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Protecting yourself from animal rights activism starts on the farm

Casey Kinler for Progressive Dairy Published on 18 February 2022

Olympic runner and dairy farmer Elle Purrier St. Pierre kicked off the 2022 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, drawing parallels between training to become an Olympic athlete and dairy farming.

She highlighted how much strength – both physical and mental – it takes to be a successful athlete and dairy farmer as each career demands long hours, dedication and overcoming obstacles. After the inspiring story from Purrier St. Pierre, attendees learned how they can go for the gold back on the farm during the two-day event, which I had the opportunity to participate in.

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Obstacles dairy farmers face on their way to “gold” include threats from animal rights activist groups. Tactics these groups are using to target the dairy community include mass protests, break-ins, theft and “open rescues,” legislative initiatives, pressure campaigns against brands and more. They frequently try to obtain video footage to use in their campaigns by getting hired on farms, using hidden cameras, setting up “frontline surveillance” and flying drones overhead. However, with preparation and partners we can be better equipped to prevent activist activity – and it all starts on the farm.

In a panel titled “Protecting Yourself from Animal Activism,” myself, Master Trooper Kelly Osborne with the Pennsylvania State Police and Brook Duer, attorney at the Penn State Center for Agricultural and Shale Law, discussed how farmers can adopt farm security protocols and engage with their local law enforcement. Caroline Novak of Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania moderated the discussion.

It doesn’t take advanced and expensive technology or equipment to deter activists – basic farm security can go a long way to making yourself a harder target. Farm security measures the Animal Agriculture Alliance recommends all farmers consider include:

  • Using locks and keypads on doors and gates
  • Setting up motion-sensor lighting and cameras
  • Posting no trespassing signs and making sure they are posted anywhere a person could enter your property – not just on the front gate
  • Having a process for employees to determine if someone is a legitimate visitor

The relationship dairy farmers have with their employees is another key part of farm security. Doing your due diligence during the hiring process can prevent major heartburn down the road as there are almost always red flags that can help you spot an animal rights activist attempting to get hired with the intent to obtain video footage to use in a campaign against you, not to provide the highest level of care to your animals. Some red flags include using a UPS drop-off location as their address, seeking work for just a few weeks and listing fellow activists’ phone numbers under their references. Creating a culture of care and helping your employees understand the threat of animal rights activism can boost employee confidence when they do encounter activist activity, as well as helping them to spot concerns and bring them to management’s attention right away. This includes regular animal care trainings for everyone – from the farm owner to the summer intern – and having all employees sign an animal care agreement form when hired.

Duer outlined the basic principles of property rights and the employer-employee relationship from a legal perspective. “Property owners have the exclusive right of possession unless there is some form of consent,” said Duer. He gave the example that we give unwritten consent for mailmen and delivery drivers to enter our property to do a specific task – drop off packages. At the same time, we can revoke consent from others (unless there is a superseding statutory law, like the right for law enforcement to enter with a warrant or probable cause) by posting no trespassing signs. However, there is an exception – people are allowed to take photos and videos of farms from public property, and this includes the use of drones, as long as the drone is taking aerial photos and not going inside barns or any structures that have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

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If you think you may have hired an animal rights activist, Duer shared that employers have the right to terminate employment right away. “Unless there is an agreement for a defined term of employment, all employees are ‘at-will’ and can be terminated without cause, and this is only subject to discrimination laws,” said Duer. Employers can also dictate workplace rules, which can include leaving your personal phone in your car and refraining from taking photos or recordings.

Building relationships and having proactive discussions with your local law enforcement have been shown to make a considerable difference in effectively managing a protest or other activist incident. Osborne challenged each dairy farmer in attendance to identify the animal cruelty liaison at your local state police department as they would likely be the point of contact for any concerns reported about your farm. She noted that the majority of law enforcement personnel do not have an agriculture background and are not familiar with farm practices, so inviting them out for a farm tour to help them become more familiar behooves everyone. Osborne also emphasized that animal rights activists do not have the authority to conduct investigations.

Novak acknowledged dairy farmers are in “somewhat of a catch-22” as they are increasingly told to “open the barn doors” and share how they care for their cows, yet they also need to be vigilant about animal rights activism. The key is understanding who you are talking with and focus on connecting with your consumers while being aware of the potential for animal rights activism. We should also not invest any effort in trying to appease the very small percentage of the population who will never accept dairy farming no matter how much of a priority animal care is on your farm.  end mark

PHOTO: Getty images.

For resources on farm security, hiring and having conversations with law enforcement, email the Alliance.

Casey Kinler is the director of membership and marketing at Animal Agriculture Alliance. Email Casey Kinler.

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