How Undercover Animal Rights Activists are Winning the Ag-Gag War

How Undercover Animal Rights Activists are Winning the Ag-Gag War
Photo courtesy of Mercy for Animals
One of the nearly 3,000 pigs at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania. The farm is a supplier for Hatfield Quality Meats, which is sold in twelve Northeastern states.

Cody Carlson had no way of preparing for this moment. He was a Manhattan kid, days removed from working as an analyst for a business-intelligence firm, where he scrutinized corporations and their executives.

Now he was standing in a bleak barn at New York's largest dairy farm.

There was a medieval feel to the place. Cows were wedged head-to-tail in pens carpeted with their own waste. The air was an acrid blend of urine, manure and chemicals. Some animals were left unattended with open sores that leaked puss. Others lay dying in pens, too sick or weak to stand.

Cody Carlson, said of his undercover experience at New York's largest dairy farm: "It's incredibly overwhelming. Your brain can't process seeing this many animals crammed together in one place."
Photo: Sam Zide
Cody Carlson, said of his undercover experience at New York's largest dairy farm: "It's incredibly overwhelming. Your brain can't process seeing this many animals crammed together in one place."
At Rose Acre Farms in Iowa, the nation's second-largest egg producer, with nearly 5 million chickens.
Photo courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States
At Rose Acre Farms in Iowa, the nation's second-largest egg producer, with nearly 5 million chickens.

"It's incredibly overwhelming," Carlson says. "Your brain can't process seeing this many animals crammed together in one place."

His first job, technically speaking, was to repair the mechanism that pulled manure from the barn.

His real job: covertly filming it all for Mercy for Animals.

As espionage goes, it was easier than infiltrating a Pizza Hut. Experience told the Los Angeles, California-based animal-rights group that it could send an undercover operative to a factory-style farm anywhere and it was certain to find abuse.

Carlson had simply been told to find a job in upstate New York. While the work requires punishing labor while surrounded by stench—all for the princely sum of $8 an hour—it isn't like spying on North Korea. Two days later, he was hired by Willet Dairy.

His hidden camera caught employees kicking and shocking animals that wouldn't bend to their will. Supervisor Phil Niles is heard recounting an abuser's greatest hits: how he beat cows with wrenches, smashed their heads with two-by-fours, kicked them when they were too feeble to rise.

"Fucking kicking her, hitting her," he chortles while recalling one incident. "Fucking jumping off the top of the goddamned gate and stomping on her head and shit."

After five weeks of filming, MFA took the footage to ABC's World News. Niles was subsequently charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty. His penalty for 19 years of beating cows in every way imaginable: a $555 fine.

Prosecutors cleared Willet Dairy of any wrongdoing. But the company did take an uppercut to the wallet. After the video went national, Willet was dumped by one of its major buyers, Leprino Foods, the world's largest mozzarella producer.

Carlson didn't wait around for the fallout. He soon re-emerged at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania, where nearly 3,000 pigs live as pork-products-in-waiting for Hatfield Quality Meats. Once again, his camera caught the gruesomeness of the factory food chain.

Workers threw piglets by their ears and ripped out their testicles with bare hands sans anesthesia. Constantly impregnated sows were kept in cages just 2 feet wide, unable to turn around and allowed to walk just four days a year.

"It's about the most sensory-deprived life you can possibly imagine," says Carlson. "Pigs are incredibly smart animals. They're said to be smarter than dogs. Pigs go so insane from these conditions that they bang their heads back and forth against the cage. It looks like a scene from The Matrix."

But like most states, Pennsylvania provides farmers with sweeping exemptions from cruelty statutes. These laws are simple: If it's commonly practiced in agriculture, it can't be construed as abuse.

Country View veterinarian Jessica Clark admits that the video showed violations of the farm's own standards, but says those issues were corrected before MFA posted the film to the Internet. Because Pennsylvania grants farmers a wide berth in dealing with livestock, no charges were filed.

Carlson soon took a new job working undercover for the Humane Society of the United States. This time he resurfaced in Iowa at Rose Acre Farms, the nation's second-largest egg producer, with nearly 5 million chickens.

His video showed hens packed into cages the size of a filing drawer, where each creature spent life in a space whose floor had the dimensions of a single sheet of paper.

Carlson's job was to cull the dead, the 100 or so hens whose wings and feet became caught in the caging, leaving them to die of thirst or be trampled to death by their cellmates each day.

"One of my colleagues called it 'pulling carpets,' because they stuck to the bottom of the cage," he says. "I actually had a worker tell me he had nightmares from tearing mummified birds off the cage."

Rose Acre was doing nothing illegal. But to HSUS, that was the point. The video depicted something akin to an aviary concentration camp. And not a single government agency showed the slightest concern.

Since the Internet first granted activists a direct pipeline to the public, groups like HSUS, MFA, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have waged guerrilla war via undercover video. Each time they've uploaded footage, Big Ag has struggled to explain away what Americans could see with their own eyes.

Today, the guerrillas are winning.

It doesn't seem to matter where the operatives have landed. Be it a slaughterhouse in Vermont or a pig farm in Wyoming, the videos portray factory farms to be "like something from Dante," Carlson says. According to one Kansas State University study, media attention to the welfare of livestock has reduced demand for poultry and pork.

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The author didn't mention how New York City politicians have fought tooth and nail for the cheapest possible milk out of rural NY.  The forces driving farms upstate to larger and larger scale have included the lack of a fair price for the smaller scale family sized farms to sustain themselves.  The stage for a decade of massive consolidation in NY's farms was set in 1998 when NY politicians shouted down the efforts of NY's family farmers to collective bargaining in the form of the Northeast Dairy Compact.  I remember the NY Times editorializing that a fair price to the farmers Upstate was not justified.  NYC food groups called it a "milk tax on the poor."  (A phrase coined with the help of focus groups and professionals hired by the huge processors).  Editorials written to the Times demanded large scale corporate farms that were more "efficient" than the outdated family farms. The public has demanded the cheapest food, excoriating farm families as we fought to survive.  If you don't believe me google "Have a cow" "dairy compact." 


Unfortunately, animal by-products are used for car tires, and other commodities, not just food.  I believe it is in the pursuit of more profits for slaughterhouse owners that these animals have to be bashed, electrocuted and slaughtered by homicidal maniacs who laugh at the torturing, all in the name of greed.  A list of farmers and slaughterhouses, poultry farms, fish canneries, puppy mills, furriers, zoos, circuses, puppy mills and other harbingers of torture should be on a list that is available for the consumer.  That way we can actively not support such ruthless and cruel animal enterprises.  The beef and pork industries, as well as animal research labs are the biggest supports of covering up their terroristic practices. They need to be arrested and put in prison before they kill their family dogs, beat their kids senseless or terrorize their homes. What kinds of criminally insane people work in slaughterhouses?

hkguy 1 Like

Bless you for writing this. I just don't understand — it's beyond comprehension — how people can think some mammals are "cute" and scream to the rafters about the slightest abuse (screaming at me when my rescued dogs are tied up outside a grocery store) and yet blithely consume animal products produced under the most appalling conditions. I.S. Singer said it best: For animals, every day is Treblinka. 


heartbreaking, humbling and horrific - but a must read. not just for those who continue to eat meat/dairy, but for those of us who don't so that we can be proud of each animal saved from this  inhumanity. thank you for this coverage and thank you to cody and all others who suffer sleepless nights and ptsd because of their undercover work. it is critical to change and i, for one, am very grateful.

scarysmart 2 Like

Village Voice, because this is an incredible and highly valuable story YOU NEED to give the readers a way to post this on ALL social media and to send out multiple emails especially to legislators on state and federal levels. This is the simplest problem facing our nation for us to deal with and eradicate. NO ONE wants to eat the flesh of animals who are abused and totured.  Because all that negativity goes into bodies and translates into more negativity meaning all sorts of diseases and death.

cannenorris 2 Like

Anyone who would want to work in these places (unless as an undercover investigator) has psychopathic tendencies. The behaviours of the employees are seriously sick and twisted and it's scary that these people are wandering around free in our society. There should be overt shaming and I would like to see these individuals faces and actions displayed in the videos that are made. There should be harsh consequences for this behaviour.

Michele6933 2 Like

I nominate PETE KOTZ for tne next non-fiction PULITZER PRIZE . An admirable, all-encompassing, compassionate and eye-opening piece . And thousands of thanks to the brave reporters who have risked much to uncover the horrible criminal situations systematic to the modern agriculture and farming practices. The "terrorists" are those who terrorize animals, it is them who should be imprisoned . We must work to pass laws protecting all animals, non merely pets . Non-humans deserve the same respect humans expect . In the meantime, let us do what we can : do not eat animals and fewer will suffer . There's no such event as HUMANE slaughter . Thank you again, Mr. Kotz

Ursula2007 2 Like

Thank you for this article, but there are a few inaccuracies (perhaps you were purposely misled by the industry representatives?). Gestation crates for sows do not prevent piglet deaths - "farrowing crates" are what the sows must live in AFTER giving birth. Gestation crates are used to confine sows that are merely pregnant - for the three months, three weeks and three days of their pregnancy.

Cows, contrary to the assertions of your source, do enjoy moving around quite a bit. Since they are grazing animals, their natural inclination is to roam quite a bit during the day, foraging for food. Naturally, if they are given food from feeders and not allowed on pasture, they would have no reason to roam, and therefore might appear "lazy" to people who see them as nothing but commodities.

And if I hear one more industry apologist declare how animals "sacrifice" themselves for the greater good of humans, I'm going to scream. I'm fairly certain if you bothered to ask an animal if she'd rather live than become someone's dinner, she wouldn't "sacrifice" herself for a gluttonous human's momentary pleasure.

maryfinelli 1 Like

Yes, the only way to not be responsible for such horrific cruelty is to reject animal products and opt for a vegan diet - which is also better for human health and the planet's health. It's also a delicious, convenient, very enjoyable way to eat!! See: and

Marion X Bertaud
Marion X Bertaud

So happy you posted this. So many people are not aware of where and how their animal products are brought to their plates. If people knew, most people would not consume it!