Why California Wants You To Believe This Bird Does Not Exist
Qing was found on the floor of a factory farm cage – a cage that, according to California law, should have been banned.
What’s up this week
The prosecution of animal rights activists in Sonoma County, which goes to trial on Sept 8, is part of broader effort to cover-up unlawful cruelty in California factory farms. I’m explaining how that’s happening in this week’s newsletter, and why this trial will be an important opportunity for all of us to expose corruption and animal abuse.
Despite decades of research showing the dangers posed by antibiotics in meat production, Tyson announced this week that it will return to using those drugs in its farms. This should be a concern to vegans and non-vegans alike, as the WHO (among many other organizations) has condemned the massive over-use of antibiotics in factory farms.
The Economist magazine is arguing that we should treat beef like coal due its greenhouse gas emissions. “Doing without beef from live cattle is hard to imagine, but the same was true of coal 100 years ago,” the Economist writes, while encouraging people to “become vegetarians.” The accompanying chart, which shows that beef contributes nearly 5 times as much to climate change than air travel, says it all.
As the Sonoma Rescue Trial approaches, we’re encouraging all of you to harness the case to amplify the animal rights message — and to become an Open Rescue Advocate (ORA). Open Rescue Advocates are supporters of The Simple Heart’s efforts who fulfill a monthly call to action. Our call to action this month is to identify, and post publicly about, a “cage-free” egg farm. If you meet this challenge, you are eligible to become an Open Rescue Advocate and join our invitation-only meeting. Check out our application form here.
This month’s Open Rescue Advocates meeting on July 30 will feature a conversation with Adam Durand, the first person in US history to serve jail time for open rescue. It will be a fascinating conversation. I hope you’ll join us! More details here.
The language of fear
I am in the middle of one of the largest egg farms in the state of California, staring at a bird who should not exist.
The eggs from this farm are marketed as “Humane Certified” and “Cage Free.” The packaging shows a stream on a grassy mountain field, and the face of a smiling cow. People buying these eggs, from places such as Whole Foods, believe they’re contributing to something like an animal sanctuary. And in this belief, California consumers are supported by the force of law. In 2008, a record number of voters approved Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that was sold to our citizens as a ban on cages in egg-laying farms. Every hen in the state, the law promised, would have the right to “stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”
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But the little bird I am staring at, eight years after the passage of Prop 2, shows that all of this is a lie. There are no mountain streams or grassy fields; she has lived her entire life indoors, crammed in an industrial factory farm. The farm is neither cage-free nor humane. Tens of thousands of birds are living in metal boxes, where many are suffering from a terrifying list of diseases and injuries caused by crowding, including having their internal organs torn inside out. And the promise made by California – that every animal would have the right to stand and spread their wings – has been broken. With the weight of metal and flesh all around her, the little bird I am staring at is being crushed in the back of her cage.
Her feet are deformed – mangled to the point that they look like pancakes – and cannot support her weight. They provide no balance on the hard metal wire. Her body’s frantic movements, as other animals crowd against her, speak to me in a language clearer than words. It is the language of fear – of a living being whose every waking moment has been a struggle against being crushed to death. And, in that language, this little bird is telling me:
Please, I’m hurt. Can you help?
We have already taken one sick bird on this night, and we were not planning to take another. But she looks up at me, her eyes seeming to widen. They speak again, in the language of fear:
I can’t walk, and I’m scared.
I imagine her life if we leave her behind, crippled in a cage. Trampled on. Starved. Endless nights of struggle and terror.
“We take her out,” I say. No one on the team disagrees.
We remove the bird from her cage and name her Qing. Her name is Chinese for “light on her feet.”
The Animal Cruelty Conundrum
One of the most puzzling contradictions in American society is that we are a nation of animal lovers, but also a nation of animal abusers. Call it the Animal Cruelty Conundrum. This contradiction is best illustrated by two seemingly incompatible facts. The first is that the vast majority of Americans of all political perspectives (83% of Democrats, 77% of Republicans) say cruelty to farm animals is a “personal moral concern.” Americans hate animal cruelty so much that they cannot bear to see it, even in CGI or movies. The second fact is that the vast majority of farm animals are raised in situations that are not just cruel but, according to The New York Times, outright “torture.” The caging of animals in metal enclosures so small that they cannot stand or spread their wings is just one of many examples of this grotesque abuse.
But Qing’s story helps us solve the Animal Cruelty Conundrum. It’s not that Americans are cruel people, or hypocrites. It is, quite simply, that we are being lied to. We are told by the industry, and even by our own government, that animal cruelty has been eliminated by laws such as Prop 2. This is not true. Animals such as Qing continue to suffer from the exact abuses — such as intensive confinement in cages — that we were told had been reformed. And the problem is not just with one farm; the problem is an entire system of lies.
Take, for example, false marketing. Sunrise, the massive egg farm from which we rescued Qing, is not the only agricultural corporation to rely on deceptive advertising to sell its product. Over the last 10 years, I have investigated:
“Humanely-raised” turkey producers that have constructed sham farms, used only for marketing purposes, while their real turkeys were raised in massive industrial sheds;
Dairy farms that claim to offer their animals “freedom to express natural behavior” while confining baby cows in grim 2 x 6.5 foot wooden crates; and
“Free-range” chicken farms that never allow an animal to step outside.
And, in all of these cases, there is virtually no legal mechanism to prevent the fraud.
Indeed, while the Meat Inspection Act (MIA) was passed in 1906 to prevent “misbranding” of animal products at a time when the nation was up in arms over Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meatpacking business, the regulatory apparatus around that statute has been effectively captured by the industry. When the Animal Welfare Institute reviewed 25 animal welfare labels approved by the USDA, such as “humanely raised” or “free to roam,” they found that 20 received approval with no supporting evidence whatsoever. For another 4 labels, all that was required was a supporting affidavit, i.e., a statement from the company that the label was accurate. Only 1 company out of 25, in short, was required to submit any evidence of animal welfare at all. Indeed, 100+ years after it passed, the federal agencies enforcing the MIA are not just asleep at the wheel. They are actively promoting food fraud — e.g., by intervening to prevent legal action by state governments, or to stop consumer fraud lawsuits.
Then there is lack of enforcement. Prop 2 is not the only important animal welfare provision that has been ignored. The more straightforward example is state animal cruelty law. In California, Penal Code Section 597 makes it a crime when anyone “inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon [an] animal, or in any manner abuses any animal, or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or shelter.”
Yet while animal hoarders literally face punishment for holding thirty dogs in a single building, factory farmers regularly house thirty thousand animals in a single shed — and in far more crowded, disturbing conditions than the worst animal hoarder— and are not even subject to investigation, much less punishment. At Qing’s farm, we documented a dizzying array of serious injuries and diseases, including living birds crushed into the wire by crowding. Yet our repeated efforts to convince Sonoma County authorities to address this cruelty — phone calls, emails, even in-person visits with the County Attorney — were completely ignored.
The problem, moreover, is statewide. At the same time as our rescue of Qing, we submitted animal cruelty reports, vetted and approved by veterinarians and criminal law experts, to every Sheriff and District Attorney’s office in the state, begging any of them to take action against the state’s factory farms. Our reports provided clear evidence of consumer fraud, violations of public health rules, and animal cruelty laws. Indeed, we even included in our reports documents from the state’s own investigators, finding that factory farms were breaking the law.
Yet in conversation after conversation with the state authorities, we were told, “You’ll have to go to someone else.” The criminal agencies would tell us they had no expertise to investigate commercial agricultural practices. The agricultural agencies told us that they did not enforce criminal laws. The result of this legal hot potato is that overwhelmingly popular laws are left completely unenforced. In the nearly 10 years since Prop 2 went into effect, for example, there has yet to be a single successful enforcement action – despite the fact that California is one of the largest farm states in the nation. Laughably, there have been more lawsuits by the industry challenging Prop 2 and other animal welfare provisions — including one by the owner of Sunrise, Arnie Riebli — than there have been actual investigations of animal cruelty. The millions of California voters who supported Prop 2, in short, have been deceived. Legal protections for animals are mostly a sham.
But the most disturbing component to Big Ag’s system of lies is the prosecution of whistleblowers. When we rescued Qing, we did not hide what we did. Our open rescues, after all, are not just about saving one life. They are done openly, with the intent to spread awareness of animal cruelty. Indeed, far from hiding our actions in Sonoma County, I brought evidence of exactly what we did, including the rescue of Qing, to the authorities in multiple meetings from 2017-2018. And I asked the authorities to do their constitutional duty: uphold the law.
They refused. And when they failed to do their duty, we consulted with criminal law experts who concluded that we had the right to give aid to sick and distressed animals ourselves; we had, in other words, the right to rescue. We called the police to indicate what our plans were, pursuant to that right, and invited them to join us in aiding animals who needed our help. I explained to the authorities that these animals were victims of criminal abuse who, like Qing, were in desperate need of emergency medical care. And, in response, the Sonoma County authorities finally brought criminal charges… against us.
In dozens of conversations with law enforcement, prosecutors, and other state officials, I was never told why our criminal complaint against local factory farms was legally incorrect — not a single time. But, due to pressure from influential corporate lobbies, such as the California Farm Bureau, our elected officials have gone beyond ignoring animal cruelty laws to attempting to crush citizens who report the abuse. In Sonoma County, a lawyer with the district attorney’s office, Troye Shaffer, attended a Farm Bureau event series called Beyond the Fenceline, which was intended, according to the Bureau’s own marketing, to help factory farms “prepare for and manage activists.” At the event, Shaffer said that the office’s goal was to “cut the head off the snake,” i.e., target leaders in the movement. Shaffer’s participation and words were constitutionally fraught. (Under the First Amendment, government officials cannot use their official powers to target people they politically oppose.) But it didn’t matter. Shaffer was not only allowed to continue this work. She was promoted to become a state judge.
Our case in Sonoma County, sadly, is just one of many cases across the country where whistleblowers are being prosecuted. Evidence we’ve obtained from these cases show that there is extensive inter-state cooperation between agents of industry, and the authorities, to crush the burgeoning movement for rescue. While these cases are nominally about theft and burglary, the government barely hides its true purpose: crushing those who point out the industry’s crimes. In the recent Smithfield trial, for example, dozens of federal agents mobilized to prosecute a case involving two piglets who were worth at most $42.40 each. In the Foster Farms trial, multiple members of the District Attorney’s office were involved in a case involving two chickens that the company admitted were worth at most $8. Ask yourself how often the FBI has answered the call when you lost something worth $50?
And surprisingly, the authorities don’t even hide their motivations in bringing the criminal cases against rescuers. Many of the documents used to formally charge us, such as Prosecution Summary created by the FBI in the Smithfield case, show that the government is concerned about speech, not theft. In that summary, the FBI complains about defamatory protests and public image damage — but almost nothing at all about the actual “property” that was removed. But, of course, even if we defamed Big Ag, or damaged its public image, that is not a crime.
In short, the goal of these prosecutorial efforts — including the numerous felony charges that were filed against me in Sonoma County — is not to uphold the law. It is to protect an industry that is breaking it. And these prosecutions are perhaps the industry’s most aggressive effort to hold up its system of lies. Because, if they can deter people from exposing the abuses through criminal prosecution, then the other mechanisms of deceit — false marketing and lack of enforcement — can continue to do their work.
In many ways, it’s an ingenious plan. Historically, corrupt and heavy-handed prosecutions have led to convictions that effectively chilled the movement for animal rights.
There is just one problem with the industry’s plan, however: the prosecutions are failing. When the ordinary citizens who comprise a jury are introduced to animals like Qing, they don’t want them to be left to die in a cage. They want them to be saved.
The language of peace
The life of an egg-laying hen is a hard one, quite literally. Through their entire lives, birds raised in a cage will never feel something soft. This was especially hard for Qing, given her mangled feet. She could not avoid the harshness of the metal wire below her. She spent a lifetime feeling that wire cutting into her broken feet.
It hurts, she must have thought. It hurts so much, and it never goes away.
And so the moment she finally felt softness, for the first time, at the intensive care unit of an animal sanctuary, was a revelation. When I watch this video now, even 7 years later, it still brings tears to my eyes. Qing is emaciated and losing her feathers. You can see the skeletal outline of her wings, the product of months of fighting for food, water, and space. She is confused and anxious. She has lived her entire life in a tiny metal box, and has no concept of open space. And then you look at her feet… those painful, mutilated feet. She looks unsteady on them, and barely walks, in the first few hours after we give her soft flooring for the first time in her life. But slowly, with more confidence in each step, she realizes that she doesn’t have to be scared to walk. She doesn’t have to be afraid of metal wire — the only world she has ever known — cutting into her delicate feet.
And when she walks, she is no longer speaking the language of fear. She is speaking the language of peace.
It doesn’t hurt, she says. It feels… soft.
For the first time in her life, Qing feels light on her feet.
The horrors that Qing went through are real, contrary to what the industry and government have told us. But so too, is her liberation. And what I believe, more than anything else, is that when people hear these true stories, they are changed. I do not mean, necessarily, that we will be acquitted at the trial which begins on September 8. As with every criminal case, there are legal obstacles for us to overcome, before we are even able to present our case to the jury. And it is the nature of our system that our fate will be determined, at least in part, by the luck of the draw. If we get unusually cruel people on our jury, perhaps they won’t be moved by Qing’s fate. If that is what happens, I am prepared for life in a cage.
But I believe that the vast majority of Americans — of human beings — want animals like Qing to be free. I believe they understand the language of fear, and the language of peace. When they hear what Qing is telling us — I’m hurt, and I need your help — they will heed her call. And they will help us build a world where every animal is given sunlight, and softness, and the ability to stand and stretch their wings.
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