Be Proactive to Head Off Animal Rights Threats

Animal Rights Activists Combine Old and New Tactics to Destroy Animal Agriculture

By Burt Rutherford, Contributing Editor

“Animal rights activism is not new. It’s been around for quite a while, but the tactics and trends that we’re seeing used by animal rights activist organizations continue to change and evolve.”

With that introduction, Emily Solis led members of the Colorado Livestock Association (CLA) through the dark world of animal extremism. Speaking at the group’s annual meeting recently, Solis also passed along some tactics that animal protein producers can use to protect themselves from attack by animal extremists.

Solis, manager of communications and content for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, reminded producers that just because there are some new twists in the tactics animal rights activists use doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned the old standards that agriculture has become familiar with.

“Confinement seems to be a really big issue area that they’re focusing on right now,” she said. “The first [tactic] and the one we see used across all various animal rights organizations is undercover videos.”

The usual way that activist organizations obtain video is through employment at an animal production facility or processing plant. Once an activist gets a job at a farm, ranch or confined animal feeding operation, they can plant a video camera or other recording device and then retrieve the footage later. So she warned producers to be very vigilant when vetting new hires.

The new twist to the old tactic of taking undercover videos is animal rights activists will break into an animal production facility, usually at night, and plant a camera or recording device that transmits data to a remote location. “If the device is found and it’s confiscated, [but] if they aren’t able to go back and retrieve it for whatever reason, they still have all that footage,” Solis told CLA members. “So it’s very important to be vigilant and to be mindful. And just be aware of your surroundings, be aware of any suspicious activity and ultimately trust your gut in a lot of these situations.”

Often, activists will first try to learn the layout of a targeted animal operation. “Frontline surveillance is essentially where they’ll visit a farm or facility and survey the land, survey the property, survey where things are located,” she said. “So they’re really just trying to get the lay of the land, getting an idea of how things are set up so they can come back later to conduct some type of activism.”

The new twist on this old tactic is drones, which are used to take video or to do frontline surveillance. That can be done either with a drone or by posing as a visitor who wants to learn more about how their food is produced.

According to Solis, a tactic that’s being used more frequently of late during an on-site protest is the sleeping dragon technique. This is where activists will handcuff themselves to a system of PVC pipe and concrete blocks in front of driveways. “It makes it very difficult for law enforcement to remove these animal rights activists.”

What Can You Do?

“Our first recommendation is to YouTube-proof your farm or facility,” she said. Look at your operation through the lens of a consumer or activist. If consumers saw a video of your operation, what would they see? Is there anything that needs to be changed or improved before you’re comfortable with a video on YouTube?

Sometimes it’s hard to see things through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with animal production. That’s where an audit of your operation can be helpful.

“The best way to protect yourself is to be proactive and make sure that you’ve done everything you can to prepare for potential threats from activism,” she said. That entails, among other things, implementing science-based animal welfare policies, training employees on these policies and making sure they’ve signed an animal care agreement stating that they understand the policies, they’ve been given the policies, they’ve read through them and they’ve been trained on them.

“Having them sign that can be really beneficial for law enforcement in the event that potentially you hire an animal rights activist,” she said.

And, as the old cliché goes, fight fire with fire. “We’ve seen a lot of success with farms that have implemented some type of camera or recording device system,” she said. “If they’re conducting some type of criminal activity, if you have that on video, you can share that with law enforcement and that could help any legal cases.”

If you’re the victim of a protest, turn the video camera on the activists. Get footage of their faces, vehicles and license plates. Here’s a rundown of other ideas and approaches that Solis shared with CLA members:

“Make sure you’re maintaining basic security. So make sure you are locking offices, that you’re locking cabinets. Anywhere on the farm or anywhere on the property that might hold proprietary information, make sure those areas are secure.” Proper lighting is important here, as well as installing alarms or other type of security system.

Post No Trespassing signs around the property and post signs for any restricted areas on the property. “Is there anywhere you want to make absolutely clear you don’t want people coming into that area of the farm?”

Create a visitor policy. “It’s really important to have this in place ahead of time and to make sure that you, your family, farm employees, anyone who has access to the property, that they are aware of this visitor policy so if they run into an unexpected visitor, they can be prepared to implement this policy,” she said.

Ask for credentials and make sure that you verify their identity. “Be sure to gather as much information as possible. So their name, what are they driving, their license plate number.”

Make sure you escort visitors at all times during their visit. “And then just be cautious about any requests for information. So sometimes people will say, ‘Oh, I just want to learn a little bit more about how dairy calves are raised.’ So be cautious about any of those information requests, because while we want to believe the best of people, there are people that are actively and very maliciously looking to take advantage.”

Be prepared for potential protests. “Our recommendations when preparing for protests include avoiding confrontation and engagement. The only reason that they want to engage with you and to confront you is so that they can get some type of footage, some type of leverage that they can share on social media, that they can share with mainstream or traditional media to make the farmer and the rancher and the animal ag community look bad,” she said. Law enforcement should have those conversations and interact with the animal rights activists. Leave it to the experts to handle those conversations.

Know your local law enforcement officers. “When it comes to having conversations with law enforcement, this really starts before any potential activity takes place. Our first recommendation is to identify who to connect with. That can be local law enforcement agencies or reaching out to your FBI field office, because there are times when animal rights activism is considered domestic terrorism.”

When you do reach out, it’s important to explain the threats. “Give them an overview of animal rights activism. Let them know what to expect. What are the tactics? What are the trends? What are the groups that are involved in this activism that they need to be aware of?” she advised. And then ask how to protect yourself proactively. So know what your rights are as a farm owner, as an employee, when it comes to dealing with activist activity or even interacting with an animal rights activist.

Proactively invite law enforcement to see your farm. “This provides two benefits. If you’re inviting law enforcement to your operation, this gives you the opportunity to show them your property, to show them how everything’s set up. If they’ve seen how things are set up, they can hopefully get there a little bit quicker, a little bit easier than if they had never been to your property before.”

It’s also an opportunity to connect with local law enforcement and show them how things are done on your farm. “This is how we care for the animals. This is how we manage the land.” That’s because activists may make claims that farmers and ranchers are hurting the environment.

“Or more in the case of law enforcement and legal cases, they’ll try to make the case that animal abuse occurred, that animal cruelty has taken place. So if these law enforcement agencies have been to your property, they see how things are done, they’ll be a lot less likely to give in to whatever claims that these animal rights activists organizations are making.”

Prepare for a crisis before it happens. “Have some type of crisis communications plan in place. Do not wait for a crisis to happen before you take these steps. Have your core team. If you are targeted by potential activist activity, who is the core team that’s going to take action immediately? Have a list of people who need to be contacted, whether that’s other farmers and ranchers in the area, whether that’s a customer or someone else along the supply chain. Make sure that you have those contacts ready to go so that you can alert them as soon as you need to,” she said.

Have draft statements ready on your animal welfare guidelines and your environmental policies, so that if you’re contacted by media or a supply chain person, you’re ready with those statements and with those materials and can respond as quickly as possible.

And then make sure that you don’t comment on anything that you haven’t seen. “Sometimes we find that in undercover video footage, it’s very standard practices that these animal rights groups are sharing without context to people who don’t understand animal agriculture, don’t understand why we do this, why this practice is beneficial.”

But there are times when wrongdoing is found. “So in those cases, it’s really important to launch some type of investigation to figure out why did this happen? This wasn’t a part of our animal welfare guidelines. So how did this end up happening and what can we do to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?”

Proactive engagement. “This focuses on reaching out to those external audiences that we’re trying to bridge the gap with. That can be policy makers, that can be legislators, that can be links along the food supply chain, customers, restaurant, retail, food service brands,” Solis told CLA members. “Having proactive conversations can help you build your trust bank with those different external audiences that you’re trying to reach, which has a number of benefits.”

That’s especially true on the legislative front. Building a relationship with legislators at different levels of government so they know that you’re a farmer and a rancher can be crucial if a bill comes in that’s related to agriculture. “If they have questions about that bill and they have a relationship with you, they’re more likely to go to you with questions about the bill or to figure out how this bill affects you, what the ramifications are if a bill like this is passed,” she said.

Proactive engagement also includes engaging on social media and working with traditional media to share your story. “But ultimately, the goal of proactive engagement is to be transparent and take away the mystery. That’s one of the biggest claims that we hear from animal rights activist organizations is that the animal ag community is a very closed industry. That they don’t want people to see what’s happening,” she stressed.

“So any way that you can be transparent and help to take away the mystery is ultimately helping to build the general public and our target audiences’ trust in the work that we do to produce our meat, milk, poultry and eggs.”

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