BY JEFFREY HOFFELT, LIVESTOCK EDITOR
Agri-ViewWords turned into action Jan. 8 as an estimated 14 trucks and cattle-transporting trailers were intentionally set on fire at the largest feed yard in California. An animal rights extremist group quickly took credit for the arson attack in the San Joaquin Valley.Though the cause of the fire was still under investigation at the time of publication, an anonymous statement released by spokeswoman Nicoal Sheen of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) Press Office said the attack was aimed at “the horrors of factory farming.” Sheen later said that the office distributes releases from people involved in illegal actions but that the office was not directly involved in the attack.
The release indicated that “containers of accelerant were placed beneath a row of 14 trucks (by unnamed animal activists) with four digital timers used to light four of the containers and kerosene-soaked rope carrying the fire to the other 10.”
The group reported they “were extremely pleased” to see that all 14 trucks “were a total loss” with some being “completely melted to the ground.” The message ended with a call for others to commit additional acts of violence against agriculture producers.
John Harris, CEO of Harris Ranch, used the opportunity to tell the people how the operation cares for their livestock in a national spotlight. His statement also mentioned those behind the crime.
“We must live in a society that is safe for all and no one can tolerate violence such as this,” he said. “ALF and similar terrorist groups pose a real threat and I am confident that the many law enforcement agencies working on this case will bring them to justice soon.”
Though ALF indicated that they were only the go-between in the case, the Animal Agriculture Alliance replied with a release saying that “it is unacceptable for any group to praise this direct assault on American agriculture.”
The Alliance warned producers that ALF, which is listed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as a domestic terrorist organization, has been responsible for other targets of violence in the livestock industry.
“For example, scientists using animals for life-saving medical research at UCLA have frequently been threatened with bomb scares and intimidation,” the group stated. “In the U.S. and abroad, ALF and other extremist groups have issued death threats, committed vandalism and hacked websites, all in the name of their distorted ideology. There is no place for such violent acts of intimidation.”
The Animal Liberation Front, whose website is dark in color and illustrated with black-masked activists rescuing animals, says that they are working to protect animals from the “real terrorists,” pointing at livestock producers and animal testing facilities as the problem. Such propaganda has helped the organization to secure a loyal following.
“ALF is not a group per se,” says one piece of promotional material handed out by the group. “There are no membership lists and no leaders. Because their activity is illegal, ALF activists keep their involvement secret – from the public, their families, their friends, everyone – in order to remain free and continue carrying out actions.”
The same flier discredits the terrorist theory, saying that “since its first action in 1976, not one human or animal has ever been harmed by the ALF” and that “many businesses that inflict immense suffering on non-human animals have closed due to ALF actions.”
The Animal Agriculture Alliance reads this as a goal to eliminate animal agriculture entirely. The objective, said the Alliance, is shared by multiple activist groups. To send a message to the collective group, the Alliance is working to bring justice to the perpetrators of the Jan. 8 incident.
“It is imperative that activists be held accountable for their attempts to undermine farmers, ranchers and meat processors,” the Alliance wrote.
Bill Donald, current National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) president, shared a similar viewpoint after discovering news of the attack, saying that the arson is “an example of extremists showing a disregard for property and lives.”
“This is not only an attack on a family-owned and operated business; this is a domestic terrorist attack on our nation’s providers of food and fiber,” Donald said. “This extremist behavior goes above mere activism and the freedom of speech: these criminals are threatening lives and causing substantial economic harm.”
Though no people or animals were reported injured during the attack, Donald said those responsible do not have the livestock’s best interest in mind.
“Anyone concerned about the welfare of animals would not orchestrate attacks on individuals who are experts at caring for these creatures,” said Donald. “Cattlemen and women implement the highest animal handling and food safety standards designed by veterinarians, animal behavioral experts and researchers.”
The Alliance encouraged producers to remain vigilant for possible activist activity.
“This incident shines light on the need for the agricultural community to be able to protect itself from these senseless bullying tactics by those who seek to destroy the industry by any means,” the group said.
ADVICE FROM THE OHIO LIVESTOCK COALITION
The Ohio Livestock Coalition released advice for Midwest livestock producers following the release of undercover dairy abuse footage released in 2010. Though the situation differed in scope and action, the group indicates the advice from Hinda Mitchell, crisis communication specialist for CMA in Iowa, is still applicable today.
“Before an undercover activist strikes: be smart and do the right thing,” Mitchell said. “The best public relations are to be responsible and to not let it happen in the first place.”
If unsatisfactory actions are filmed or viewed by the public, the messages sent often paint a picture of the entire industry.
“It perpetuates the challenge we face each day – ensuring our consumer believes in how we farm, in how we produce food, and that we are firmly committed to responsible care of our animals,” Mitchell continued. “It doesn’t matter who put the video out, what matters is the visual image our consumers are left with at the end of the video tape. The best we can hope for is to manage and mitigate the worst of it and work hard to maintain consumer trust in today’s farming practices.”
Mitchell’s advice revolves around making sure that animal activists do not have ammunition against the operation by managing livestock properly. Her recommendations are as follows:
1. Do the right thing. Make sure your farm is exceeding all expectations for animal care, cleanliness and environmental responsibility. Let’s not be our own worst enemy.
2. Watch your back and your neighbor’s back. Pay attention to strange vehicles, and try and get license numbers off any suspicious vehicles. Engage local law enforcement if needed.
3. Hire the right people. Do background checks, reference checks and ask for actual Social Security cards and other hiring documentation. Seek counsel from an employment lawyer if needed. Put new hires on probation and watch them closely. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. And if a potential hire is suspicious, share that information with other farmers.
4. Empower your farm workers. Let them know of their importance as a team member in protecting your farm. Ask your workers how new people are performing. And let them know you expect them to immediately report any strange behaviors or if they suspect any undercover activity.
5. Set codes of conduct for animal care. If you don’t have them, establish animal care standards and train your employees on those standards. Require ANY farm worker that handles animals to sign a written Code of Conduct. This is important both for animal care protocol and to verify all employees understand their shared obligation.
6. Stay active and in touch with your industry leadership. There is so much happening in livestock and poultry farming right now, you can’t afford to NOT be engaged. Likewise, share any information you gather in your local community about any of these activities.
7. Maintain strict security procedures on your farms. Now more than ever, keep your doors locked and be mindful of what’s happening inside and outside your operations. Don’t let your absence or a false sense of security be your downfall.
8. Alert your local law enforcement. Let them know there have been a number of issues on farms across the country, and ask them to do a few extra “drive-bys” at your farm. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.