How undercover animal rights activists are winning the Ag-Gag war

Behind the scenes of the death match between big agriculture and animal-rights supporters

How undercover animal rights activists are winning the Ag-Gag war
Brian Stauffer
Cody Carlson had no way of preparing for this moment. He was a Manhattan kid, days removed from working as an analyst for a business-intelligence firm, where he scrutinized corporations and their executives.

Now he was standing in a bleak barn at New York's largest dairy farm.

There was a medieval feel to the place. Cows were wedged head-to-tail in pens carpeted with their own waste. The air was an acrid blend of urine, manure, and chemicals. Some animals were left unattended with open sores that leaked puss. Others lay dying in pens, too sick or weak to stand.

Cody Carlson has taped the proceedings at several factory farms. "It looks like a scene from The Matrix," he says of one pig operation.
Samuel Zide
Cody Carlson has taped the proceedings at several factory farms. "It looks like a scene from The Matrix," he says of one pig operation.
Pig casualties at Country View Family Farms in Pennsyvania
Mercy for Animals
Pig casualties at Country View Family Farms in Pennsyvania

"It's incredibly overwhelming," Carlson says. "Your brain can't process seeing this many animals crammed together in one place."

His first job, technically speaking, was to repair the mechanism that pulled manure from the barn.

His real job: covertly filming it all for Mercy for Animals.

As espionage goes, it was easier than infiltrating a Pizza Hut. Experience told the Los Angeles animal-rights group that it could send an undercover operative to a factory-style farm anywhere and it was certain to find abuse.

Carlson had simply been told to find a job in upstate New York. While the work requires punishing labor while surrounded by stench — all for the princely sum of $8 an hour — it isn't like spying on North Korea. Two days later, he was hired by Willet Dairy.

His hidden camera caught employees kicking and shocking animals that wouldn't bend to their will. Supervisor Phil Niles is heard recounting an abuser's greatest hits: how he beat cows with wrenches, smashed their heads with two-by-fours, kicked them when they were too feeble to rise.

"Fucking kicking her, hitting her," he chortles while recalling one incident. "Fucking jumping off the top of the goddamned gate and stomping on her head and shit."

After five weeks of filming, Mercy for Animals took the footage to ABC's World News. Niles was subsequently charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. His penalty for 19 years of beating cows in every way imaginable: a $555 fine.

Prosecutors cleared Willet Dairy of any wrongdoing. But the company did take an uppercut to the wallet. After the video went national, Willet was dumped by one of its major buyers, Leprino Foods, the world's largest mozzarella producer.

Carlson didn't wait around for the fallout. He soon re-emerged at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania, where nearly 3,000 pigs live as pork-products-in-waiting for Hatfield Quality Meats. Once again, his camera caught the gruesomeness of the factory food chain.

Workers threw piglets by their ears, ripped out their testicles with bare hands sans anesthesia. Constantly impregnated sows were kept in cages just two feet wide, unable to turn around and allowed to walk just four days a year.

"It's about the most sensory-deprived life you can possibly imagine," says Carlson. "Pigs are incredibly smart animals. They're said to be smarter than dogs. Pigs go so insane from these conditions that they bang their heads back and forth against the cage. It looks like a scene from The Matrix."

But like most states, Pennsylvania provides farmers with sweeping exemptions from cruelty statutes. These laws are simple: If it's commonly practiced in agriculture, it can't be construed as abuse.

Country View veterinarian Jessica Clark admits that the video showed violations of the farm's own standards, but says those issues were corrected before Mercy posted the film to the internet. Because Pennsylvania grants farmers a wide berth in dealing with livestock, no charges were filed.

Carlson soon took a new job working undercover for the Humane Society of the United States. This time he resurfaced in Iowa at Rose Acre Farms, the nation's second-largest egg producer, with nearly five million chickens.

His video showed hens packed into cages the size of a filing drawer, where each creature spent life in a space whose floor had the dimensions of a single sheet of paper.

Carlson's job was to cull the dead, the 100 or so hens whose wings and feet became caught in the caging, leaving them to die of thirst or be trampled to death by their cellmates each day.

"One of my colleagues called it 'pulling carpets,' because they stuck to the bottom of the cage," he says. "I actually had a worker tell me he had nightmares from tearing mummified birds off the cage."

Rose Acre was doing nothing illegal. But to the Humane Society, that was the point. The video depicted something akin to an aviary concentration camp. And not a single government agency showed the slightest concern.

Since the internet first granted activists a direct pipeline to the public, groups like the Humane Society, Mercy, and PETA have waged guerrilla war via undercover video. Each time they've uploaded footage, Big Ag has struggled to explain away what Americans could see with their own eyes.

Today, the guerrillas are winning.

It doesn't seem to matter where the operatives have landed. Be it a slaughterhouse in Vermont or a pig farm in Wyoming, the videos portray factory farms to be "like something from Dante," Carlson says. According to one Kansas State University study, media attention to the welfare of livestock has reduced demand for poultry and pork.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

I'm 41, raised in a Mid-Michigan suburb, and a HUGE animal lover. I've been surrounded by farmland my whole life, from home to travelling up the upper two-thirds of the lower peninsula and the east side of the upper peninsula.  I've never had any actual experience on a farm, and I never thought past the peaceful views of lazy cows in pastures as I drove around the state. I never even connected those cows to the hamburgers I ate.  The first time I ever thought about where my food came from was when I read about the woman in Utah who was charged with agricultural operation interference.  When I started researching how farm animals live and die, I was appalled by what I saw and read.  I stopped eating all meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products until I could learn more.

Over the past two months I have come to the following conclusions:

Even the most common-sense animal advocacy groups lie by omission, pick and choose small parts of legislation that they want you to be aware of without giving you direct links to the legislation in it's entirety, slam you with the most shocking pictures and videos, and fill their emails with more donation links than actual information.

It is very difficult to find factual information on the subject. Mostly you just find both sides of the issue calling each other names and saying things they either don't or can't back up with facts. There seems to be very little credible data, I am assuming because there really isn't much regulation of the industry.

I have come to grips with the fact that there really is no nice way to end the life an animal raised for human consumption.  Even the most humane ways will always seem awful to "regular" people.  And I'm sure it's not a very pleasant thing to have to do even for the average farm worker.

I still have issues with the lack of outside regulation of the industry.  I also believe that worker conditions/pay are one of the main problems; high turnover rates indicate to me that it is difficult not only to get and keep "good" people, but to ensure that workers are properly trained, thus leading to both intentional and unintentional animal cruelty.

I think that the Ag Industry has made a huge mistake in attempting to criminalize whistle-blowing. Although I am not a huge fan of animal activist groups, I believe they are necessary at this point to expose not just random acts of cruelty, but more so bring to light the much bigger issues of lack of regulation and the problems with retaining good workers  Also, it's a pretty big bonehead move to either come near to or actually infringing on the first amendment. I thank them for doing that though, otherwise I may never have been spurred to do some research.  

I do not, nor have I ever, been against raising animals for food. I realize that those animals will never have "good" lives.  But I do expect them to be treated as humanely as possible.  And until the industry is more transparent and regulated by credible outside sources, and I can read some cold, hard facts based on those sources, I will do my best to not have any meat or dairy products in my food (unless it is obtained through hunting by someone I know - meat, obviously, not dairy products...and not beef lol). As for poultry, which to me has the very worst industry standards, I doubt that I will ever eat them or eggs again.

As an afterthought, I'd like to give one example of why I say there is no reliable info out there. A quote from this article:

"Take those tight gestation crates used for sows. They're designed not to make pigs crazy, but to keep mothers from accidentally suffocating their children, says Tony Bolen, a Wisconsin veterinarian. "The mothers lay on a lot of piglets if they don't have them," he explains."

My first thoughts after reading that were:  How long after birth are the piglets taken away from their mothers? How long after giving birth is a sow impregnated again? How long is the gestation period? Basically, for what percentage of the sow's life does she actually have piglets with her that she might lay down on and crush?  Besides, I'm pretty sure "gestation" crates are for sows who are pregnant, not nursing piglets.  What an incredibly irrelevant and misleading quote.

Oh yeah, and a big thanks to Big Ag for bringing the existence of the American Legislative Exchange Council to my attention.  ;)


For the life of me I cannot understand how these big ag farms get away with this kind of cruelty.  It's just terrible and says a lot about what kind of people are out there and they see nothing wrong with treating the animals this way.  Then the state and federal government protects this kind of behavior really turns my stomach as well.  What is wrong with people?  I like a good hamburger as well as anyone but I will cut down on my consumption of meat products and will only purchase meat from humane farmers who treat their animals with dignity.  It's more expensive but so what.  I will also give $$ to the animal rights organizations.  Also, that guy who shot the horse in the head and who told the activists to fuck off - what a shitty human being. 

swmnguy topcommenter

I grew up in the country.  I worked for neighboring farmers, mucking out hog barns, cattle barns, you name it.  One of my brothers is a large-animal farm veterinarian.  I've never seen cruel sadistic stuff like is shown on these videos.  My brother has seen it though; on factory farms that pay low wages, have rotten conditions for workers and animals alike.  Not all factory farms either, mind you.  The ones that can't keep their good employees and hire the real bottom of the barrel psychopaths who get off on torturing animals.

Hey, I like meat.  Just finished eating some, as a matter of fact.  Every so often my siblings and I split an animal we'll order from a farm our brother recommends.  I have a lot of scorn for privileged urban do-gooder types who don't have any idea what farm life is like.  There are some pretty mixed-up people out there who seem to think animals are just people in furry suits; actually, just hippies in furry suits.

But the stuff that's in these videos is not borderline.  It's really sick stuff.  Totally unnecessary.  As I said, I've never seen anything like it in person, and I've been in dozens of livestock barns out in the country.  It's bad business too.  If the big-business, capital-intensive factory approach to livestock agriculture requires raw sadism, I think that's worth discussing as a nation.  The fact is, it's not required, and it's a source of hazards entering our food supply to boot.

CinBlueland topcommenter

" Cody Carlson had no way of preparing for this moment. He was a Manhattan kid, days removed from working as an analyst for a business-intelligence firm"

And knows what exactly about Farming? Husbandry?  It's like a liberal seeing a weapon for the first time.. "It was so scary, all black and military looking"

Those of you who follow the food reviews, juicy lucy debate.. Where do you think the meat comes from? Some happy place where animals are read to, and taken on nature walks then sung lullabies at night?

If you're upset by this, then don't look and see how your bulk grains are processed, (Hint you're a meat eater)

We have 300+ million in this country alone to feed. Holistic, Organic farms are not sustainable on even that level. Now think of the food aid we send around the globe to help the starving. 

If you want to pay more for the myth of Organic/Free Range, have at it.. But the country and the world are hungry and it's not a pretty process.

CinBlueland topcommenter

Oh go away.. You ignored the trial of Kermit Gosnell, but whey grass eating nuts get front page?

CinBlueland topcommenter

@swmnguy  About my experience as well. 

My responses may have been a little heated, but I've had it with PETAtards.


@CinBlueland Do you realize how much land we use (and how many forests we destroy) simply to produce grains to feed our livestock instead of using that land to grow sustainable crops that could feed the 300+ million people in this country, let alone people all over the world? I'm not anti-meat (though I don't personally eat it and I don't believe Americans need anywhere NEAR the amount they currently consume), and I'm all for true animal husbandry - as well as crop diversity. Unfortunately both have been replaced with industrialized crap. If you prefer "cheap" food and if that's the short-sighted system you'd rather support, you can go ahead and give the pharmaceutical companies all of your saved money when it inevitably comes back to bite you. I'll continue to financially support the farms I trust and the companies utilizing sustainable practices - and in doing so, I'll also continue to enjoy good health. 


@CinBlueland LOL America wastes ~33 MILLION TONS OF FOOD A YEAR.  I think we have PLENTY to feed the people here.  This is about capitalism.  FUCK agriculture.  FUCK GMOs. FUCK MEAT.  FUCK FACTORY FARMS.  We do not NEED any of this.  


@CinBlueland Kermit Gosnell was disgusting and means nothing more than any other serial killer/white privilege criminal.  He deserves news time but he does not reflect on any relevant community.  What is your point?

swmnguy topcommenter

@CinBlueland  I think a large issue here is the growing disconnect between people and the food they eat.  Very few of us have actually seen, much less participated in, the agricultural process.  Between that and the financialization of everything in our economy, there's a lot of room for truly terrible practices to develop and continue, but also for a lot of ignorance and not-thinking to grow as well.

There are certainly unreasonable animal-rights people and militant vegan types.  I've run across them.  I thought they had all the best intentions, and many good points, but like most fundamentalists, they were reacting largely to something inside themselves rather than to the reality around them.  I think of a guy I knew who was in his early twenties (I was too, then) who was a militant animal-rights/vegetarian.  Who knows what he's involved with now; wouldn't surprise me if he's one of those guys who raids farms and lets out the animals,who then all get killed or starve, or try to get back into the barn.  Well, he had grown up in an affluent suburban family, totally unconnected from how any of the things in his life got there, and had been the victim of horrendous abuse.  It didn't take very long talking to him to get the idea that he saw farm animals as analogues of his little-kid self, and wanted to save them from what he had endured.  Sounds kind of "Dr. Phil," but really, it just leaped out at you talking to the guy.

A lot more people need to hang out at the livestock barn at the State Fair and talk to the 4-H and FFA kids about what animals are really like, and what it's like to live with them and take care of them, and how it works mentally to nurture an animal that's going to be slaughtered for food.  People would be amazed by the nuanced and sophisticated outlooks these kids have.

And we really need to restore the inspection and food safety system in America.  People would be absolutely terrified if they knew how much our public health is left to the tender mercies of the worst operators in the industry.  There pretty much is no functional food-safety system in America.  It's a wonder more of us aren't poisoned by our food than already are.

swmnguy topcommenter

@CinBlueland @swmnguy He-he--the joy of self-employment.  Except now my boss is on my ass and I'd better get some work done.  At least when I had a conventional jobs, my working conflicts were with other people. 

I've got the dual monitors and the laptop, but I can still only do one thing at a time.  Stupid biological brain.

CinBlueland topcommenter

@swmnguy @CinBlueland Thank you for the longer write up. 

Agree, and again similar experience.. 

My only excuse for short quips, is I'm posting from work. (still working, but that's why Ra gave us dual monitors)