Matt Rice, Photo Courtesy Mercy for Animals

This week on the VM blog we have been talking about Vegan World Changers. Moving into the present, there are plenty of people out there who are working hard to make this world a better place for all creatures to live. One group of such people is Mercy For Animals – and we had the priviledge of sitting down with Director of Operations, Matt Rice, to talk about some of the exciting strides this organization has taken over the past year.

Vegan Mainstream: How did you get involved with Mercy for Animals?

Matt Rice: I’ve been involved with Mercy for Animals for many years. It’s a small group of really dedicated people getting an enormous amount of work done for animals. I met Nathan [Runkle, Founder and Executive Director of Mercy For Animals] several years ago – I used to work for a number of different organizations – and every time I would run across volunteers or other members of MFA, I was always left with a really positive impression of them. I got a call about two-and-a-half or three years ago saying MFA was opening up a New York office and Nathan asked if I wanted to head that up. I jumped at the chance. I’ve been working for MFA ever since. I’m the Director of Operations for MFA, so I head up our efforts nationally now.

VM: What are some of your main duties? Everything?

MR: It’s kind of a catch-all position. I have my hand in a lot of different areas of the organization, making sure everything is running smoothly and that it all falls under the national umbrella. I work with campaign coordinators in our regional offices on grassroots outreach efforts, which include leafletting, staffing tables at street fairs or festivals, humane education presentations in high schools and colleges. Also, doing Pay-per-view events where we set up a viewing booth and encourage people to watch a four-minute version of our documentary Farm to Fridge in exchange for a dollar as well as a vegetarian starter kit. Farm to Fridge basically takes the viewer on an eye-opening journey behind the closed doors of factory farms. So, raising people’s awareness about these issues is the first step towards getting them to make not only personal changes in their own lifestyles and diets, but also getting them active and involved in helping animals in other ways as well.

VM: Talk a little about your media campaigns for this past year. What was your goal?

MR: Our goal is always to reach a wide audience, as many people as we can with our message. We believe people are generally kind. The vast majority of people care about animals and don’t want to see them abused. So, one of the most effective ways to help animals is to simply show people how they’re being treated. Ninety-nine percent of the animals who are abused and exploited in this country are abused at the hands of the meat, dairy and egg industries. A primary focus of ours is to do undercover investigations of factory farms, hatcheries and slaughterhouses; to not only push for corporate animal welfare policy reforms and legislative reforms to protect these animals, but to also work with the news media to get these investigations out nationally to the Associated Press, ABC News, 20/20, CNN, [places] where people get their information; and to show people how animals are being raised for food these days.

VM: I know of the Butterball and Sparboe Farms investigations MFA did. What were some of the investigations MFA spearheaded this year?

MR: Earlier this year we did an investigation on a Texas calf factory farm. This was a farm that had more than ten thousand calves from dairy farms across Texas. This is where they grew [the calves] out, and then the calves that survived their ordeal at this facility were returned to the dairy farms. Our investigator documented, like we do at any of our investigations, abuses that would shock and horrify most Americans, including workers using pick-axes and hammers to bash in the skulls of baby calves. It sparked international outrage and led to an historic five felony and two misdemeanor cruelty-to-animal charges against the owner and employees. We also managed to rescue four of the baby calves from this facility and they’re now healthy and happy, living out their lives at a farmed-animal sanctuary out in California.

We also released the first-ever undercover investigation into a fish slaughter facility, also in Texas at a place called Catfish Corner, an aquaculture farm. Unfortunately, the workers here were documented cutting, slicing and skinning live catfish who were conscious and able to feel pain. Fish are one of those animals who, although they can suffer and feel pain just like any other animal, unfortunately people aren’t very familiar with fish and oftentimes don’t give them the same type of consideration they might give their dogs or cats at home. So, we’re hoping to break through that and show that fish are  also feeling, sentient beings and that skinning them alive is cruelty. We did that with our investigation.

[For more information on the Sparboe Egg Farms investigation and the McDonald's Cruelty campaign, click here.]

[For more information on the Butterball Abuse investigation, click here.]

VM: What has the media response been like for some of your larger investigations?

MR: The media response has continued to grow, which I find interesting. About a decade ago, it was very difficult to get mainstream media to cover any animal welfare issues that didn’t just involve dogs and cats. Now we’re starting to see that change, and I think a lot of it has to do with these undercover investigations. The media is starting to cover farmed-animal abuse cases; we’re seeing major outlets do really comprehensive exposés. This is certainly what we saw with ABC News on our latest investigation into Sparboe Farms, one of the primary suppliers of eggs for McDonald’s Egg McMuffins. ABC News did an exposé on it, they featured it on Good Morning America, and then later World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer, and then on 20/20. And that sparked international interest on the story. There were more than 2,000 mainstream media stories within a few days. That coverage really helped us to be able to pressure the industry. McDonald’s quickly dropped Sparboe as an egg supplier, followed by Target, Sam’s Club and many other retailers. But also, we’re seeing these investigations and the media exposure they’re generating is helping to push law enforcement into action and take these issues a lot more seriously than they did, say, ten years ago.

VM: So, the discussion on mainstream media shows is having a greater effect on policy than previous years?

MR: That’s right. Before, the industry was happy to keep these things hidden behind closed doors. As long as their customers didn’t know about it, they didn’t have to worry about making any changes. I think law enforcement in some cases, not all cases, but in some cases kind of felt the same way: “No one knows about it, they’re just farmed animals, nobody cares.” But now they’re seeing that people DO care. Whenever people see these investigations, they’re outraged. They start contacting law enforcement and saying, “What are you doing about this?” They start contacting district attorneys and state representatives and saying, “Something has to be done to stop this.” So now we’re seeing law enforcement and legislators move to take action on it. Obviously, we have a long way to go, but I think this is an encouraging start and an encouraging direction we’re starting to see come out of these investigations.

VM: What do you think made some of these recent investigations “go viral?”

MR: It’s difficult to say. Most of our investigations have a huge impact and we see people are outraged by it. I wish I knew exactly why some have a bigger impact and go wider than others. It’s something we’re always looking into. We do try to work with major mainstream media outlets that have a lot of respect and notoriety, and then the story gets picked up by other outlets as well. For example, they see that ABC has covered it, then everybody else wants to cover the story too, or they feel as though they missed out on the story. That helps, that these big mainstream media outlets are covering the issues now.

VM: The McDonald’s letter ["I'm Hatin' It" by Ryan Gosling and others] was the most popular thing in the past couple of months. Do you think use of celebrities helps your case with these investigations? 

MR: Celebrities are America’s royalty. People take a lot of interest in what celebrities are doing, they follow their every move. And the media follows their every move. It is very helpful to be able to get celebrities to take an interest in these issues and to speak out against animal abuse, because not only does the media cover it, but people listen.

VM: What goes into deciding which farms, etc. to target, and what are the preparations involved?

MR: Well I can’t get into too many of the details of our undercover investigations–

VM: Because they’re undercover?

MR: [laughs] They’re top secret. But I can say all of our investigations are done completely at random. It really is just a matter of getting our investigators into these facilities. All we have to do is, once they’re in, turn a camera on and we’re documenting abuses that shock and horrify most Americans, yet they’re considered standard and acceptable practices in the industry. So, really the tricky part is getting in to these facilities.

VM: How far in advance do you start planning, typically?

MR: Well, the planning is constant. We have investigators who are working constantly. If they’re not already in place in a facility, they’re working to get jobs in facilities or are doing background research. Typically an investigation, depending on a number of factors, will last about a month.

VM: Do you have an arsenal of experts you enlist to help with these sorts of things?

MR: We do. I wouldn’t say they are ours, but we have in our contact a number of animal welfare experts, veterinarians, and others who, during the course of the investigation, we reach out to. We show them the footage. For example, Temple Grandin who is considered by many to be the leading animal welfare expert in the world, we often show her the raw, uncut footage from our investigations right off the bat to get her opinion on what’s happening and she’s able to advise us on a number of fronts. We also have a number of other veterinarians and animal welfare experts we reach out to, as well as legal experts, who are helping us move forward if, and when, there are laws that are violated. Unfortunately, there are no federal laws that protect farmed animals during their lives on the farm and most states specifically exclude farmed animals from protection. Farmers are able to get away with abusing tens of thousands, even millions of animals in ways that would warrant felony-level cruelty charges in most states if even one dog or cat was the victim. This is because of what are called “common farming exemptions,” which basically means that if the farming industry says that that’s common, it’s automatically deemed okay, it’s not cruelty, no matter how abusive it is. That’s a problem, because many times we’re able to document egregious abuses and cruelties, but unfortunately unable to get any legal action taken on them because there are no laws protecting these animals. But when there are laws that are broken, we of course work with legal experts and lawyers on moving forward to press charges.

VM: What were the results for Sparboe Farms specifically, from your investigation?

MR: The results are still unfolding. We are still working on trying to get McDonald’s to take a lead role in animal welfare. Unfortunately, by dropping Sparboe Egg Farms, McDonald’s has kind of side-stepped the issue. We’re encouraging people to write McDonald’s and say, Don’t just switch from Sparboe Egg Farms to another egg farm with equally cruel practices, but implement meaningful animal welfare policies that could shape the industry for the better. McDonald’s is the largest egg buyer in the entire country, so we’re asking them to specifically ban the sale of eggs from battery cages in all of their restaurants in the United States, which is something they’ve already done in Europe, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to do it in the United States. And if the largest egg buyer in the country were to come out against battery egg cages, than the industry would respond and start moving away from these cruel cages as well.

VM: In the spirit of New Year’s, what are some of the initiatives MFA is working on for this next year?

MR: One thing I’m really excited about is our 2012 Vegetarian Resolution. Right now people can sign up, take the Veg Pledge, put in their name and phone number and they’ll get weekly text messages with helpful tips, recipes and encouragement to help them along their path towards a vegetarian diet. Every month they stick with the program, they’re entered to win cool prizes. For the month of January, the prizes include a signed copy of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, as well as a number of other cookbooks and a year’s subscription to VegNews magazine.

We will continue to do our undercover investigations and our grassroots outreach across the country.

For more information on Mercy for Animals, visit their website at http://www.mercyforanimals.org/.

To Pledge to Go Vegetarian in 2012 with MFA, go here.