Four tips for taking the lead on the animal-welfare conversation
By Carla Price, PhD
Recently, I ran across an ad from a well-known animal-rights organization looking for an undercover investigator.
That prompted me to check ads run by similar organizations. I found that, except for a unique phrase here and there, the job descriptions were pretty much the same.
These positions entail visiting or obtaining employment “in various industries that use animals.” As for skills, you need to know how to be discreet and use a video or still camera. A few more details from one of the ads appear in Figure 1.
Primary Responsibilities and Duties
A few observations from the ad:
- Except for the entertainment industry, all the other industries mentioned in the ad — food and clothing — relate directly to the food-animal industry. Experimentation also applies since many universities conduct welfare trials, such as assessing the impact of light levels or various diets, that benefit the food-animal industry.
- This particular employer was the only one to specify that any animal abuse must be reported to “superiors,” but this term is open to interpretation. Is it the undercover investigator’s superior or the superior at the animal facility where the undercover operative is employed?
- Because investigators may need to be on location “several months at a time,” it’s possible agents may have to be away from friends and family for long periods. If agents become bored or fatigued with their on-farm job, might they instigate abuse to bring their assignment to an end?
- It’s highly likely that most undercover “investigators” don’t understand the food-animal industry and lack the knowledge to differentiate responsible, humane animal-management practices from animal abuse.
From this job description, it’s clear this organization and others like it have a clearly defined agenda. Do we as an industry have a clear agenda for protecting our reputations, educating the public and, of course, ensuring optimal welfare for the animals in our care?
What exactly producers can do to prevent these biased “investigations” is difficult to determine. What we do know is that poultry and livestock associations, as well as their member companies, have developed clear policies for the proper and humane care of animals. In addition, most producers and their contractors and employees are trained on proper and humane animal handling, which benefits not just the animals but also the farms charged with producing healthy, efficient poultry and livestock. When these policies and procedures are not followed, there are clear and legal disciplinary procedures that are implemented to the fullest extent.
Other than following these guidelines and making sure everyone in production is aware of them, what else does the poultry industry need to do to discourage these undercover operations? I have a few suggestions:
- If an undercover “investigator” doubling as a farm employee makes accusations without making any attempts to remedy a bad situation in a timely manner — like intervening with the abuse or summoning a supervisor — point that out loud and clear. By not following the farm’s guidelines for reporting abuse, the undercover investigator could be considered a willing participant or accomplice. This is a legal consideration and well outside of my expertise, of course, but it seems feasible that animal-abuse charges could also be filed against the “investigator” who chose to film the abuse for the evening news rather than use his or her power as a farm employee to correct the situation in a timely, responsible manner. Unfortunately, our industry has been reluctant to do this due to litigation costs, but one win in the courts might go a long way toward discouraging these undercover operations.
- Where appropriate, inform the media about disciplinary actions taken against employees found guilty of abusing animals. Depending on the situation, this can be done locally, regionally or nationally.
- Be proactive and demonstrate to food-vendor customers and consumers that animal care and welfare are high priorities for your organization and that you continuously review and amend your guidelines and training programs.
- Never apologize for random acts of abuse. You can express regrets about a particular situation, but it’s more important to reiterate your company’s welfare policies and demonstrate that violations will not be tolerated. Let the public know about your corrective actions, which may include terminating employees, terminating contracts with growers and, in some cases, legal prosecution. Remember, actions always speak louder than words.
Keep in mind these are only suggestions — ideas that have come to mind as I make the rounds as a consulting poultry nutritionist. Each one may need to be modified to suit the needs of your organization, but it’s a starting point.
Finally, consider that our industry needs to do more to educate the public about food-animal production. We are, after all, the experts in this area. Again, being proactive with our customers and the media will go a long way toward instilling more confidence in our industry and minimizing public backlash when a few bad apples tarnish our stellar reputation for animal welfare and care.