By MARK BITTMAN
Just ask Kirt Espenson, whose employees at E6 Cattle Company in Southwest Texas were videotaped bashing cows' heads in with pickaxes and hammers and performing other acts of unspeakably sickening cruelty.
Yet if some state legislators have their way, horrific but valuable videos like that one will never be made.
But, first, the story: Espenson, who comes off on the phone as sincere and contrite, explained to me that he'd made a 'catastrophic error in a very difficult situation,' when ultracold weather caused frostbite in some of his 20,000 cattle. He was short-staffed and had his best employees saving the endangered but viable cows while new workers were asked to 'euthanize' those who were near death. Out came the hammers. 'We just didn't have the protocol to deal with it,' he told me. 'I made a mistake and take full responsibility.'
The offending employees have been terminated. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Nothing like this will ever happen again.
Much as I'd like to believe Espenson, this sounds like too many other horror stories of animal cruelty, and frankly ' without belittling either situation ' the excuses echo Abu Ghraib. And this is far from an isolated incident. Remember the four Iowa factory farmers who pleaded guilty in 2009 to sexually abusing and beating pigs, and the abuses of downed cattle exposed by the Humane Society of the United States in 2008 at the Hallmark slaughterhouse in California, which led to the country's biggest ever recall of meat.
The root problem is not Espenson or his company, any more than the root problem at Abu Ghraib was Lynndie England. The problem is the system that enables cruelty and a lack not just of law enforcement but actual laws. Because the only federal laws governing animal cruelty apply to slaughterhouses, where animals may spend only minutes before being dispatched. None apply to farms, where animals are protected only by state laws.
And these may be moving in the wrong direction. In their infinite wisdom the legislatures of Iowa, Minnesota, Florida and others are considering measures that would punish heroic videographers like the one who spent two weeks as an E6 employee, who was clearly traumatized by the experience. (I spoke to him on the phone Saturday, with a guarantee of anonymity.)
Minnesota's 'ag-gag' law ' isn't that a great name? ' would seek to punish not only photographers and videographers but those who distribute their work, which means organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and Mercy for Animals, which contracted the videographer for the E6 investigation. 'It's so sweeping,' says Nathan Runkle, the executive director of Mercy for Animals, 'that if you took a picture of a dog at a pet shop and texted it to someone, that could be a crime.' Unconstitutional? Probably, but there it is.
Videotaping at factory farms wouldn't be necessary if the industry were properly regulated. But it isn't. And the public knows this; the one poll about the Iowa ag-gag law shows a mere 21 percent of people supporting it. And poll after poll finds that almost everyone believes that even if it costs more, farm animals should be treated humanely.
That is not the norm on factory farms. Espenson insists that it was a coincidence that the investigator for Mercy for Animals showed up just when his workers were hammering cows' heads; the videographer believes it was routine. And, while the farmer claims that extreme weather had hurt the cows, Weather Underground recorded that the weather was far from extreme during the period in question. The investigator theorizes that weaker, less desirable animals were sickened by living in their own feces.
We can't know. What we can know is that organizations like the Humane Society and Mercy for Animals need to be allowed to do the work that the federal and state governments are not: documenting the kind of behavior most of us abhor. Indeed, the independent investigators should be supported. As Runkle says, 'The industry should be teaming up with organizations like ours to put cameras in these facilities, to advocate for mandatory training and have real euthanasia policies, things that would allow the public to trust these operations rather than fear them.'
The biggest problem of all is that we've created a system in which standard factory-farming practices are inhumane, and the kinds of abuses documented at E6 are really just reminders of that. If you're raising and killing 10 billion animals every year, some abuse is pretty much guaranteed.
There is, of course, the argument that domesticating animals in order to kill them is essentially immoral; those of us who eat meat choose not to believe this. But in 'Bengal Tiger,' a Broadway play set at Baghdad Zoo, the tiger ' played by Robin Williams ' wonders: 'What if my every meal has been an act of cruelty?' The way most animals are handled in the United States right now has to have all of us omnivores wondering the same thing.
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