By Dr. Michael Payne, UC Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and Director, CDQAP

It’s a common strategy for animal rights organizations to have individuals go “undercover” on farms to record videos that are taken out of context, stage scenes of mistreatment, or to encourage abuse and record it without intervening. Such misrepresentations have included difficult deliveries, appropriate use of hip lifts, and singeing udder hair.

Over the last several years, more than a dozen California dairies have received employment applications from undercover animal rights activists. In 2018, one activist discussed employment with several San Joaquin Valley producers, switching license plates in between stops. The fraudulent trespasses increased, eventually becoming so frequent that the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department put out an all-state advisory to law enforcement.

In September of 2020, a PETA activist, who had previously recorded undercover video at an Indiana duck farm, made employment inquiries at more than a dozen North Bay and Ferndale dairies. Last year, one southern California dairy was startled to learn that they had unwittingly hired an activist and were sued in state court for animal cruelty by the employee’s parent organization. The lawsuit was quickly dismissed for lack of standing, but the warning to producers is clear: it’s worth the time to investigate potential new hires.

In addition to employing conventional best hiring practices, there are several ways to help ensure applicants are who they are representing themselves to be:

Application References: It is vital that all references provided by an applicant be checked. Never call a cell phone for an employee reference; always dial the company directly (at a number verified on the internet) and ask to be transferred to the reference. References that are not available during working hours or that cannot confidently provide an applicant’s work history, dates of service, and work responsibilities should be considered a red flag.

Employee Interview: Do the applicant’s history and responses make sense? Are they overly educated for the job? People looking for a “lifestyle change” rarely apply for farm labor. Be cautious of individuals who present a college ID, have out-of-state license plates, or are looking for short-term work. During the interview, look for answers that seem overly rehearsed or include incorrect use of farm terminology. If something seems not right, trust your gut!

Online/ Social Media: The internet is a quick and inexpensive way producers can expand their background check. An applicant’s social media profile should be scrutinized, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram, as well as any websites or blogs. Undercover activists have been identified because they used their own name on activist sites. A young, computer-savvy applicate with little or no online presence should be cause for concern.

Commercial Background Checks: Many private companies perform background checks for a fee. Cost is highly variable, but may be as little as $20 or more than $100. Some companies are maintained on retainer, and producers should check with their legal office or human resources company to see if they can access background check services through them for free or at a reduced cost.

Animal Ag Alliance: The Animal Ag Alliance monitors and tracks criminal activities of known animal activist members. Inquire with your trade group or processor to help facilitate contacting the Alliance. The organization also has some public resources including tips to help guard against hiring undercover activists.

For more detailed information on the types of activities utilized by activists and how you can protect your operation, visit CDQAP’s new webpage Vigilance in Hiring: Protecting the Farm from Undercover Activists.