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Idaho’s legislature is considering what’s been dubbed the “ag-gag bill” that would impose penalties for trespassing and filming without permission in farming facilities.
What prompted the push is a video by animal activists, showing workers stomping on cows, beating and dragging them at the Bettencourt Dairy in Hansen, Idaho in 2012.
The bill’s sponsor says this video is the work of “agri-terrorists” bent on harming the industry. The activists counter that they’re just exposing animal abuse.
The penalty would be a misdemeanor charge punishable by a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Scott Graf of Boise State Public Radio in Idaho joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson with details.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
The Idaho state legislature is close to joining Montana, Utah and Kansas in passing what's called an ag-gag bill. The bill passed in the Idaho State Senate last week, and it's now before a House committee. It would impose penalties for trespassing and filming in agricultural facilities without permission.
Joining us to talk about it is Scott Graf from Boise State Public Radio in Idaho. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT GRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, tell us exactly what this bill would do, first of all.
GRAF: Well, this is a bill that is being brought forth by Idaho's agricultural industry in response to something that happened about a year and a half ago in this state. And what it would do would be to put in place criminal penalties for anybody who misrepresents who they are or what their intentions are in trying to get onto a farm here and ultimately trying to do damage to a farmer's operation.
HOBSON: And when you say something that happened about a year and a half ago, you're talking about a video that was shot by the L.A.-based group Mercy for Animals. It is graphic. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF COW MOOING)
HOBSON: Now, what's happening in this is these animal activists have taped workers at a dairy stomping on cows, dragging them, beating them. It happened at the Bettencourt Dairy in Hansen, Idaho. So this video is what sparked all this, Scott.
GRAF: It did, and it was recorded in the summer of 2012, and the group that you just mentioned there, Mercy for Animals out of California, released it in the fall. And it caused immediate uproar both in Idaho and outside. That sound is just - it's awful to hear, and I think it's much worse to even watch. And I think everybody, including the owner of the dairy, just really was sickened was the word that Luis Bettencourt used at the time.
When he heard about it, he said it was very upsetting to him. He immediately fired five workers right after he got wind of the abuse. He assisted with the subsequent investigation. He says he installed cameras to better keep an eye on many some bad-apple employees who might think of doing this in the future.
Three workers were ultimately charged. One pleaded guilty a few months later. And two others were never apprehended. They were not native to the area, and law enforcement officials were never able to catch up with them. But that's the event that's driving this legislation this winter.
HOBSON: But then isn't it like shooting the messenger to go after the people who filmed these abuses rather than changing the rules so people can't abuse their animals like this?
GRAF: Yeah, and the animal rights groups would agree with that. They say that's exactly what's happening here, that they say this is an industry that has over the years proven itself incapable of policing itself, that the industry just can't do an effective job, so it requires groups like it to go in and maybe lie on a job application to be able to gain access to a farm, take in a video recorder and secretly capture these abuses, because it's a way of keeping producers honest.
And on the other side of the issue, you know, the agricultural industry is very upset with this kind of thing, in part because of the false pretenses, but they - when this happens, and groups like Mercy for Animals go into these places, they encourage, once this video becomes public, the suppliers, maybe a cheesemaker, whoever is buying this dairy's cheese, to cut that dairy off and stop doing business with them.
The agricultural industry here in states like Idaho, who want to see legislation like this passed, say that is going a step too far because you're endangering the well-being, the financial well-being, of these men and women who run these dairies.
HOBSON: Well, how big is the industry in Idaho?
GRAF: It's very big. Actually, it's kind of a well-kept secret. I believe last year another state passed Idaho for third on - you know, how big our dairy industry is. Wisconsin is of course first, California is second, and Idaho has been third. I believe we're fourth now. But there is a section of this state that is very much in agricultural country, and there's one particular area that has a lot of dairies.
HOBSON: Well, now that this has reached the state House, it's passed the Senate, as we said, what are people in Idaho feeling about this?
GRAF: It's like a lot of issues here. There is sort of an urban-rural divide on this. I talked this week with the state senator who brought forward this legislation from the farming area of Idaho, and he said that, you know, he's getting a lot of emails complaining about what he has done and the legislation he's put forth. But he said a lot of them are coming from places like Boise, Pocatello, the state's urban areas, also urban areas from outside the state of Idaho.
He said, you know, here on the ground in dairy country, these are small towns. We know the men and women who run these operations, and we know that they're good people, and they do not want to see their animals abused like in the video that we've been discussing.
And it's not a party line issue at all here. It's sort of where you live kind of dictates, in general, where you stand on it.
HOBSON: By the way, Scott, what would the penalties be for people who go in and film things that are happening at these dairies?
GRAF: A person would be fined up to $5,000, and they could spent up to a year in prison if they're convicted of what would be considered a misdemeanor.
HOBSON: Scott Graf at Boise State Public Radio in Idaho. Scott, thanks so much.
GRAF: You're welcome, Jeremy.
HOBSON: And it's a debate that is going on not just in Idaho but in a number of other states. You can weigh in right now at hereandnow.org. What do you think of the ag-gag bill? This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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