Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

This Is What Happened When a Woman Went Undercover at Butterball

Published on September 15, 2017 by   ·   No Comments Pin It

When Liz started as Mercy For Animals’ first female undercover investigator, she could only hope that her work on factory farms would help create a better world for animals. Working at a Butterball turkey-semen collection facility, the disturbing footage she collected ended up leading to a truly historic victory for animals. In his new memoir Mercy For Animals, MFA founder Nathan Runkle tells Liz’s inspiring story, excerpted here;

Mercy For Animals: One Man's Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals by Nathan Runkle

Mercy For Animals: One Man’s Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals by Nathan Runkle

Liz was employed at a Butterball turkey-semen collection facility, where the semen of male turkeys is gathered to later artificially inseminate females at turkey-breeding operations. It’s not glamorous work: Workers are tasked with immobilizing turkeys’ ankles and feet in a vice, turning them upside down, and then using a suction device to extract semen. It’s an incredibly traumatic procedure for the large “tom” male turkeys, and it’s one they must endure regularly. Fortunately, Liz was not involved in this part of the job. Instead, she drove a truck around the farm collecting the semen samples and delivering them to other Butterball farms.

Because of their age and size—most of the turkeys Liz saw weighed as much as ninety pounds—many could not physically walk due to severe joint problems. One reason why turkeys are artificially inseminated is because they have been genetically manipulated to be so large and meaty that the act of mating is impossible.

Others suffered from open sores, eye infections from exposure to excess dust and ammonia, and wounds from other turkeys. The barns in which they live are dark and filthy. The facilities are rarely cleaned and cages are coated in thick cobwebs. With every breath these turkeys inhaled a toxic cocktail of excrement and dust, a challenge to their delicate respiratory systems.

As Liz puts it, Butterball turkeys suffer from either too much or too little attention, sometimes all at once. Males are naturally territorial birds, and placing them in close quarters—as many as fifteen birds crammed in cages—guarantees they will fight. As a result, many wounded turkeys were quite literally picked apart by their cage mates. Butterball employees would often let the carcasses rot for days before bothering to remove them. The turkeys were also handled aggressively by the exhausted workers. Liz witnessed employees bashing birds over the head with metal pipes, violently kicking and stomping on them, dragging them by their wings and necks, and slamming them into transport crates. In one instance, Liz filmed a worker picking a bird up by his wings, slamming him against a truck, and then kicking his head repeatedly.

For Liz, the hardest moments were the early mornings. She’d often sneak in when the barns were quiet to closely document the conditions in which these animals spent their lives. Liz remembers checking on one bird in particular. He was smaller than the others and covered in open wounds. His filthy pen was grossly overcrowded and he had been trampled by his cage mates. His wings were so beaten that Liz could see his tiny muscles.

“I’m sorry,” Liz whispered, stroking him gently. “I’m working on it. Just give me a little while. It will be better soon.”

We didn’t have much hope when we brought Liz’s Butterball footage to the Hoke County, North Carolina, district attorney. Turkey production is big business in North Carolina—what were the odds that this time around would be any different than our House of Raeford investigation?

But we had an important new advantage: Vandhana Bala, MFA’s general counsel. To those who know her, Vandhana is gentle, funny, and kind. But the gloves come off when it comes to fighting for animals in the courtroom, where she is known for being intelligent, articulate, relentless, and incredibly shrewd. She had begun her law career at a huge law firm defending corporations against lawsuits. (Tyson Foods was a former client.) But Vandhana’s heart was always with animals. She started as a volunteer with MFA, before we had the means to hire legal counsel. As we grew, Vandhana came on board full-time, landing, as she says, her “dream job.”

We also had a second advantage: a law-enforcement official who cared. His name was Mike Hardin, an assistant district attorney for Hoke County. When Liz and Vandhana showed him the footage, the color drained from his face.

“I can’t believe this is happening over there,” Mike said. “I can’t . . .” He trailed off.

“It’s happening,” Vandhana replied. “And we need to stop it.”

Mike knew he had to take action. To this day, Vandhana calls him the best law-enforcement official she has ever encountered. He was appalled not only by the abuse they watched but by the horrendous neglect—the untreated open wounds, the broken bones, the bruises.

Mike immediately began building a case. He contacted renowned veterinarians from North Carolina universities to review our footage and identify the worst abuse. Then he began planning a raid. But it was only a matter of time before the investigation hit a wall—in this case, an unscrupulous government employee who learned of the investigation. The fox guarding the henhouse, Dr. Sarah Jean Mason—the director of animal health programs with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture—was believed to have improperly leaked information about the impending raid to a veterinarian at Butterball. Worse yet, when questioned by the authorities on whether she had, in fact, tipped off Butterball, she lied about it. Mike learned of the leak. He wasn’t happy.

Nevertheless, the DA’s office pressed on. On the day of the raid, the DA’s office gathered veterinary experts, a half-dozen official vehicles, and then swarmed the Butterball facility just after dawn on a late December morning. Meanwhile, holding up the rear of the police motorcade was Vandhana in her tiny white compact rental car. Butterball refused her access to the barn, so she set up camp in the parking lot, providing support to the sheriff’s office and offering an endless supply of sandwiches.

Over the course of two and a half days, the sheriff’s deputies and veterinarians individually examined almost two thousand turkeys. Dozens of injured and suffering birds were humanely euthanized. News helicopters hovered overhead, broadcasting the dramatic scene on television as it unfolded, while news vans lingered along the farm’s perimeter.

Then, seven weeks later, it happened: The district attorney’s office announced that it would bring criminal charges. Liz’s work had paid off, and in a big way. Her investigation led to the first-ever felony conviction in US history for cruelty to factory-farmed birds. Four other Butterball employees were convicted of misdemeanor animal cruelty charges. And Dr. Sarah Jean Mason, the state official who tipped off Butterball about the investigation, was arrested and convicted of obstruction of justice charges and now has a criminal record.

This was a historic victory for MFA, though the success was bittersweet. While s satisfying seeing the workers who abused animals brought to justice, it was dispiriting seeing Butterball executives called as witnesses for the prosecution. They testified that what these farmworkers did was against company policy, that Butterball did not condone abuse. One hundred percent of the blame was foisted on the factory workers who were carrying out cruel and abusive work on Butterball’s behalf. Meanwhile, the executives who fostered this abuse were never charged. Our undercover investigation demonstrated that Butterball was allowing a culture of cruelty to fester at its company-owned factory farms. It also galvanized our belief that in order to produce true change, we needed to find a way to go after the owners themselves.

Nathan Runkle is the founder of Mercy For Animals, and the author of Mercy For Animals: One Man’s Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals. In this book, Nathan chronicles how he could’ve become a fifth-generation farmer in Ohio, but instead went on to found Mercy For Animals.

The book covers:

  • Nathan’s childhood, as a farm kid in rural Ohio who founded MFA at 15-years-old in 1999––and came out as gay around the same time
  • MFA’s undercover investigations, including behind-the-scenes stories of specific investigations and investigators
  • How Nathan and MFA launched The Good Food Institute and New Crop Capital to launch and support plant-based and clean meat startups
  • Tips and resources on helping farmed animals
  • The future of plant-based food, and clean meat as a solution to end factory farming
  • How undercover investigations are the foundation of everything MFA does and the results of MFA’s investigative work (criminal animal cruelty convictions, corporate reform, mainstream media coverage, vegan education)
  • Tips and tools to scale your own vegan advocacy to reach more people and create more impact

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