Animal rights activists published an interactive map on Sunday revealing the locations of more than 27,500 farms and animal agriculture facilities, including 5,812 identified using satellite imagery, many of which do not appear in public records. Users will be able to pin new locations to the map, known as Project Counterglow, and attach photos and videos documenting animal cruelty and health violations. The animal agriculture industry has spent decades fighting to avoid the disclosure of information about facilities where animals are raised for food.
The map is meant to offer a rare bird’s-eye view of the scale of the industry, while also providing a research tool for activist investigators. Kecia Doolittle, the leader of the team that created the map, is an animal rights activist who has participated in a number of farm investigations herself. Footage uncovered by Doolittle and others over the years has revealed conditions such as overcrowding; wounded, sick, and dead animals left in pens with the living; painful procedures like tail removal and castration without anesthesia; and physical abuse by farmers, at times resulting in boycotts or criminal charges.
Most recently, as The Intercept reported on Friday, activists with the organization Direct Action Everywhere captured footage of a harrowing mass kill method called ventilation shutdown. The closure of meatpacking plants due to Covid-19 outbreaks has left farmers with nowhere to take mature livestock; in response, they have exterminated millions of animals. One particularly torturous tactic involves corralling pigs into a barn, closing the doors and windows, and shutting down the ventilation system. “This causes the buildup of excessive temperature and moisture from body heat and respiration of the animals and results in death from hyperthermia,” according to guidelines from the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, which endorses ventilation shutdown in “constrained circumstances.”
Doolittle said that despite her knowledge of the industry’s brutal practices, this method caught her off guard. “I didn’t believe it was real,” she said. To Doolittle, the use of ventilation shutdown should be a call to action, and more than images are needed. “There’s already lots of bad pictures of pigs on the internet,” she said. She hopes the Project Counterglow map will be a place where activists can share information and tactics, feeding a movement of smaller-scale farm investigations carried out as acts of civil disobedience.
For many animal welfare advocates, the pandemic has only highlighted the need for better transparency around animal enterprises.
If a similar project in Australia is any indication, backlash against the map’s creators could be significant. Project Counterglow began as a partnership with the organization Aussie Farms, whose Farm Transparency Map launched last year to the outrage of the farming industry. Its release led to the passage of federal legislation in Australia that criminalized the use of a website or social media to incite trespass on a farm.
Project Counterglow is launching in the wake of an executive order signed by President Donald Trump that labeled meat-processing plants as “critical infrastructure” and ordered the secretary of agriculture to “take all appropriate action” to ensure that meat and poultry processors continue operations, apparently at the expense of workers’ health. The move came after intensive lobbying by meat companies and farmers, who are now pushing for financial aid to help them “depopulate” herds that have grown too large.
For many animal welfare advocates, the pandemic has only highlighted the need for better transparency around animal enterprises. “I think it’s critically important to public health and the health of the food chain and the climate that some level of accountability and transparency take place while the federal government is shielding these industries and deregulating them,” said Lauren Regan, a longtime attorney for animal rights activists and executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center.
“Advocating for investigations is not criminal activity,” she added. “Whether it’s the fossil fuel industry or the animal industry, when big producers are at threat of losing profits, they take repression to the max.”
As Dangerous as It Sounds
The animal agriculture industry has become highly consolidated over the last 50 years. Around 40 percent of livestock today are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, that house at least 1,000 beef cattle, 2,500 pigs weighing 55 pounds or more, or 125,000 chickens. Yet pressure from industry assured that the regulatory system would not keep up with the changes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, approximately 60 percent of CAFOs hold no environmental permits — operators are only required to obtain a clean water permit when they admit to discharging waste into federally regulated waters.
In 2008, a Government Accountability Office report noted that “no federal agency collects accurate and consistent data on the number, size, and location of CAFOs.” As a result, the EPA “does not have the information that it needs to effectively regulate these operations.” Despite a lengthy legal fight by environmental organizations and attempts by researchers to map the secretive industry, little has changed since then.
The Natural Resources Defense Council spent the better part of the last decade attempting to learn exactly how much the EPA knows about the 17,000 CAFOs the agency counted in 2012. The organization sought the EPA’s records of facility locations, the number of animals they held, the volume of waste they produced, and how they disposed of that waste. “The industry cried foul and claimed that we were trying to get personal info about them,” said Valerie Baron, a staff attorney with the NRDC. “They talked a lot about the fact that individuals tend to live at the facilities, which is distinct from other industries. We don’t need to know where people live — this is about dangerous facilities — where they are and what it does to the neighbors and the waterways.”
The NRDC was able to obtain data on 7,595 facilities, but the EPA could provide no information about nearly 10,000 other operations, other than the fact that they existed. Before resigning in the face of multiple ethics investigations in 2018, Trump EPA head Scott Pruitt doubled down on the secrecy surrounding CAFOs, signing a settlement agreement with agribusiness limiting the agricultural data that the environmental agency will give out.
The public health consequences of the lack of transparency are significant. Some of the largest CAFOs produce more waste in a year than the city of Philadelphia. A Duke University study found that North Carolina residents living near hog CAFOs die at higher rates than people in other parts of the state, even after accounting for socioeconomic factors.
CAFOs have implications when it comes to Covid-19 as well. Respiratory problems linked to factory farming like lung disease and asthma are risk factors for more severe coronavirus symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fact that many Covid-19 patients are contracting secondary bacterial infections makes the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in pig farming communities all the more worrisome, Baron noted.
The lack of transparency is particularly concerning when it comes to widespread depopulation.
“All along the chain that is controlled by these corporations, you have people’s lives and livelihoods at risk. That might be the CAFO worker who’s going into the facility every day without proper personal protective equipment and being exposed to these harms; it could be a slaughterhouse worker who is at a very high risk of contracting Covid for lack of PPE, or it could be the USDA inspectors forced back to work before the facility is properly secured,” said Baron. Meatpacking plants have been the source of multiple community outbreaks, and so far at least 70 workers have died.
Baron said the lack of transparency and regulation is particularly concerning when it comes to widespread depopulation. The remains of pigs are often disposed of on site, at times buried or burned in massive pits. “Dumping a huge number of dead animals and trying to dispose of them in a field is as dangerous as it sounds, especially where people rely on well water,” Baron said. “It’s still unfolding, and I have a concern that it’s not going to be as transparent as it should be.”
Missing Farms and Incomplete Data
If you were to look down at pig CAFOs from the sky, you would see long, evenly spaced rectangular barns alongside square waste lagoons, sometimes red, sometimes black. Dairy farms, meanwhile, can be recognized by what look like open-faced Oreo cookies — tires on top of white tarps that cover cow feed.
Most of the data for Project Counterglow came from mining state regulatory databases, business directories, and information gathered by activists. But in addition to collecting data by hand, the team also used artificial intelligence software to scan satellite images for potential facilities. The tool, named Lucy, has become particularly adept at recognizing CAFOs.
Project Counterglow’s use of artificial intelligence was inspired by a paper published in Nature Sustainability by two academics from Stanford, who argued that deep machine learning could significantly reduce the costs of regulating CAFOs. They estimated that it would take two days to fully document all the CAFOs in the state of North Carolina using AI, while a specialist would need to scan Google Maps full-time for six weeks to manually complete the same task. Using AI, the academics were able to detect 15 percent more poultry CAFOs in the state than the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance had identified in previous manual mapping efforts.
Similarly, the activists who built Project Counterglow’s map could find no records linked to many of the facilities they found using Lucy, and what they did find in public records at times seemed to further obscure animal exploitation activities. For each location record, Project Counterglow’s creators examined satellite imagery to determine if the site actually involved animal agriculture. In numerous of cases, the reviewers could not identify any animal agriculture activities near the recorded addresses, which instead included homes in residential areas or buildings in office parks.
In other cases, Doolittle said, multiple contiguous farms seemed to be connected to the same owner, registered under LLCs or the names of a farmer’s family members. Such arrangements could allow farmers to evade environmental permits, which are required once the number and weight of animals on a given farm reach a certain threshold. Watchdogs have tracked a wider trend in which CAFO owners set up multiple LLCs to protect their assets from potential litigation.
“I think the animal rights movement is really misguided in how much they’re focused on veganism and food and not enough about the systemic issues, because those are almost as jaw-dropping,” Doolittle said. “It’s scandalous how corrupt it is.”
The animal rights activists’ map is distinct from past CAFO transparency projects in that it includes the plot points of newly identified facilities and invites users to add content. Once Lucy finds a potential CAFO, a human must confirm whether the tool was right or wrong, which strengthens Lucy’s ability to make accurate identifications. Now that the map is live, the task will be crowdsourced. To Doolittle, giving people concerned with animal exploitation a means to get involved is key. “The goal for me is that there’s an organizing element where people can take action based on what they’re finding,” she said.
A Chilling Effect
Activists carry out extensive research in advance of farm investigations, searching for a facility linked to a high-profile corporation, a particularly cruel practice, or a politician advancing harmful policies. “You’re trying to shame someone publicly — someone that matters,” Doolittle said, underlining that Project Counterglow is not anti-farmer and the goal is not to go after “Joe Schmoe’s farm,” as she put it.
The project is meant to act as a clearinghouse for research and footage collected in the course of such investigations. In addition to the map, a sister website called Papertrail will serve as a kind of Wikipedia for animal rights activists, with entries about individual farms, tutorials describing best practices for carrying out investigations, and information about particular health threats linked to animal agriculture.
Doolittle sees legal risk as an unavoidable part of exposing a powerful and abusive industry. Project Counterglow moderators will monitor the site for misinformation posted by police or industry infiltrators, and users will be able to send material anonymously through Mozilla’s encrypted file transfer service. But the map has sacrificed perfect security for accessibility. “There’s always a possibility that they could throw some crazy AETA shit at you,” Doolittle said, referencing the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.
The U.S. has a long history of going after activists for capturing images inside farms or posting information about animal rights actions online. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, a federal law that criminalizes “interference” in the activities of entities with a connection to an animal enterprise, was passed in response to the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty website, which posted information about the laboratory research of Huntingdon Life Sciences and protest actions targeting the company’s leadership and investors. Six SHAC organizers served prison sentences after being accused of encouraging and publicizing radical tactics.
One particularly extreme provision criminalizing filming in agricultural facilities was left out of the federal law that ultimately passed, but elected officials in more than two dozen states picked up the idea and introduced so-called ag-gag laws.
Laws in Idaho, Utah, Kansas, and Wyoming have since been overturned as unconstitutional. In Iowa, soon after a judge found the state’s ag-gag law unconstitutional, the legislature passed a new one. That law is currently blocked by an injunction while another legal challenge moves through the courts. Ag-gag laws in Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, and North Carolina remain in place.
Regan maintains that ag-gag laws and AETA primarily serve to discourage dissent. “AETA has mostly been used to chill activism rather than prosecute it,” she said. “Regardless of repression, animal rights activism has continued unabated and I think will continue.”
“AETA has mostly been used to chill activism rather than prosecute it.”
Indeed, the legislative efforts have failed to halt the growth of a newly confrontational animal rights movement. The Australian organization Aussie Farms released its map in January 2019 to immediate controversy. The project was the brainchild of Chris Delforce, the activist behind the film “Dominion,” which featured disturbing footage from inside animal agriculture facilities and helped fuel disruptive protest actions. In response to the map, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the passage of new anti-protest legislation a key promise in his campaign for reelection.
He delivered. Last September, to fanfare from the animal agriculture industry, new federal criminal code amendments made using a website to incite trespass on an agricultural facility punishable by a year of imprisonment, or five years if the page incited property damage or theft. Two months later, the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission revoked Aussie Farms’ charity status. The site, however, remains live.
And in the U.S., Iowa’s ag-gag laws failed to prevent activists from obtaining the ventilation shutdown footage. The images reveal a large pen of lively pigs before steam obscures the camera and the animals begin to screech. When the steam clears, what remains is a pen of gray bodies — a portrait of the consequences of unregulated industrial agriculture.
“Is there a point at which it will have gone too far? It proves that there’s not,” Doolittle said of the footage. But, she added, “I hope it pushes us closer to some kind of climactic moment.”