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More animal abuse revelations – is it fair play?

We have entered a new, digital, era in animal protection, yet one in which a legislative backlash against video exposes is stirring in parts of the US. Last week brought another revelation of animal cruelty…

Where does it come from? Flickr/Allerina & Glen MacLarty

We have entered a new, digital, era in animal protection, yet one in which a legislative backlash against video exposes is stirring in parts of the US. Last week brought another revelation of animal cruelty, this time concerning intensively-reared pigs in Oklahoma, organised by the Humane Society of the United States.

In the video footage viewers see sows confined in small cages with a variety of behaviour and health problems. As with last year’s revelations of Australian animals being slaughtered in Indonesia, video footage of the pigs was quickly shared worldwide with the worlds’ internet users.

Whereas the Indonesian footage last year could perhaps be considered an extreme example of slaughter malpractice, this latest footage only reveals what is common across thousands of piggeries around the world. This modern phenomenon of being able to reveal what is happening almost anywhere in the world to almost anyone that is interested, within minutes of it happening, must be making animal producers afraid for the future.

And indeed, the state legislatures of Florida, Iowa, and Minnesota are considering bills making it illegal to possess or distribute illegally-obtained video or audio records of animal facilities.

Today’s ability of animal welfare supporters to instantly distribute upsetting footage worldwide means that animal producers can no longer do anything that they would not be willing to invite someone off the street to view. The public are becoming the armchair arbiters of society’s animal welfare values.

Today the vanguards of animal protection are less the politicians, philosophers, and writers who have for centuries exhorted the public to treat animals with respect and dignity, and more the young activists who expose suffering to the public through their videos. In an increasingly secular society, who reads the Old Testament of the Bible to get instructions on how to look after animals? By contrast, Lyn White, who exposed the Indonesian slaughter last year, was recently voted ABC Newsradio’s “newsmaker of the year”, Crikey.com’s “person of the year” and listed in the top 100 Victorians by The Age.

Yet, in the same week that we saw pigs in appalling conditions in America, cattle were drowning in Queensland because of floods. Why was there no public concern at the horrors that must have afflicted those animals? The reliance on public emotional response means that only direct human mistreatment of animals awakens our outrage.

Should we be concerned about the producer that knowingly kept his stock on the floodplains and failed to get them to higher ground, or the one who let his animals die during a drought because he didn’t buy food, or in a heatwave because there was no shade in the feedlot? Animal suffering takes many guises, and it’s not just the deliberate maiming of animals in intensive piggeries or abattoirs.

Countless, or perhaps uncounted, animals die on drought or flood affected farms. Does the public care? Flickr/yewenyi

With the public’s new found power to change industry practices - for example, forcing a suspension of live cattle exports from Australia almost overnight - will our responses to what is presented to us on television embody what is in society’s best interests in the long term? Will we decide what is right for our children and their children, or will we selfishly choose what gives us most satisfaction, like eating cheaply-produced meat?

Obviously there is scope for activists to play on our emotions, such as by inducing horror at the sight of animals being slaughtered, but this may not be a bad thing, because our emotions have evolved to help us survive and avoid harmful events. A benign relationship with our animals is a prerequisite for a successful and caring society. However, to have a just and thriving society, we need much more than just our primeval emotions; we need reasoned thought, debate, and argument to organise the complex systems used to produce and manage animals.

In relation to animal welfare at least, our politicians seem answerable to their electorate as never before. Consumers want cheap food and our politicians are only too aware of the economic importance of our animal industries, but at the same time they must fear the power that activists have over public sentiment. Have we seen the end of the conviction politicians that championed better conditions for animals - people such as anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce who almost two hundred years ago founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals?

Conviction politician William Wilberforce. Flickr/Andy Field (Hubmedia)

Will the activists’ video-exposés force food production underground, behind closed doors? This seems unlikely, but better self-regulation is being advocated by some. The UK government’s Food Standards Agency, with support from the major supermarket chains, is encouraging meatworks to install CCTV.

As a result of this, depending on species, between 13% and 42% of animals in Britain are now videoed during slaughter, with the sole objective being to detect animal welfare breaches. However, the meatworks themselves have the responsibility to manage offences. Animal protection organisations mostly support mandatory installation of CCTV, with release of the footage to independent agencies for analysis. It is usually government’s responsibility to prosecute.

At the same time there are increasing calls for controls on activists’ videoing animal facilities, including the push in the US to outlaw the possession or distribution of illegally-obtained video or sound recordings. In the UK, undercover footage taken by activists may be admissible in a court case, but only if it was taken “fairly”. Notably the Food Standards Agency have used undercover footage to suspend slaughtermen.

If the filming was illegal it raises the prospect of prosecution of the activist rather than, or as well as, the producer. This is likely to be counterproductive because it creates publicity for them, and the penalties are not a deterrent to those with strong convictions. Their main objective is to influence consumers, which is achieved by release of the video footage on the internet.

Supermarket special: a vegetarian activist suggests equal treatment. Flickr/CreatiVegan.net

Online journalists' reporting of animal abuse is sometimes bound by codes of ethics which may include not broadcasting footage that breaches confidence or was obtained by dishonest or unfair means, unless there is an over-riding public interest. However, the extent to which these are adhered to, particulary on the internet, is questionable.

Other related issues include the extent to which those who have been secretly filmed can insist on anonymity; whether distortion or alteration of video footage is permissible; payment for services; the worth of third party reports of events witnessed and, most importantly, the responsibilities of those filmed and how they should respond.

Our relationship to animals is a highly emotive topic with a large divergence of views. It has become a major societal issue, in part because of the recent intensification of livestock production systems. These two facts render the livestock industries highly susceptible to those with strong views about animal protection trying to expose what they believe to be wrong.

Comments welcome below.