Friday, July 8, 2016

Animals' Angels: An Interview with Sonya Meadows

Archived Article 1st Publication June 2016 Florida Equine Athlete
No Duplication Without Persmission


Since 2007, Sonja has traveled across the US on behalf of America’s farm animals - visiting auctions, feedlots and slaughter plants, documenting the dreadful conditions that far too often exist. 

Sonja’s videos exposing cruelty and intolerable conditions have been used by countless media outlets, educating the public about the plight of US farm animals.  She is responsible for the first-ever cruelty conviction of the largest auction on the East Coast. And was then successful in getting them convicted a second time.  She is also behind the exposure & conviction of a large scale horse rescue that, instead of providing hundreds of horses with a safe home as promised, was shipping them to slaughter.  Sonja has testified in court against animal abusers and has lobbied local, state, and federal bodies, advocating for stronger laws and improved conditions for farm animals. 

Animals have always been an important part of Sonja’s life.  As soon as she could walk, she was bringing home stray dogs and injured birds.  When it was time to think about a career, there was no obvious fit for animals but she managed to keep them a priority.  In law school, she volunteered for a local rescue while working towards her Masters’.  Then, as a young lawyer working on behalf of the automotive industry, Sonja felt something was missing.  She realized she simply wanted to do more for the animals than just volunteering after work.

In 2005, Sonja started working as an undercover investigator for an international animal welfare organization, documenting cruelty against farm animals during transport and at auction.  During that time, she also became a certified humane officer and covert tactics specialist.

In 2007, Sonja founded the Maryland based 501c3 nonprofit organization Animals’ Angels Inc., which since then has become one of the leaders in the fight against horse slaughter & farm animal cruelty in the United States.

Animals’ Angels was born out of the belief that bringing first-hand information and reliable documentation of what farm animals endure at auctions, slaughter plants and feedlots to mainstream public as well as government officials would be a very efficient way to improve conditions for ALL of them. Creating awareness is the first step to bring about change.

When Animals’ Angels started this work back in 2007, there was very little information out there about how kill buyers operate, their transport routes and the big collecting stations. We started putting them on the map and it has become much more difficult for them to operate under the radar. Several have faced or still face convictions due to our investigations and others have been forced into so-called “voluntary” compliance. 
“This work has changed my life significantly. My days are now much more fast-paced, exciting, and there’s hardly any down time. However, I’m dedicated to making changes for these animals, so I have willingly grown accustomed to the demanding schedule and often rough conditions in the field. We’ve made a difference in the lives of so many animals in so many ways. I’m not about to stop now.” ~ Sonja Meadows

Sonya with a horse at a kill pen.
GM: Working throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada is a huge task. How do you network and cover so much territory?  
SM: To date, we have conducted 35 in-depth investigations in 7 states this year – so, yes, a lot of traveling is involved. I recently returned from a two week investigation in Texas, then immediately headed out to Ohio, and I am getting ready to leave for another investigation in a few days…with yet another scheduled right after that.  We have a hectic schedule all year long, every year, and the majority of our time is spent in the field. The normal routine for an AA investigator is to prepare for the upcoming investigation by: researching location & target, booking flights, hotels, rental cars, and confirming all the extensive equipment needed for a successful investigation is ready.

During the investigation you never know what will happen. You must plan very carefully in order to be prepared for all scenarios. You could face a full day and night without sleep when following a truck, or you might sit in your car for days on end, waiting for something to happen. We have been caught in snowstorms and even flash floods. During last month’s assignment in Texas, we were witness to a terrific storm that turned into a tornado.

GM: Do you work hand-in-hand with government agencies, rescues, and the Humane Society?
SM: Our organization is well-respected among government officials and those in the industry are willing to work with us on improving conditions because they know that they can trust our fact-finding.  We work with auctions nationwide to establish protocols on how to deal with emergencies and downed animals.  If laws have been violated, we demand prosecution to the fullest extent. Our evidence is used by law enforcement nationwide to garner charges against violators and our investigators provide witness testimony as well as expert testimony in a variety of court cases. However, if someone does a good job, we put that in our reports as well and give credit where credit is due.  We do network with rescues and other individuals when we can, but sadly, all too often the animals we find are beyond anyone’s help. Our investigators provide comfort when they can and immediately notify the appropriate enforcement agencies to ensure the animals receive the care they need.

We launched a one-of-a-kind training program designed specifically for members of law enforcement regarding slaughter horse transports and the unique issues they present. It has been met with great success. We offer this training to law enforcement agencies in various states.

At Animals’ Angels, we strive to be as cooperative with other like-minded groups as possible, especially since our organization is one of the very few conducting these types of hard-hitting investigations into the abuse of farm animals and horses – it makes our documentation and evidence unique. In an effort to raise awareness, we have shared our research and footage on numerous occasions to be used in documentaries, news reports, books (such as the Fancy Hat Veneer), and educational PSAs like the one premiered by the ASPCA at The Hampton Classic in 2015. You can see our footage in such works as “Saving America’s Horses," “Wild Horses in Winds of Change,” "Their Last Ride," "Kill Pen," and Alex Brown’s 3-part series “Horses: Sports, Culture & Slaughter.” Our material has even made it into a music video! 

GM: What are your views on BLM's handling of the wild mustangs?
SM: We have many grave concerns over the BLM and their handling of the wild horses. There have been many reports about the questionable actions of the Bureau of Land Management and its contractors, such as selling horses out of long term holding to known kill buyers Joe Simon and Musick Livestock or allowing individuals such as Tom Davis to purchase over 1700 horses without questioning where all these horses would end up.  As it turns out those almost 1800 horses were in fact sold to slaughter by Davis -- which was apparently his intention from the beginning. 

The BLM's stance all along is that its roundups are humane. On the face of it, we already know this is blatantly untrue. Roundups are done via helicopter, panicking the wild horses and burros and, as a result, causing undue injury. Wild horses and burros will, as a matter of instinct, startle when put under stress, yet the BLM continues to ignore the experienced, educated voices who are advocating for helicopter-free and humane roundups, or better still, to end the roundups altogether.

Our report uncovering the mortality discrepancies casts yet another dark shadow on the BLM and is another sign that more seems to be going on than meets the eye.  The disparity in the death rates reported by the BLM would seem to indicate many more horses and burros are dying at their facilities than they would have us believe.    

GM: What are your views on the horse slaughter debate in the United Sates?
SM: Horse slaughter is a predatory, cruel, and profit-driven industry that needs to be stopped.  It can never be a humane business no matter where it is conducted.  We must protect our horses from transport to Mexico and Canada and we must fight against the return of horse slaughter plants to the U.S.   Pro-slaughter factions would have the public believe that slaughter plants in the U.S. would be in the best interest of the horses – but it is only in the best interest of those exploiting these American icons for a profit.  Having more regulations in place do not necessarily equate to a more regulated industry. Kill buyers and transport companies will not suddenly follow regulations they have routinely flouted in the past simply because of a change in destination for their cargo. The evidence uncovered in our investigations has proven this over and over again.  No horse deserves to be slaughtered and it should never be compared to humane euthanasia. Nothing about the process is humane. It is a horrific fate for any horse.

Not to mention horses are raised as companion animals, for sport (such as racing, endurance, rodeo) and for work (carriage horses, farms, etc.), not as livestock destined for the food supply. They are routinely given numerous pharmaceuticals throughout their lives that are prohibited for human consumption – drugs that are in fact prohibited for livestock intended for human consumption. A common drug routinely given to horses is phenylbutazone or “Bute,” a carcinogen which can also cause aplastic anemia in humans. It has no known withdrawal period. We do not eat horses in the U.S. We should not allow their mass slaughter for those countries that do.

GM: Can you share a success story?
SM: We have different types of successes at Animals’ Angels. One is where we can help an animal directly by returning it to its owner or see it in a forever home, which sadly, due to the nature of our work, isn’t often.  Another is when we see violators being held accountable for their cruel actions.  Farm animals face very different laws than our companion animals and as such being able to get charges filed against violators, let alone a conviction, is oftentimes a difficult and uphill battle. Yet another type of success – the most rewarding of all – is when our work pays off in the progressive changes – the positive improvements – these animals so desperately need and deserve.

Our investigators work tirelessly in the field to ensure that violators cannot hide. Cruelty to animals is something that is typically hidden from view. Nowhere is this more evident than with farm animals and slaughter-bound horses. Though it is difficult to imagine how much worse it could be for these helpless animals, without pictures and documentation to tell the animals’ tales, they would undoubtedly suffer even more at the hands of such people. Animals’ Angels is fighting against these gross injustices nationwide.

One of our most shining victories in the courtroom was against the largest livestock auction on the East Coast – due to our comprehensive footage and witness testimony, the New Holland Sales Barn in Pennsylvania was convicted not once, but twice, on multiple charges of animal cruelty. Not only do we hope that New Holland will finally learn that they cannot get away with treating animals so inhumanely, but we are confident that this victory in the fight against animal cruelty will be a beacon to other auctions who are committing the same crimes. The message is loud and clear: animal cruelty of any kind will not be tolerated.

A triumph which touched all of our investigators’ hearts was the timely save of two former race horses from a gruesome death at a Canadian slaughter plant.  While at an auction, I walked over to a trailer because it was owned by a known kill buyer and at the time I could hear the horses kicking inside the trailer. When I saw that they were Thoroughbreds I knew that the only way to save these horses was to find out who they were. That’s the reason I immediately flipped up their lips in order to see their tattoo numbers. Researching the info, the numbers came back to Hawser and Bobcat Bandit.  With some work, the previous owners were contacted and the story had a happy ending. Hawser is such a sweet horse, we are truly grateful that everything worked out the way it did. We hope that Bobcat Bandit as well is finally living the life he deserves.

A major accomplishment, not only for us as an organization, but more importantly for the horses, is our EU Campaign.  It took consumer awareness to a whole new level. Comprehensive investigations done throughout five countries generated the most detailed examination of the horse slaughter industry known, from the auction to grocer's shelves.  In addition to exposing the cruel trek taken by slaughter horses, we were also able to prove unequivocally that horse meat was being mislabeled and fraudulently sold.  The initial exposé based on our investigations uncovering the realities of horse slaughter which aired in Switzerland in February 2013 created a firestorm of reaction with grocers immediately pulling horsemeat products off the shelves.  The campaign continues to gather momentum to this day and as a result, we’ve seen major EU importers cutting ties with Canadian slaughterhouses as awareness from our ongoing investigations continues to spread. The biggest news of all: the EU Commission halted all import of horsemeat from Mexico!

GM: How can we help?
SM: Get involved by sharing AA’s investigations and website, and any news stories on the very important issue of horse slaughter and farm animal abuse. Raising awareness is the key to change. The animals need us to be their voice.
Reach out to your legislators telling them to support the SAFE Act. If you want to help get this bill passed into law and to stop the slaughter of our horses, then you should act today. Call or write to your Representatives and ask your family and friends to do the same.

Consider donating to Animals’ Angels (a registered 501c3 nonprofit) to help keep our investigators in the field uncovering the rampant cruelty and mistreatment that so many animals endure.  Every dollar donated will help us expose abuse and do something about it. 

Sonya filming at export pens.
Sonya looking in a kill pen.
Sonya comforting.

 “The most important thing of all that anyone and everyone can do is simply this:  if you see something, say something. If you witness abuse, do not turn and look the other way. Speak up and speak out. Report it to the authorities. The animals need us. Now more than ever.”     ~ Sonja Meadows

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