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Undercover Animal Rights Investigations Threatened

January 9, 2012

SHANNON, N.C. - Undercover footage made inside the Shannon Butterball turkey plant showing birds being abused and kept in unsanitary conditions was enough cause for Hoke County sheriff's deputies to raid the plant in late December. Charges are pending, and Butterball representatives have promised to make an internal investigation.

The Los Angeles-based group Mercy for Animals is responsible for the sheriff's action. Now the activists fear the FBI is renewing efforts to prosecute them as "domestic terrorists," according to Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, who defends their activities.

"Undercover investigators are often the only line of defense, the only watchdog that these animals have on factory farms, and the abuse really thrives in secrecy."

The FBI may consider bringing charges under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, passed in 2006. The law prohibits conduct "for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise." Runkle says using this so-called "ag gag" law to prosecute groups like his is a violation of their free speech.

In addition to this law, five states are considering legislation that would make it illegal to take undercover photographs or make videos at food production plants. Some states are considering a measure that also would make it illegal to simply possess and distribute such video or pictures.

This trend alarms animal protection groups such as the Humane Society of the United States. Spokesperson Paul Shapiro says undercover investigations are often the only way animal mistreatment and unsanitary conditions come to light.

"The fact that the animal agribusiness industry works to make it a crime to take a photo or a video of what it is doing to animals speaks volumes about how much it has to hide."

Currently, no federal law prohibits the abuse of animals on farms. Poultry is of particular concern to animal-rights groups, since birds compose 95 percent of the land animals consumed by humans.

Stephanie Carroll Carson, Public News Service - NC