In 2018, Erin Wing worked for two months at a 1,000-cow dairy farm in a small town in Pennsylvania, where she was one of 10 employees who milked and fed the cows. But something set her apart from the other workers – unlike the other employees Wing wore a hidden camera, living a double life as an undercover investigator for Animal Outlook, an animal advocacy nonprofit.
Wing captured a variety of horrors on film. Some were inhumane but legal and not uncommon in the dairy industry. But she also documented acts of cruelty that seemed wholly gratuitous, like employees beating, stomping on, and kicking cows, and many others I won’t mention because they are so horrible.
“All told, we documented over 300 incidents that we believed violated Pennsylvania’s laws,” says Will Lowrey, an attorney with Animal Outlook. The Pennsylvania State Police opened an investigation, and over a year later it announced that the district attorney of Franklin County in Pennsylvania would not press charges against the farm as a corporation, its owner, or the 14 current and former employees.
The DA’s decision wasn’t surprising. Many undercover investigations that document cruelty to farmed animals don’t result in prosecution. According to the Humane Society of the United States, there are no federal animal welfare laws regulating the treatment of the billions of “food animals” while they’re on the farm. Further, while all 50 states have cruelty statutes, most explicitly exempt common farming practices, no matter how abusive and cruel.
But some progress is being made. By getting laws passed, animal advocates have been able to ban or restrict the use of some customary farming practices, mostly cages and crates for hens and pigs, in 14 states. Due to a quirk in Pennsylvania’s legal code — the ability of private citizens to challenge government officials’ decision not to prosecute — Animal Outlook was able to circumvent that invisibility and set a new precedent for animal law. The organization’s initial petition was denied, so it appealed to Pennsylvania’s Superior Court.
Last month, in a precedent-setting decision, the court’s three-judge panel ruled that the lower court was required to order the Franklin County district attorney to prosecute Martin Farms for animal cruelty, including over common practices like dehorning without pain mitigation. Citing Dr. Holly Cheever, a veterinarian who reviewed the investigative footage, the decision went on to state that “the technique used by Martin Farms as shown in the video caused the calves to be ‘in agonizing pain, shown by their violent thrashing and bellowing.’” As an aside, there’s a lot of unacknowledged pain involved in the dairy industry. See Do Animals Feel Pain?
The judge characterized the district attorney’s position on exempting dehorning without pain mitigation as “absurd,” creating a crack in the meat industry’s ironclad legal armor, which gives us hope for the future.