Jolley: Five minutes with Nathan Runkle Executive Director of Mercy for Animals

Jolley: Five minutes with Nathan Runkle Executive Director of Mercy for AnimalsMake no mistake, Mercy for Animals is a vegetarian-driven organization.  Unlike a few other similar groups, they're upfront and honest about it.  Go to their web site and what you'll see prominently displayed is Free Vegetarian Starter Kit with Vegetarian Recipes.  No surprises then, about why they do what they do.

Deeper into their web site are a series of undercover videos depicting what MFA calls animal abuse; an even dozen dating back to 2002. A few of the agricultural businesses on their hit list was Buckeye Veal, Conklin Dairy Farms and House of Raeford.

Chicago-based Mercy for Animals went undercover again and spent two weeks in March collecting extremely disturbing videos of horrendous animal abuse.  Here is a link to the released footage.  A serious caution before you click on that link, however.  It is about as gruesome as I ever want to watch.  It took me several tries to get past the first few seconds.  Unless you have a cast iron stomach, just read about the video:

  • Calves confined to hutches that look as though they haven't been cleaned in months.
  • Calves, still alive and conscious, thrown onto piles.
  • E6 employees bludgeoning downed calves' skulls with pickaxes and hammers.
  • E6 employees kicking downed calves in the head, and standing on their necks and ribs.
  • Gruesome injuries and afflictions, open sores, swollen joints and severed hooves.
  • Ill, injured and dying calves denied medical care.
  • The budding horns of calves burned out of their skulls without painkillers.

Dr. Temple Grandin viewed the video and gave this statement to MFA: "It is obvious that both the management and the employees have no regard for animal welfare."

Dr. Bernard Rollin also condemned the practices he saw at E6, saying: "I urge everyone in a position of authority to serve notice to the world that this sort of behavior has no place in a society wishing to consider itself civilized. These people must be corrected with the full force of the legal system."

Good dairy people all over North America were quick to condemn the actions at E6, stating repeatedly that the video did not depict the extraordinary care they gave their animals.  Still, for many of the non-agricultural people who saw it, it was accepted as another example of the ‘evils of Big Ag."

The video made a large media splash and Runkle has been bombarded by people asking for interviews.  One of the first to get him on tape was Trent Loos who talked with him about the video.  He also talked with Kirt Espenson, the owner of E6.  Runkle and Espenson told very different stories about the video with Espenson taking full responsibility for the abuse.

Here are Five minutes with Nathan Runkle.

Q. Before we launch into the heart of this interview, let's talk about Mercy for Animals – a little background, please, for those who aren't familiar with MFA.  What is your mission, your goals and how do you finance your work?

A. Mercy for Animals is a national, non-profit organization dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies.

The organization was founded in Ohio in 1999 and is funded almost entirely by contributions from our broad base of individual supporters. You can learn more about the organization at www.mercyforanimals.org.

(Editor's note: I went to their web site and couldn't find a list of contributors but I found this description of their mission and goals:

Mercy for Animals is a national non-profit organization dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies.

MFA believes
non-human animals are irreplaceable individuals with morally significant interests and hence rights. This includes the right to live free from unnecessary suffering and exploitation.

MFA is dedicated
to establishing and defending the rights of all animals. Over 99% of cruelty to animals in the United States occurs at the hands of the meat, dairy, and egg industries - which confine, mutilate, and slaughter over 9 billion animals each year. As such, MFA primarily focuses on farmed animal advocacy and promoting cruelty-free food choices.

MFA works
to be a voice for animals through proactive consumer education and advertising campaigns, research and undercover investigations, rescues, working with news media, and grassroots activism.

(I'll differ with their belief that ‘non-human animals are irreplaceable individuals with morally significant interests" and its inevitable next step to animal rights.  It is impossible to not agree with them about the abuse seen on the videotape. )

Q. In an interview about E6, you said you found animal abuse every time one of your people went undercover, yet you release just a few videos a year.  How many investigations does MFA do annually and what kinds of abuse are you finding?

A. It's true that without exception, each time a Mercy for Animals investigator enters a factory farm, hatchery, or slaughterhouse they uncover appalling abuses. E6 is the 15th facility MFA has investigated since our inception. 

The abuses uncovered vary from facility to facility. Some of the mistreatment we find most objectionable are practices considered standard and legal within the industry – such as crowding egg-laying hens in cages where they cannot fully spread their wings, walk freely, build nests, or engage in other important natural behaviors, chaining calves in narrow veal crates too small for them to turn around, and confining sows in stalls barely larger than their bodies for almost the entire duration of their pregnancies. 

We believe that animals built to move should be given the basic freedom to walk, run and exhibit behaviors unique to their species.  We believe these intensive confinement practices cause prolonged stress, frustration, and discomfort for the animals.

We also document animals being castrated, disbudded, and tail docked without any painkillers. We, along with the majority of the public and a growing number of animal welfare experts, find these practices cruel and unacceptable. Cutting corners and costs is no excuse for causing unnecessary suffering to animals.

Our investigations have also documented malicious and sadistic abuse, including workers throwing animals, stabbing them with pitchforks, breaking their tails, bashing crowbars over their heads, dragging them by their ears, skinning them alive, punching them, sexually assaulting them, throwing live animals away in trashcans – the list goes on and on.

While I believe there are a small number of workers who get pleasure from abusing animals, I think the majority of cruelty at the hands of employees comes from learned apathy, being undertrained, and being pressured to move large numbers of animals in a short period of time. Most of these issues initiate from the top down – with the employees left to do the difficult, if not impossible, work of humanely moving animals under such pressure and conditions.

Given the sweeping nature of such abuse, it's no wonder some in animal agriculture are trying to ban undercover videos. It's shameful – producers should be working to end these abusive practices, not keep them secret.

Unfortunately, agribusiness has shown time and time again that it cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Clearly we need stronger laws and oversight, on a state and federal level, to address and end cruelty to farmed animals.

Q. Kirt Espenson, the owner of E6, has said repeatedly that he was unaware of the abuse and he is taking immediate steps to make sure it never happens again.  From what your undercover agent told you as well as what the video shows, is it possible that he was in the dark?

A. It's simply untrue. We've updated our E6 investigation video – available at www.mercyforanimals.org/calves -- to include footage of Espenson approving the use of the hammer to kill calves. Now that he's been caught, Espenson is trying to backpedal. The reality is, as the company owner, it's Espenson's responsibility to not only know exactly what is going on at his facility, but to take immediate corrective actions when needed.

Q. I've often said agricultural hiring practices are lax, which explains why under-qualified and untrained personnel as well as your agent were hired.  How difficult was it for your man to be hired and what kind of training was he given? 

A. Our investigator simply applied at E6 and was quickly hired. The company failed to offer any animal welfare training, policies, or oversight – creating a culture of cruelty and neglect. 

Q. Your agent participated in the abuse, something you've already admitted.  In a drive-by shooting, the wheelman is considered just as guilty as the man who pulled the trigger.  To be honest, I'm having trouble absolving him of the same crime attributed to Espenson and his employees.  Would you discuss the philosophical justification of his actions?

A. It's a gross mischaracterization to say our (man) participated in "abuse."   That's not something we've ever stated. The investigator always acted with the best interest of the animals at heart, and with the absolute and firm intention of preventing unnecessary and prolonged pain and suffering. His actions were based on necessity, and were in furtherance of the ultimate goal of ending the longstanding cruel and inhumane practices at E6.

The longstanding abuse at E6 was systemic and the direct result of poor management, which failed to provide even basic animal welfare policies, training, or oversight. Company negligence and apathy forced untrained and unequipped workers at the time to make the difficult choice between neglecting animals to slowly and painfully suffer to death, and killing them with the only means provided by the company – hammers.

Kirt Espenson has admitted "full responsibility" for the cruelty documented at his facility, acknowledging that he failed to train employees. Based on the evidence, and this admission, it is Mr. Espenson who should be held criminally accountable for creating a culture of cruelty and neglect.

Q. Most people in animal agriculture who find the abuse at E6 abhorrent also think it should be reported to the authorities immediately, not several days or weeks later.  It's been the usual practice of the organizations behind these videos to delay reporting, though, sometimes for weeks or even months.  During that time span, hundreds or thousands of animals are subjected to abuse.  Lead me through the thought process that justifies the delay.

A. We contacted federal law enforcement while our investigator was still in the facility. While documenting the routine mistreatment that occurred at this facility, our investigator also encountered what we believe are numerous federal violations – primarily a workforce largely made up of undocumented workers. Accordingly, we were obligated to go to federal authorities first with this information. Upon receiving the green light from federal authorities, about one week after our investigator left E6, we immediately presented all of our evidence to the Castro County District Attorney's Office, urging them to uphold Texas anti-cruelty laws. After giving law enforcement ample time to initiate their investigation, so as not to compromise the case, we then moved forward in presenting the investigation to the public.

For the investigation to create long-term change – and prevent the future suffering of countless animals – we needed to document the various types of routine abuses occurring, as well as show that there were no animal welfare policies, training, or oversight. We also needed to show that the lack of regard for animal welfare came from the top down – that the owner was aware of the situation, yet failed to take immediate corrective action. Our hope is that by compiling a solid case, we can end this abuse once and for all – sparing thousands of animals in the future from such cruelty and neglect.

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.

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