How to Do a Factory Farming Investigation
from No Compromise Issue 21

By lauren Ornelas

Investigations are a critical part of any campaign and an important tool to expose an industry. When I first became involved in the animal rights movement, I saw video footage of animals in factory farms, laboratories, and circuses. The footage moved me to change my life, but initially I didn’t believe I was capable of documenting similar abuse. However, once I realized the impact that the actual footage has the potential of making, I pushed myself to do what I once thought was outside my capabilities.

Video footage is one of the most important tools in exposing the appalling standards throughout modern livestock farming. Our future campaigns will be immeasurably strengthened by this vital work, and I urge all groups to consider using video where they can obtain access to markets, farms, slaughterhouses, etc.

Different types of investigations include those done by activists, such as open rescues, investigations of specific animals, farms, auctions or slaughterhouses. Sometimes, investigations are conducted by employees who take video footage.

The type of investigation you are doing will help to determine the kind and amount of footage you need. If you are targeting a specific farm you may return to the farm for additional footage to give the campaign more credibility. If you are targeting a general practice (like inherent cruelty in the industry), you might want to investigate many of the same type of farm to show that the practice is common and not isolated.

When the target is a specific farm it is possible to find them and get information from their websites, searching in the yellow pages and calling information. Some farms have even been located by following the trucks from the slaughterhouses. Other ways to locate farms include searching the USDA Census to find out how many farms are located in each county. Once you have the number of farms, you can drive around the area with your eyes (and nose) open. Asking people for directions at feed stores or gas stations can lead you in the right direction. Just be sure to speak the lingo – calling female pigs sows, asking for ‘spent’ hens.

A major concern about conducting investigations is that someone might interfere. So how do you make sure no one is there? Some farms, such as dairies, are outside and there are typically a number of workers always on hand to make sure the cows are being milked (except for the ‘veal’ and replacer farms). In these cases, you should use common sense and not go if you see a lot of worker activity. Acting as if you belong there is always a plus. Dressing to fit in has its advantages if someone sees you from the side of the road.

If the farm seems empty, you should park your car in between sheds or somewhere so that it is not visible to passing traffic. Be sure to park your car in the direction that you will be leaving. Sometimes it is difficult to determine if it is better to go on foot and risk needing to run or to take your car so you can drive away.

In most cases, it is important to remember the nature of the business of factory farming – namely, that there usually aren’t many people walking around on the premises.

First, make sure you don’t see any employees around. I would recommend you do this with two to three people. One person should be the lookout and driver, while the other two should take pictures and videotape. When you videotape, use the ten-second rule: focus on one image and count to ten slowly. This prevents the footage from being jumpy and hard to use (see more details below). There is a temptation, particularly when under pressure, to try and grab everything as quickly as possible, flashing the camera all over the place as if it were a paint brush – panning left and right, pointing up and down, zooming in and out, chasing the action and not holding it firmly. Not holding fast to the ten-second rule will only result in a waste of your time and effort.

A few years ago, very few farms were locked. Although that is changing, many farms continue to leave the sheds unlocked. Also, remember that some farms have cameras and security. Be sure to check for cameras on the sheds above the doors and on light posts in front of the sheds or property.

Be sure to take plenty of film with you. If you have partially-used tapes containing important footage, keep them safe. Even if it means just having a few minutes worth of footage on one tape, it is best to start a new one in case anything happens and your camera is taken. Identify tapes by writing on them the moment they are removed from the camera and put them somewhere safe.

When videotaping, a wide shot from a distance showing the whole farm is useful. Take a photo or video of the name of the farm. An exterior shot of the particular building in which you are going to film is also useful. In both these instances there is no need to move the camera keep it absolutely still and steady and hold the shot for about ten seconds. If you do need to pan because you can’t get far enough away from the buildings, take a static shot first, holding for about ten seconds. Then without cutting, pan very slowly keeping the camera on the same level all the time. At the end of the pan, hold still for a further ten seconds.

Once inside the building, an interior establishing shot is very useful - a wide shot showing the size of the building, the number of pens or stalls, and the overall condition. If there are specific details you want to show a dilapidated roof, rat runs, broken windows, etc. be sure to take footage of those as well.

Next, film an individual pen. Frame the shot so it shows the whole pen and it is possible to visually establish how big it is and how many animals it holds. If the pen is dark and dimly lit, take a ten-second shot exactly as it is before using any lights so that the viewer has some feel for the reality. Once you’ve lit the area, repeat the process with another ten-second shot.

If the animal moves out of shot, allow her or him to go before moving the camera. Once s/he’s gone, move the camera quickly to catch up with the animal, and hold the shot still again - don’t try and visually chase the animal around with the camera because the resulting footage will almost certainly be unusable. Sometimes it is necessary to follow the action, but try to do so in a smooth and fluid motion, beginning and ending with ten-second static shots.

Keep in mind that for every animal there is something to look for in terms of their treatment. Dead animals are obvious signs of neglect. Welfare needs are important to observe: Do sows in crates have marks on their faces from banging their heads? How are ducks able to access the water? How closely confined are calves and hens? How many hens are in a cage? Be sure to video these and then later document it all by writing down what you remember and other details about the farm that perhaps would not be evident from the video.

Anyone who decides to do this kind of investigation should be aware of the potential of trespassing which is against the law, and which risks arrest and other legal action.

This is definitely just a very small idea of what you can do. You will always learn more as you do it more. Plus there are organizations around the country that would be willing to help!

Note: This article reflects only the author’s opinion and does not reflect any positions or policies of Viva!USA