You’ve spent countless hours on a client’s farm. You’ve helped train the crews and developed health and welfare protocols. You know the owner and management team well and have seen first-hand their commitment to proper animal care. And yet, early one morning you find your phone and e-mail swamped with messages about an undercover video supposedly documenting animal abuse on the farm.

Like it or not, you have a fire to fight. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you, as the farm’s veterinarian, are a trusted source with a high level of credibility among the general public. Also through an established veterinarian-client-patient relationship, you are in a good position to help your client minimize the fallout.

George Palmer, DVM, at Palmer Veterinary Clinic, Plattsburgh, N.Y., faced that scenario a few years back, when an employee of the animal-rights group PETA clandestinely joined the staff at a client’s dairy and released a video allegedly showing animal abuse on the operation.

Palmer Veterinary Clinic is a three-generation family veterinary practice that has served Clinton County in northeastern New York for more than 50 years. Palmer’s father opened the practice in 1958, and Palmer now practices with his son and five other veterinarians, three of whom are mixed-animal practitioners.

The clinic’s relationship with the dairy in question, a well-established and respected operation, also extends back to the 1950s. Palmer visits the dairy frequently and has helped the owner and managers develop protocols and make management decisions. The dairy is well-regarded for its animal care and was a long-time participant in the New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program (NYSCHAP), including its animal-welfare component.

Nevertheless, one morning after finishing a herd check at a nearby farm, Palmer learned through a voice message that PETA had targeted his client and was distributing the clandestinely recorded video to the media. After that things happened quickly.

Palmer first called New York’s state veterinarian, who also oversees NYSCHAP, and then cancelled his afternoon appointments and drove to the farm. He credits the farm owner with performing well under pressure and, with help from Palmer and other industry partners, organizing an appropriate response.

The first step, he says, was one of the simplest: The farm owner checked his e-mail that day and found a notification from PETA. The owner, Palmer says, often did not check e-mails regularly, and if he’d missed that message, the response would have been slower and less effective.

The farm immediately contacted its attorney who sent a “cease and desist” notice to PETA with regard to its publicity campaign. The attorney also sent a letter to the undercover employee maintaining there was a release of confidential information and that the employee did not perform his duties in good faith.

At the same time, PETA also sent letters to industry leaders including Agri-Mark, the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, and the National Milk Producers Federation.  These letters outlined alleged animal abuse at the dairy including tail banding, dehorning, use of rBST and a vaginal prolapse shown in the video.

Several other steps helped minimize the long-term impacts.

• The farm contacted the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and invited them to visit. The ASPCA, however, declined the offer.

• The owner called an Associated Press (AP) reporter who had earlier requested an interview and invited her to the dairy. The reporter declined the visit and said she had decided not to pursue the story. In her research, apparently, she read a news release from the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition about the farm being NYSCHAP certified. She also contacted PRO-DAIRY to ask about the farm. The farm’s positive reputation caused the reporter to question the credibility of PETA.

• On the farm’s behalf, Palmer contacted the local media and invited them to visit the farm. The local newspaper editor was unaware of any pending AP stories, as nothing was on newswire, and they had not received a release from PETA. The editor assured him the paper would contact the dairy before any story ran, and that none currently were planned. They also contacted the local TV news anchor, who seemed sympathetic to the dairy.

• A PRO-DAIRY staff member, who had previously worked for the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition and had experience with similar incidents, helped the team develop talking points to use with the media and the public.

• The team also discussed strategy with Northeast Dairy Producers Association and other industry partners. The area representative for Merck Animal Health offered the assistance of the company’s national public relations firm.

Chasing bigger fish

Palmer believed the farm’s participation in NYSCHAP would help it avoid negative attacks, but as the situation developed it became clear that PETA’s agenda included discrediting the auditing program, along with the dairy’s cooperative, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets and animal agriculture in general.

Public relations executive Jane Dukes agrees that activist groups also use the farm to reach brands and supply chains, applying pressure to change on-farm policies through their undercover video campaigns. “This has become an easier and more effective method than trying to introduce legislation or achieve new regulation,” she says.  

Dukes, with Wisconsin-based MorganMyers, has spent much of her time the past year on the road as part of a Merck Animal Health team, including veterinarians,  traveling the country and visiting dairies to help launch the Merck Animal Health Dairy C.A.R.E. Initiative at workshops. The workshops are designed to help industry stakeholders develop plans to protect consumer trust and farmers’ ability to do business.

Know what to expect

Dukes notes that animal-rights groups are well-organized and are generating a “steady drumbeat” of negative images and messages regarding animal agriculture to instill doubt among consumers. Combined, Mercy for Animals, Compassion over Killing, PETA and the Humane Society of the United States have annual operating budgets over $244 million.

The groups, she says, have learned that if they pressure the big brands to impose new standards, they can impact change on hundreds or even thousands of farms literally overnight.

The incidents typically take farmers by surprise. Dukes says most progress as follows:

• The first thing farmers know is when they get a call from the authorities, the activist or their cooperative or processor to notify them of the existence of the video.

• The farm might have a few days’ notice before the video is released to the media, or it might not.

• The farm’s customers and industry representatives might also receive notice of the video, in keeping with the groups’ focus on the big brands as they work to reach consumers.

• The farm’s phone starts ringing with calls from reporters, and some might show up on-site with cameras and microphones.

• The campaign will include news releases with the video footage, press conferences in major cities, website and social media postings and online petitions.

• The initial crisis will last around three days to a week, but the story can live on in the news for a year or more.

Prevention first

As with animal-health issues, prevention is the first and most critical step in a farm’s animal-welfare program. Veterinarians can provide clients with a valuable service by helping develop policies and procedures for appropriate animal care. Dukes recommends developing a written animal-care-commitment statement, in cooperation with the operation’s management, outlining specific expectations. She lists these components for animal-care documents, outlined in the Dairy C.A.R.E. Initiative:

• The animal-care commitment should be shared with all employees, who are required to read and sign it.

• The operation must hold employees accountable for adhering to those standards of care. The documents can outline repercussions for not conforming.

• The standards should be reviewed regularly during employee meetings and any time a new employee is hired.

• Farmers should share their animal-care-commitment policies with anyone who visits the farm, including milk haulers and calf transporters, who might also be required to sign it. Farms also might share the documents with the local community and any casual visitors, to build local awareness of their animal-care policies.

Create SOPs

While the animal-care commitment outlines expectations for animal care, detailed, written standard operating procedures (SOPs) specify exactly how that care should be delivered. The two most important SOPs a farm can have, Dukes says, are those for euthanasia and handling non-ambulatory animals. The downed cow, she says, is nearly always the centerpiece of undercover videos. Regularly review SOPs with clients and crews to avoid procedural drift that can lead to incorrect animal handling. “Train, train and retrain,” she says.