Drones for the claws

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Stuart Chaifetz , an animal-cruelty investigator, posts his stomach-churning images to YouTube from his Cherry Hill home.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Stuart Chaifetz , an animal-cruelty investigator, posts his stomach-churning images to YouTube from his Cherry Hill home.
Posted: October 02, 2013

STUART CHAIFETZ blends right into the crowd at the Cowtown Rodeo in Salem County, N.J., where blue-collar families and Amish farmers sit beside urban hipsters with wide-eyed children.

He's an animal-rights activist intent on exposing abuse, working undercover in a cowboy hat and jeans with a tarted-up fake girlfriend at his side.

But while some spectators catch the action with iPhones, Chaifetz uses a deceptively discreet high-definition Sony digital video camera to document the bulls and broncos. The next day, he'll head to Berks County to help launch a $10,000 drone into the sky to secretly document a hunting club's pigeon shoot. And the following week, he'll scour the footage from both events on a sophisticated computer system in his Cherry Hill home, posting any disturbing findings on a YouTube channel that has garnered nearly 43 million views.

Unlike the sign-waving activists of old, those trying to expose animal cruelty nowadays have become as high-tech as a modern military mission.

Remote-controlled drones, night-vision goggles, motorized boats and "hi-pods" that hoist a camera to the treetops for a better view? Chaifetz has used all of those and more in his role as an animal-cruelty investigator for Showing Animals Respect & Kindness (SHARK).

"People need proof," said Steve Hindi, founder and president of the Illinois-based SHARK. "The people that are at the Cowtown Rodeo aren't particularly interested to know the event they paid money for and took time to go see is cruel. They either would deny it, or they don't want to know. But with video, everybody gets to look at it and decide for themselves."

Jason Del Gandio, a Temple University communications professor and social-activism expert, added: "As technology advances, so, too, do the activists. We live in a visual culture, a multimedia era; we're pinned to our computers and constantly responding to visual stimuli. Every activist group, every social movement trying to create an argument for their cause is looking for visual evidence."

Bypassing 'ag-gag' laws

Used to be, activists who wanted to catch cruelty on tape or film would go undercover to infiltrate the group they aimed to expose. The strategy was especially effective on factory farms: Activists' videos of horrendous conditions or mistreatment have led to meat recalls, factory shutdowns, cruelty convictions and policy changes.

But factory farmers complained that such whistle-blowers were illegal trespassers who hurt their industry, prompting lawmakers in many states, including Pennsylvania, to introduce "ag-gag laws" to criminalize such activity.

That's why SHARK's use of drones and other gadgets that allow them to spy from afar is "brilliant," Del Gandio said.

"This is an interesting and unusual way around the legal issues of going undercover," said Del Gandio, author of Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists. "Now they can literally stand outside that group and still get visual evidence."

Hindi, a former hunter and fisherman, formed SHARK in the early 1990s, after seeing a pigeon shoot in Hegins, Schuylkill County. Then, he used a simple video camera to record what he saw, he said.

Wanting to do more, Hindi took to the skies. The licensed pilot flew an ultralight plane between hunters and birds to protect targeted flocks - but soon abandoned it as impractical, given that planes require so much space to take off and land. (The practice also landed him in an Illinois jail for a few months in 1996 for violating a law forbidding "hunter interference.")

But his air experience gave him the idea to use drones, given the value of visuals to his crusade. The octocopters - so named because they have eight propellers - come from a German-made kit and generally run $8,000 to $10,000, Hindi said. Some folks use them to gauge meteorological data, while deep-pocketed hobbyists fly them for fun.

Hindi figured they'd be perfect to catch the action hidden from public view at the sprawling hunting clubs that host pigeon shoots.

Indeed, the drones have helped Chaifetz, Hindi and their supporters get some stomach-churning images. He won't divulge how many drones SHARK now uses.

In September 2012, a SHARK drone caught hunters at a hunting club in Berks County killing downed pigeons by stomping and kicking them and bashing them against their heels in bursts of blood, feathers and severed wings. Other times, the drones spied club members burning the birds' bodies, tires and other trash, sparking a warning from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The drones do have detractors.

Hunters often shoot at and damage them, Hindi said. SHARK now is embroiled in a lawsuit it filed against the Berks County club after pigeon hunters allegedly shot down a drone in 2011 and refused to return it to SHARK when it fell on the club's land.

So SHARK has other technological tricks to further the cause.

When the waterfront Philadelphia Gun Club holds its semiannual pigeon shoots, Chaifetz and other SHARK members hop in motorized boats to record the carnage and rescue injured pigeons who fall into the Delaware River.

Long-range, high-definition cameras are always close at hand. In June, Chaifetz used one from his perch with the public at the Cowtown Rodeo to capture a cowboy using what appeared to be an electric prod to shock a horse. Within a minute, the horse collapsed and died. Although the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association conditionally allows the use of such prods, Cowtown's owner denied that prods are used at his rodeo, suggested that Chaifetz had created a phony video and called the death a "natural occurrence."

Help from Bob Barker

Game-show guru Bob Barker was so moved by SHARK's videos that he gave the group $1 million in 2010 to fight animal brutality. He also made a video last spring decrying pigeon shoots as "barbaric" and imploring Pennsylvania lawmakers to end them.

"This really is the perfect time for SHARK, because it's the Internet age," said Chaifetz, 46, a former comic-book artist who now makes a full-time living investigating animal abuse for SHARK. "We can put video out [online], and millions of people can watch it for free. Twenty years ago, that wasn't possible."

Still, such technology has drawbacks.

It hasn't, for example, curbed Philadelphia's worst animal-cruelty problems.

Those include dogfighting and cockfighting, which are illegal, and hoarding - all of which tend to occur indoors (or in hidden alleys and lots) and in close quarters, said Rebecca Glenn-Dinwoodie, director of humane litigation for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She declined to discuss her agency's investigative strategies or use of technology, saying she didn't want to tip off animal abusers.

On Twitter: @DanaDiFilippo

Blog: phillyconfidential.com

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