On one covert video, farm workers illegally burn the ankles of Tennessee walking horses with chemicals. Another captures workers in Wyoming punching and kicking pigs and flinging piglets into the air. And at one of the country's largest egg suppliers, a video shows hens caged alongside rotting bird corpses, while workers burn and snap off the beaks of young chicks.
Each video all shot by undercover animal rights activists drew a swift response: Federal prosecutors in Tennessee charged the horse trainer and other workers, who have pleaded guilty, with violating the Horse Protection Act. Authorities in Wyoming charged nine farm employees with cruelty to animals. And the egg supplier, which operates in Iowa and other states, lost one of its biggest customers, McDonald's.
But a dozen or so state legislatures have had a different reaction: They proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms, or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures that would require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately, which activists say would thwart any meaningful investigation of large factory farms.
Critics call them "Ag-Gag" bills.
Some of the legislation appears inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a business advocacy group that in the past has drafted bills adopted by lawmakers for such things as "stand your ground" gun laws and tighter voter identification rules.
One of the group's model bills, "The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act," bars filming or taking pictures on livestock farms to "defame the facility or its owner." Violators would be placed on a "terrorist registry." Officials of the group did not respond to a request for comment.
Activists say they have not seen legislation that would require them to register as terrorists, but they say other measures including laws passed last year in Iowa, Utah and Missouri make it nearly impossible to produce similar undercover exposés."It definitely has had a chilling effect on our ability to conduct undercover investigations," said Vandhana Bala, general counsel for Mercy for Animals, which has shot many videos, including the egg-farm investigation in 2011.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, which lobbies for the agricultural and meat industries, criticized the mistreatment seen on some videos. But it cautions that some methods represent best practices endorsed by animal-care experts.
Livestock companies say that their businesses have suffered financially from unfair videos that are less about protecting animals than persuading consumers to stop eating meat. Don Lehe, a Republican state representative in Indiana, said videos can cast farmers in a false light and give them little opportunity to correct the record.
As for whistle-blowers, advocates for the meat industry say that they are protected from prosecution by provisions in some bills that give them 24 to 48 hours to turn over videos to legal authorities. Animal rights groups counter that investigations take months to complete.
"Instead of working to prevent future abuses, the factory farms want to silence them," said Matt Dominguez, who works on farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. "What they really want is for the whistle to be blown on the whistle-blower." WHERE IT'S HAPPENING
Indiana and Tennessee are expected to vote soon on measures similar to those passed last year in Iowa, Utah and Missouri; Nebraska and Pennsylvania are debating them.
Animal-rights supporters successfully quashed a handful of bills, including those in New York, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Wyoming.
California is considering a similar measure with AB343, introduced last month by Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and sponsored by the California Cattlemen's Association.