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Ignoring the activists and making your ranch YouTube-proof

Rachel Gabel
for The Fence Post

Editor’s Note — This is the first installment of a two part series about animal rights extremists, DxE, and what agriculture can learn from a main stream journalist sympathetic to the causes of such groups.

Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, recently released a map of agriculture facilities across the country for activists to utilize as they ostensibly uncover cruelty in agriculture. It has been widely shared on social media, especially among farmers and ranchers concerned they may become targets.

Some ag advocates estimate the majority of the 13,000 visits to the website have come from ag producers, and warn producers against sharing the information and visiting the website.

Using publicly-available information from satellite images, Project Counterglow organizers are asking those interested in being a whistleblower to contribute information to the map about the exact locations of what they call animal-exploitive facilities including cattle operations, dairies, slaughterhouses, fairgrounds and feedyards. Offering the map as, the website said, a starting point for research, the site said individuals wishing to review farms may email for training and to be added to the system.

The site makes repeated mention of the project’s commitment to nonviolence and recognizes that some facilities may have residences on them, creating concerns and discomfort for those reviewing those facilities, a mention that holds a different meaning for producers.

Hannah Thompson-Weeman, Animal Agriculture Alliance vice president of communications, said driving online traffic to activist sites or just giving groups the satisfaction of knowing they are on the radar of producers, is the last thing producers want to do. Sharing the website on social media can drive additional traffic to the site, making it rank higher in search engine results. At the Animal Agriculture Alliance, no public comment has been made to avoid giving credibility to the group. The group announced the newly unveiled website had received over 13,000 visits and Weeman estimates the majority of those were ag producers looking for their own operations and their neighbors. Her recommendation is to concentrate on farm security in general and while the new site can be alarming, she said it isn’t a new tactic and certainly not one to offer any bandwidth to on social media.

The best way to make an agriculture operation a harder target, she said, is to be beyond reproach. Reducing vulnerabilities by doing the right thing, minimizing issues that activists could call into question is the best approach.

“We know they will fabricate, they will make things up but we don’t need there to be any vulnerabilities they could possibly use,” she said.

YOUTUBE PROOF

She said making farms “YouTube proof” includes ensuring that nothing concerning may be seen from the road. In terms of security, ensuring that gates, locks, fences, signage, and security lights are in place and the process for visitors is clear. Thinking clearly and critically about who is entering the property and what their intentions are, she said, can save problems down the road. The same critical thought must be invested when hiring potential employees, even in times when many producers desperately need help.

Scot Dutcher, owner of AgNav Consulting, said activists may gather photos from public areas, like county roads or even with drones, making it important that areas that are distasteful but inevitable parts of production are less conspicuous.

Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said the Open Fields Doctrine goes back to a Supreme Court ruling and is an interpretation of the Fourth Amendment and unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. It allows for a government actor, most often law enforcement, to visibly access private property from public areas, like a county road. Private citizens, Rourke said, aren’t hampered by Fourth Amendment constraints. Basic trespass considerations, he said, would govern an activist flying a drone or entering a property to gather photos or video.

“We don’t have a lot of precedence, since drones are fairly new, about what can constitute a criminal trespass and what can constitute a civil trespass with respect to drones,” Rourke said. “The old adage was that law enforcement couldn’t fly a drone over someone’s property because the air was an area the general public didn’t have access to. So, since the advent of drones, you can fly them, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a criminal trespass because our statutes haven’t caught up with technology in that arena yet.”

It could, he said, give rise to a civil trespass claim or an invasion of privacy type of civil claim, handled in civil court through a lawsuit. Entering a driveway or area with no trespassing signage posted could result in the act being a criminal trespass, making signage important. The past two legislative sessions have seen efforts to address drones but have been unsuccessful.

If the activist hoping to gain access to the property drives down a driveway to a residence or office, like a delivery driver might, to make contact and ask permission to enter, Dutcher said it can be an uncomfortable situation, but producers should trust their instincts and deny entry if necessary. Collecting any information about the individual, the vehicle, and the encounter is all helpful to report to local law enforcement. Knowing that the project map could stir up suspicious activity in rural areas, Dutcher suggested contacting law enforcement to let them know increased vigilance is happening on the part of ag producers so they can also be aware. Dutcher said he is often a liaison between producers and sheriff’s departments and urges producers to touch base and even invite law enforcement out to familiarize them with the operation before a potential call about suspicious activity.

DxE has previously made headlines for “liberating” animals from farms, most infamously a 2017 “open rescue” of two piglets from a Utah Smithfield facility. Two of the rescuers, including DxE founder Wayne Hsiung, are currently facing 60 years each in prison. ❖

— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at rgabel@thefencepost.com or (970) 768-0024.


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