HSUS crows over pulled CA bill

Apr 19, 2013

It is an odd world we live in when groups claiming to oppose animal abuse cheer for the demise of laws which seek to prevent animal abuse. Nonetheless, the perplexing cheers were still heard as a California animal cruelty bill died.

Wednesday, April 17, Assembly Bill 343 was pulled by its author, effectively killing it. The bill would have required documenters of animal cruelty to turn over a copy to local law enforcement within 120 hours (five days) of capture. The Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) was quick to applaud the action, calling the bill “dangerous” and “antiwhistleblower.”

AB 343, “Animal Cruelty: duty to provide documentary evidence,” was drafted by California Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and introduced on Feb. 13. Prior to being pulled from consideration, the bill underwent numerous amendments to better suit the concerns of stakeholders on both sides.

Like many similar bills, AB 343 sought to strike a balance between protecting producers and protecting whistleblowers who witness genuine abuse. This attempted compromise came by simply requiring evidence of abuse be shared in a timely manner.

However, AB 343 lacked the bite of similar bills in other states. Most states with such laws on the books or in the works have a much shorter timeline, often two days, for witnesses to turn over evidence of abuse. Additionally, most similar laws make it an offense (usually misdemeanor) to withhold such evidence beyond the required time. In AB 343, failing to turn over documentation of abuse within five days would have only been an infraction with a $250 fine, applicable once per person per situation.

These details didn’t appear to matter to California’s HSUS state director, Jennifer Fearing, who told the Sacramento Bee, “Our biggest concern was that it seemed clearly aimed at stifling the documentation of animal cruelty and not stopping animal cruelty itself.”

The HSUS response to the move also characterized the bill as “dangerous” and derided it as “ag-gag legislation.” HSUS went on to explain why the relatively toothless bill was such a threat:

“AB 343 would have obstructed whistleblowers’ ability to expose illegal and inhumane activity on agribusiness operations by forcing them to turn over documented evidence within 120 hours of commencing an investigation—preventing them from adequately documenting evidence and patterns of abuse.”

This rationale stands in conflict with a portion of the bill included in its final amended version before being pulled specifically to further protect whistleblowers:

“Nothing in this section shall limit or impede an ongoing investigation as long as a copy of the documentary evidence is provided to law enforcement… Nothing in this section shall require or encourage law enforcement agencies to reveal the source of the documentary evidence to the employer of the person who is the source of the material or to any person who is suspected of animal cruelty.”

HSUS and other animal rights organizations have a history of opposing laws which require documentation of abuse be turned over to law enforcement. In answering the question of why self-described animal rights groups would oppose bills that aim to prevent animal cruelty, HumaneWatch—a watchdog group dedicated to dogging HSUS, and subgroup of the Center for Consumer Freedom—answered thusly in a recent blog post:

“Because it means they can’t just sit around with the cameras rolling for months while animals are abused so that they can, say, splice together footage and concoct a (false) narrative, to say nothing of fundraising opportunities.”

The reference being made in the “false narrative” quip cited a heavily publicized undercover video by Mercy for Animals at a hog farm, released summer 2012. Though the imagery of workers castrating piglets, sows chewing on the bars of their stalls, and other details of the hog barns shocked non-ag audiences and generated much outcry from the public, a group of animal welfare experts with the Animal Care Review Panel observed that the heavily edited video did not show evidence of abuse.

“My intention with this bill was—and remains to be— the prevention of animal cruelty,” Patterson said in a statement about the pulling of the bill for consideration.

“The chair of the Agriculture Committee, myself and the California Cattlemen’s Association have agreed to hold a hearing in the future to discuss how we can move forward our goals of a safe food supply, strong agricultural industry and the humane treatment of livestock.”

Interest in a safe food supply is something cited by both sides in this situation, though to questionable sincerity in the case of HSUS.

In its applauding of the move, HSUS positioned itself with those which “work to protect food safety.” Interestingly, it also referenced its involvement with a 2007- 2008 undercover documentation of abuse at a Chino, CA, slaughter house as evidence of the value undercover documentation has to food safety.

“The HSUS exposé of a dairy cow slaughter plant in Chino, CA, prompted the largest meat recall in U.S. history, identified fraud against the federal government’s school lunch program, and resulted in criminal animal cruelty convictions.”

However, the actual value that “exposé” and the recall it triggered had for food safety has been widely questioned. By the time the video evidence of the abuse was turned over to not law enforcement, but to the media, the events shown in the video were months old. And long before the six-week long undercover operation was over—not to mention the intervening months prior to the video’s release—the abused cattle had long since been slaughtered, their meat entered into the food system, and likely was already consumed.

“Maximum media coverage serves HSUS’ private interest, but not the public’s,” HumaneWatch insisted in a blog post on the topic of HSUS’ opposition to laws like AB 343. “Stopping animal cruelty quickly should be the primary goal.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor