Earlier this afternoon, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed SB 113 to repeal Prop B, the Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention Act approved by voters in November 2010. The governor made a deal with the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and some non-government parties, to support a separate bill (SB 161) to partially restore a few provisions of Prop B. He’s terming the enactment of both bills to be a compromise, and says he’s going to put more money into enforcement of the law.
Dogs at a licensed puppy mill in Missouri, one of the
"Dirty Dozen" facilities compiled by The HSUS.
In a blog last week, I examined this compromise and showed how it dramatically weakens Prop B. But more broadly, the attack in the state legislature on Prop B has been a shameful example of politics at its worst, with a narrow majority of lawmakers and now the governor subverting a vote of the people that occurred just a few months ago. Politicians refused for decades to deal with the puppy mill problem, and now after voters decided they had enough with the state’s inaction and passed a ballot initiative, the politicians in the state have decided they know better than the people.
Of course, Missouri’s puppy mill industry has always advocated for de facto de-regulation. But that bunch didn’t have the power to subvert a vote of the people. It was Missouri’s agriculture industry that provided the muscle to overturn Prop B–the same agriculture lobby that some years ago worked to pass state legislation to establish criminal penalties for documenting what occurs on factory farms.
That idea has now spread, as I’ve written recently about efforts by lawmakers in Iowa, Minnesota, and Florida to push sweeping measures to make it a crime to take pictures of farm animals and dogs on puppy mills. It’s aimed at HSUS and other animal protection groups that have done groundbreaking investigations that exposed cruelty, both legal and illegal.
Today, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman has a devastating column calling out agribusiness, in the wake of a deeply disturbing Mercy for Animals investigation in Texas that showed farm workers trying to kill cows with pick-axes and hammers. It’s a must-read.
The editorial board of the Times also opined against these bills, as have newspapers throughout the country and in Iowa, Minnesota, and Florida. Here’s a sampling of what they had to say.
Nearly every major improvement in the welfare of agricultural animals, as well as some notable improvements in food safety, has come about because someone exposed the conditions in which they live and die. Factory farming confines animals in highly crowded, unnatural and often unsanitary conditions. We need to know more about what goes on behind those closed doors, not less. —Editorial, New York Times, April 26, 2011
This restraint of free speech cannot be squared with either the U.S. or the Iowa constitutions…The government should not have the power to penalize anyone for publishing or distributing information on issues of public concern. The law should allow the people to see what happens in these facilities and to judge for themselves whether what goes on is right or wrong. —Editorial, Des Moines Register, March 19, 2011
[T]here's no denying that undercover videos have occasionally put a much-needed spotlight on bad employees and bad livestock operations. This is a valuable service, because most consumers would prefer to believe that the meat we buy at the grocery store doesn't come from animals that have been raised in horrible conditions, and perhaps tortured by a worker who hates his job and the animals that surround him. —Editorial, Rochester Post-Bulletin (Minnesota), April 19, 2011
Still, why is punishment necessary for the photographer if the farm owner has nothing to hide? Whistleblowers can use photos, for example, to document conditions that might be detrimental to the food supply. That would be in the public interest.—Editorial, Treasure Coast Palm (Florida), March 26, 2011
The proposed measure, however, would prevent damaging information that is of potential public interest from ever coming to light. The right way to combat such unwanted publicity is to address the ills, if they are real, or disprove the allegations, if they are not. But punishing those who merely shine the light? That would be a real crime. —Editorial, Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2011
Regardless of how one feels about the treatment of animals on factory farms, citizen investigation should not be met with hefty fines and prison terms; the Iowa Senate should reject this bill and stand on the side of free information. —Editorial, Daily Iowan, March 29, 2011
This is a bad bill overall. It overreaches and would serve to stifle valuable whistle-blower activity, and could even backfire and hurt responsible operators…It would do more harm than good. —Editorial, Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 24, 2011
Animals raised in factory farms live their short lives in such obscene cruelty, crammed in tiny spaces amid their own filth, pumped up with drugs, unable to exercise, or often just to turn about, that it would hardly do to allow the public to make a link between those awful conditions and Junior’s kiddie meal. —Fred Grimm, Miami Herald, March 14, 2011
It also begs a question of the slaughterhouse and puppy mill owners lobbying for it: What's going on inside the facilities that you would go to such lengths to prevent people from seeing?—Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register, March 25, 2011
We do expect livestock production to be humane and lawful. We also expect safe food. And with all the gaps in our government inspection dragnet, we just might need amateurs with cameras.—Todd Dorman, Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 24, 2011
The agribusiness industry may temporarily get its way in state legislatures in some states in the Midwest. But by defending puppy mills, subverting democratic decision-making by overturning citizen initiatives, and trying to prevent the public from seeing what goes on at factory farms, it’s hardly building its capital with the American people. You can be sure we won’t relent in our efforts to call out animal cruelty to dogs, cats, or animals raised for food. And we’ll remind consumers and voters about Big Ag’s efforts to subvert the protection of animals, the environment, food safety, and democratic rights.