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Undercover Slaughter Investigation

[New York Times]

AN undercover vegan wired with a camera no bigger than a sugar cube spent six weeks last fall working at a Southern California slaughterhouse. To fit in, he brought sandwiches made with soy riblets and ate them in a dusty parking lot with the other workers. He tried not to worry about the emotional toll that long days escorting cows to the kill might have. He had more practical concerns, like whether the camera switch hidden in his pocket would fail or a cow would smash into him and crack the recording equipment taped to his body.

The Humane Society of the United States first gave a 32-minute video made from his footage to the San Bernardino County district attorney, then in January released an edited version on its Web site and to a newspaper. The video showed workers flipping sick dairy cows with forklifts, prodding them with electricity and dragging them with chains to be processed into ground meat, some of which likely ended up in chili and tacos at public school cafeterias.

It was as if someone gave Upton Sinclair a video camera and a Web link. Animal cruelty charges were filed, the slaughterhouse was shut down and Congress held hearings. The Agriculture Department announced the recall of more than 143 million pounds of meat � the largest in the nation's history. (Cows so sick they can't walk can't legally be processed into food because they may have mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a form of which can be passed on to humans.)

After more than 25 years of tactics that have included tossing a dead raccoon on to the lunch plate of Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor; boycotting fast-food restaurants; and staging legal challenges, the animal rights movement had a bona fide hit.

A new generation of cameras so small they can be hidden in eyeglass frames or a hat � together with the rise of YouTube and the growing appeal of so-called citizen journalism � has done for animal rights advocates what the best-organized protest could not. Perhaps more than other social agitators, people concerned about animals raised for food have discovered that downloadable video can be the most potent weapon in their arsenal.

"Most activist organizations working on a national or international scale have already integrated all kinds of Internet content into their strategy," said Eric Klinenberg, the author of "Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America's Media" (Metropolitan Books, 2007) and an associate professor of sociology at New York University.


Several states have laws restricting photography and videography of what are broadly referred to as "animal enterprises," including circuses, medical laboratories and ranches. And in 2006, Congress passed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which makes behavior that results in damage to or the economic disruption of an animal enterprise illegal. The laws were in part a reaction to the increased use of hidden video cameras, Ms. Newkirk said.

Just when the movement has mastered the nuance of the medium, such legal blocks plus the increasing cost of investigations are making things difficult for even the most dedicated undercover campaigner. With research, legal fees, production costs and accommodations, an investigation can cost as much as $67,000, Ms. Newkirk said. And investigators who work for the Humane Society and PETA say it is getting tougher to get hired at plants because managers are increasingly suspicious of applicants who don't fit the profile of the typical slaughterhouse worker, often a Spanish-speaking immigrant.

But the success of this video has given the technique a boost. "A picture is worth a thousand words, but a good video is worth a million," Ms. Newkirk said.


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