June 2, 2010

Interview with Nathan Runkle, founder + executive director of Mercy For Animals.

Last week Mercy For Animals released quite possibly the most shocking undercover video footage of animal cruelty. I wrote a blog about the Conklin Dairy investigation.

I interviewed Nathan Runkle, founder of Mercy for Animals (MFA) about some of MFA’s past investigations to get some updates. MFA has become one of the most effective organizations at exposing animal cruelty and educating the public on veganism and animal issues. MFA is headquartered in Chicago and has offices in New York City, Dallas, Texas, Columbus, Ohio and Ashville, North Carolina.

All of this came about when Nathan was 11 years old. He stopped by a table set up outside a mall on Earth Day, and saw literature on factory farming. He went vegetarian on the spot and a few years later became vegan. He got involved in animal rights activism when he was 13 years old, where he attended the Animal Rights National Conference in Washington D.C. Two years later, at age 15 Nathan started Mercy for Animals.

MFA’s undercover investigation of Willet Dairy showed the public the cruelty of some of the dairy industry’s common practices, like tail docking and burning off horns. Can you tell us a little about it, and what’s happened since the investigation?

Early last year MFA sent an undercover investigator into Willet Dairy – the largest dairy farm in New York State, which confined nearly 7,000 cows in factory farm conditions. Far from leading the happy and carefree lives so many consumers are accustomed to seeing in dairy industry commercials, the cows at this facility lived day in and day out crowded inside manure-coated sheds.

In addition to documenting the standard living conditions, our investigator also documented “downer” cows too sick or injured to stand, baby calves being dragged away from their mothers’ sides, workers hitting, kicking, and bragging about abusing animals, and animals with open sores, untreated infections, and other painful illnesses and injuries.

Our investigator also documented the standard, yet extremely painful, practices of tail docking and disbudding (burning off the budding horns) of young calves. Tail docking involves cutting through the animals’ skin, nerves, and tailbones. At Willet Dairy, as with most dairy factory farms, this cruel mutilation was performed without any painkillers. The American Veterinary Medical Association, as well as numerous dairy industry trade groups, opposes tail docking because it causes both acute and chronic pain in the animals, prevents the cows from protecting themselves against biting flies, and lacks any solid scientific purpose.

With disbudding, workers take a hot iron and dig into the calves’ skulls to remove the budding horns. At Willet, this practice was also conducted without any painkillers. Calves enduring the mutilations bellowed in distress and struggled to escape. The worker performing the practice restrained many of the calves by shoving his finger into their eyes.

The investigation at Willet generated national media coverage – shining a bright spotlight on the very dark side of the dairy industry. Through coverage on Nightline, ABC’s World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer, and other media outlets, we were able to bring the harsh reality of factory farming into the homes of tens of millions of Americans – opening their hearts and minds to the plight of farmed animals.

Also as a result of the investigation, Leprino Foods, a cheese supplier to the three largest pizza chains in the country, ended its purchasing relationship with Willet, citing the cruelty uncovered.

On the legislative front, New York Assembly member Linda Rosenthal introduced a bill that would ban the tail docking of dairy cattle. Rosenthal has been an incredible champion of this common-sense bill – which now has over 30 co-sponsors. We are optimistic that New York lawmakers will follow the lead of California – the nation’s largest dairy producing state – which outlawed this cruel and unnecessary practice last year.

Willet Dairy investigation

MFA also investigated Country View Family Farms, a so-called “family farm,” and showed more incredibly cruel treatment of pigs and piglets. What is the status of that investigation?

Despite its name, Country View is an industrial factory farm in every regard. The facility confined thousands of pregnant sows in tiny gestation crates – so narrow they could not turn around, walk, or engage in even the most basic natural behaviors. For animals that are more intelligent than dogs, this complete lack of stimulation is incredibly cruel and leads to mental breakdown and depression in most of the animals.

Our investigation at this factory farm also documented workers throwing piglets across the room like footballs, tossing them by their ears, and painfully gassing piglets in overcrowded kill carts. The undercover video recorded at Country View also revealed the completely standard practice of cutting off piglets’ tails and castrating piglets without any painkillers. Piglets scream and struggle to escape the painful mutilation. Botched castration condemns many piglets to slow deaths.

This investigation also generated national media headlines, revealing the cruel truth behind the other white meat.

Because most of the cruelty documented at Country View is deemed standard, and because Pennsylvania has cruelty exemptions for standard agricultural practices, the abuse is allowed to continue. This case, along with other MFA investigations, highlights that most of the cruelest practices in agribusiness are completely standard, legal, and defended by the industry.

We need to adopt strict federal laws that protect animals from the worst abuses during their lives on factory farms, during transport, and at slaughter.

Country View Family Farms investigation

As if dairy and pork wasn’t enough, you made headlines after the Hy-Line hatchery investigation. Many people who eat eggs have no idea that it’s standard practice to kill the male chicks. What do they need to know about egg production?

For each female egg-laying chick that hatches, there is also a male. Because male chicks of the egg-laying breed do not grow large or quickly enough to be raised profitably for meat, they are literally viewed as trash by the egg industry. Each year in the United States alone, nearly 200 million newly hatched male chicks are killed – some are suffocated in trash bags, others are gassed, many are slammed against electrified plates, and perhaps the majority are killed by being dropped while still alive into giant grinding machines.

Our investigation at Hy-Line, the world’s largest hatchery for egg-laying breed chicks, found that over 100,000 male chicks are ground-up alive each day at this single facility.

The Hy-Line investigation highlighted this dirty secret of the egg industry and exposed the cruel truth behind egg production to the mainstream masses. Regardless of whether you’re buying eggs from hens confined in battery cages or raised in cage-free systems, male chicks are killed in commercial egg production. The most compassionate choice we can all make is to go vegan and ditch eggs altogether.

Hy-Line Hatchery investigation


Speaking of eggs, please tell us more about the documentary film Fowl Play.

Fowl Play is an eye-opening, no-holds-barred exposé of the commercial egg industry. The film takes viewers on an unforgettable journey behind the closed doors of some of the largest egg factory farms in America – revealing the horrific cruelty hundreds of millions of hens are subjected to in order to satisfy our nation’s craving for “the incredible edible egg.”

Through interviews with veterinarians, farmed animal sanctuary managers, undercover investigators, and animal behaviorists, the audience gains a deeper understanding of who chickens are, their needs, interests, and how they suffer and die at the hands of an out-of-control industry.

The film has been an official selection of over a dozen national and international film festivals, and has shocked and inspired audiences time and again.

Fowl Play is ultimately a film about the power each person has to make humane and compassionate choices that are in line with our moral values. The film empowers consumers to vote with their pocketbooks each time they sit down to a meal.

You can see clips from the film, and order a copy, at FowlPlayMovie.com.

Aside from undercover investigations, MFA uses media campaigns and grassroots tactics such as feed-ins, leafleting, and educational exhibits. What’s the method to the madness? What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from all these forms of outreach?

MFA utilizes an “every tool in the box” approach to preventing farmed animal cruelty and promoting an ethical and compassionate diet.

I personally became involved in animal rights as a result of grassroots outreach. It was because a volunteer with an animal protection organization decided to set up an educational exhibit at a local mall 15 years ago that I am now a vegan animal advocate.

Our various outreach tactics, which include thought-provoking billboards, bus ads, and television ads, are supported by grassroots events, including leafleting at college campuses, exhibits at festivals and concerts, giving out free vegan food samples, and humane education lectures at colleges and high schools. All build upon each other. While ad campaigns are able to quickly reach millions of people with a simple message, other grassroots tactics can build on that exposure, by creating more meaningful, in-depth conversations regarding animal protection and vegetarian issues.

We believe that to truly transform a community, we must be visible in a wide variety of areas and media. It was once said that people needed to hear a message seven times before it sinks in. Today, with each of us being inundated with endless ads and messages, marketers say we need to hear a message many more times than that. With each event, investigation, and ad campaign, we are helping open hearts and minds, and moving people one more encounter towards a more compassionate lifestyle.

If someone wants to help animals, what’s the best way for them to become more active? How can people support MFA?

There is a special place for each person within the animal advocacy movement. I’m a strong believer that no matter who you are, where you’re from, how old you are, or what your background is, you can take your own special and unique skills and talents and put them to use making the world a kinder place for animals.

Great chefs can teach vegan cooking classes, teachers can get involved in humane education programs, lawyers can participate in animal law efforts, and students can promote veganism to fellow students. The animals need strong voices on so many fronts.

I think, in a general sense, the best thing people can do to get active is to simply speak up about farmed animal abuse and veganism – wear message t-shirts, put a bumper sticker on your car, wear a pin, distribute literature, have conversations with friends, family, and strangers about the issues, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, and share and promote information and videos with your circle of contacts on Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, and other social networking sites.

I’d also suggest contacting local and national organizations about internship programs, volunteer opportunities, and ways you can get involved with national campaigns on a local level.

MFA also has a list of ways people can get active for animals within their communities at http://mercyforanimals.org/action-center.aspx

MFA exists and is able to carry out its lifesaving work because of the generosity and support of kindhearted individuals who share our vision of a world where animals live free of unnecessary suffering. I encourage readers to consider making a financial contribution to support MFA’s life-saving campaigns. I also encourage people to volunteer, intern, and spread the word about MFA. You can find a wealth of resources and information on getting involved and becoming a member at MercyForAnimals.org.

I am Mercy For Animals

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