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Animals: Iowa, first state to criminalize undercover investigation

March 05, 2012|By Dean Kuipers
  • Subrey Zill, 23, of Chicago, left, puts on a blindfold as Melinda Ellwanger, 46, of Des Moines holds a large sign with members of Mercy For Animals, a national animal advocacy group, as they protest the passage of a so-called "ag-gag" law at the State Capitol Thursday morning, March 1, 2012. The Iowa Legislature made the state the first to approve a bill making it a crime to surreptitiously get into a farming operation to record video of animal abuse.
Subrey Zill, 23, of Chicago, left, puts on a blindfold as Melinda Ellwanger,… (AP Photo/The Des Moines…)

On Friday, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed into law a bill designed to thwart activists who go undercover to report animal abuse. This makes Iowa the first state in the country to pass such a law; Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Utah are considering them.

Undercover investigations, including videos and photographs, are a principal tool used by activists of all stripes to document abuse cases and have led to legislative reforms, prosecutions and even facility closures around the country. In December, state authorities raided a Butterball turkey farm in North Carolina and filed charges against six employees and an official with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, based on investigation by animal welfare group Mercy for Animals.

Iowa’s House File 589 focuses on how activists gain access to facilities and what they do there. Of course, it is already illegal for activists to tresspass on any facility, which is often how documentation occurs. The bill, however, makes it a crime to lie to gain access to the facility, using the following wording:

Agricultural production facility fraud. 1. A person is guilty of agricultural production facility fraud if the person willfully does any of the following: a. Obtains access to an agricultural production facility by false pretenses. b. Makes a false statement or representation as part of an application or agreement to be employed at an agricultural production facility, if the person knows the statement to be false, and makes the statement with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner of the agricultural production facility, knowing that the act is not authorized.

“These are deeply flawed, misdirected laws that can set a dangerous precedent nationwide by throwing shut the doors of factory farms and allowing animal abuse, environmental violations and all sorts of other criminal activities that we know often occur at these facilities, and keep those criminal activities hidden from public view,” says Matt Rice, director of investigations at Mercy for Animals.

“It’s often whistle-blowers and undercover investigators that are the only watchdogs making sure that these violations don’t happen in industrial factory farms,” he adds.

In an Associated Press story, Gov. Branstad replied to outrage by animal groups by saying that gaining access to property under false pretenses is a serious matter and property owners deserve protections.

Activists stopped a similar so-called “ag-gag” law from becoming part of Florida’s omnibus agriculture bill earlier this year by raising local resistance. Utah’s bill, however, looks to be gaining support and has a chance at passage. That, says Rice and others, will be the next battleground.

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