Although outright sabotage of livestock operations and animal research facilities has declined in the U.S. since enactment of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) in 2006, the threat of “animal rights” extremists remains. That’s according to a former mink raiser whose Sultan, Wash., operation was put out of business by a 2003 raid in which thousands of his animals were released.

Jason Roesler, now director of public affairs for the Fur Commission USA, which represents mink farmers, says the most violent activists have taken their tactics to Canada. “There were five incidents in Ontario so far this year,” he told the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s 2018 Summit. The North American Animal Liberation Front (ALF) claimed credit for releasing chickens, turkeys and lambs in raids on Ontario farms last year. Activists also targeted mink operations.

Summit panelists noted opponents of animal agriculture also have stepped up their surveillance of livestock operations in the U.S. in an effort to document incidents of cruelty that they can share with news media.

The most recent, heavily publicized incidents arose from a coordinated effort by activists to infiltrate and record animal handling on dairy farms in the Lake Okeechobee area of Florida in December, resulting in the arrest of employees shown mistreating cows.

“There were things in the videos that were indefensible,” said Jamie Jonker, vice president for sustainability and scientific affairs at the National Milk Producers Federation. “This was unique in that four farms were targeted, and the activists strung out the release of videos over time. Initially they had the hook of the media but, as time went along, interest waned.” He said the Miami Beach-based Animal Recovery Mission effectively disrupted the target farms and other farms in the area “in terms of their relationship with customers.”

Scott Sobel, senior vice president for crisis and litigation communications at the kglobal public relations firm retained by Florida dairy interests to assist with their response, said that activists are most interested in poultry, pork and dairy operations. “Activists go to areas of least resistance,” he said. “I would be very concerned about cyberattacks coming against agriculture. These activists try everything.”

Roesler and Nicole Drumhiller, intelligence studies program director at American Military University, have undertaken research to measure the threat of actual sabotage and threats of violence to animal agriculture with the goal of providing law enforcement agencies with academic evidence. Too often, Roesler said, law enforcement officers have not taken the threat seriously. “They think it’s just kids’ pranks,” he added. “It’s important to keep educating them. This is not just high school kids but a system of terrorism. We have great opportunities to teach them.”

Livestock operations need to respond to activist criticism in different ways, said Bryan Humphreys, the Ohio Pork Council’s executive vice president. “There are two kinds of groups – hardliners who want nothing less than shutting down animal agriculture or the more pragmatic type of folks who will sit down with us and try to work out a solution.”

Humphreys’ view was endorsed by Frank Mitloehner, professor of animal science and air quality extension specialist at University of California-Davis. “We are wasting a lot of time talking to the 1 percent fringe,” he said. “We will never change their minds. We should focus on the 99 percent, particularly the younger ones.”

Mitloehner, who is credited with forcing the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to retract a claim that livestock generated more greenhouse gases than transportation, assessed the impact of several “animal rights” groups.

The Center for Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the promoters of “meatless Mondays,” has succeeded with a message to the millennial generation, he said. “I don't know how they are funded but they do a great job at communications.” But People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) “is not doing really well currently.”

Although he discredited the claim, in FAO’s “Livestock Long Shadow” in 2006, that livestock is a primary contributor to global warming, Mitloehner said the myth persists because opponents of animal agriculture continue repeating it. “It became one of the most important reports ever written,” he said. “It has had major impact on policy.

“Even to this day some mainstream media still get it wrong, especially The New York Times and the Guardian,” which he called “the greatest activist paper ever seen.”

Mainstream news media coverage of animal agriculture issues will often be negative, said Janet Riley, senior vice president of public affairs for the North American Meat Institute, because the number of specialized agriculture reporters continues to decline. “There has been a complete shift in how issues are covered,” she said. “There is a greater need to connect directly with consumers because we can’t rely on media any more. The reporting tends to be much more critical of animal agriculture.”

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