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Animal rights group's video sparks search of North Carolina turkey farm

By Rich Phillips, CNN
updated 7:13 AM EST, Fri December 30, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An animal rights group says it videotaped purported animal abuse at a turkey farm
  • Sheriff's investigators launched a search of the farm in North Carolina on Thursday
  • The farm is owned by Butterball, authorities in Hoke County say
  • Butterball says any employee who violates its "zero tolerance" animal abuse policy will be fired

(CNN) -- Sheriff's investigators in North Carolina launched a search of a turkey farm they say is owned by Butterball -- the largest producer of turkey products in the United States -- on Thursday after an animal rights organization said it infiltrated the farm and videotaped instances of purported animal abuse.

"The organization Mercy for Animals had conducted a covert operation at the farm and documented mistreatment of animals," said Capt. John Kivett of the Hoke County sheriff's office.

"No one has been taken into custody. It's still an ongoing investigation. Nothing has been seized," he told CNN.

The heavily edited videotape from the animal rights group shows what appear to be employees of the farm kicking, dragging and throwing turkeys. During one section of the tape, someone clearly swings what appears to be a metal object, striking one of the birds.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the videotape matches this same facility in Hoke County that they were searching.

"Veterinarians and detectives are inside the birdhouses conducting their investigation and documenting what they see," said Kivett.

"We have no way of knowing if the video is of the same place," he told CNN.

Other sections of the 90-second tape show what appear to be injured, bloodied and, in some cases, dead turkeys.

On its website, the animal rights group bills itself as an organization that promotes a vegetarian diet.

"Our investigation found Butterball employees kicking, throwing, dragging and beating birds. We also documented birds suffering from broken bones, bloody open wounds, and many left to die," said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals.

The sheriff's department said that Butterball was fully cooperating with the authorities, and that company officials were at the farm.

In a written statement, Butterball said the company was working with Hoke County officials in their investigation.

"Butterball takes these allegations very seriously and fully supports the efforts being made on the part of officials. Butterball has a zero tolerance policy for any mistreatment of our birds or the failure to immediately report mistreatment of our birds by any associates," the company said in a statement.

"We are performing extensive internal and third-party audits as part of our own investigation. Employees found in violation of Butterball's animal welfare policies will be subject to immediate termination."

The company statement did not address the existence or the nature of the videotape.

Butterball did not return CNN's calls for comment.

The animal rights group told CNN that a female member of the organization was hired by Butterball as a driver, and as a worker in the animal sheds. The organization said the unidentified member worked there from the middle of November until the middle of December when the hidden-camera video was shot.

"These animals experience pain and suffering in the same way as dogs and cats. As a civilized society it's our moral obligation to prevent needless cruelty to animals including those raised for food," said Runkle.

North Carolina law states that any person who intentionally wounds, injures, torments or kills any animal could be guilty of committing a misdemeanor or a felony, depending upon the level of infraction as determined by investigators.

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