FARM takes new track in animal rights activism

The Sacramento BeeMay 11, 2012 

— Along with their cabernet and Camembert, visitors at the Second Saturday art walk in Sacramento this weekend will get a taste of a new kind of animal rights activism.

The images they will watch on video are graphic enough, organizers hope, that people will turn away and stop eating meat.

Members of the nonprofit Farm Animal Rights Movement, based in Maryland, are sponsoring the unusual national campaign. In it, they offer people $1 to watch a short video that shows gruesome scenes of slaughter and abuse of chickens, pigs and cows at unidentified farming operations. Organizers boast that it is the largest and "most audacious" effort yet designed to discourage people from consuming animal products.

"Believe it or not, offering people a little reward, just one dollar, is a great incentive to get them to see this," said campaign coordinator Jeni Haines, a Sacramento native. "Once you see it, it stays with you. It is a very powerful four minutes."

On a bus equipped with 32 screens, FARM is bringing the video to college campuses, festivals, fairs and other public places around the country this summer. On Thursday, they brought their rolling campaign to Sierra College in Rocklin; Saturday night they'll park in Sacramento's midtown and target the Second Saturday crowd.

The video they are showing is a compilation of footage collected by activists who have gone undercover at farming and slaughter operations during the past two years, said Haines. FARM does not say where the scenes were shot or how many facilities are represented. Among other things, the video shows workers stomping on chickens, live chicks being ground to death in a wood chipper, and injured and lame pigs and cows crying out in apparent pain.

FARM describes the practices depicted as "standard, legal industry practices" that are "out of step with the values of most Americans."

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation, stridently disagreed. In an interview, Mattos called FARM's video campaign "outrageous" and misleading.

"It's ridiculous to compare what we're doing in California to what is happening on this type of video," Mattos said. "These abuses are outrageous. What you see in that video should not be happening, and we would just as soon see these people go out of business."

The "pay per view" marketing approach is the latest tactic used by activists to influence the debate about the treatment of farm animals in America.

FARM was the first to target public gathering spots, said Haines, but the tactic is catching on with other organizations. The Animal Rights Coalition and Mercy for Animals are among those that recently have promoted such campaigns. PETA has long aired shocking images in DVDs and on billboards.

One of the most recent skirmishes between activists and the industry involved the kinds of videos that FARM is promoting.

In January, the Florida Legislature considered a plan to make it a crime to secretly videotape activities on farms. Farmers said the surreptitious taping was a violation of privacy. Activists said the legislation would have kept animal abuse secret and put consumers at risk.

The Legislature sided with the activists.

Industry experts credit animal activists for highlighting problems in a small number of facilities but deny that cruel practices are widespread.

Conditions have improved in recent years for chickens and turkeys raised for food in California, said Mattos of the poultry association. "Believe me, they are living in heaven" until they are shipped out for slaughter, he said.

"It's very sophisticated right now," Mattos said. "They live in large barns that are air-conditioned to 76 degrees year-round. They are on a bed of dry litter. They are comfortable." Employees sign affidavits promising to treat animals humanely, he said.

Some of the progress, he acknowledged, is a direct result of videos and other campaigns that shined a light on bad operators and "forced the industry to do better."

But he suggested that some such campaigns are faked and over the top, and will not resonate with the public.

"Most people are savvy enough to know that this group's whole reason for being is to turn people into vegetarians," he said. "This is not going to change the public's attitudes about consumption of chicken and turkey."

Jennifer Fearing, California senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said she thinks the campaign does have the potential to change attitudes.

"Most people have no idea how abused farm animals typically are," she said, "so anything that helps shine a light on their abuse is welcome."

Haines said the campaign is funded by supporter donations. Since the bus rolled out of Portland, Ore., earlier this year, she said, more than 1,000 people have viewed the video. About 90 percent initially identify themselves as meat eaters, she said. About 80 percent check a box at the end of the video pledging to eat fewer animal products.

On Thursday, a steady stream of Sierra College students and staff members viewed the video throughout the day. Some who identified themselves as vegetarians and vegans said they were not surprised by what they saw. Others described feeling sick and angry.

Nika Fard, a Sierra student, appeared close to tears as she removed her headset. Stepping away from the screen, she accepted from Haines a crisp $1 bill tucked inside a pamphlet promoting vegan and vegetarian diets.

"It makes me want to cry," Fard said of the video. "It's disgusting. It's shocking." A dedicated carnivore, Fard said she plans to explore vegetarianism.

Another student, Ellis Silchuk, slumped along the side of the bus after watching the video with his friend Simone Saunders. Both are meat eaters but were questioning their habits after visiting the FARM bus.

"I was very nauseous, seeing those things," Silchuk said, rubbing his forehead. "It was that disturbing to me.

"But I'm glad I saw it," he concluded. "We should all want to know the truth."

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