Muckraking (Literally): Should It Be Illegal To Film Animal Abuse?

by Andrew Cohen as posted on the Atlantic

A recent effort to document the abuse of horses raises new question over the legality of citizen journalism

In March 2011, Lisa Friday’s video camera made a difference. On a late winter day, Friday visited a herd of wild horses penned at the Bureau of Land Management‘s Butterfield/Herrimen holding facility in southwest Utah. What she saw there, and what she lawfully recorded, was appalling. “Never in my entire life have I seen animals in such squalor,” she said this past weekend from her home in Virginia. “There was no place for any horse to escape.”

Friday became interested in wild horses 12 years ago. In 2009, she adopted a captured mustang named “Rain.” She then joined the board of directors of The Cloud Foundation, one of the most prominent wild horse advocacy groups in America. So, shortly after Friday left the horses in Utah that day in 2011, she shared her video with her colleagues at the Foundation. They promptly posted the video online. You can see all of it here.

The public furor from the grim video– is this really how we treat our captured wild horses?– caused the BLM to work toward fixing the problem. The feds promptly shipped some of those poor mustangs to slightly less odious places in Utah. And then the BLM announced it would permanently close the Herrimen site. There was no evidence of abuse, the BLM was quick to note at the time, but the “situation” Friday recorded was, indeed, “unacceptable.”

New Technologies and New Problems For Industry

It’s now axiomatic that current technology– video cameras, cellphones, handhelds, whatever– has made anyone and everyone a potential witness and that the Internet allows for every such witness to become, in effect, an international journalist. Dogged people like Friday (and the activists who film livestock) have done what they do for centuries in America (see, e.g., Upton Sinclair). What’s changed is their ability to immediately bear their witness to the world.

The substantive issues that animate discussion about animal abuse are pretty much the same as they have always been. There are public safety concerns– how does the food that reaches our plates get there and is it safe? There are legal concerns– are the people who are handling the animals adhering to regulations, are they breaking the law? And there is the morality play– we generally want animals to be treated “humanely,” at least we say we do.

What’s new here is how fast the social-media alarm system goes off when the answers to those questions aren’t what they are supposed to be. There is no doubt that new technology has transformed the pace of the debate on animal abuse. For example, a generation ago, PETA could not have so quickly (and so cheaply) revealed to the world this horrifying evidence of animal abuse in Iowa. (Warning, this video shows terrible brutality and I’ve asked my editors not to embed it for that reason).

Industry And Government React

Naturally, America’s farmers and ranchers don’t want such images to be so readily accessible to so many people so quickly. It’s bad for business, it’s terrible PR, and it raises legal and regulatory headaches. So while corporate tribunes dutifully say that the abuse is rare and unauthorized they’ve also pushed their local lawmakers (whose campaigns they help finance) to send a stronger message to activists (and others) who find ways to monitor animal welfare.

Last week, for example, Iowa became the first state in America to make it a crime to lie to get onto a farm to record images of animal abuse. In Utah, meanwhile, Gov. Gary Herbert, is poised this week to sign legislation that would go even further in shielding animal treatment from public view. Utah’s statute would ban the photography of livestock without the permission of its owner– a misdemeanor crime punishable by a fine and up to one year in prison.

This new iteration of laws, called “agricultural interference” statutes, are based upon the legal concept that private enterprise has a right to conduct its business mostly in private. They are based upon the political premise that the livestock industry warrants special protections that ordinary criminal law does not afford it; both Iowa and Utah, after all, have their own general trespass, nuisance and fraud laws that would cover the conduct covered here.

To wild horse activists, the legislative effort smacks of desperation. “I come from a livestock background,” The Cloud Foundation founder and executive director Ginger Kathrens told me Sunday. “and my family was thrilled when people wanted to take pictures of us working with our cattle. If Utah livestock people have nothing to hide, then why are they attempting to legislate a blackout on their activities?”

The First Amendment Interest

It likely won’t be long before someone is arrested and charged with these new state crimes. And thus it won’t be long before we see lawsuit attacking the validity of the measures. Ken Paulson, President and CEO of the First Amendment Center, said Friday afternoon that “ag gag” bills like the ones at issue here likely will face “a significant First Amendment challenge.” In an email, Paulson wrote:

Newsgathering is protected by the First Amendment, and that applies even if the gatherer is an advocacy organization. Any attempt to keep people from exercising their freedom of speech or press by preventing them from collecting information is going to be constitutionally suspect. It’s particularly troubling in cases where the government is trying to use its power to prevent the public from documenting what many believe to be cruel treatment of animals.

Randy Parker, head of the Utah Farm Bureau, told the Salt Lake Tribune last week that the law is necessary because “activists can cajole disgruntled employees ‘to manufacture circumstances to discredit animal agricultural operations… it’s not for the animals, but it is politically motivated for their anti-meat agenda.” The same article quoted a GOP lawmaker blaming “vegetarian people” for the “bad rap” the industry receives from animal abuse videos.

Utah and Iowa will likely have to do more to legally justify their restrictions on free speech. For example, if all the “perpetrator” is doing is taking photos than where is the “interference” with “agricultural” business? Doesn’t the “interference” come only afterward, and only then if what the images show are so disturbing as to force farms into changing their practices (or losing business)? And, if so, wouldn’t the First Amendment protect the gathering of such images?

Not to state representative John Mathis, the Republican– a veterinarian, if you can believe it– who sponsored Utah’s legislation. Last month, Rep. Mathis called the activists “terrorists” and said they were out to destroy his state’s agriculture business. “There are groups with the stated purpose to do away with animal agriculture, and that’s egregious,” Mathis said. “The animal welfare movement has become an animal rights movement, and that’s wrong.”

Light And Heat

It’s absurd– the idea that farmers in Iowa and Utah are a persecuted group which needs special protection in the form of laws designed to chill the flow of information about matters of public health. It’s ridiculous– the notion that existing trespass and fraud laws can’t do the trick. No wonder Katherine Heigl, the actress who lives in Utah, is so angry about what just been done there. The animals cannot speak for themselves, she says, so someone should.

Suzanne Roy, of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, says the state measures are particularly dangerous because of the real and metaphysical distance hundreds of millions of Americans have these days from the source of their food:

This is about hiding the truth about conditions at animal agricultural operations from the public. At the horse slaughter summit in Las Vegas last year, the ranchers were bemoaning the urbanization of America and the fact that people have lost touch with where their food comes from. Now they are trying to crack down on photographic and video evidence that shows the public exactly where their food comes from.

Please click (HERE) to read the Conclusion and to Comment!


32 comments on “Muckraking (Literally): Should It Be Illegal To Film Animal Abuse?

    • Actually, Kansas was the first state to enact an Ag Gag law, in 1990. Montana and North Dakota followed in 1991. Currently 60-plus percent of Iowans are against animal abuse, and just like 80 percent of Americans who are against horse slaughter, We The People are ignored in favor of Big Ag buying whatever legislation it wants.

      Iowa’s Republican Governor Branstad said, “Gaining access to property under false pretenses is a serious matter and property owners deserve protections.” The final Bill was framed around hiring fraud and gaining employment under false pretenses to get inside Ag facilities. But according to The Risk Advisory Group (TRAG), 65 per cent of CVs/resumes submitted in 2007 contained false information. Yet Big Ag is the ONLY industry that wins legislation to prosecute applicants for hiring fraud, and all this for a low-level, low-paying job??? Obviously Branstad isn’t protecting Ag facilities, but most certainly he’s protecting the animal abusers and Big Ag’s public face. Iowa Democratic Senator Seng, who is also a veterinarian just as the sponsor in Utah per the Atlantic article, quickly walked the Bill through the Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate with all Senate Republicans and a quarter of Senate Democrats voting for and passing the Bill (what’s up with these vets!). Unusually quickly, the Bill sailed through the Republican-controlled House the very same day without comment from House Democrats. Compliments of Terry Branstad, as with all unpopular issues he hurries legislation through and signs in private to quell vocal opposition. He didn’t defend his signature based on the Bill’s merits, instead he claimed legislative harmony–not legislative collusion which was so much more obvious to those who know and follow Ag history.

      Resistance was solid with Des Moines Register editorials, letters to the editor, and write/call-ins to the Governor’s office all speaking out against this Bill. But it didn’t matter. Perhaps the smug Governor Branstad who scoffed at concerns that Iowa’s livestock industry could suffer retaliation, will eventually have that certainty wiped from his face. I know I’ll tell a few thousand or so of my internet friends, and I am a Republican. But Ag Gag is a symptom of a much larger problem, the very same one that plagues wild horse lovers and advocates; Big Ag has a choke hold on America, both legislatively and to the tune of up to $35 billion taxpayer dollars annually in farm welfare while Ag profits are the highest in history! Across party lines and revolving door legislators/lobbyists with legal bi-partisan corruption, Big Ag (and other Special Interest Groups) have taken over. To save our animals, We The People have to defeat Goliath, and in spite of and across party line affiliations. Videos and publicity obviously hit an Achilles Heel, and passing outwardly biased legislation can’t help either. Iowans may have lost a recent battle, but they’ll be ready for the rematch in court to test the constitutionality of this bad legislation. This animal welfare war is far from over in this state and one with a very good memory at the polls.


  1. Florida tried to pass a similar law; I’m sure many other states are trying to pass them as well, much like the assault on women’s rights….

    We in Florida called, wrote and continued to call. The bill was killed, although I know the governor here would have signed it.

    I don’t eat red meat, mainly because of the attitudes of the Western cowmen.


    • just for the record…some of the ‘western cowmen’ are also horsemen….and ARE on the side of horses….so just be careful not to be so general in your accusations… to alienate the good ones….I don’t eat red meat, because I don’t like it…..and I live in the middle of major ranch country….and a lot of these people are for the wild horses, and take good care of their animals….


      • Sorry, but if any of those “good” ranchers and horsemen belong to their state Farm Bureau and/or NCBA, then they are enablers and tacitly approve of this form of censorship and the attack on wild equines.


    • Denise, there are some “good cattlemen”……’s one that didn’t even probably know what NCBA meant……watch the video closely…..let’s give the good ones credit….all I say….


      • I guess it is all about how one qualifies “good”.

        Many, many people in agriculture use Farm Bureau for insurance products and if they are really against this kind of censorship and the abuse of US Equines, they shouldn’t do business with them or at a minimum, run for membership office and change the corporate culture; same with NCBA, Arabian and Paint horse associations.


  2. Stopping the filming of animal abuse will only to support animal abuse and torture. If animal raisers don’t fear being caught than you better believe the abuse will not only continue but get worse. If McDonald’s was not shown how the chickens that they get their eggs from were tortured then McDonald’s would have done nothing because they did not know about the abuse. McDonald’s showed they do care how they are perceived by the public and they stepped up and did the right thing. If they didn’t have that fear of the public finding out then they would not have changed egg companies and the abuse would continue. We in American cannot let the Government continue to take away our freedoms on the important issues. And living a life without fear of abuse and torture should also relate to animals. Abuse of animals has been proven to move on to people. It teaches people that the value of any life is meaningless. We need to start teaching people compassion if we as a society are going to survive.

    Congress needs to start working on getting our economy going and getting more jobs so people can get back their self esteem and get their lives back on track.


  3. I am horrified,and ashamed of AMERICA , to see this , the DARNED DISEASED RATS LIVE BETTER, and to think this is what I pay taxes for!!!!!!!!!!!!! The BLM is a Complete utter despicable FAILURE………………. Either they need to shape up or ship out………………Our voices have just been proven to mean absolutely nothing……………and now they want to stop us from filming Oh I thiink not !!!!!! This treatment of our Mustangs is a unbearable Complete Betrayal…………………………..


  4. Of course, many of the workers with animals get their “kicks” from abusing innocent, vulnerable animals. It can be one or two or more workers…it can become a way of “working.” A subculture. Still vivid in my mind are the photos of terrible abuse to calves & cows in Ohio, Conklin Farm. Made the news, big time, but little prosecution if I remember correctly. However, so many cases caught in photos, video, where the legal system worked. If these AG-GAG laws keep passing, serious setback for animal welfare in general. I find these laws unbelievable, but i should not, knowing the corruption… & insanity, with those in power.


    • Dear Ronnie E am from Ohio, and yes the film is embedded in my mind also………….I still am ashamed that thats the way someone in Ohio treated them….After seeing that we had petition gathered and signed, I was apart of that action………………………It was one of the most appalling displays of abuse that I have ever seen…………………………until today seeing the Butterfield/Herrimen video…….. This one is the worst i have ever seen especially consensual abuse by The BLM who is paid to protect them …………………………


  5. Over population is the problem they pen them up because they are taking range from the native animals who live there.The horses are not native,and should be culled down because of it.I do believe we need some wild horses but not 50000 of them.Open slaughter and take care of the problem,and put money back into the economy.That is all us pro slaughter people want is to end the abandonment and cruelty.You guys are the ones who take the pictures you know what is going on your helping us prove it.


    • Rob:………..Nope!!!!! You are wrong on every word you posted except maybe your name. And based on the proslaughter, equine hatin’ folks I know, maybe even your name (and log on email addy too), come to think of it.


    • Don’t know how many times we have to tell you wild horse haters that the latest evidence puts horses here before the land bridge closed. They are native. And that really makes no difference, they are wild as they have no owners and they have lived in the west for a very long time. I do not feel that it is the wild horses at a mire 20,000 to 30,000 roaming free that are to blame. It is the millions of non-native cattle that are the trouble. They are privately owned and have no business on public lands. If you are going to have a business then you dam well better be able to take care of it in all aspics and that includes being able to feed you own cattle or you shouldn’t be in that kind of business. Get rid of the non-native cattle and that will make plenty of room for the real native wild animals


      • Lynette:

        I agree and actually all wildlife is under attack.

        Here’s the difference that I think is really important; whether wild equines are native or not (and I believe they are), they have a Congressional Act to protect them that was signed by the President. Yes, I realize that insidious riders, amendments, land sales/leases, etc have essentially gutted (pun intended) the Wild Horse and Burro Act….but it IS still there.

        The problem is the Executive Branch not enforcing, managing for welfare of these animals….no truth or transparency OR repercussions for abusing, maiming, killing, removing and reducing herds and their granted lands. Oh, and ignoring their migratory nature.

        BTW, the LA Times did a piece about sheep ranchers in Nevada and their dwindling numbers; human and animal. It was interesting. The reporter highlighted that family members don’t want to go into the business, but I think the reporter did a disservice by not highlighting the sale of resources for extraction (leases and wholesale privatization of public lands) , corporate ag and the water wars.


    • Well the way I look at it is this? Who was here first? Those horses or your mommy and your daddy? Didn’t your mommy ever teach you to share?

      There are enough resources if all would learn to work together.

      Robby you pay what? $1.35 per cow/calf and you want to slaughter all the horses?

      I’m afraid someone got kicked in the head by a 4 legged when he was too young to remember that it was his fault.


    • omg. 20,000 wild horses over 10 western states are taking the land from native animals? are you for real? try millions of head of cattle have already taken the land, dude. you are completely clueless and devoid of facts and your posts are a joke.


  6. Through the Horse Short Course I take in North Carolina, I was sent a list of current legislation and laws governing horse farms, transportation, and animal cruelty. Livestock are protected under the same laws that all other animals are protected by with the exception that they are recognized as food animals. However, the law protects them from cruelty.

    The last official word from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture is that animal owners are expected to treat all animals humanely, including food animals, and that there will be no support for legislation banning these types of videos. In other words, farmers are expected to practice good animal husbandry. Good animal husbandry creates better products and assures the public that animals are being treated humanely.

    Not that animal cruelty doesn’t happen. There was a bust at the Butterball turkey farm and several workers were charged.

    In Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human, she writes on p.171, “Preventing rough handing is like controlling speeding on the highways. You need constant measurement and enforcement. I have observed that some people enjoy abusing animals. Those people shouldn’t be working with animals at all. They’re like drunk drivers with multiple arrests who get their driver’s licenses taken away. But most employees who are handling the cattle roughly aren’t sadistic by nature. They just don’t have the training and practice they need to manage cattle well enough that their own RAGE system doesn’t get over activated—and they don’t have a system of ongoing audits to make sure that they keep using good handling techniques after they’ve learned them.”

    Frankly, this Vegans are terrorists language is about as rational as the Salem witch trials. Do these people have any idea how absurd they sound to normal, rational people? Nada.

    I was a teacher for 30 years. My classroom was always open. If a parent or someone from the county or state office wanted to come in and observe class, I didn’t require advance notice. In fact it was a good thing to have them come in and observe a lesson, watch the children interact, and see the classroom environment in action. Not all my classes were prefect, but I never had a complaint from anyone who visited my classroom.

    This is why I think if you are working for the government—-and though livestock owners and their livestock are private property, the goal is for them to produce something for the public—therefore, there is a proper interest for the public, and the public should have standing.

    This Vegan Terroist thing came straight out of the Summit of the Horse Killers Part I, a collection of people who live in the world of the truly absurd. When the speaker is yelling that the most dangerous terrorists in America is a Vegan—you know they have fallen off the edge.


    • “Vegan terrorists” comes from Berman’s group and Big Ag/Food Industry. Wallis and Duquette are nothing but parrots. (no offense to parrots… least you can train and/or educate them, somewhat).


      • What in the name of the man above is a Vegan Terrorist? I remember when Eight Belles broke down a few years ago in the Derby PETA tried to boycott the Preakness Stakes. Most people continued to walk right on by and others wouldn’t even acknowledge their presence. It basically blew up in their face.

        I was deeply saddened by what happened to Eight Belles. But I wouldn’t protest horse racing because of it.

        It bothers me that States are passing these stupid laws that protects the evil doer and punishes unjustly the ones who are promoting fixing the problem.

        I don’t go as far as PETA but yes, I want things to be as just as they can for all animals. All animals especially those in the slaughter pipeline (regardless of species) deserves to be treated with the care and dignity that most of the horse farms in Kentucky treat their stallions (I’m particularly thinking of Darley who has a world class operation at Jonabell Farms).


  7. This type of legislation is very akin to how Wall Street and banking wants to run their businesses – without any oversight. And we all know where that got us. But another example of all this is hair braiders. I work at renaissance festivals and my neighbors in the booth next to us have done excellent hairbraiding for over 20 years. They follow all health standards (such as using anti-bacteria dips for combs and brushes, and have taken many courses in hair care from valid institutes of education) and yet 2 years ago the State of Texas decided they had to adhere to the same standards of a regular hair saloon, even tho they did not do any coloring, shampooing or cutting. They had to pay an extra license every year now, and take continuing education classes and were told they had to install running water in their booth. It was overkill and cost them lost of money they didn’t have. They did finally come to a compromise with the state. But my point is that regulation CAN go too far, yet we cannot have total free market (and anarchy) in our businesses. There has to be a balance, and it is up to the courts to find it. If only all (wo)men did what was right, and not just what was in their best interest, because the courts decision always seems to come down on the side of the best lawyer.


  8. And if we think our horses will be any better treated in a slaughter situation-then some people are only kidding themselves. I believe that the majority of all animal raisers treat their animals humanely. It is the animals that are in the feedlot situations were I believe I have noticed the most abuse~~~and anyone who works in a place that kills 200 to 400 and more of -anything a day~well only the warped and sick of mind could do that day after day. And although I do not work with farm animals – I will be there everyday for our domestic animals, taking pictures videos and whatever it takes to ducument abuse and keep them safe. Because next they will tell me I have no right to document city animal abuse and that will not happen. If a company has nothing to hide they will not care if someone takes pictures or visits.. And they can call us anything they want~~~because I myself deal with to much Nazis mentality—–if name calling is what they have stupped to.

    Those of us who work everyday with animals know that they feel about their own family units the same as humans do, they feel pain, love, loyalty, and loss just as we do, and what the human race has stupped to in their treatment – is appalling. And I will work everyday of my life in hopes to see an end to all animal abuse my life time.



    BLM and Mismanagement and Questionable Past/Today
    “It’s pretty much a joke how the entire horse program is handled,” says Dale Tunnell, Special Agent in charge of the BLM’s division of Law Enforcement in Santa Fe. “They’ll run one herd into another management area and say it’s overpopulated. Then they’ll take a certain number of horses off the land. The cattle ranchers have a significant say on how those ranges are managed. The managers will do anything to keep those ranchers off their hind ends. The whole purpose is to remove wild horses from the public lands. If they could decimate the herds to where they could die out and become extinct, it would make the politicians and the bureaucrats extremely happy.” This still goes on today, as you read this article


  10. In America, we’re suppose to be the land of the free, a free country, as long as a person doesn’t step out of bounds, as in over-throwing our government, causing harm to others, or otherwise negative activities. We have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, we have the unquestionable rights to travel wherever we wish. We also have the right to know our government’s goings on, after all, we expressed our right to vote when most of them were voted in, or at least the ones who hired those considered staff. I have the right to know, period. That includes food labels, other product ingredients, what plans our government is making, as in making jobs for it’s citizens, protecting us, going to war, gas prices, etc., etc. We are suppose to report crimes, which includes child abuse, AND, animal abuse. Regardless of “who” is committing that crime, including our government, they are NOT above the laws, even their own. We have the right to know where our food comes from, & that includes the treatment, or, the abuses the animals endured. If my neighbor is abusing or torturing his or her pets or other animals, I’m suppose to notify authorities. Now, back to the subject of horses. The BLM has absolutely NO right to hide the truth from us, the people of the United States of America have the right to know what the government is doing to our wild, native mustangs & burros, no different than their right to know our business. We should know how the wild equines are treated, handled, or abused. We should know how the factory farms are treating animals destined to become food. Unless this is really a socialist country, what are they afraid of? What are they trying to hide, or cover-up, & why? Do they really think we’re that stupid, to not know something is going on, but if they hide it from us, we’ll just go away?? NOT!! And, I agree that if filming these things becomes illegal, it will promote much more animal abuse & torture. Those people need to know everyone is watching, otherwise they’ll be able to get away with horrific acts against other living beings, which is NOT acceptable!


    • And this is my dilemma. We have a Pres who is suppose to be committed to an open and transparent government. We hears that right from his mouth.

      Should I vote for him this fall? At best I’d know what I’m getting. A known liar.

      And then there’s the Republicans. I fear people like Mitt Romney. He has no compassion to animals–even years after the fact. He just doesn’t get it.

      For my money would we get another Bushie Jr.? Or is he better than I give him credit for?


  11. Personally I feel we should vote Obama out just to reconfirm to Congress that we still have the power to vote out those who do not up hold their campaign promises and who decieve the public. Besides Mitt’s wife owns some horses and rides to help her disease. Maybe we can get her to stand up for our horses especially since Obama said he would and he hasn’t.


  12. I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian; I am fully aware of what I eat and where it comes from. So that pretty much puts that particular side of the argument on it’s keester.

    Having admitted to being an omnivore, I still have an expectation that the animals raised for the food I eat NOT be treated as someone’s punching bag (yeah; I saw the Conklin footage) or the savage amusement of some psychotic asshat who probably brutalizes his significant other, children and animals not being penned as food or food producers.

    If these ‘farmers’ and ‘ranchers’ are so confident of their mastery of animal husbandry (and the people who work for them), why the paranoid rush to pass this and similar bills? See to it that your animals are raised and treated appropriately and you won’t have a problem. You know – Do Your Job.

    My grandparents raised both beef and dairy cattle (hard work for those not affiliated corporately). My grandfather and uncles also hunted, and Grandma raised chickens, for eggs as well as Sunday dinner. They were there for the birth of every calf – knew the lineage of every animal – raised and fed them and provided them a quality life. Grandma raised her chickens with pride and affection and when Grace was said, it was meant – an honorarium to those animals for their sacrifice. My grandfather would have shot someone (probably not fatally) caught abusing his stock.

    Temple Grandin has stated in about a dozen papers that abuse of stock wastes money and resources and perpetuates poor husbandry practices. Now these twits have the ‘law’ on their side, in essence protecting their right to abuse their ‘property’ because neither the Laws of their states nor the Ag Department can be bothered to make them responsible to the animals.

    Damn. Seems with the proper application of enough money, you can buy the right to do anything, doesn’t it? However, I don’t think that power makes them appear anything but small and petty.


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