Drones Can Get Around Strict “Ag Gag” Laws And Document Horrifying Factory Farms

Some states have made it illegal for people to take photos or video of livestock operations. Drones to the rescue?

Drones Can Get Around Strict “Ag Gag” Laws And Document Horrifying Factory Farms
[Image: Farmland via Shutterstock]

It’s difficult, and in many cases illegal, to chronicle the animal abuses that occur at factory farms with photographic evidence. Investigative journalist Will Potter is hoping to try a different route: using drones to photograph factory farms from the air.


He’s spreading the word and raising money with a Kickstarter campaign that has collected over $48,000 (with the promise of matching donations for everything raised over $45,000). The money will go towards drones, legal expenses, video production, and everything else necessary to create a short documentary, produce an e-book, and generally document factory farm abuse.

It’s easy to ignore the animal cruelty that occurs in factory farms, but sometimes shocking videos of abuse manage to penetrate people’s consciousnesses. Over the years, organizations like The Humane Society and Mercy for Animals have filmed video that has had real ramifications.

In 2008, for example, a Humane Society investigation into a California slaughterhouse yielded footage of workers ramming cows with a forklift, kicking cows, and worse. Due to the food safety risk of the practices, 143 million pounds of beef were recalled–the biggest meat recall in the country’s history. The industry was upset.

While laws limiting activist and journalist access to livestock facilities have been around since the early 1990s, videos like the one filmed by the Humane Society in 2008 agitated the industry so much that it started pushing for harsh “ag-gag” laws, which make it illegal to photograph or film animal cruelty at livestock facilities. There are now so-called ag-gag laws in seven states, and many more are considering them.

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

After seeing British artist Mishka Henner’s satellite imagery of industrial farm feedlots showing toxic waste lagoons that look like wounds in the landscape, he was inspired to look into drone photography.


Potter realizes that drones won’t be able to capture up-close images of animal abuse; instead, he’s hoping to document environmental abuses, like the giant waste lagoons chronicled by Henner. “All the filth, waste, and manure from farm operations end up in these enormous pits. We’re talking about the environmental impact close to these areas [where people] are breathing in this foul air, kids have higher rates of asthma,” he says. He also hopes to expose farms that generate meat labeled “humane” or “free range” for what they are: big industrial operations.

Aerial photography isn’t yet as heavily policed on factory farms as regular photography, but Potter still needs to tread lightly. In Texas, a drone photographer snapped images of blood and manure coming out of an industrial operation and ending up in the local river. That led to one of the most strict aerial photography state laws on the books. Other states also have restrictions on drone photography.

“The unfortunate reality is that as I’m deciding on states and farms to investigate, I have to consider criminal prosecution. I don’t want to end up using funds we raised in legal battles,” says Potter.

Potter’s Kickstarter campaign has grown large enough that it’s starting to show up in industry publications. Not every article has been negative (one suggested that the success of the campaign reflects how ag gag laws are backfiring), but he plans to build redundancies into his drone operations to ensure not all is lost if a farmer that has gotten wind of the campaign shoots one of the drones down–something that farmers have already threatened on Internet forums.

“I think there is a lot of animosity from some people that are seeing this and immediately reacting. Others are saying, ‘We don’t have anything to hide,'” says Potter.

Check out Potter’s campaign here.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.