A worker caught on undercover video abusing turkeys at a Butterball factory farm in North Carolina pled guilty Tuesday to felonious cruelty to animals.
Brian Douglas was one of six workers facing charges after undercover video shot by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals and published on the Blotter revealed alleged abuse. An MFA activist had worked undercover at the farm for three weeks and documented what the group called "acts of violence and severe neglect." In the video, workers can be seen kicking and stomping on turkeys, as well as dragging them by their wings and necks.
Hoke County detectives raided the farm on Dec. 28 after seeing the video. During the raid, officials inspected 2,800 turkeys, seizing 28 and euthanizing four.
Douglas will serve 30 days in jail, followed by 42 months of probation. Four other workers were also charged with cruelty to animals, and their cases are pending.
Earlier this year, Dr. Sarah Mason, a veterinarian at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, was suspended from her job and sentenced to 45 days in the Hoke County jail after pleading guilty to obstructing justice and obstructing a public officer. Mason admitted calling a friend who worked at Butterball prior to the December raid. Her sentence was suspended and she will be on unsupervised probation, but she will be required to take two ethics courses.
Officials charged that Dr. Mason, the Director of Animal Health Programs at the Agriculture Department, had called a Butterball veterinarian on Dec. 23 and allegedly informed him that there was an investigation into the farm. Details of the pending raid, according to prosecutors at the Hoke County District Attorney's office, were supposed to be "treated as confidential, and should not be disclosed."
Though she initially told authorities she had not talked to the Butterball employee, Dr. Mason later admitted telling him about the existence of the Mercy for Animals video showing alleged abuse, and telling him that the video had been given to a county prosecutor.
After conducting an internal investigation, officials at the Agriculture Department suspended Dr. Mason for two weeks without pay. "The Department ... found that Dr. Mason did not at first answer truthfully when she was interviewed on Jan. 5, 2012 by Hoke County authorities about a leak of information about their investigation," said the Agriculture Department in a statement. "We were aware that charges could be brought against Dr. Mason as a result of her actions."
But the department's statement also said that Dr. Mason had not explicitly told anyone at Butterball that there was a criminal investigation in progress, "nor was she aware or did she tell anyone that there was going to be a search warrant served at any of their facilities."
In a statement issued through her attorney, Dr. Mason said her rationale for contacting the Butterball veterinarian -- a longtime personal friend -- was to "immediately curtail" any animal abuse taking place. In addition, Mason stated, "I deeply regret the actions I have taken have reflected poorly on the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services." She stated she recognized the "seriousness of the situation."
Mercy for Animals said there had been no insider information about abuse at the facility before the undercover tape was made. "Unfortunately, every time we send an investigator they emerge with shocking evidence of animal abuse," said MFA executive director Nathan Runkle.
"Butterball allowed a culture of cruelty and abuse to fester at its company-owned factory farms," alleged Runkle. "Before ending up in restaurants and grocery stores, turkeys killed for Butterball are routinely crowded into filthy warehouses, neglected to die from infected, bloody wounds, and thrown, kicked, and beaten by factory farm workers."
Butterball, which accounts for 20 percent of total turkey production in the U.S., has said it was "shocked" by the undercover video, is taking the animal cruelty investigation seriously, and has a "zero tolerance policy for any mistreatment of our birds." The company said that as a result of an internal investigation, it is evaluating its animal welfare policies, and has fired "several associates for failure to follow Butterball animal care and well-being policies."
"We are taking steps to help ensure that all new and existing associates have a clear understanding of our animal well-being policies," said Rod Brenneman, president and CEO of Butterball. "In addition to requiring all associates to sign an animal well-being agreement to report abuse immediately, we are performing an intense review across all company operations."
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