Dealing with animal-rights activists

Reps from Canada’s swine sector discuss recent clashes and what farmers and truckers can do to protect themselves.

by Geoff Geddes

Wanted: pig transport driver. Must be thick-skinned, unfazed by confrontation and able to navigate human blockades. Apply now!

While this job posting is fictional, the challenges posed by animal-rights activists in the pork industry are real. Although producers, transport truck drivers and plant operators are no strangers to dealing with controversy, some individuals see a rise in “less-than-peaceful” protests as cause for concern.

“We understand that people are entitled to their beliefs and to protest peacefully at facilities or farms,” says Geraldine Auston, president of Ag & Food Exchange Ltd. in British Columbia and an expert on crisis management. The business specializes in issues management for agriculture.

“As long as (activists) aren’t breaking the law, interfering with legal businesses or endangering themselves or others, we respect their right to be there.”

Animal Rights Activists
    Rawpixel Ltd./iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

The problem in some instances is that the line between innocuous and intrusive seems to be blurring.

“In recent months, we have seen an escalation in activism that goes beyond the peaceful protest we support,” says Stacey Ash, Ontario Pork’s manager of communications and consumer marketing. “Industry members have experienced an increase in incidents of trespassing, harassment and physical interference with individuals and vehicles.”

On farm, other concerns include barn break-ins, thefts of animals and vocal, large-scale protests.

“Farms are not just businesses; they are homes,” says Ash.

“When, as has occurred in other jurisdictions like B.C., you have dozens of people confronting residents, carrying placards and refusing to leave, it’s very disturbing. It’s equally troubling to learn that some activists here in Ontario believe they have a right to secretly enter barns and businesses and remove property.”

Get the truck out of here

Given their high visibility, pig transport drivers are also a prime target of activists, who often block the way as truckers try to enter slaughter plant grounds.

“Protesters stand in front of the truck, swear at us, throw water bottles at the window and pound on the fender,” says Tyler Jutzi, vice-president and driver for Brussels Transport Ltd. in Bluevale, Ont.

Apart from causing stress for the driver, Jutzi feels that those actions can put a strain on the pigs.

“The animals are usually resting peacefully by the time they get to the plant entrance, so they are disturbed by the ruckus,” he says.

“There is also a major safety concern. I’m driving a 100,000-pound tractor trailer that doesn’t stop on a dime when people suddenly block the road.

“I can’t see all four sides of the truck to know if I’m about to run over someone when I start up again.”

While no hard stats are available on the prevalence of activism in the pork industry, the reason for activism’s rise may be easier to pin down.

Global ties

“There have always been people who disagreed with using animals for food, but we live in an age when a movement can start in Australia and quickly make its way around the world,” says Auston.

Hands holding cellphone
    ljubaphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“Activist groups communicate amongst themselves, share their beliefs and find strength in each other to a degree that wasn’t possible 20 or 30 years ago,” she says. “It’s called social media.”

As empowering as social media can be, activists may also be emboldened by what often happens when they break the law: nothing.

“Escalation can partly be linked to a lack of meaningful legal consequences,” says Ash.

A recent example is the case of animal-rights activist Jenny McQueen. In 2016 and 2017, she entered a hog barn near Lucan, Ont. several times without the property owner’s knowledge. Though McQueen recorded herself inside the barn and admitted to stealing two animals, the Crown dropped charges of break and enter and mischief to property on May 1, 2019.

“We were shocked by the charges being dropped,” says Eric Schwindt, chair of Ontario Pork. “As producers, we believe in free speech and the right to protest, but we also believe that our farms, food and families must be kept safe. We’re disappointed that, thus far, the Crown has not been willing to share the rationale for the decision.”

Two-minute warning

At the Burlington plant where he makes deliveries, Jutzi is frustrated by what he sees.

“For some reason, police are allowing protesters to block our way for two minutes before we enter the plant,” says Jutzi. “During that time, demonstrators can curse us and pretty much do what they want. If that sort of harassment occurred at any other workplace, I think it would be promptly addressed.”

For its part, Ontario Pork is pushing officials to resolve these gaps in enforcement.

Weaners at Feeder
    National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff, Des Moines, Iowa photo

“The agricultural sector wants to work with government and law enforcement to give farmers and transporters more protection,” says Ash. “Whether that (protection) involves new legislation or stronger enforcement of existing laws, something has to change.”

The focus on change is shared by representatives of other organizations and commodity groups who say all illegal acts should be treated as such.

“In the absence of punishment, some activists are getting more brazen in their tactics,” says Kelly Daynard, executive director of Farm & Food Care in Guelph, Ont. The non-profit organization connects farmers, ag businesses and government organizations to share credible information about food and farming with the public.

“This (activism) is worrisome for the livestock industry in Ontario and has prompted many groups to write to the premier, minister of agriculture and solicitor general (to) tell them we need help. The bottom line is that we must take the issue seriously.”

Balancing act

In the meantime, industry leaders advise farmers to tread the fine line between caution and paranoia.

“I tell farmers not to lie awake at night worrying about (animal-rights activists) and to just be vigilant,” says Daynard. “Do your checks and balances, and ensure your property is secure so you can rest easily.”

Security measures range from locking your barn doors and placing “no trespassing” signs at your gateway to installing a keypad entry system for your facilities. Motion detector lights and cheap – but effective – security cameras mounted on trees or fence posts can also be of value.

And clear communication with your family and staff is important too.

“Have the discussion with employees, children and spouses on what to do if someone you weren’t expecting shows up on (your) farm,” suggests Daynard.

“A few weeks ago, an activist posing as a feed company employee was trying to get on farms in Ontario. If in doubt, check ID. Talk to your local police station (staff) so they know who you are in case something occurs.

“I also urge all farmers working with livestock to have staff sign an animal care code of conduct like the one on our website, just to reinforce that commitment.”

The right stuff

When farmers encounter unwanted visitors, taking a stand – in a non-aggressive manner – is the best pro-tection. It may also be the best hope for reducing such incidents in the future.

“Be respectful, stay calm, and know your rights,” says Auston.

“If someone is trespassing, inform them of that and ask them to leave the property. Call law enforcement to ensure that … trespassers know where the boundaries are between public and private land. At present, it appears that those who oppose farming have more rights than those who raise livestock.

“When a problem arises, don’t engage in a confrontational fashion, but don’t just sit back and observe. Involving police when laws are broken is the only way that appropriate charges can be” laid.

Though farmers are do-it-yourself types by nature, engaging activists can be draining and unproductive.

“By and large, protesters are peace loving and not intent on hurting anyone. Even so, discussing a heated topic with someone who is diametrically opposed to your point of view is stressful,” says Auston.

“Going down that road results in nothing but a disagreement; neither side is interested in changing his or her mind.”

For evidence of the chasm between world views, look no further than the rationale for aggressive activism itself.

“Animal advocates are becoming increasingly concerned by the lack of transparency by the self-regulating farming industry and are working to expose to the public images and videos of the conditions in which animals are kept,” says Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice in Toronto, Ont. The organization leads the legal fight for animals in Canada, working to pass strong animal protection legislation, pushing for the prosecution of animal abusers and fighting for animals in court.

“If the farming industry has nothing to hide, it should welcome surveillance by animal advocates and ask the government to impose animal welfare regulations with public inspections,” she adds.

Not surprisingly, industry members take a somewhat different view.

“This is not a question of transparency,” says Schwindt. “It is an issue of extremists using an anti-animal agriculture agenda as justification for illegal actions including harassment, trespassing and theft.”

Animal attraction

If there’s any common ground between farmers and activists, it may be what both sides value most dearly: the animals.

“A farm is like any community, neighbourhood or small town,” says Auston.

“Every day, things can happen, and people or animals get sick. When that occurs, it’s the responsibility of those (individuals) charged with care of the animals to … do the best they can.

“There will always be incidents that are beyond our control, but we need to prevent what we can. At the end of the day, we must do everything in our power to ensure the well-being of animals in our care.”

Just as we protect the animals, we could argue that protecting their owners is in everyone’s best interests.

“Don’t forget: only 1.7 per cent of Canada’s population produces food,” says Daynard. “We need farmers, and we don’t want them being afraid of doing what they do best.” BP

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