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LETHAL EXPOSURE: Animal rights activists are escalating tactics to expose systemic abuse in factory farms

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Nobody is going into these factory farms to see what conditions are like for animals, no cameras or third-party inspections. And when people learn that and learn what that means, they’re outraged.

ARNO KOPECKY: Amy Soranno could have said she was sorry. She knew that was her last, best shot at avoiding prison for her role in organizing the occupation of the Excelsior hog farm near Abbotsford, B.C., on the morning of April 28, 2019. But at her sentencing hearing at the end of this summer, Soranno doubled down. In the closing statement she delivered in a B.C. courtroom, she made it clear she’d do it all again if it would help save pigs from their suffering…

There was no doubt about the extent of Soranno’s involvement in the hog farm occupation. On that day three years ago, she and more than 50 fellow activists stormed the breeding room with iPhones in hand, then broadcast their sit-in over Instagram Live for the next seven hours. It was the first time anyone had done this kind of thing in Canada. It wouldn’t be the last.

The sit-in was a response to gruesome video footage allegedly taken by cameras hidden at Excelsior and released a few days earlier by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). That footage showed mother pigs languishing in gestation crates next to dead and dying piglets, as well as older pigs with hernias, tumours and various lacerations. It also captured workers electric-prodding other pigs in the face and casually castrating piglets without anesthetic. In one scene, a dead pig is being eaten by its fellows.

The scenes Soranno and her fellow activists captured later were less gruesome. There were no deformed pigs, no workers inflicting any pain or suffering. Still, the sight of hundreds of sows confined to filthy gestation crates — metal cages too small for them to turn or scratch themselves — made for grim viewing.

“Our goal was to get mass media attention, not only on Excelsior, but the fact that this farm is representative of the entire industry,” Soranno told me shortly before her sentencing hearing. PETA’s footage hadn’t been enough, she explained. There was no way to prove it came from Excelsior, for one thing. For another, it was illegally obtained and so would not be admissible in court. “But if you go in first-hand and you’re livestreaming,” Soranno said, “it’s really indisputable.”

Unfortunately for Soranno, the gestation crates she and her fellow activists witnessed are perfectly legal. Like battery cages for hens and feedlots for cattle, holding sows in body-sized cages for months at a time is standard practice at most of Canada’s 3,000 pig-breeding facilities.

This meant Excelsior wasn’t breaking any laws. But by storming the hog farm to protest, Soranno was. This past July, she and one other activist were convicted of breaking and entering and mischief — another Canadian first for an animal rights activist.

“It’s disgusting that our government’s response to this systemic abuse and the footage that keeps surfacing is … to criminalize those who expose that,” said Soranno… But civil disobedience often involves breaking laws one agrees with (like those protecting private property) to shine a light on laws one considers unjust — or in the case of farm animal welfare, laws that don’t exist. Wasn’t she being dishonest, pleading not guilty to a crime she’d filmed herself committing?…

Soranno acknowledges her plea was more of a political strategy than a legal one. Forcing the case to trial wasn’t about Excelsior or even pigs, she added. It was meant to take aim at a factory farm system that slaughters more than 825 million animals each year in this country. The goal wasn’t to get acquitted, she said. “It’s how can we make this a political show trial? And if we pled guilty, we wouldn’t have achieved that goal”…

It’s not always the activists who wind up on trial. Over the past 10 years, a wave of activist-driven factory farm exposés have repeatedly forced the industry to defend itself both in and out of court. The earliest exposés were legal acts of subterfuge: activists took jobs on farms in order to become whistleblowers… but the glacial pace of change caused some activists to escalate their tactics; the occupation of Excelsior marked a new and more aggressive phase of activism that has spread across the country…

Camille Labchuk, now the executive director of the animal law group Animal Justice, was at the forefront of that first wave. In 2012, Labchuk and a small group of fellow animal rights lawyers formed a Canadian chapter of Mercy For Animals, an American group with a long history of undercover investigations of factory farms in the U.S. Within two years, Mercy For Animals Canada had made national headlines exposing atrocities in virtually every branch of the meat industry throughout the country, from egg producers and pork transporters in Alberta to hog farmers in Manitoba, turkey farms in B.C. and veal producers in Ontario.

Labchuk feels those exposés had a major impact on the public’s perception of factory farming. “Until that point, the temptation in Canada was to say, ‘All of those images from farms, that’s not up here; Canada’s very different.’ And of course, it’s not,” she told me.

Despite the graphic success of all those investigations by Mercy For Animals Canada, however, there still isn’t a single law in this country that addresses how farm animals should be treated. The only thing that comes close is the same animal cruelty laws that govern pet owners, which forbid causing “unnecessary pain, suffering or injury” to pigs and golden retrievers alike.

“That sounds pretty good until you think about the word ‘unnecessary,’” said Labchuk. From a legal perspective, “it’s expected that if you’re using an animal for some industrial process, it’s a necessary use of the animal. So ‘unnecessary suffering’ is interpreted as extreme cases of neglect, or gratuitous beating or torture,” as was exposed at Chilliwack Cattle Sales. “But you’ll never see anyone bring a criminal case for unnecessary suffering based on standard industry practices.”

Nor is there any independent oversight — no cameras or third-party inspections — to ensure even the most basic standards of animal welfare are met. “Nobody’s going on to these farms to see what conditions are like,” Labchuk said. “And when people learn that and learn what that means, they’re outraged”. SOURCE…

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