PITTSBURGH (AP) — State legislators are considering a law its backers say is intended to protect farmers from unfair attacks, but critics call it a thinly veiled attempt to criminalize people who expose animal abuse.
House Bill 683 would make it a felony to take photos, video or audio without the permission of the owner on land used for agricultural purposes.
Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria, the primary sponsor of the bill, said the law would protect farmers from animal-rights activists who trespass or gain entry under false pretenses, take misleading footage, then publish it online without context.
"(Activists) sensationalize what goes on," Haluska said. "They take video and say, 'Look, this guy's dragging a cow on a chain with a tractor.' Well, there aren't too many ways of moving a cow. ... If someone just walked into your house and started taking pictures, you'd have a problem with that, too."
Opponents of the bill say it would turn whistle-blowers into felons.
"Animal welfare groups have exposed egregious animal cruelty through recordings and photos, and the industry's response hasn't been to clean up its act but to merely make it illegal to expose what's happening," said Matthew Dominguez, the Humane Society of the United States' public policy manager for farm animal protection.
"They don't have the right to keep people in the dark. This bill would hinder our ability to expose abuses."
The bill went to the House Judiciary Committee in February. Haluska said he does not know if or when it will advance.
The Pennsylvania bill is the latest in a nationwide series of so-called "Ag-Gag" laws.
Some states — including Iowa, Utah and Missouri — have enacted laws. A proposal in Tennessee awaits the governor's signature. Bills in Indiana, Nebraska, Wyoming and New Mexico were killed, Humane Society officials said.
A question of protection
Pennsylvania's law would differ from others in that it might impact Marcellus shale gas drillers, legal experts said.
Ross Pifer, director of the Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center at Penn State University's Dickinson School of Law, said hydraulic fracturing operations could be protected under the bill because gas companies often lease land from farmers.
"If you view it expansively, you'd have to view it as: Anything that takes place on that land (is protected)," Pifer said.
Melissa Troutman, outreach coordinator at Mountain Watershed Association, which investigates and records fracking activity, said the law would open the door for gas companies to hide activities legally.
"If it passes, what's next? No documenting commercial or recreational activity?" Troutman said. "Right now it's legal to photograph industrial operations on public lands. Will that be illegal next?
"If you're not doing anything wrong, there's nothing to hide. So why is there a need for this bill?"
The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has not decided whether to support the measure, officials said.
Rick Ebert, a dairy farmer in Derry and the bureau's vice president, said farmers worry about trespassers spreading disease. They fear overzealous activists who stage footage or snap photos of normal farming activities and present them in a misleading way, he said.
The ensuing bad publicity — even if unfounded — can ruin small farmers, Ebert said.
"Farmers, in general, care for their animals," he said. "They don't want to see any abuse."
Bill Smith, who operates Main Line Animal Rescue in Chester County, said he and his staff rescue sick dogs from large kennels that operate on farms. He said staff members often find dying or dead dogs in deplorable conditions.
Video from rescue missions, shown on the Oprah Winfrey show, helped usher in Pennsylvania's dog law in 2010, which led to strict regulations for breeders. In one year, the number of commercial kennels in Pennsylvania dropped from more than 300 to 111, records show.
"But under this bill, if our volunteers see an animal being abused, we can't snap a picture and send it to a Humane Society officer," Smith said. "Under this law, I'd be in jail now."
Reasons for opposition
Christian Herr, executive vice president of PennAg Industries Association, which represents 500 agribusinesses and farms in Pennsylvania, said he opposes the bill because farmers who have nothing to hide believe in transparency.
"We have shown people what's inside those big steel buildings," Herr said. "(The bill) sort of slams the door on everything we've tried to accomplish."
Others say Ag-Gag bills ensure farmers' civil rights.
"It's not our intention to support it because we want to continue animal abuse," said Michael Glass, a Pennsylvania breeding industry lobbyist with America's Pet Registry Inc. "We just want to maintain the same civil rights and liberties as everyone else."
Rob Hurd, the Iowa representative for America's Pet Registry who helped write Ag-Gag legislation there, said farming and husbandry are not always pretty and out-of-context images can be difficult to stomach. Grisly as they might be, such images typically show legal, veterinarian-approved practices, he said.
"The folks who (oppose) this legislation disagree with how animals are raised," Hurd said. "If they had their way, we'd only be eating lettuce and rice, and the animals would roam the country freely."
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com