2014-07-07

Drones Can Get Around Strict "Ag Gag" Laws And Document Horrifying Factory Farms

Some states have made it illegal for people to take photos or video of livestock operations. Drones to the rescue?

It's difficult, and in many cases illegal, to chronicle the animal abuses that occur at factory farms with photographic evidence. Investigative journalist Will Potter is hoping to try a different route: using drones to photograph factory farms from the air.

He's spreading the word and raising money with a Kickstarter campaign that has collected over $48,000 (with the promise of matching donations for everything raised over $45,000). The money will go towards drones, legal expenses, video production, and everything else necessary to create a short documentary, produce an e-book, and generally document factory farm abuse.

It's easy to ignore the animal cruelty that occurs in factory farms, but sometimes shocking videos of abuse manage to penetrate people's consciousnesses. Over the years, organizations like The Humane Society and Mercy for Animals have filmed video that has had real ramifications.

In 2008, for example, a Humane Society investigation into a California slaughterhouse yielded footage of workers ramming cows with a forklift, kicking cows, and worse. Due to the food safety risk of the practices, 143 million pounds of beef were recalled—the biggest meat recall in the country's history. The industry was upset.

While laws limiting activist and journalist access to livestock facilities have been around since the early 1990s, videos like the one filmed by the Humane Society in 2008 agitated the industry so much that it started pushing for harsh "ag-gag" laws, which make it illegal to photograph or film animal cruelty at livestock facilities. There are now so-called ag-gag laws in seven states, and many more are considering them.

"I've been reporting so much on the ag gag laws and seeing that the political climate is getting worse and worse. I just got back from a speaking tour in Australia, and ag gag laws are showing up there as well," says Potter. "I wanted to think up ways to be more creative and ambitious."

After seeing British artist Mishka Henner’s satellite imagery of industrial farm feedlots showing toxic waste lagoons that look like wounds in the landscape, he was inspired to look into drone photography.

Potter realizes that drones won't be able to capture up-close images of animal abuse; instead, he's hoping to document environmental abuses, like the giant waste lagoons chronicled by Henner. "All the filth, waste, and manure from farm operations end up in these enormous pits. We're talking about the environmental impact close to these areas [where people] are breathing in this foul air, kids have higher rates of asthma," he says. He also hopes to expose farms that generate meat labeled "humane" or "free range" for what they are: big industrial operations.

Aerial photography isn't yet as heavily policed on factory farms as regular photography, but Potter still needs to tread lightly. In Texas, a drone photographer snapped images of blood and manure coming out of an industrial operation and ending up in the local river. That led to one of the most strict aerial photography state laws on the books. Other states also have restrictions on drone photography.

"The unfortunate reality is that as I’m deciding on states and farms to investigate, I have to consider criminal prosecution. I don’t want to end up using funds we raised in legal battles," says Potter.

Potter's Kickstarter campaign has grown large enough that it's starting to show up in industry publications. Not every article has been negative (one suggested that the success of the campaign reflects how ag gag laws are backfiring), but he plans to build redundancies into his drone operations to ensure not all is lost if a farmer that has gotten wind of the campaign shoots one of the drones down—something that farmers have already threatened on Internet forums.

"I think there is a lot of animosity from some people that are seeing this and immediately reacting. Others are saying, 'We don’t have anything to hide,'" says Potter.

Check out Potter's campaign here.

[Image: Farmland via Shutterstock]

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8 Comments

  • dayaphotollc

    Last time I checked, First Amendment rights trumped most state laws. Ag-gag laws are probably ripe for rescission. It needs someone to stomach getting sued. Hopefully Mr. Potter will get the backing of a large news organization that will go to bat for him.

  • Jan Hoadley

    The public has a different view on the use of drones for photography when it comes to being the target of it on public land. That land that "belongs to all of us". Media stories show less than open support. But private land...that's fair game. IF they're doing something illegal it's one thing, but from a distance flying over there's not an accurate way to tell that, so it opens it up for harassment on what seems to be. It's "what I don't like" is ok to target. I don't agree with that.

    What happens when someone doesn't like free range chickens? Pastured cattle? Gardens! Well it was ok when it was a manure pit but when not a pit but they're going all over the ground....which can contaminate too...then that's not going to happen? Forgive me for being less than trusting that these folks will keep their word, when deception is needed to gain access.

  • James Barcia

    Maybe I'm missing something here? Instead of glorifying Mr. Potter, has anyone asked ourselves why A.) We are condoning surveillance, bordering on corporate espionage, by Americans on other Americans? (I assume if these were Chinese drones, you'd be besides yourself, right?) and B.) The infringement of privacy rights on a subset of Americans (farmers) by other Americans (animal rights activists)? If the tables were turned -- and let's not full ourselves -- big business can buy a lot more drones than Mr. Potter can -- I'm not so sure I'd be so enthusiastic. For the record: Please don't throw the "animal abuse" or "environmental" arguments in my face. There's ALWAYS a good reason to erode the rights of others, but at some point, we have to draw the line about the ends justifying the means. And, in this case, that line is getting crossed.

  • Rob Adp Johnson

    Anybody who is willfully cruel to animals deserves NO rights, consideration or protection.
    That is all. r

  • LOL!!! are you joking??? These cafos (A.K.A. BIG AG!) have been caught over and over horrifically abusing innocent animals in the most outrageous ways and then they tell us its against the a law to reveal their abuse which IS against the law??????????????

    How in the world anyone with a soul can, for one minute, defend this kind of torture is beyond human! Its takes a monster masquerading in a human form to defend these people who deny us our first amendment rights to document and bring to justice animal abusers who are breaking the law everyday!

    How many investigators go under cover to investigate other people breaking the law in other areas of commerce? Why is no one devising backdoor tricks to prevent them from doing their job? Its only the guilty that KNOW they are breaking the law that feel a need to make it illegal to take a photo or reveal their animal abuse.

    You want to draw a line???? How about you draw the line when innocent animals are horrifically tortured!

  • asgarbage

    "The infringement of privacy rights on a subset of Americans (farmers) by other Americans (animal rights activists)? "

    Oh yes, those poor "farmers" (weathered old man with a corncob pipe, straw hat on his head, and patched up overalls...) I think you meant multi-billion dollar ag corporations that spent about $150 million (visibly) last year on lobbying alone.

    We're talking about special privacy rights that agribiz has over and above what everyone else has. And why? to protect IP and trade secrets? Hardly. Rather, because it's a PR mess when they're called out on their incredibly lax standards, many of which can and do affect consumers downstream, both in the market and geographically. If a business is that of putting out a product that consumers ingest, they as a company should have no privacy in regards to monitoring of compliance with food and environmental standards. Otherwise it's no different than a ban on videoing of a swerving taxicab driver due to "right to privacy"

  • Next time you're enjoying a cheeseburger or a steak or anything containing any meat, eggs or dairy products whatsoever (which is practically every meal for most Americans), I want you to think long and hard about this argument. Also, go talk to the people who actually interact with these "innocent animals" on a daily basis. They can be dangerous. Individually and especially as a whole. But most often, livestock producers prefer the interaction with their animals to over other humans. They care. And these pits and lagoons are the most efficient way to dispose of waste. Some actually use an aerobic septic system to flush the lagoons and fertilize fields. How would you feel about someone coming into your house and condemning you for having a septic tank or your weekly contribution the the landfill? It's the same concept.