Understanding and preparing for animal activism

CM-MR-3-Understanding 2“You’ve all seen some of these videos that have made their way through the internet, on the evening news, and the morning news. There have been 24 of these undercover videos just since 2006, and a lot of them have been relatively close to home,” said Cindy Weimer, Director of Industry Image and Relations for Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, as she opened the seminar dedicated to the topic titled above. “What we want to try to do is understand the motives of the activists, what makes them tick, and what they are after so we can be prepared to respond when it happens to us.” In the case of Kreider Egg Farm in Manheim, PA, animal activists had targeted one of the state’s most prestigious farm operations. George Greig, the Pennsylvania Ag Secretary, stepped up to the plate himself in defense of Kreider’s.
After Weimer’s opening, Melissa Osgood, Corporate Communications Specialist for the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council Inc., talked about how activists have evolved. “They have become business savvy, they have strategic plans, and they know what they’re doing. Not only are they attacking animal care and well-being practices; they are also going after environmentals, food and nutrition, public health and the impact on rural communities. In other words, they’re coming at you in every direction.” Illustrating her talking points was a brief video featuring HSUS’s Wayne Pacelle, who hypothesized that so-called factory farms see animals “as commodities. They’re units of production, they’re objects. Does the farmer know his animals?” The video continued with the narrator saying that animal rights activists are no longer viewed as fringe thinkers. “Today’s leading animal rights groups have broadened their messages in an effort to claim the moral authority on behalf of farm animals. They have strayed away from the extremism that previously alienated consumers. Instead, they have adopted more mainstream notions, values, ethics, compassion and responsibility.” But what sparks an activist’s interest in the first place? “With Willet [Dairy],  it is either the first or second depending upon the time of year, the largest farm in New York state; Adirondack [Dairy] is also a large farm, I think when they can say ‘a large farm’ people react with ‘oh a factory, how horrible — pumping those cows full of anti-biotics and not treating them well.’ It is an immediate emotional issue with the consumer.”
“In dairy cow slaughter,” said Pennsylvania State Veterinarian Craig Shultz, “appearance is important. We learned with the slaughter industry that you can’t simply place a minimum regulatory standard and say ‘as long as I’m meeting that standard I’m okay.’ You need to have actual Best Management Practices established that are specific to your operation that go above and beyond any regulatory standard that might be presented to you.” Merely using a regulatory standard, says Shultz, “is indefensible.” Assessments and audits are effective when done by a third party, but they can also be painful. Third parties can often see things about an operation that the jaded eye, which sees the same things every day, is sometimes blind to. To the third party eye, the approach is fresh and serendipitous. “No matter what you do,” Shultz said, “there is no guarantee you won’t be targeted.”  Should you become a target, and have your ducks in a row, and have taken the necessary steps, you have a much better situation to deal with once you become a target.
“When moving cattle or cows,” noted Shultz, “the drovers are always on the bottom rung. They were the guys we couldn’t find a place for anywhere else (in the slaughter industry) in the plan. But they have to be trained. They have got to understand the principles. They must understand when and when not to use a prod; when to carry and not carry a prod so that they do not cause the kinds of animal movement disruptions that a third party viewer might easily construe as cruelty.” Such a third party witness, operating on otherwise low information, might conclude that the animals are experiencing pain and suffering, or anxiety, because the people who are moving the cattle are not  well trained in how to move them.
“My food comes from the grocery store,” said attorney Kathy MacNett. “I prefer it that way. I need a fiction in between.” Most of the time, MacNett practices management-side labor relations and employment law. “What I have to do with animal activism,” she explained, “is very similar to what I have to do with union organizing defenses. In some cases, the model the unions use have been adopted by the activists. You should be aware of that when you’re dealing with them.” In talking about personnel, MacNett was specific in the respective roles of employer and employee. They are different, she says. As an employer, she added, “You need to be accessible. You need to make every employee who works for you understand that you are one of the good people. Let them know that if they see something that bothers them they need to report it to you. Then when you are aware of it, and you can address the situation up front.” One exception to the at-will work doctrine in Pennsylvania, for example, is a public policy exception. When there are laws on the books against cruelty to animals, if somebody says they were terminated because of cruelty to animals (because they reported it), the employer could find himself in a bad situation. In Labor-Employment law, if you fail to have some kind of coverage known as employment liability practice insurance, you could find yourself paying upward of $150,000 for an attorney to defend you. “And that is no guarantee that you will win,” MacNett says. And be aware that if anyone is using audio or video for taping undercover, it is possible they are violating federal and state wiretap laws.
Wrapping up the conference, Cindy Weimer issued a few reminders, common sense things but not always things that have your undivided attention.
• Pay attention to who is on your farm.
• Build a relationship with local law enforcement.
• Stay informed. Stay in touch with your dairy leadership.
• Plan for a crisis. Be prepared ahead of time.
• Train a spokesperson, someone who will speak on your behalf and for your farm and family if you find yourself in this situation.
• Know what to do if the media should call or visit you.
• When speaking to the media, try to avoid jargon and try to break down your message into layman’s language.
• Try to get your value-based message across to the media and consumers who know little about best farm practices. Use a message that builds trust.
• Stay calm. Be prepared to have a coordinated response.

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