It’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of clandestine videos and photographs when it comes to curbing abuse of animals at vast factory farms and at slaughter facilities, and as with most questions, the answer depends on who you ask. Animal welfare advocates use the images as proof of what they say are systemic problems; industry supporters claim that the whistle-blowers are picking on an unrepresentatively small sample of offenders.

There can be little doubt, though, that these images have raised public consciousness of a serious problem. And it’s equally clear that videos and photographs of deplorable conditions at equine slaughter facilities helped shape public opinion regarding the slaughter of horses for human consumption in this country.

Many of these disturbing images were made by animal welfare advocates working undercover, often posing as employees, without permission of the animal facility owners. Undercover reporting may have gained prominence with the growth of television in general and the popularity of 60 Minutes in particular, but the tradition is more than a century old, starting with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Published in 1906 and still in print, The Jungle offered a scathing expose of the meatpacking industry in turn-of-the-century Chicago. Public outrage over Sinclair’s revelations led to passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The Food and Drug Administration grew out of the latter.

It’s difficult to drum up much sympathy for the operators of huge factory farms and slaughter houses, unless you mix the words "money" and "legislators" in the same sentence. Pending in at least three states—Iowa, Florida, and Minnesota—is legislation that would criminalize undercover investigations in any animal facility. Not surprisingly, some of the heavy hitters in the commercial agriculture industry (including the Farm Bureau and trade associations representing pork, cattle, poultry, soybean, and corn producers, according to the New York Times) are supporting the bills.

It’s impossible to put a positive spin on images of animals being abused, and the proposed legislation eliminates the need to try. The bills put undercover investigators in the same class as eco-terrorists and also target organizations—mainly animal welfare groups—that distribute the reporting. Hiding animal abuse problems rather than solving them seems to be the legislative purpose.

Why these attempts to throttle undercover investigations and whistle-blowers should matter to people who care about horses is simple: insulating factory farms and slaughterhouses may be the primary goal, but the legislation paints with a much broader brush. "Any animal facility" arguably includes horse farms, equine rescue facilities, race tracks, and show grounds. We’ll enter a dark age if welfare advocates who disclose abuse of horses and the organizations who distribute those reports become criminals.

Should the law protect businesses and individuals from public scrutiny if disclosure of animal abuse threatens their bottom line?

Equine Law Meeting

The 26th Annual National Conference on Equine Law will be held in Lexington, Kentucky, on May 4-5. The conference will attract attorneys from across the country for case law and legislative updates as well as presentations on drafting equine contracts, collection of judgments, liability, the Thoroughbred auction process, recreational land use, copyright law and equine photography, WEG legal issues, taxes, and estate planning. Check out Horses and the Law later this week for blogs from the conference.