by Sally Colby

Although the annual Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA) Summit took place virtually this year, the message was clear: animal activists are still working to interfere with food production. And just as the AAA hosts a conference to deliver up-to-date information on a variety of topics related to consumers, animal products and animal welfare, numerous activist groups opposed to using animals for any purpose also had conferences.

“It isn’t about animal welfare,” said AAA president and CEO Kay Johnson Smith, describing the differences between what appears on activist websites versus what activists say at conferences. “It’s about animal rights and freeing all animals, and eliminating the use of animals for any purpose.”

Many activist groups demand changes in modern husbandry practices and changes in housing systems and processes. They would like to eliminate technology and animal health products with the clear goal of raising the cost of production to drive down demand, resulting in meat disappearing from plates.

“More recently we’ve seen mass protests where hundreds of activists are showing up on farms,” said Smith. “They’re stealing animals in the dead of night, and sometimes in broad daylight. They’re proud of it and are livestreaming their efforts.”

Smith said undercover employment is still an issue and involves activists that manage to gain fraudulent employment on farms. These employees, once comfortable on the farm, capture video and use that video, often altered with special effects, to pressure retailers and restaurants.

“Farmers have become savvier and better at protecting their farms,” said Smith. “They’re especially trying to take advantage of the situation today where there’s a shortage of employees on farms. It’s important to be vigilant now.”

But Smith said activists have loftier goals, goals that go beyond capturing video for the sake of exposing what they believe shouldn’t be happening. “It’s about fundraising,” she said. “It’s a huge fundraising tool, and a profit-maker for smaller extremist groups to create a name for themselves.” Activist groups will often claim videos are the lifeblood of their organization.

Animal rights groups have openly opposed legislation that requires immediate reporting of abuse. “Anyone who is concerned about animal care and abuse on farms should be supportive of that type of legislation instead of opposing it at all costs,” said Smith. “They want to create a campaign around these videos.”

One activist group has initiated what they call frontline surveillance, which involves activists standing in front of farms or processing plants watching non-stop with video cameras, ready to capture anything. “They are harassing businesses across the country,” said Smith. “We have a lot of concerns about these videos – farmers would love to stop mistreatment on a dime as soon as they know about it, but that isn’t the goal of activists.”

Although video doesn’t lie, activist videos are often edited and activist groups refuse to turn over the hours of video they captured. “They only want you to see the edited version,” said Smith. “In every case, activists leave employment long before the videos come out – sometimes weeks, sometimes months. They don’t need a paycheck (from the farm) – they’re paid by the activist group.”

Another behavior typical of activists is not reporting concerns to farm owners. In most cases, the appearance of a video is the first knowledge owners or managers have of welfare concerns. Smith said sometimes employees are paid to create situations that can be captured on video. It’s important to remember that individuals are being paid by the activist group, and their loyalty is to that group.

One major concern is that activists are doing more than creating a sensational video and targeting one particular farm or an industry. Activists have stated they go from farm to farm or go to the same farm multiple times. “They’re totally disregarding biosecurity protocol,” she said, “which can lead to disease and impact animal health.”

If you aren’t quite convinced that activists do whatever it takes to accomplish their mission, Smith said they clearly state they’ll visit a facility six or 10 times before making a move. “They say they have the legal right to ‘rescue’ or liberate animals, and use the analogy of children locked in a car on a hot day,” said Smith. “It’s important to understand they don’t have the legal right to enter your property or steal your animals, but they’re very persuasive. It’s a tactic that’s relatively new, and law enforcement sometimes doesn’t know how to respond to these situations.”

While many activists have openly and physically targeted farms and processing facilities, COVID-19 restrictions have forced a change of tactics. Some groups have taken their mission online, and many farms active in social media have reported attacks. When tactics include negative reviews, or a notification that they’re “checking in” at your farm, farmers should be aware that activists might be nearby.

“They flood pages with negative comments or posts,” said Smith. “They send private messages harassing you as the farmer or CEOs of retailers or restaurants.” Smith said there’s also a trend of activists posing as students who claim to be “doing a project” or someone claiming “I’ve always wanted to know more about farming.”

Smith advised making sure all family members and employees know what to do if visitors show up, and how to manage a situation if mass protesters show up. “Watch for warning signs,” said Smith. “Monitor social media for activists that are active in your area, and watch for warning signs such as increases in requests for information, increased gaining employment, calls and letters, and document it.”

If your farm’s social media has been attacked by an activist group, remember the activists’ mode of operation is the shock and surprise factor, and they routinely toss out negative information. “It’s up to you how you respond,” said Smith. “You can block them. Report people who are harassing, and report those trying to mimic you.”

Smith said activists recognize and take advantage of the fact that farmers are generally a trusting group. She recommended ensuring farm security is adequate, including locked gates and doors and “No trespassing” signs.

“Focus on sharing positive information,” she said. “People are hungry to learn more about us, and this is a great opportunity with COVID-19 to put yourself out there. Just know there are risks, but it’s worth it. Learning how to positively engage and protecting your business is key.”