Clay Center Nebraska, home to the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center (USMARC), normally is a quiet, lightly populated farm town. This week though, the town and the scientists at USMARC are experiencing more excitement than normal, including animal-rights activists, spy drones and feedyard vandalism.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week, USMARC will host three stakeholder groups for listening sessions, says Chris Bentley, director of the information staff at the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service (ARS). Those groups will include general stakeholders, animal-welfare experts and producers. The sessions are in response to fallout from a New York Times article published in January 2015, titled “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit.”

The article alleged numerous incidents of poor animal care and welfare violations, mostly based on interviews with a past MARC employee, many reported out of context and unsubstantiated by supporting evidence. Nevertheless, the article prompted a review of animal care at USMARC by the office of the USDA’s Inspector General and demands for action from the U.S. Congress. This weeks’ listening sessions are in response to those Congressional mandates, and Bentley says USDA will report back to Congress following the sessions.

These sessions focus on the center’s “easy care” sheep research project, which aims to improve pasture lambing in sheep herds, and was portrayed as abusive in the New York Times article. The initial goal of the sessions, Bentley says, is to show stakeholders the facilities, animals and research work underway at USMARC, listen to their concerns and answer their questions.

The sessions have, however, brought more attention and animal-rights activism to Clay Center. Last week, remote-controlled spy drones were flying over the USMARC facilities, apparently filming activities there. Bentley confirmed the drone flights, but does not have information on their source. Unconfirmed reports from Drovers CattleNetwork sources indicate an activist group known as SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) has set up in Clay Center and is operating the drones. The SHARK website indicates the group regularly uses drones to record videos.

Also, an area feedyard, not associated with USMARC, was apparently broken into and vandalized over the weekend. A representative of the Clay County Sheriff’s office confirmed that a break-in occurred, but was unable to provide details. It is unclear at this time whether animal-rights activists were involved. Drovers CattleNetwork will provide more details on the crime as they become available.

In September, USDA’s Inspector General’s office released an interim report, outlining its findings in its investigation into the claims in the New York Times article. The interim report, based on observations and interviews with past and present USMARC employees, shows that animal-management practices at the facility, along with animal morbidity and mortality rates, generally are in line with industry standards and trends.

Watch our websites for more information on this developing story.