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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.

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28 Comments sorted by

  1. Shirley Birney

    retiree

    Mention pigs and I just might grow irrational. What did it for me was a police raid on Westpork’s 40,000 pig facility in WA. Here we have an animal abuser, the Chairperson of WA Agriculture Produce Commission (Pork Producers Committee) and a board member of Australian Pork Limited, farming penned pigs that were forced to wallow in filth so deep they struggled to walk. The moribund were left to die painfully while others were reduced to cannibalism.

    Thirty animal cruelty charges have been laid…

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  2. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

    "making it illegal to possess or distribute illegally-obtained video or audio records of animal facilities."
    Shoot the messenger. If it were cruelty to humans on anything like the scale we're talking about here, the illegality of how the evidence was obtained would be of very minor importance.

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  3. Annarosa Berman

    logged in via Facebook

    "Is it fair play?" your headline wonders. Animal cruely is not a game, and animal welfare activists do not try to score points when they try to expose the appaling conditions under which pigs, dairy cows, babby calves, veal calves, chickens (broilers or layers) and cattle destined for live exports live and die, in Australia and in its export markets. Animal welfarists are trying to expose cruelty, with the aim to of improving conditions. This is a serious ethical issue, and that you can even suggest that exposure of cruelty should be curbed, is deeply troubling. The conditions exposed by animal welfare groups mostly aren't isolated incidents; anyone who takes the trouble to educate themselves about conditions in modern mass food production, will know that cruelty is the norm, not the exception. To try to somehow turn the people who are trying to bring this to public attention, with a view to improving conditions, into criminals, is unethical to say the least.

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    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Annarosa Berman

      Annarosa, the headline refers to the legal question of "fairness", which is being used as a test of whether these videos are admissible in UK courts; we weren't trying to imply that this is a game. Nor is the author suggesting exposure should be curbed - he's outlining the curbs that various jurisdictions are trying to impose and the results that might have.

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    2. Annarosa Berman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Jane, thank you for your response. I've read the article again, and while I accept your point that the headline refers to the legal question of fairness, this was not all clear to me when reading the article; a second reading did not make it any clearer.

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  4. Todd Waite

    logged in via Facebook

    "...this latest footage only reveals what is common across thousands of piggeries around the world." So was wife beating, once upon a time (though not necessarily at piggeries). Just because something is common practice does not make it ethical.

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  5. Darren Jones

    Biotechnology Manager

    I find it astounding that a somebody who works at an institute called "The Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics" would even question whether this method of evidence gathering as problematic. Wide-scale, severe, prolonged cruelty and torture of many thousands of sentient beings is getting exposed- something I and most others would consider to be a first order ethical problem- and yet you question whether hidden cameras that provide evidence of this is ok- something that is probably a fifth-order ethical dilemma at most. and then you run a classic red herring arguing tactic by trying to equate this issue with animals dying in droughts and floods.

    Perhaps such topsy-turvy priorities come about when funding is provided by organisations whose bottom lines benefit from the status quo of live animal exports and out of sight, out of mind 'processing' of their products?

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  6. Annarosa Berman

    logged in via Facebook

    About the "Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics":

    Establishing a Chair in Animal Behaviour and Welfare was an idea pioneered by the Cattlemen's Union in the mid 1980s. They saw that animal welfare issues would confront not only livestock producers but also other members of primary industries. The establishment of a Chair in Animal Welfare also addressed the need of governments at all levels to have access to objective scientific advice on animal welfare.

    ....

    The Cattlemen’s foresight and leadership demonstrated a commitment by Queensland primary industries to address welfare issues. It has now become imperative that all organisations involved with animals have access to current, relevant and unbiased research."

    Well there you have it. Look at the other organisations to which the author of this article is affiliated, and it's clear that this is meat industry propaganda.

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    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Annarosa Berman

      Annarosa, if you read a few of the other articles Clive has written for our site, I think you'll quickly see he is by no means an apologist for the meat industry. Indeed, a lot of what Clive says in this article - "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?" and " A benign relationship with our animals is a prerequisite for a successful and caring society" - should point you towards his attitude to animal welfare.

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    2. Annarosa Berman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley, thank you for your comment. I remember reading the article about how researched is funded in Australia at the time of last year's live exports debacle. It was for this reason that Clive Phillips' disclosure about having received funding from MLA and Livecorp, published with today's article, made me doubt his bona fides. The Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics does not inspire confidence either, as a result of cattle industry support for it. Having re-read the article that you posted, however, I realise that Clive Phillips has indeed contributed to halting animal abuse in the livestock industry.

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    3. Annarosa Berman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Jane, thank you for your comment. Having re-read the article, even in the knowledge that Mr Phillips is no apologist for the meat industry, I must confess that I still find today's article ambiguous. For example: "The public are becoming the armchair arbiters of society’s animal welfare values." "Armchair" implies a lack of seriousness and a distance, when many members of the public care passionately about animal welfare issues, and go to great lengths to educate themselves on the subject. Another…

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  7. Rosalie Higson

    Freelance journalist

    "The public are becoming the armchair arbiters of society’s animal welfare values"

    Hey, hold on... last time I looked "the public" was a rather large and important part of society. Thanks to activists, the armchair public is becoming increasingly aware of and intolerant of such "commonplace" cruelties as shown in the secretly-made videos, and we expect the industry and politicians to shape up in this regard. It's not the videos that are the problem. I think the public admires those who stand on their principles and get out of their armchairs. Once upon a time it was commonplace to a horse ill treated till it fell down dead in the street. Women and children could be beaten with impuntiny. It was activists (also known as respectable citizens concerned with ethics) who changed those conditions and laws. Society changes and evolves, and yes, the livestock industry is susceptible to change of opinion especially in their customers - the public.

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  8. Shirley Birney

    retiree

    Name and Shame - One strike, you're out!:

    Thirty five years ago my family and I issued a complaint to the WA RSPCA (to no avail) over the ill-treatment of sheep on a transport truck on their 600 kilometre journey from outback WA to the metropolitan area in the middle of a heatwave. WA’s impotent RSPCA was officially founded on 2 August 1892,

    January 14, 2011:

    The lesser known but highly respected international ANIMALS’ ANGELS were at the Fremantle port for the second consecutive day…

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  9. Kris Ingram

    Animal Advocate

    "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."

    Isn't this a GOOD thing?? Damn straight it's fair! The treatment of sentient beings must be improved and brought into view of the people - too long has it been behind closed doors while happy…

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    1. John Nicol

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Kris Ingram

      I am sory but no cattle, or sheep producer "allows" their cattle to drown. I woiuld like to see evidence where a number of cattle have recently "drowned" in the floods. Some may be missing form properties but these animals are somewhat smarter than that and may have been swept off their original property as often happens but will turn up alive sometimes 1oo miles below where they wee picked up by the water. Sheep are the same but often in sheep country are fouled by fences.

      To claim that…

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    2. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to John Nicol

      John Nicol, there are several documented accounts of cattle abuse in this country and to the best of my knowledge there have been no convictions. BAU is the status quo. However, I agree that pastoralists would not allow their cattle to deliberately drown simply because they’re not just any old cattle – they’re cash cows.

      The legalised torture of cattle is also well documented in this country and none of the following surgical procedures performed on bellowing cattle require anaesthesia or…

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  10. Barry Calderbank

    Farmer

    It's disappointing that some want to accuse the Prof of being a meat industry apologist without actually first going to the effort of understanding the issues. Clive Phillips is one of a number of academics who are doing great work in the area of animal welfare. Tremendous advances have been made in recent years and much of what has been developed by these academics is, as we speak, being installed as technologies, practices etc in the various animal industries. Temple Grandin in the US and John…

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    1. Barry Calderbank

      Farmer

      In reply to Annarosa Berman

      Not sure what your point is here Annarosa. I said, as did Clive Phillips, that yes there are issues occasionally with industry-funded research. And that's not exclusive to the meat industry. But there's a hell of a lot of ground-breaking research being done in the area of animal welfare in recent years - some of it funded by industry and some not.

      The "difficulty" that we all refer to is only a problem if the likes of Clive Phillips were easily bought off as hired guns. Clearly, that's…

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    2. Annarosa Berman

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Barry Calderbank

      Occasional issues with industry-funded research? It would seem to be a little more than that. Here are a few quotes from Mr Phillips' article on research that illustrates the point:

      'The industry body determines the type of work that is conducted, who does the research, how it is conducted and how it is reported.'

      'Income targets for researchers are common, and promotion may be dependent upon it. Some may be tempted to undertake work that has the objective of confirming that the status quo…

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  11. Ben Garden

    Musician

    Of course people should know the kind of things their consumption of meat causes! It is the disconnect from the reality of what meat production entails that allows people to eat so much of it and not care. No more will the dark secrets of the meat industry be hidden from public view, the arena of public opinion will bring change, hopefully lowering consumption of meat drastically, for the sake of peoples health, and also the unfortunate animals that have the misfortune to be born to be eaten.

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  12. Shirley Birney

    retiree

    Name and Shame - The Untouchables:

    Recently Emanuel Export Pty Ltd and the dealer, Livestock Exports Inc. exported 5,800 sheep from Fremantle to the Philippines.

    The horrors of this industry were once again revealed when the stock arrived in the Philippines last Sunday and a sheep gave birth to two lambs while being unloaded from the cargo vessel.

    AA advises that evidence gathered by Animals Australia in 2003 was presented during a landmark animal cruelty trial in which cruelty charges…

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  13. Suzanne Cass

    Management Consultant and Paralegal

    I'm afraid I have great difficulty with anyone from the veterinary profession who has an involvement at all with the live export trade, particularly when they have received payments from MLA at any time. It is contrary to the veterinary oath to be complicit in the appalling suffering of these animals. Professor Phillips hsd spoken out only about the lack of transparency of MLA activities, not against the systemic animal abuse that has been shown to us so many times in the last decade and that simply isn't good enough for a member of the profession to which we look for leadership in the care and well-being of ALL animals. These veterinarians make us all look twice at the veterinarians who look after our OWN animals.

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  14. Suzanne Cass

    Management Consultant and Paralegal

    And furthermore, Professor Phillips aligns himself here against the animal advocates who work so hard, at the own expense and voluntarily, to bring the plight of farmed animals in Australia and overseas to the attention of the public. This demonsrates a serious credibility flaw.

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