and eats might be forced to evolve. SOURCE…


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