Digging Deeper


PETA to launch drones, hunters and farmers take aim

A feedlot in central Kansas (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)
A feedlot in central Kansas (Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media)

Just when we thought some of that paranoia about government drones had died down, here comes PETA to whip up it all back up again.

This week, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals announced plans to launch drone aircraft that would “stalk” – PETA’s verb -- “slob hunters” – again, its term -- for illegal activity, according to U.S. News & World Report.  

“The talk is usually about drones being used as killing machines, but PETA drones will be used to save lives,” Ingrid E. Newkirk, the group’s president, said.

In what could be another PR stunt, PETA certainly got hunting and gun advocates fired up, literally. They are already promising to shoot the aircraft out of the sky. Chris Bennett, associate editor of Western Farm Press, wrote a piece saying the PETA drones will be a “trophy prize” for hunters.

“Simple advice to PETA,” Bennett wrote. “If you are really going down the drone route, then buy a fleet of 'em — you will need plenty of backups.”

Ammoland.com, which publishes shooting sports news and advocacy, published a printable target its readers could use for practice, complete with a PETA logo with its bunny.

There’s an ongoing debate about whether the use of drones here in the U.S.  is legal. So I called Scott Pham, head of Missouri’s Drone Journalism Program, and asked him about PETA’s plans. Laws are unclear on the use of drones, he said, and most often any approval is up to the Federal Aviation Administration. But Scott’s also a practical guy.

“Regardless of how legal it is to fly over a bunch of hunters, it’s a pretty bad idea to fly over anybody with a loaded gun,” he said.

This all comes at a time when the rural myth finally died down about the government spying on Midwestern cattle farms, flying the same drones used to kill terrorists. Spurred by farm country congressman, conservative websites and Fox News, the talk was about how the Environmental Protection Agency was conducting surveillance on feedlots, looking for water pollution and harassing farmers.  

In fact, the EPA doesn’t use drones to investigate pollution, but it does use small piloted planes in Nebraska and Iowa to check on feedlots, according to the Kansas City Star.  Fox News was forced to issue an on-air correction about its story.

So now the outrage over what the government was, in fact, not doing can be replaced by animosity against PETA.

And this tidbit buried in a few of the stories will further serve to anger farm country: PETA said it might also use the fleet of drones it is planning to purchase to monitor wrongdoing at factory farms. As Fast Company’s Neal Ungerleider wrote, drones could help animal-rights activists sidestep those newly popular “farm protection,” or ag-gag, laws.

This all comes during the same week the New York Times published a front page Sunday piece on the rise in state legislatures passing bills that outlaw whistleblowers doing undercover video work in meatpacking plants, horse ranches and egg processing facilities.

We’ve written about this many times over the last few years, most recently when we published a piece by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, which characterized the trend as “the push by the agriculture industry to restrict free speech and access to information.”

And that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it? Should we see what actually goes on in slaughterhouses?

Some sponsors of those bills argue that the people who go undercover to record the abuses are illegally taping on private property. Others,  like Dave Struthers,  a sixth-generation hog farmer in central Iowa, told Harvest that the activists' videos always portray farming in a negative light, even practices that are standard and considered humane.

"We have a problem with a lot of undercover videos that go into livestock production facilities, making — looking for things that might be out of ordinary," Struthers said. "And, I think many times, fabricating things that are not happening on regular basis."

I asked folks about this last year, after the huge outcry over the so-called “pink slime.” At that time, Temple Grandin, the lauded animal scientist, said she thought the packing plants should open their doors to the public and live-stream their operations.

Bennett Loy, who’s worked in foodservice for more than 30 years, agreed with Grandin and said such openness could have prevented the crisis brought about by misinformation during the viral “pink slime” controversy.

“People in this industry value the humane treatment of their animals -- stressed animals produce a poor product,” Loy said. “I do think there would need to be some educational-type narration to explain to the general public exactly what is taking place.”

And there’s the other rub, right? Processing animals for meat is not a pretty business.  

Jedediah Purdy, a Duke law professor, in a New York Times opinion piece, suggested putting Web cams in the slaughterhouses.  People still don’t have to look at it, he said, but it would add to our resources for thinking and arguing the issue.

The agriculture industry says the images are unfair. They seem to show cruelty and brutality, but the eye can be deceiving. The most humane way of slaughtering an animal, or dealing with a sick one, may look pretty horrible. But so does open-heart surgery. The problem with making moral arguments by appealing to revulsion is that some beneficial and indispensable acts can also be revolting. With gruesome shots of cadavers, a skilled amateur could make a strong emotional case against using them to teach anatomy in medical school….

…There are models for this kind of sunlight requirement. For a couple of decades, federal law has required chemical plants to release details of their toxic emissions to the public. Most scholars agree that embarrassment and public pressure have pushed down pollution as a result, without further regulation.

At first, transparency would mainly inform consumer choice. The pictures might persuade some people to stop eating meat, or to buy it from a more humane source. Of course, changes in personal attitudes often translate into expanded public debate. People who start out by changing how they eat might end up supporting laws for more humane treatment of farm animals.

Susan Jaster, another member of the Harvest Network, agrees with Purdy. She’s a former dairy farmer who raised her three kids on a farm. She now raises sheep and works as an educator, teaching farmers about best practices.

I believe that we should show livestream video from slaughter plants.  It would help the industry police itself and educate the public. It is another expense for the industry and ultimately the consumer.  When things go wrong in any industry, video can help us correct problems, teach those in-charge to become more efficient and place employees in correct positions for employment.

What do you think? Should slaughterhouses open their doors to the public by placing Web cameras in their facilities? Share your experience with the Harvest Network.