The attack on animals – and the people who defend them – isn’t just happening on the federal level. It’s happening in some important states, too.
The Arkansas Senate yesterday approved a controversial state “ag-gag” bill that allows employers in Arkansas to sue workers who expose cruelty at their workplaces. It had passed the House a week earlier, and now it appears headed to Gov. Asa Hutchinson for his signature. The measure, sponsored by state Representative DeAnn Vaught and state Senator Gary Stubblefield, would put at risk anyone who documents cruelty at puppy mills, slaughter plants, and factory farms without the permission of the owners and operators of these facilities.
Most operators don’t willingly allow people to document illegal or cruel behavior, so this is yet another attempt in a national campaign to punish documenting animal cruelty. It’s a shield and a cover-up for the perpetrators of animal cruelty, seeking as they always do to avoid the public scrutiny that their practices warrant.
According to a statewide survey of Arkansans, 75 percent of residents there oppose Vaught and Stubblefield’s legislative approach, and 81 percent believe that an employee should not face punishment from his or her employer for documenting and informing others of cruel, unsafe, or unethical actions occurring in the workplace.
The bill is so sweeping that it would also gag employees who try to expose the abuse of children at a daycare center. The bill’s backers appear to be doing backflips to accommodate people in their state with something to hide.
The Arkansas Press Association has joined a large coalition of dozens of public interest organizations that have opposed the bill, which would also prevent whistleblowers from bringing evidence of cruelty to the media and even to law enforcement.
This is the fifth time that Arkansas lawmakers have attempted to pass an ag-gag bill, but this year, they had things wired pretty well and rushed it through. If Gov. Hutchinson signs the bill, Arkansas will join more than a half-dozen states with legal variations on the same theme – trying to shield animal abusers rather than protect animals.
A federal court struck down Idaho’s ag-gag law as unconstitutional, and similar measures in North Carolina and Utah are being challenged, thanks to the work of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Even agribusiness industry spokespersons and officials across the country have spoken disparagingly about ag-gag laws because they inevitably make the industry look like it’s got something to hide. A 2016 survey published in the journal Food Policy found a measurable reduction in the public’s trust of farmers after learning about ag-gag laws. Family farmers across the country have also chimed in, both because of the harm these laws cause to consumers and animals, and because the measures tend to put all agriculture in a negative light while protecting bad actors. Even the National Pork Producers Council admits that its analysis of the media coverage surrounding ag-gag legislation found that “99 percent of the stories about it were negative.”
Since 2009, the USDA has adopted two rules to forbid the slaughter of downer cows and calves – animals too sick or injured to walk to their own slaughter. The rules followed legal petitions filed by The HSUS after several of our undercover investigations documented horrible cruelty at slaughter plants. Investigations of egg producers by The HSUS and other animal protection groups have led to major grocery chains, restaurant chains, and food service companies and producers pledging to go cage-free. And investigations of puppy mills have led to some states strengthening laws to protect animals raised on large commercial breeding facilities, and several localities banning pet stores from selling animals raised in puppy mills.
Cruelty typically occurs outside the gaze of responsible citizens and enforcement agencies, if they even exist. That’s why the work of whistleblowers is so invaluable to the enterprise of protecting animals.
No farm or dog-breeding operation playing by the rules and treating animals properly has anything to worry about from animal advocates. The Arkansas bill is designed for the delinquent operators, and with the recent USDA action to take down records of Animal Welfare Act inspections, it’s a potentially devastating blow to transparency and animal welfare in our nation. Gov. Hutchinson should veto it, and ask the legislature to take a more balanced and sensible approach.