Animal Law

Today in Speciesism: Why does the Nebraska legislature want to protect animal abusers, but criminalize animal rights activists who use drone photography?

I was going through my Google alert notifications when I came upon “Bill seeks to stop drone use to spy on people, harass cows“, an article written by Grant Schulte. The headline was appalling enough; the text of the article was even worse. Not only does the article fail in its objectivity – it only presents the side of the animal ag industry – it takes what an industry shill claims at face value, never once questioning it. Additionally, the journalist glosses over one of the cruelest places for animals, the Meat Animal Research Center, and instead presents activists – those who want to protect animals – as villains.

Oh, and not once does it ever bring up the issue of “ag-gag” laws, which are unconstitutional. More on that below.

After I read the article, I immediately tweeted a short thread about my initial thoughts…

…But I want to say more, here.

The headline caught my attention because I recalled animal rights activists like documentary filmmaker Mark Devries and investigative journalist Will Potter using drones to document factory farms. Drones can be flown over feedlots, for example, and take video and photographs of the living conditions or any cruelty that may be taking place. Needless to say, the animal ag industry doesn’t want anyone photographing the places where animals are raised and killed. So I immediately recognized the headline for what it is: a manipulation, where animal activists are portrayed as the bad guys.

The article begins:

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Using a drone to spy on neighbors, drop drugs into prisons or harass cows could lead to criminal charges under a new bill Nebraska lawmakers will consider later this year.

While I don’t disagree that drone use should be regulated for safety, the three examples listed are an odd bunch. The first two make obvious sense as things we would want to prevent, but anyone who isn’t familiar with drones as tools for activism would be thinking, “Harass cows? The poor things!”

A few paragraphs down.. there it is again.

The bill would prohibit pilots from strapping weapons to their drones or harassing livestock.

Now the reader has come across it twice (three times, if you count the headline), and yet still no explanation as to what “harassing livestock” actually means. But it’s been juxtaposed in sentences alongside awful things, leading readers to believe that it’s a Very Serious Problem.

Finally, at the end of the article, there it is:

But [Jessie] Herrmann said her group’s members [Nebraska Cattlemen Association] are also concerned that animal rights groups will fly drones over their property without permission. Earlier this year, she said one animal rights group flew a drone over the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center near Clay Center, Nebraska, and may also have photographed a feedlot.

How is flying a drone over a feedlot and photographing it considered “harassment”? This is never explained by the journalist in the article. But perhaps a more important question is, why should anyone need permission to photograph a building like the Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) or a feedlot anyway?

We shouldn’t need permission, but the animal industry doesn’t want you, the consumer, to know what’s happening to the animals. This is why the animal ag industry has been fighting nonstop to criminalize whistleblowers who document instances of abuse and cruelty at farms. These criminal laws are known as “ag-gag” laws, and they have been shut down by the courts as unconstitutional. See, for example, a recent write-up of the Idaho ag-gag law that was struck down:

…[T]he court said “Idaho is singling out for suppression one mode of speech—audio and video recordings of agricultural operations—to keep controversy and suspect practices out of the public eye.”

“We are sensitive to journalists’ constitutional right to investigate and publish exposés on the agricultural industry. Matters related to food safety and animal cruelty are of significant public importance,” the ruling states. ((

To me, this proposed Nebraska law attempting to criminalize drone activity sounds a lot like the animal industry is now trying out a new version of ag-gag laws. And with nobody, not even journalists, questioning the industry’s motivation to get this law passed means the industry just may get away with it.

And by the way, do you know what MARC, the place Hermann is trying to protect from animal rights activists photographing with drones, engages in on a day to day basis? Here’s what the New York Times expose found:

  • In one trial aimed at creating larger lambs, pregnant ewes were injected with so much of the male hormone testosterone that it began to deform their babies’ genitals, making urination difficult.
  • The center has about 30,000 animals, tended by about 44 scientists, 73 technicians and other support workers. The scientists, who do not have medical degrees, and their assistants euthanize and operate on livestock, sometimes doing two or more major surgical operations on the same animal.
  • [The center has] barns so stuffed with pigs that workers could not clean them, resulting in spates of diarrhea and respiratory disease.
  • Dr. Keen, who now works for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said he and his students were startled last March to come across an emaciated ewe, in plain view of center employees, unable to eat because of a jaw abscess that had likely been growing for months. The ewe eventually died, records show, becoming the 245th animal to succumb to an abscess since 1985.
  • [On cow breeding experimentation] Some 95 percent of the female [cows] born with male siblings had deformed vaginas. Many of the twins died during birth as their eight legs became tangled. Even calves born singly had trouble getting out: The mothers had been bred with such large wombs, to accommodate twins, that the calf could not get enough traction. And the breeding increasingly yielded triplets, with 12 legs to get tangled. By 2001, the center was reporting that 16.5 percent of twins and triplets were dying, a rate more than four times that of single calves.

But Nebraskans need to worry about animal rights activists sending a drone over MARC, right?

But sending a drone to photograph a building that houses gruesome, unethical, and obscene experimentation on animals is the problem that needs to be condemned and even criminalized, right?


If anyone in Nebraska wants to stop the “harassing” of livestock, the first thing they need to do is publicly condemn the “research” (i.e., abuse) that takes places in the state’s USDA facility, and to demand that the public has a right to know what takes place at the feedlots, slaughterhouses, and other places where animals are raised and killed for food. Let’s not pretend to care about livestock when rampant, violent abuses are taking place right under our noses. Because it’s not activists using drones that’s the problem.; rather, it’s our attitude toward animals we call “livestock” who are suffering in these facilities.

I am disappointed in Sen. Carol Blood for introducing this law that protects those committing acts of animal abuse and cruelty.

The photo I used as the feature image for this article is of the Meat Animal Research Center.

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