Public Approval of Undercover Farm Investigations
Most people are familiar with seeing videos or photos of farmed animal cruelty on news’ outlets or social media. Such footage is typically obtained without the farmer’s consent, either through advocates illegally trespassing on farms or obtaining employment on the farm under false pretences. Unfortunately, the latter is becoming illegal in many U.S. states and Canadian provinces, with a recent push towards ‘ag-gag’ laws to punish undercover investigators. Despite support for such laws from the animal agriculture industry, studies find that these laws can reduce consumer trust in farmers and paint a negative picture about farm animal welfare.
Indeed, there is an increasing demand by the public for transparency about farmed animals, especially as undercover investigations are a main source of information about animal welfare for consumers. Building off prior work, this study examined the public’s perceptions of legitimacy and punishment towards different types of undercover investigations that varied in the type of animal cruelty depicted and in the ways the farm was (illegally) accessed.
Participants were recruited online from Germany, of whom most ate meat (95%) and were not associated with animal agriculture (71%). They were asked to view one of three photographs from inside a pig farm depicting different welfare conditions: 1) obvious abuse (e.g., an injured pig); 2) cramped conditions (i.e., group-housed pigs with insufficient space to move); and 3) standard conditions (i.e., group-housed pigs with adequate space). The first two photographs were obtained from undercover investigations that were released by animal protection organizations, while the last photo was taken by a professional photographer with the farmer’s permission. Each photo was accompanied by three fictional scenarios depicting how advocates obtained such footage. The first scenario described how activists went onto a farm without the farmer’s permission, but the door to the farm was unlocked. The second scenario described how activists broke the lock to the door to go inside the farm. Finally, the last scenario described a ‘whistle-blower’, i.e., an employer took the photo during work hours. For each scenario, participants answered whether the action was legitimate (i.e., justified, understandable, and disproportionate) and if animal welfare organizations should be punished for entering the farm on a 5-point Likert scale (from totally disagree to totally agree).
The study revealed that undercover investigations were perceived as more legitimate when depicting obvious animal cruelty versus standard conditions. Perceived punishment, however, did not significantly vary by welfare conditions. Moreover, when looking at how the farm was accessed, breaking a locked door was perceived as the least legitimate form of investigation and it was also perceived as the most punishable act compared to both whistle-blowing and going through an unlocked door. Even so, scores of punishment were relatively low throughout the different scenarios (i.e., average scores being under 3).
It should be noted, however, that the analyses did not correct for the repeated responses from each individual, meaning that a single person’s perceptions towards the different scenarios of how the farm was accessed are highly related to each other. In other words, how a person perceived the subsequent scenarios is highly influenced by their response to the first scenario. As such, it is important that a future study replicate such findings.
Overall, this study has four major implications for animal advocates. First, the results suggest that undercover investigations are effective in gaining public support for farmed animal welfare issues. This is particularly significant since undercover investigations can result in increasing public pressure to demand changes to farming conditions. Second, given that the footage of obvious animal abuse was perceived as the most legitimate, animal protection agencies should highlight such cases to gain the most support. Third, investigators should access a farm without causing property damage since this study confirmed prior findings that property damage, such as breaking a locked door, reduces public support. Lastly, this study demonstrates that ‘ag-gag’ laws and harsh penalties should be avoided since most people disagree with punishing undercover investigators. Indeed, it seems that undercover investigations serve as credible sources of information about farm animal welfare for the general public, and such tactics should continue to be used to rally support for alleviating animal suffering on farms.