People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, in 2013 released a doctored video purporting to show the mistreatment of racehorses in the stable of high-profile trainer Steve Asmussen. Based on undercover work by a PETA operative, who was for a short time planted as an employee in the Asmussen stable, the animal-welfare organization made allegations about overmedicated horses and the use of electronic buzzers.
The New York Times printed the story and both horseracing and Asmussen suffered the consequences of the negative publicity. Ultimately, after a lengthy inquiry, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission found the PETA charges to be baseless, but by then the damage had been done to the reputations of horse racing in general and Asmussen in particular. Indeed, PETA most likely cost Asmussen a place in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, at least temporarily.
The deceptive approach that PETA used to investigate Asmussen is nothing new, as the organization and others like it have surreptitiously videotaped how animals are treated on farms and ranches. The Wall Street Journal reports that half a dozen states have responded by passing “laws in recent years to prevent workers from taking images or videos of agricultural facilities. In Iowa, the law penalizes activists who seek jobs for the purpose of doing so.”
On Friday, May 29, 2015, the North Carolina legislature followed suit and approved such a bill. Though the governor, Pat McCrory, vetoed it for being too broad, he asked the legislature to send him a narrower bill that he will sign into law. He said: “This bill is intended to address a valid concern of our state’s businesses—how to discourage those bad actors who seek employment with the intent to engage in corporate espionage or act as an undercover investigator.”
As would be expected, animal-welfare organizations are adamantly opposed to legal restrictions on their investigative procedures; that is, on their right to obtain information by subterfuge.
The ethical questions raised by an Asmussen-like investigation do not have cut and dried answers. The vast majority of animal owners and caretakers treat their charges in a humane manner and want animal abusers to be called out, stopped, and made to pay for their transgressions. How to achieve this worthy goal is the controversial issue. Animal abuse is repugnant, but so is smearing a person’s reputation.
Update: On Wednesday, June 4, 2015, the North Carolina legislature overrode the governor’s veto of the aforementioned bill that allows businesses to sue anyone who secretly films alleged abuses of animals on farms and ranches. Thus the Property Protection Act is now law in North Carolina.
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