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Opinion Animal cruelty, undercover video and our collective avoidance

Jessica Scott-Reid is a Canadian freelance writer and animal advocate

Earlier last month, international animal-rights organization Mercy For Animals (MFA) released shocking undercover footage showing cruel treatment of chicks at a hatchery in Ontario.

But you likely didn’t see it.

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Jessica Scott-Reid

The footage, said to have been recorded between December, 2017 and February, 2018 at Fleming Chicks Ltd. in Beamsville, Ont., shows live chicks – deemed too injured by rough handling processes – being tossed into grinders, beheaded against sharp edges or having their necks snapped by hand. The online video is disturbing and difficult to watch, but shows legal meat-production practices.

The hatchery in question is owned by Maple Lodge Farms – which was previously convicted of cruelty toward chickens in 2013. Maple Lodge confirmed the video was filmed at Fleming Chicks.

It is not unusual for the media to be dismissive of evidence presented by animal-rights groups. Questions about the authenticity of information and the methods of acquiring footage plague animal-rights organizations, which can be cast as radical and untrustworthy.

Anna Pippus, a Canadian animal-rights lawyer with Animal Justice, says groups such as MFA and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) actually have “very stringent practices about documenting employment and locations and providing this to media.” She says that, in the case of the MFA footage, the group would likely have had “pay stubs and the investigator filming himself driving to work, parking and walking inside,” to authenticate the tapes.

So, why was there so little outrage – from audience and media alike? The issue stems from a much broader dilemma.

“News organizations are more likely to avoid news stories that induce too much collective guilt,” says Jason Hannan, an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg, who teaches a course on the rhetoric of animality.

As an example, Prof. Hannan points to the topic of orangutans in Borneo, being driven to extinction due to palm-oil production for Western companies and consumers. The issue, he says, receives very little media coverage.

“Those stories are very hard for Western audiences to read and so are more likely to be ignored.”

Prof. Hannan says the same can be said of our relationship to the meat industry, “whose violent and sadistic practices implicate everyone who consumes the products of that industry.”

So, maybe the problem is less about the credibility of animal-rights groups and more about our collective avoidance of turning the spotlight on ourselves, the industries we support and the questionable norms we accept and perpetuate as a society.

Surely, it is difficult to sell, read and share stories about the legal and systematic cruelty to animals, in which the majority of audiences indirectly participate.

“Guilt is a terrible feeling,” says Prof. Hannan, adding, “If there were as much public interest in the meat industry as there is in Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels, then we would see non-stop coverage of the horrors of the industry.”

Thankfully, there does seem to be increasing public concern for animals used in meat, dairy and egg production. One recent study found animal welfare to be the number one cause among Americans in 2018, while in Canada, a 2017 poll found nine out of 10 Canadians wanted many of the cruel standard practices of factory farming to be banned.

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There has also been a noted boom in vegan restaurants across the country and even Canada’s largest meat producer, Maple Leaf Foods, has extended its product line to include plant-based protein foods.

As public interest grows in issues regarding animal rights and welfare, we can only hope that the media will follow suit and find ways to work with animal-rights organizations doing the difficult and important work of documenting all that goes on behind the closed doors of these industries.

As Paul McCartney famously said: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.”

In today’s digital culture, we have the power to turn those walls into glass. We should be feeling obliged to do so, now more than ever.

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