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Drones to be Used to Side-Step “Ag Gag” Laws, Photographing Animal Cruelty
Drones to be Used to Side-Step “Ag Gag” Laws, Photographing Animal Cruelty

Drones to be Used to Side-Step “Ag Gag” Laws, Photographing Animal Cruelty

July 9, 2014

Drones are causing a stir in agriculture these days, and not in that exciting, disruptive, tech-y way they have before.


potter-cutout-246x300Today, investigative journalist Will Potter successfully closed a Kickstarter campaign raising money to document animal abuse on farms by using drone photography. With a $30,000 goal, the campaign closed at $75,064. Potter says that the money will go towards aerial photography equipment, travel expenses, legal counsel, video production equipment and other media needs, to start documenting what he calls a “trend” in agriculture.

On his Kickstarter page, Potter writes:


“The latest trend is that the agriculture industry is even trying to ban photographs of farms taken from the air. It is unlikely that aerial photography can document animal abuse, but these industries are clearly concerned. So what are factory farms trying to hide? Will a drone allow us to see the scope of pollution caused by these industrial operations? I’m going to find out….”


Frustrated by “ag gag” laws, or state laws that deem film and photography documentation of animal-cruelty on farms illegal, Potter’s background is one of exposing reprehensible realities quelled in the media, specifically in animal rights, environmental issues, and civil liberties. And when it comes to ag gag laws, Potter talks–and writes–a lot. His articles about the laws have been published in Salon, MSN, Democracy Now, VICE, and Al Jazeera, and the TED 2014 Fellow frequently speaks on TV, the radio and consistently blogs on the topic.


And though his background is in this type of activist writing, Potter told FastCo his inspiration to start this project came from seeing artists Mishka Henner’s satellite imagery of toxic feedlots. One of Henner’s images is featured on the Kickstarter page, where Potter wrote the caption, “Photographer Mishka Henner documented factory farm pollution—like this waste lagoon at a Texas feedlot—by satellite. What else could drone photography uncover?”


Potter says that while he knows specific instances of animal cruelty will not be able to be recorded, he wants to be able to show that industrial farms are not always what they seem.


a04f9722ac0c0b905abe8f3a2035b99a_large“I’ve been reporting so much on the ag gag laws and seeing that the political climate is getting worse and worse,” Potter told FastCo. “I just got back from a speaking tour in Australia, and ag gag laws are showing up there as well. I wanted to think up ways to be more creative and ambitious.”


Creative and ambitious, but certainly not without backlash from the agriculture industry.


Many farmers aren’t so happy about Potter’s “investigative” nature. Chuck Jolley wrote a piece in CattleNetwork that said this type of investigation falsely suggests there’s much animal cruelty to hide in the farming world, and that American farmers must fend for their privacy.


“He’s talking drones, unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles, an eye in the sky,” Jolley wrote of Potter. “And the best a farmer or rancher intent on maintaining his privacy can do is mistake that hovering object for a bird and hope it’s duck season.” Later he writes, “It would be better to do what so many agvocates are advocating; open those barn doors and let everyone in….Or you can hide behind ag gag laws and proclaim to an unbelieving world that you have nothing to hide.”


It isn’t only farmer-backlash that Potter has to worry about; there’s also the law. About seven states have ag-gag laws, with more considering enacting it. While Potter says he will not break the law by illegally shooting pictures, he faces murky legal lines that address the limitations of drone flight and photography in many states. Potter says he is carefully weighing in state laws as he maps out his plan moving forward, as he doesn’t want the raised money to go towards legal fees.


“Even though this photography is lawful, I will undoubtedly face harassment by factory farm owners or workers on site,” Potter wrote on the Kickstarter page. “I am committed to pursuing this lawful investigation and these are risks I am willing to face.”



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