By Dan Paden
With so many high-profile stories in the news lately—the passing of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, the Gov. Sanford scandal, post-election protests in Iran—you may not have heard about the historic victories for animals that are taking place in American courtrooms. It’s worth noting that two of PETA’s undercover investigations of factory farms have just resulted in groundbreaking animal abuse convictions—convictions that are both highly significant and long overdue. All too often, the abuse of animals in the meat industry is shrugged off as just the cost of doing business.
In a landmark case, two former Aviagen Turkeys, Inc., workers were convicted of cruelty to animals after they were indicted on charges stemming from PETA’s fall 2008 undercover investigation of the company’s West Virginia turkey farms. PETA’s investigator caught workers at the farms punching birds, mimicking the rape of a hen and more. Following our investigation, a grand jury indicted three workers on cruelty-to-animals charges, most of which were felony offenses—marking the first time in U.S. history that former factory-farm workers faced felony charges for abusing birds.
One of the three men admitted to shoving feed down a turkey’s throat and maliciously breaking a turkey’s neck and was sentenced to a 12-month jail term. This is the maximum punishment permitted by law and the strongest penalty ever levied against an individual for cruelty to an animal raised for food in the U.S.
Another former Aviagen employee, who pleaded guilty to stomping on a turkey’s head and slamming a turkey to the ground, was sentenced to two consecutive six-month stays of home confinement. Perhaps more importantly, he is prohibited from owning, living with or working with any animals for five years.
The third case is still pending, but another grand jury is expected to issue additional felony indictments against the individual.
Although abuse is all too common on factory farms, it has been nearly 13 years since the first and only other conviction of a “poultry” farmer for cruelty to animals in this country.
Fortunately, the courts have been taking animal abuse cases more seriously lately. Just days before the ex-Aviagen employees were convicted of cruelty to birds, four former employees of an Iowa pig farm were punished for abusing pigs. Undercover investigators from PETA caught workers beating pigs, kicking them, spraying paint into their nostrils, sexually abusing one with a cane, electro-shocking pregnant sows and slamming piglets to the ground.
Three of the men have each been sentenced to two years in prison (although the sentences were suspended), and all were fined and ordered to pay court costs; one man owes more than $3,000. Three of the men also have been prohibited from owning or working with any animal for up to two years while on probation. In January, another of the workers became the first person ever to be convicted of abusing or neglecting factory-farmed pigs in Iowa, the nation’s top pork-producing state. He is currently serving six months’ probation and is not allowed to have contact with animals.
It’s important for consumers to know that although PETA’s undercover investigations routinely document gratuitous abuse, much of the cruelty on factory farms is standard practice. Pregnant pigs are confined to metal gestation crates so small that they can’t turn around. Chickens are bred and drugged to grow so large so quickly that many become crippled under their own weight. Cows are crammed together by the thousands on feces- and mud-filled feedlots. The best way to stop this suffering is to stop eating animals.
And here’s a warning for workers in the meat industry: PETA’s investigators (and the whistleblowers who tip us off) will continue to watch for animal abusers. During the hog farm investigation, one of the convicted workers, who slammed a pig on the back with a gate rod twice, causing her to scream, assured PETA’s investigator that it was OK to hurt the pigs because “no one from PETA” was watching. How wrong he was.
Dan Paden is a senior research associate in People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ Cruelty Investigations Department.