A blog by spcaLA president, Madeline Bernstein

Dec 18, 2013

Is Your Undercover Expose video Cruel to Animals? Big Business Thinks So

courtesy Google images

Those who seek to break the law, study the behavior of the activists in order to block, parry and continue their activities in peace. To that end the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, targeted against activists who interfere with certain animal related enterprises and Ag-Gag laws designed to stop a person from applying for certain jobs with the intent of filming cruel practices have been enacted. Recently, the situation has become worse. 

A person working for Compassion Over Killing, an animal rights group, secured a job at a cattle company in Colorado and filmed abusive treatment of newborn calves. There is no Ag-Gag law in Colorado so on its face this plan seemed promising. Though filmed over the summer, the video was not released by the organization until November 13th after which criminal charges were quickly filed against 3 men shown in the footage abusing the animals. Then the local sheriff filed animal cruelty charges against the activist for not reporting the abuse in a timely manner, a misdemeanor consistent with Colorado state law. The group did not say why they waited so long to turn over the footage.

In Tennessee, 8 counts of animal cruelty charges against a businessman were tossed after a search warrant was quashed thus rendering the evidence gathered pursuant to that warrant inadmissible. The warrant was declared invalid because a Humane Society of the United States employee, not a bona fide officer, signed the warrant papers in contravention of state law. 

There are many forms of activism used in social movements to affect positive change and remedy injustices. These range from lobbying for legislative protections to acts of civil disobedience. This is also true in the animal welfare arena with one important wrinkle.

Cruelty to animals is a crime in all 50 states, the investigation of which overlaps legitimate law enforcement efforts and protocols. As criminal acts are typically committed sub rosa, and can result in incarceration, they must be exposed legally and with sufficient evidence to sustain a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The use of undercover operatives and other such police methodology are excellent at flushing out criminal activity. As most activists are not sworn law enforcement officers and can therefore not avail themselves of protections and tools afforded to real officers who act in an undercover capacity or who use confidential informants, they need to beware. A self-proclaimed investigator is not a peace officer and is vulnerable as a civilian. Partnering with real law enforcement organizations rather than going it alone should be seriously considered in these situations.

Though we probably have not heard the end of these stories and others like them they serve as an important cautionary tale. It is incumbent upon activists to study the landscape in which they plan to operate. Knowledge of relevant local laws is key to eliminating these setbacks. Exposing criminals and certainly those who would harm animals is a desirable and righteous goal. Minimizing risks if intentionally engaging in an act of civil disobedience or simply acting in good faith is critical to attaining a positive outcome and avoiding loss. Animal activists must be smart, unpredictable, able to anticipate the abusers' next moves and familiar with the rules surrounding their actions in order to have the best chance of success.

We can't let those who would be cruel to animals turn the tables on those who seek to protect them. It helps neither the specific animals in question nor future animals suffering from the crimes as well as the bad legal precedents. 

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