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Animal activists worry proposed bill would let animal abuse go unseen

POSTED AT 12:06 AM ON Feb. 21, 2013  (UPDATED AT 12:06 AM ON Feb. 21, 2013)

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A bill that would ban undercover videos at farms and businesses passed in an Indiana Senate committee last week.

Senate Bill 373 would make it a Class A misdemeanor to take an unlawful recording or picture of agricultural or industrial operations with the intent to harass, defame, annoy or harm.

It would mean animal rights advocates posing as farm workers could no longer photograph or record alleged abuse undercover and use the recordings for purposes other than reporting the matter to authorities.

“The only people that benefit from this law are people who having something to hide,” said Matthew Dominguez, public policy manager for farm animals with the Humane Society of the United States.

Proponents said the bill protects the rights of farmers and corporations.

“It protects farms, farmers and other industrial facilities from surreptitious recordings,” said Andy Dietrick, director of public relations for the Indiana Farm Bureau. “And it protects against times when, under false pretense, people get onto private property, and they use videos or photographs to bring harm.”

Sen. Michael Young, R-Indianapolis, chairs the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee that approved the bill.

At the second reading of the bill Tuesday, Young said an amendment he proposed was added, which allows individuals to legally film or take photographs if they turn the information over to authorities.

“My personal opinion is when someone is lawfully on someone’s property, they can do whatever they think is right as far as taking videos and pictures,” Young said. “Now, if they are just doing it for the intention of splicing together, editing or taking out of context, I don’t think that they have the right to do that.”

Farmers are not opposed to letting the media view their farms, Dietrick said.
What they don’t want are people looking to take videos that misconstrue their operations, he said.

“I work with farmers every day,” Dietrick said. “Part of my job is to get media outlets onto the farm. I do it with the permissions of the farmers.”

Dominguez said the bill will look out for the best interests of the farmers, not the animals.

“I think it’s important to note that the farm bureau sides with the agriculture industry,” Dominguez said. “Through these undercover videos, animal rights organizations have exposed occurrences that the public is not OK with — deplorable acts of abuse. Instead of fixing these acts of abuse, the industry would rather prevent the American public from finding out about them.”

An undercover investigation unfolded within Rose Acre Farms, an egg-producer based in Seymour, Ind. An undercover employee of the HSUS used false references to secure a job at the farm and record video.

“Egg-laying hens were found in cages so small they couldn’t turn around,” Dominguez said.

Young described the effect the situation had on the farm.

“We had a large business that almost went out of business because of a constructed video,” Young said, referring to HSUS’s video of Rose Acre Farms. “That’s what we don’t want.”

Rose Acre Farms officials declined to comment.

No charges were brought against the farm, but Dominguez said a significant number of people stopped buying its eggs.

Dietrick said the issue is not about reporting animal abuse but that the alleged information is gathered underhandedly.

“I have never seen an instance of animal cruelty or animal abuse, from the biggest chicken egg-laying facility to the smallest dairy farm,” he said. “Personally, when I see those videos posted, I was appalled as anyone. If they are true, if they are not staged — and many are staged — those farmers need to be prosecuted to the full of extent of the law. Most farmers I know feel the same way — most say there’s no room in the business for those practices.”

He said self-proclaimed “vigilantes” do not need to take it upon themselves to look for incidents to record or photograph.

“If you suspect abuse, your first stop is local law enforcement. The system works,” he said.

Dominguez said law enforcement should be involved from the beginning.

“When there are egregious acts of animal cruelty that are against the law, we immediately go to the authorities and turn the footage over to the authorities,” Dominguez said.

But, he added, photos and video are necessary evidence.

“I think a picture is worth a thousand words, and I think a video is worth a million,” he said. “It truly allows someone to understand what’s going on, the pain and suffering. Additionally to that, we need it for documentation.”

Young said the amendment allows individuals to still report wrongdoing, while the bill prevents defamation or harm to the business.

“We want people to report things they see that are wrong, but we don’t want them to fabricate the information,” Young said.

The bill will be voted on by the Indiana Senate by the end of the month.

 

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