At the Animal Ag Alliance Summit this past spring, Hannah Thompson-Weeman, president and CEO of the organization, provided an overview of what the organization has been seeing regarding animal rights extremism.

Thompson-Weeman began by reiterating what farmers already know: a slim portion of the population is actively engaged in modern animal agriculture. “We live it, we work it and do it every day,” she said. “We have firsthand knowledge and exposure to what goes on and the commitment farmers and ranchers have to being responsible stewards of the land, animals and producing safe and affordable food.”

Thompson-Weeman said dark videos narrated with dramatic voices are not going to change farmers’ personal experience and expertise, but a small percentage of people (about 4% to 6%) align with animal rights extremist groups who don’t believe there is any way to raise animals ethically and responsibly.

“On the other side of the spectrum, despite what you might be hearing about how everyone is going vegan and it’s trendy to ditch animal protein, it’s a small percentage of the population,” she said. “The number of self-reported vegans and vegetarians in the U.S. is around 4% to 6% and aligns with extremist groups’ own research. That number has been stable for decades.”

Thompson-Weeman is clear about the fact that not everyone who chooses a vegan or vegetarian diet is doing so because of animal rights or is an animal rights extremist. An even smaller percentage within the already small group has an extreme mindset about animal agriculture. “The vast majority of the population fall between the two extremes,” she said. “They don’t have a personal connection or knowledge about animal agriculture and don’t agree with the animal rights mindset that claims we should not use animals for any purpose including food.”

For this small group, it isn’t about how animals are raised or treated. They don’t believe there’s any way to do it ethically and responsibly. Unfortunately, that small percentage targets the rest of the population with misinformation. And it isn’t just the end consumer who falls in the middle – restaurant retail brands, legislators, the media and other key influencers are making decisions that impact farmers’ ability to do business and create negative perceptions of animal ag.

Thompson-Weeman said the Animal Ag Alliance has profiles on more than 200 organizations that target animal agriculture in some way, 35 of which are active and connected with each other through staffing, volunteers, project collaboration and funding. Some groups try to depict themselves as more “professional” or moderate or attempt to appear concerned with animal welfare. Other groups such as PETA and Animal Liberation Front (ALF) are upfront about their agenda and their desire to end animal agriculture. “Those different public personas have a very intentional strategy,” she said, “and a way to get to the same goal using different tactics.”

Thompson-Weeman described undercover video campaigns as a popular activist tactic. “This is where an extremist group will hire someone to go on a farm, go into a plant, get employment there for the sole intention of gathering images and video footage to use against both that operation and the animal agriculture community as a whole,” she said.

This tactic is problematic for farmers because it’s troublesome to hire someone and trust them to care for livestock when they have an ulterior motive. Thompson-Weeman said sometimes what they’re recording are veterinary-supported, scientifically sound practices taken out of context and made to look nefarious to someone who isn’t sure what they’re looking at. “Or in some instances, they might be witnessing actual mishandling or concerning incidents but choose not to report them,” she said. “Sometimes it’s their job to prevent, but they’re choosing not to so they can capture things to use for broader campaigns aimed at getting media attention and undermining public perception of animal agriculture.”

In some cases, the activity isn’t about the individual farm – it’s about the restaurant or suppliers. In some recent campaigns, activists don’t mention the farm name or location, they just go after the restaurant, retail or foodservice brand, all of whom are ultimately farmers’ customers.

Another activist approach is a tactic called “front line surveillance” where people drive by farms or plants and use drones to get footage of what they claim is “criminal animal cruelty.” Examples include dairy cows separated from their calves or dairy cows being outside in muddy conditions. But bringing cattle inside wouldn’t be approved either – there’s no win. Thompson-Weeman said the attacks are aimed at common practices that farmers do for sound reasons for animal health and welfare.

“We also have groups that go in and install cameras and recording devices,” said Thompson-Weeman. “Not only are there potential employees of concern, but potential technology of concern that’s been left behind and is either wirelessly transmitting continuously back to them or someone will return to the farm and collect it. They’re using false pretenses to get onto facilities to install these devices.”

In some cases, activists will seek out employees who might be sympathetic to their cause and willing to provide information. Those employees usually don’t know who they’re talking to when they start giving details about their job and company operations. Thompson-Weeman said in this case, the activist’s goal is to build relationships within the animal ag community and target employees, sometimes using a false identity so the employee doesn’t know who they are talking with.

Livestock haulers have also been targeted by activists who follow trucks from one location to the next and hold vigils outside processing plants. One well-publicized incident during a protest resulted in an activist being struck and killed by a truck as it approached a plant. The incident spurred copycat protests.

“There have also been break-ins, theft of animals in ‘open rescues’ and demands that animals are released to take to sanctuaries along with massive protests,” said Thompson-Weeman. “This has been reality for a handful of producers, primarily in California, where we’ve seen hundreds of activists bused to farms and plants to hold hours-long protests, steal animals and demand animals are released. It’s something to be mindful of.”

She suggested some farm security tips such as installing motion sensor lighting, locks that remain locked, keypads, gates, no trespassing signage, careful hiring and onboarding processes, having a process for visitors and having a good relationship with law enforcement. She also suggested farms have a crisis plan to follow in the event of disruption.

by Sally Colby