WASHINGTON – Having a plan for how to respond to activists who might protest at facilities is essential, presenters at the virtual Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit stressed to attendees on May 6.

While the pandemic did not have an overall large impact on criminal actions involving protests, John Sancenito, president of Information Network Associates Inc., Harrisburg, Pa., said criminal actions were still up somewhat in 2020. There were also increased incidents of protests in general, animal rights protests were smaller, sometimes involving only a few individuals. 

Nevertheless, protesters have been organizing via apps or social media and have been relying on misinformation as a catalyst for their actions. Many are trying to link animal agriculture to climate change, Sancenito said.

James Naugle, assistant sheriff with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in Santa Rosa, California, said in his experience protesters are typically not local, do not understand the agriculture community and have a different view of the industry.

“The main question becomes when does that balance tip,” Naugle said. “When does it go from someone exercising their first amendment right to breaking the law?”

Naugle said the answer to that question is when protestors enter property and disrupt business. He said it is important for the operators of targeted facilities to call 911 immediately when a problem arises as it gives law enforcement time to arrive and be prepared. He also warned against becoming part of the problem by engaging in negative behavior in response to the protestors. 

Additionally, he recommended that companies in the animal agriculture industry designate someone on-site with the authority to say the protestors are not allowed on the premises, and ensure the facility is protected by good fencing and signage warning against trespassing. He said a good rule of thumb is to make sure one can see a “no trespassing” sign from any spot along the perimeter of the property. He said cameras and lighting can be helpful and in some cases, using guard dogs has been effective in his experience.

“Every single property is going to be different, so you are really going to have to cater it to what is going to work for you,” Naugle said.

The most common type of illegal action protestors engaged in was trespassing, followed by animal liberation and vandalism, according to Sancenito. 

Naugle said his department has a zero-tolerance policy for such crimes, and they do not issue citations but rather charge offenders with felonies when possible. Naugle also stressed the importance of industry members being involved in agricultural advocacy organizations to help push through good legislation.

When incidents occur and the media shows up, Nancy Daigneault, principal and founder of On Point Communication, said the industry needs to understand the media often frames stories to include a victim, a villain and a hero. Often, the victims are the animals, the animal rights activists are the heroes, and the agriculture industry is perceived as the villain. 

Daigneault said it is important not to play into this narrative and to make people question the idea of the industry being the villain. She said when a crisis occurs and there is question about possible wrongdoing at an agricultural facility, express understanding about any concerns, admit to any problems you are certain of, and vow to fix the problem. Committing to using a third-party investigator also increases transparency and provides a way to ensure the problem gets fixed. 

She also said never to minimize any situation but rather to express awareness and concern. Other important considerations include turning negative questions from the media into positive answers. Instead of denying being an animal abuser when asked directly, discuss how animal welfare is a priority. 

Sancenito said it is important for the industry members make sure they have everything in good order as both small and large farms get attacked on a regular basis, and it is always helpful to have a security assessment done by a professional.