01/28/2013 12:31 EST | Updated 03/30/2013 05:12 EDT

The "Spies" Who Take Us Inside Slaughterhouses

Last month, CTV's investigation program W5 aired some exclusive footage shot on a pig farm in Manitoba. Seen across the country, these crude images shocked many a person. It was filmed by investigators from Mercy for Animals (MFA) Canada, a non-profit organization. I spoke with Twyla François, the woman leading the investigation team.

Last month, CTV's investigation program W5 aired some exclusive footage shot on a pig farm in Manitoba. Seen across the country, these crude images shocked many a person. On the menu: hogs with bleeding, gaping wounds parked inside metal cages, pregnant sows exhibiting distended, reddish bellies, and piglets slammed to the floor by staff members.

It is one thing to hear about how the animals destined for our plates are raised in poor conditions, and how reality is far from those bucolic images that are printed on meat packaging. But more often than not, one needs to actually see it in order to believe.

While it is an arduous task to visit farms and slaughterhouses, many claim they did change their lifestyle after seeing livestock videos on the net. These images trigger emotions and inspire people to take action. But did you ever wonder where these images came from? They are usually filmed by double agents equipped with hidden cameras.

The work of these "spies" has always fascinated me. I picture a scene with Tom Cruise from Mission Impossible and I cannot help but imagine them sneaking in ventilation systems to bring back footage of dying turkeys. It often proves difficult to trace back the source of the images circulating on the Internet, but the footage from the Puratone farm in Manitoba is recent. It was filmed by investigators from Mercy for Animals (MFA) Canada, a non-profit organization. I spoke with Twyla François, the woman leading the investigation team.

Tell me about your current job at MFA.

« As director of investigations, I work closely with undercover investigators to obtain video footage and other evidence of animal abuse at factory farms, hatcheries and slaughterhouses.

Our goal is to tell the animals' side of the story. The public is kept in the dark about how animals are being treated, so we serve as their eyes and ears. We believe Canadians have a right to make informed consumption choices.

I also work with our director of legal advocacy, independent veterinarians and animal welfare experts to review the footage and prepare comprehensive legal submissions when we believe there have been breaches of animal welfare laws. »

When did you start doing undercover investigations? Why?

« I was living a very regular sort of life, working in administration at the University of Manitoba when I became sick and required emergency surgery, follow-up surgery and six months of chemotherapy. Bedridden, I was forced to re-examine my life.

I left the university and founded a small, non-profit animal advocacy organization and immediately started receiving disturbing stories and photos of suffering farmed animals from concerned citizens.

I conducted an investigation at one of the facilities and found unbearable things. Sick and badly injured pigs were left with no medical treatment, food, water or even straw to lie on. Other pigs were kicked, beaten or had electric prods shoved into their vaginas. Animals too sick, diseased or injured to stand were dragged onto trailers and transported over long distances to slaughterhouses in all weather extremes.

I brought my evidence to both provincial and federal authorities, and was horrified to learn that none intended to act. It was a hard lesson on how the Canadian legal system miserably fails farmed animals. »

Some people say that you are just showing the worst, that it doesn't represent the reality, just an exception. What do you have to say about it?

« The Manitoba factory farm owned by Puratone that our first undercover investigation was conducted at was randomly selected. Our investigator simply applied to 'help wanted' postings. Puratone happened to be the first company to hire him, and they determined which of their 40 factory farms he was assigned to. The footage doesn't lie.

The reality is that these animals are in a constant state of stress and suffering, without access to even life's simplest pleasures such as breathing clean air or walking. While it is always necessary to edit videos to a length that the average person will watch, we believe the general public would be appalled if they could see and smell the inside of factory farms for themselves.

Ironically, we believe it is the industry that does not show the public the reality of factory farming, which is why MFA Canada exists. Agricultural videos made for public viewing show brightly lit, new facilities -- in many cases at universities rather than on actual farms -- with clean, healthy animals being cuddled by workers. This does not reflect reality.

And unlike the industry, we are not motivated by a bottom line. We are simply a voice on behalf of these suffering animals.

The sad fact of the matter is that animal abuse is institutionalized in agriculture. It isn't a matter of a single factory farm failing to meet the industry standards -- it's a matter of the industry standards allowing blatant animal abuse.

For example, our pig factory farm investigation, which was featured on CTV's investigative program W5, uncovered thousands of pregnant pigs confined to filthy, metal gestation crates so small they were unable to even turn around or lie down comfortably for nearly their entire lives; workers slamming piglets into metal poles or the concrete floor leaving them to slowly suffer and die; and workers cutting out the testicles and slicing off the tails of fully conscious piglets without the use of painkillers.

A three-member panel representing the agricultural industry defended all of these practices as being not only standard across the industry, but humane. Yet, science -- along with common sense -- tells us that highly intelligent and social animals suffer from intensive confinement, ineffective and inhumane methods of euthanasia, and surgical procedures without the benefit of painkillers. »

The client is always right

Images of cruelty filmed at the Puratone farm are unsustainable and yet illustrate what is happening across the country. A lifetime of misery and deprivation inside tiny gestation crates is perhaps the cruelest form of institutionalized animal abuse in existence.

In fact, confining pigs in gestation crates so small they can't even turn around is so cruel, the practice has been banned by the entire European Union, Australia, New Zealand, as well as nine U.S. states.

We are not in a bad spy movie. Millions of animals suffer the same fate as those filmed by the team Twyla Francois and the best way to end this horror is to avoid buying meat produced this way.

Major food companies in Canada including McDonalds, Safeway and Costco, along with over 40 other companies across North America, are demanding their pork suppliers do away with gestation crates. Companies that purchase pork from Puratone -- Sobeys, Walmart, Metro and Superstore/Loblaws -- should follow the lead of Safeway, Costco, and its other competitors in taking a stand against cruelty to animals by prohibiting pork suppliers from confining pigs to cruel gestation crates.

You can also refuse to buy pork products from a retailer who has not committed to buy only from suppliers that do not use gestation cages, or better yet, avoid buying pork products.

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