The activists of the organisation Peta loudly and aggressively stand up for animal rights.
How come they have secretly made a pact with a meat industry group?
by Anne Kunze and Stefan Willeke
If you ask actress Jana Wagenhuber why she undresses in front of a fur shop in downtown Hamburg on a frosty winter’s day, slips on her self-sewn gauntlets, smears her upper body with ketchup and lies half-naked on a coyote skin, why she lets passers-by stare at her and later mock her on Facebook as a silicone beauty, why she shivers from the cold for half an hour and why she thought long and hard about whether her exposed breasts might make the best possible provocation, then you get a lot of answers. “Because everything has to be perfect.” “Because I do it for PETA” – PETA, the non-profit organisation of animal rights activists. “Because animals live without any evil.” “Because animals are helpless.” “Because it was a huge honour when PETA approached me. An accolade.” “Because PETA is always behind me and I don’t feel alone.” “Because I really adore PETA.”
All this played a role when Jana Wagenhuber decided to take to the icy pavement last January to demonstrate against the use of animal fur. One could mention that Jana Wagenhuber is a very special actress, one who tried her hand as a pop singer, waited tables in nightclubs in St. Pauli and taught young women how to pole dance. But that wouldn’t do her justice. She is vegan, doesn’t wear leather. She loves animals. Her mother sought advice from the paediatrician when Jana stopped eating meat at ten. Her father kicked her out when, at 18, she brought in a German shepherd mix that she wanted to adopt. Together with large dogs, she lived in damp, run-down houses in northern Germany, opened a dog home on Mallorca. She moved often, she struggled along. When Jana Wagenhuber was asked by a PETA staff member if she wanted to take her clothes off in public, there was only one answer for the actress: anytime. PETA, she says, “are the greatest for me”.
PETA, that means People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. People who stand up for the ethical treatment of animals. With millions of supporters, PETA is the largest animal rights organisation in the world. It was founded in the USA in 1980 and is still the most powerful there. In Germany, however, it has its second most important base with almost 120 employees, among them many young women. In addition, there are around 30,000 volunteer activists in German-speaking countries, including celebrities such as actor Sky du Mont and musician Udo Lindenberg. The themes of the campaigns are constantly changing, from zoo animals to betting anglers to fox hunters.
According to a 2019 evaluation by PR Report magazine, PETA is the non-governmental organisation with the largest reach in Germany – thanks to social media. The Fridays for Future movement only made it to second place in this ranking; PETA is at the very top of the public attention. This is also because everything PETA does is extreme. Extremely shrill. Extremely public. Extremely unrestrained. The first time PETA attracted attention in Germany was in 2004, when a campaign showed photos of emaciated concentration camp inmates next to pictures of torn-up chickens in a poultry farm. The headline of the campaign was “The Holocaust on your plate”. Instead of apologising for this shameless comparison, PETA plunged into a legal battle with the Central Council of Jews in Germany. PETA supporters broke into animal barns to film the suffering of chickens and pigs. And the American Ingrid Newkirk, 71, the head and founder of the organisation, stipulated in her will that her body should one day be bequeathed to PETA. Her flesh should be grilled, her skin made into leather, and her legs should one day serve as umbrella stands – just as it is done with animals.
“We are not exactly grassroots democratic,” says Harald Ullmann from the three-member PETA board in Stuttgart. Anyone who meets him gets the feeling that he is the boss. But that is not true. Although he runs the place, he is only the deputy chairman. In first place, also at PETA in Germany, is the American Newkirk, who very rarely appears in Stuttgart. However, she towers over everything. A general meeting is quickly organised at PETA: The association has only seven members. In such a hierarchy, nothing is easier than imposing the will of the board. Opposition is rare. If you talk to managers at the Stuttgart headquarters, you often hear fighting words like mafia. Or criminal organisation. Or mass murderer. This often refers to the corporations of the meat industry.
One thing therefore does not seem to suit PETA at all: the compromise based on an agreement with the industry. But then how can it be that the belligerent animal rights activists entered into a kind of standstill agreement with a major meat industry company? PETA spreads the images of suffering animals tortured in experimental laboratories and stables: tortured monkeys, abused broiler chickens, shredded sheep. And this organisation makes a deal with a corporation that slaughters millions of animals year after year?
One person has shaped the organisation in Germany like hardly anyone else: 64-year-old Edmund Haferbeck. He is below the board in the hierarchy, but that should not hide the fact that he pulls many strings. He calls himself head of the Science and Law Department, but that is a gross understatement. Haferbeck is the strategic head behind many actions, something like the head of agitation and propaganda. One of his opponents, a PR consultant, once called him the “Ayatollah of PETA”. That’s not entirely wrong, because an ayatollah accumulates a lot of knowledge. An Ayatollah depends on the admiration of the faithful – and on donations. He is allowed to issue fatwas, legal opinions. Haferbeck calls himself “a hunter”.
Edmund Haferbeck has gained experience as a border crosser. When he was still studying agricultural sciences in Göttingen, at the end of the seventies, he was on the other side. In his spare time he bred chinchillas, fluffy rodents that he kept in enclosures at home in Detmold, East Westphalia, and sold to traders who killed the animals to get their noble fur. Each pelt brought Haferbeck money. He grew up in a conservative home, joined the rural youth, voted for the CDU and drank many nights away with farmers. He danced with the farmers’ wives and with their daughters. He became editor-in-chief of the trade journal Chinchilla Post, showed his breeding successes at exhibitions, wanted to become a judge. “I am from the opposite side, physically as well as mentally.” That’s how he tells it in one of three long interviews he gave to ZEIT in Stuttgart.
Haferbeck’s change of sides happened in small steps, in the eighties. He suddenly became interested in conservationists who distributed leaflets on the streets, fell in love with young women who were active in the scene. Whether the love of nature preceded the love of these women or whether it was the other way round is not clear in his case. In any case, passion was involved. Haferbeck became involved with the environmentalists of Robin Wood, became a vegetarian, later a vegan. The fur industry paid for travel expenses that Haferbeck had incurred while preparing his doctoral thesis on mink, polecat and fox breeding, but he distanced himself from this world more and more.
Finally, Haferbeck sold his chinchillas. He felt “caught out that I was on a completely wrong track”. That’s how he puts it today. He still danced with farmers’ wives at parties, but this time with the aim of eliciting trade secrets from them. He helped to free dozens of laboratory animals, dogs and cats, from a research institute, and was observed by police officers afterwards. He now had friends who were thinking about blowing up such laboratories. But that, says Haferbeck, was too far for him. He wrote books as thick as bricks, savage roundabouts against the justice system that allowed animal experiments. On the cover of one book he called Germany’s authorities a “criminal organisation” – but with a question mark. In Schwerin, he became head of the environment department for the Green Party and took on an industry that he still calls the “waste mafia”.
He made a name for himself as a specialist in rough battles. Once he got involved in a scuffle when he tore open the door of a car in which a manager of the waste industry was sitting. Haferbeck grabbed file folders on the passenger seat and ran off with them. Another time a boxer, who had probably been hired, visited him at home and punched Haferbeck in the face with his fist.
The girlfriend Haferbeck was with at the time is now his wife. She saw him have a stroke after working 80 hours a week, hardly sleeping at night and getting very upset about the mafia. She says: “What drives him is also his anger. He runs immediately if something bothers him.” After Haferbeck joined PETA in 2004, he waged legal battles against everything that stood in PETA’s way.
At the time, the place consisted of only five people, a club of exotics. Vegan? Not even the word was familiar to most Germans. Some people thought PETA was something as obscure as the Scientology sect. But the organisation grew and grew. In the meantime, the PETA people in the Stuttgart area have moved three times because more and more employees have joined. Edmund Haferbeck built up an investigative squad that broke into animal stables, filed criminal charges to take action against hunters, animal breeders and large butchers. Just about every public prosecutor’s office in Germany has had to deal with Edmund Haferbeck and his meticulous legal explanations.
Haferbeck observes court cases resulting from his ads, likes to call opposing lawyers “mafia lawyers”. He calls a lawyer who has represented several meat industry companies “a real characterless asshole”. And adds, “You can quote me on that.” If one calls Haferbeck while he is on holiday, he does not feel bothered. He then answers: “Come by, now I have endless time.” If one sends him an e-mail at 10 p.m. on a Sunday, he may answer two minutes later.
Once, during a train journey, he locked himself in the toilet to make a discreet phone call to a TV station. The Hamburg lawyer Walter Scheuerl, who has often appeared in court on behalf of the meat industry, says of PETA: “In terms of professionalism, they are always in the first league. They have an inexhaustible petty cash to get through legal conflicts.” He considers PETA “a big player in the donation market”. The association takes in around eleven million euros in donations a year, much of the money coming from inheritances. “We are full,” is how PETA official Haferbeck puts it.
Surprisingly, the Lower Saxon FDP politician Gero Hocker received a registered letter from PETA in August 2017, a cease-and-desist declaration. The member of the Bundestag was surprised. He had spoken about environmental policy at an event and criticised PETA’s methods, for example barn raids. The politician did not sign the declaration, saying: “I will not be muzzled. PETA has a clever business model. It is based on intimidation.” Now the politician wrote a reply letter to the PETA board in Stuttgart. It was an invitation. One could, after all, debate the points of contention on a podium. PETA declined.
Animal rights activists rarely take part in public discussions. They much prefer targeted attacks on intransigent opponents. PETA’s main adversary has always been the meat industry, and in 2009 the conflicts came to a head. The company Wiesenhof, Germany’s largest poultry slaughterer, became the target of the animal rights activists. At events, Edmund Haferbeck showed videos from Wiesenhof barns, shocking footage of half-dead turkeys being brutally thrown around.
For PETA, there was only one goal: “Shoot Wiesenhof down, quite clearly, shoot it down”. That is how Haferbeck puts it today. Suddenly there were reports on TV about the horrible conditions at Wiesenhof, often filmed by PETA supporters. Pictures of tens of thousands of chickens were shown, close together, waiting to die in huge sheds. Chickens that put on so much meat so quickly that they could no longer move, dying of thirst and starvation. Chickens that trampled each other to death. The point, it said on the PETA website, was to “document the ugly face of violence against chickens in Wiesenhof’s industrial factory farming”. For Haferbeck, the actions against Wiesenhof were a “signal campaign”, his opponents would probably call it a drive hunt. But all of a sudden something strange happened.
In spring 2012, Haferbeck received a phone call from a person whose name was foreign to him. “If I tell you who I am, you will hang up right away,” the caller had said. Haferbeck did not hang up, but listened to what the chief buyer of the Wiesenhof company wanted from him. He sought contact with PETA representatives on behalf of the company bosses. Later, Haferbeck learned that PETA had seriously damaged the company. It is said that it lost about 100 million euros because some discounters and food chains no longer wanted Wiesenhof products. According to Wiesenhof, the loss was considerably less than 100 million euros. It is clear that the PETA campaigns cost the company a lot of reputation and money. Did the chief buyer try to buy in Haferbeck now?
In polite words, the man on the phone suggested a personal meeting, and Haferbeck agreed. How about at a neutral location, the lounge in Frankfurt’s main railway station? What the two arranged there in August 2012 can only be guessed at. The meeting was classified by Haferbeck as “confidential” and “conspiratorial”, only the PETA deputy head Harald Ullmann had been informed about it. From the Wiesenhof manager’s point of view, it must have been a great success. Because a few weeks later Ullmann and his front fighter Haferbeck travelled to the Wiesenhof company in Lower Saxony to introduce themselves to the owners of the concern, who have become very rich with chicken, ducks and turkeys. The visitors from Stuttgart chatted with senior boss Paul-Heinz Wesjohann and junior Peter Wesjohann, who had taken over the management from his father. “It was a constructive conversation,” says Wesjohann, the younger, today.
The four men immediately arranged a return visit to PETA near Stuttgart. Haferbeck was enthusiastic about his new acquaintances. He now saw them as likeable people. Today, he describes them as “handshake-proof”, as respectable businessmen, “almost academic, yet without pomp”, as “down-to-earth and modest” and not as devious as many of the big farmers he had met in his life. “They don’t want to bullshit you,” says Haferbeck. He describes the approach to Wiesenhof like this: “We now have a certain level.”
All of a sudden, Haferbeck felt unusually powerful. He had often supplied the media with pictures and thus created attention, he had filed criminal charges and thus made public prosecutors prick up their ears. But he still often felt powerless, because PETA can stir up people but has no political power. And suddenly the bosses of a corporation sought Haferbeck’s proximity? That had never happened before. Perhaps he could pave the way for his ideal of a vegan society in this way. The anger that had always filled him must have suddenly turned into something else, into negotiating skills, strategic cleverness, two qualities that managers in industry also need. Haferbeck says: “At first the Wesjohanns thought of us as the biggest criminals.” That then changed. “Before the talks started, I had thought of PETA as aggressive,” says the Wesjohann company manager today. But he changed his mind.
When the Wiesenhof bosses landed at Stuttgart airport in October 2012, Edmund Haferbeck was already waiting for them in a BMW limousine. He had borrowed the imposing car especially to create an “impression befitting his station”. A pretty young lawyer, who was working for PETA at the time, was placed by Haferbeck in the back of the car so that the atmosphere of the conversation would immediately become more relaxed. “Don’t get any stupid ideas back there,” was the kind of joke he made, says Haferbeck.
They drove to the PETA headquarters, a nondescript office building. Months earlier, the visitors from Lower Saxony had had to watch a shocking report on television denouncing the cruelty in animal stables that supplied Wiesenhof. PETA had obtained some of these pictures. “They were desperate. They didn’t know what to do anymore,” says Haferbeck today. The guests explained that they wanted to change production in their group. A little less factory farming, a little more animal welfare, they would also strive for a vegan product line. Peter Wesjohann says today that PETA was “also a major part of the impetus” for this development.
The evil company Wiesenhof will improve, that was the message. It caught on so much that Edmund Haferbeck even believed his guests that they were not sufficiently informed about the conditions in the chicken coops. If you ask him about it today, he squirms. Mr Haferbeck, you admit that the Wiesenhof bosses did not know what was going on in the stables. Do you believe them? “I want to believe it.” The chicken baron doesn’t know how the chickens live? “Yes, he doesn’t know in detail how the chickens live.”
The new meekness might be related to the fact that the Wesjohanns’ visit ended so pleasantly. The guests were invited to a pizzeria, vegan pasta dishes were served. In addition to Haferbeck and the PETA deputy head, the latter’s wife Andrea Müller, who advises the board of the animal rights activists, was also present. “Pleasant conversational partners,” says the deputy head about the Wesjohanns, “polite and respectful.” Haferbeck chauffeured the visitors back to the airport in his limousine, and on a table in the PETA office at that time was something amazing, an envelope. It contained highly interesting documents: the addresses of 49 chicken houses where animals were fattened for the company Heidemark, one of Wiesenhof’s worst competitors. PETA had searched for this information for a long time in vain. Now it was finally possible to systematically scrutinise Heidemark’s stables.
Wiesenhof states that neither the junior nor the senior manager “passed on such a list to PETA”. They do not even know where the stables of the Heidemark company are located. The stables of the meat companies are a closely guarded secret. They lie unnoticed in the landscape, ashen-grey flat buildings, no sign reveals the owner. Who these fatteners supply is often only known to insiders. That is why the contents of the envelope were a revelation: all these stables with addresses, the pillars of the Heidemark empire. Heidemark had become vulnerable. What happened next was tantamount to a triumphal procession for Haferbeck, the frontiersman.
One by one, animal rights activists visited some of the stables, especially in Baden-Württemberg. They brought photos and films with them. PETA now tried to corner Heidemark and created the “Heidemark scandal”. In videos distributed by the organisation, Heidemark was seen as the new villain, the “market leader in organised animal cruelty”. The videos showed suffering animals from the “Heidemark empire”. Turkeys were seen being kicked, pushed and shoved into the holds of trucks. They remained there for hours before they were hung on the slaughter line, fully conscious. In the video, a woman’s voice spoke of “torture”.
Wiesenhof, yesterday’s enemy, had secretly mutated into a friend, while Heidemark came under fire. It was a turning point in the history of animal rights activists. The pact with Wiesenhof, of which hardly anyone had any idea, took effect. A non-profit organisation turned into a troupe of dealmakers who came to an agreement with the industry. Edmund Haferbeck rejects the word “deal”, he searches for a long time for a term. A standstill agreement with Wiesenhof? No. A gentlemen’s agreement? No. An agreement? No. “Two opponents who agreed on certain things with a handshake”, that’s how he sees it. He calls it “a dialogue”. In reality, this dialogue consists of a non-contractual peace. Nothing is fixed in writing; you couldn’t pin PETA and Wiesenhof down on any paper. But both sides are apparently highly satisfied with the deal. “We didn’t do anything more in the case of Wiesenhof,” admits Haferbeck. Later he writes in an email about the “nationwide already special way of dealing with each other”.
The head of the group, Peter Wesjohann, says: “It became quieter around us.” And adds, “The other companies noticed that we were talking to PETA.” You can sic the warriors of this organisation on other opponents, redirect the anger. Wiesenhof has not paid the animal rights activists any money, but has gained peace, undisturbedness, unobjectionability, even goodwill. And this despite the fact that the vegan product line at Wiesenhof was three years in the making and still accounts for just two percent of sales in the sausage division.
Furthermore, Haferbeck visits the Wesjohanns regularly and sends greetings to Wiesenhof managers at Christmas. He is always informed about the company’s internal affairs. When the Werder Bremen football club, which is sponsored by Wiesenhof, plays, Haferbeck sometimes exchanges text messages with a manager of the company. Haferbeck personally apologised to the senior boss for an online game with pooping chickens that the PETA youth had invented to mock the Wesjohanns. Every now and then PETA and Wiesenhof continue to indulge in legal skirmishes, but when you know how irreconcilable the battle once was, you realise the dimension of this modern indulgence trade.
Dealing has become a business model. PETA is now “in dialogue” with around 1200 companies, from Mercedes-Benz to Esprit to Hugo Boss. Those who want to draw attention to their vegan products can buy a logo called “PETA-Approved Vegan”. The amount of the licence fee depends on the turnover. For a company to be allowed to adorn itself with the PETA label, a single vegan product is enough. At the textile manufacturer Hugo Boss, the vegan suit is no more than a niche product. The company also refrains from processing real fur – which it hardly ever did before, according to a company spokeswoman. One of the most sought-after executives at PETA is now its head of marketing. Companies like to talk about their approach to PETA.
Edmund Haferbeck says proudly: “Companies are now approaching us with ideas.” Industrial groups seek PETA’s proximity because they fear the campaigns. The campaign is the sharpest sword. This is also the view of 30-year-old Charlotte Fischer, who knows all types of weapons at PETA. At the association, she heads the social media department, the decisive battlefield. During a walk through Berlin-Neukölln, which she often takes with her dog, she says: “First we identify an industry. Then we look to see if it’s worth bringing into focus in companies. That’s usually the case if it’s well-known.”
With less prominent companies, she says, attacks are harder to plan. “That’s where you first have to draw attention to where the problem is in the first place. Take wool, for example. Wool is the new fur for our followers. So first we do postings on angora for a week,” says Charlotte Fischer. Then she talks on a walk for a long time about angora rabbits that have had their fur torn out. PETA recorded the cries of pain and played them over pedestrian zones. It sounded horrible. The radicalism in sound, word and image has remained, but PETA has switched to a cuddly course to win over businesses.
“First we write letters,” says Charlotte Fischer. Letters? “Yes, letters, often several in a row. In them we ask the company to change something.” And if that doesn’t work, does the attack follow? “Only if the company does not signal a willingness to talk.” All it takes is for the company to hold out the prospect of a discussion – and PETA will let it go. “Especially in the fashion industry, the processes often take years. You have to have a lot of patience.” Which company is currently being attacked most fiercely by PETA? “TUI,” says the activist. The travel provider? “Yes. TUI still offers trips to Seaworld aquariums where orcas are kept.”
There are three Seaworld aquariums with 20 orcas, all in the US, and all have announced they will no longer breed new orcas. Has PETA lost sight of its goal? In Germany, more than two million animals are slaughtered every day. But PETA cares about 20 orcas in America. PETA was also touchingly concerned about the welfare of a donkey that was carrying the Jesus actor around at the Oberammergau Passion Play. Couldn’t the animal be replaced by an e-scooter?
PETA is by no means the only non-governmental organisation that cooperates with industry. The World Wide Fund for Nature maintains “cooperations” with companies – and receives handsome fees for this. The outdoor company Vaude, for example, pays the organisation up to 250,000 euros a year for “communication to raise awareness of sustainability issues”. Greenpeace seeks dialogue with companies and campaigns against those who, in the view of the environmentalists, do too little. Companies can buy a licence for the Nabu logo from the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union. This costs companies at least 15,000 euros a year.
PETA is sharply criticised within its own scene. Friedrich Mülln, who founded the animal rights organisation Soko Tierschutz, calls agreements like the one with Wiesenhof a “pact with the devil”. He says: “You have to be careful not to lose your breath when you embrace it.” However, the head of PETA, American Ingrid Newkirk, is thrilled with all the deals the German section has come up with. On the phone, Newkirk says, “Even Joaquin Phoenix has worn the Hugo Boss vegan suit!”
He says “educating retailers” is important to pave the way for a vegan future. Is dealing the new rebelling? There were supporters who turned away from PETA because of the creeping change of course, for example the musician Bela B from the punk band “Die Ärzte”. Some employees also grumbled, but the internal uprising failed to materialise. This is mainly due to the authoritarian structures of the association. In the USA, at the headquarters of PETA’s top boss, dealing with companies had been established for some time. And what the American wants is also happening in Germany. “Certainly, there are employees here who don’t like our course,” says Edmund Haferbeck, “but our line doesn’t change. That’s the way it’s done. We can achieve more with less fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a dead end.”´
Is this true? Do the dealers improve conditions more than the radicals who tirelessly fight their opponents? If the change in nature is so fundamental that the answers to it must be more radical than ever, then PETA was often far ahead of the times. PETA was radical long before the idea of radical political action became widespread. Humans are subjugating the earth, and among the sufferers are animals – creatures closest to humans. Humans are attacking their neighbours, that’s what it’s come to. If you save the animals from the humans, then you might also save the earth, and in the end maybe even the humans themselves. Is PETA selling out this ideal with all the deals, or is it the other way around: is PETA thereby moving closer to its goals? You get closer to the answer if you ask yourself: How are the chickens at Wiesenhof doing today?
Peter Wesjohann, the company boss, proudly reports that his company has developed six so-called animal welfare concepts. But the truth is that the vast majority of broiler chickens are almost as bad off as they used to be. The concept that applies to the majority of chickens is called Initiative Tierwohl (Animal Welfare Initiative) and is hardly better than the legal requirements that grant a chicken a living space smaller than the area of a DIN A4 sheet of paper. Friedrich Mülln from Soko Tierschutz calls this initiative “a huge cover manoeuvre”. He says: “There are maybe two or three chickens less running around on the square metre, yet the ground remains covered with animals.” This is also proven by recent photos of Wiesenhof barns, taken by Soko Tierschutz.
If you compare these pictures with the ones that are 20 years old, you can see that nothing essential has changed. There are still these huge halls full of chickens. The animals are bred to gain forty times their weight within a few weeks, so fast that their skeleton can barely support the body. Many animals can only lie down, the weaker ones die of hunger and thirst. Their feet are infected. They have no perches to sit on at night, not even a bale of straw to peck around in. Today, Wiesenhof has a turnover of around 230 million euros more than in 2012, the year of the peace agreement with PETA.
Meanwhile, the company slaughters around four million animals – per week. “Wiesenhof has sucked this area dry.” So says Lutz Neubauer, a former head doctor from Lohne in Lower Saxony. He lives near a gigantic Wiesenhof factory and has been involved with the company for decades. Wiesenhof is allowed to slaughter up to 430,000 animals a day here. However, when asked, the company states that it currently only slaughters up to 250,000 animals.
For each animal that has to be hosed and rinsed, Neubauer says, eight litres of water are needed, including cleaning. Years ago, he noticed that many private wells in the area were drying up. He started to check the level of the groundwater, compared it with the official measurement data and found out: the groundwater level is sinking slowly but steadily. Wiesenhof is allowed to extract 800,000 cubic metres of groundwater a year here, an unbelievable amount, as much as a small town consumes in a year. In an interview with DIE ZEIT, the company states that the amount authorised by the authorities is “not exhausted”. The slaughterhouse has no influence on the groundwater level in the surrounding area. This is also proven by expert opinions.
Neubauer, on the other hand, is struck by how much the vegetation suffers. The roots of the old trees can no longer find water. You can see what this leads to when you drive with him through the area around the slaughterhouse. Many trees have remained small, they no longer grow. The moor has also become too dry. Neubauer gets out of the car and trudges up a slope. He points to a small pond, an almost overgrown biotope. You have to look closely to see the tiny remnant of a waterhole. When production at Wiesenhof had to be severely curtailed five years ago because of an incident, nature recovered a little. The groundwater level had risen, Neubauer says, and the frogs had returned. A bog, a pond, a few frogs – trivialities that can be overlooked?
If you think so, you could take a look in Königs Wusterhausen, a town near Berlin. Wiesenhof has a slaughterhouse here too. Resident Gudrun Eichler says she might have gotten used to the stench. Her friends have also come to terms with the fact that Gudrun Eichler only invites them out for coffee in the garden with reservation, “when it doesn’t stink at the moment”. But when she learned five years ago that Wiesenhof wanted to expand the slaughterhouse, she had had enough.
Together with others, she founded a citizens’ initiative, “KW stinks”. Together they pore over building regulations, read slaughter protocols and have become experts in water law. “In 2017, I myself experienced how foul water flowed from the slaughterhouse site into the Brandenburg forest,” says Benjamin Raschke, the parliamentary group leader of the Green Party in Brandenburg. Wiesenhof explains that fallen leaves caused the foul smell. The competent authority found no evidence that production water had been discharged into the forest.
It also turned out that Wiesenhof slaughtered much more poultry than permitted in Königs Wusterhausen until 2017, for at least two and a half years. The company had expanded the facility. When Wiesenhof applied to the authorities to increase the capacity to be allowed to process 160,000 birds a day, the company was already slaughtering that much. Allowed were 120,000 animals per day. When asked, Wiesenhof explained that they had “fulfilled all requirements for the approval of the slaughter volume increase”. The Green politician says: “Wiesenhof helps itself at the expense of the region. The company allows itself things that a private house builder would not get away with.”
The company came under pressure after there were fires at two Wiesenhof slaughterhouses, in the Bavarian town of Bogen in 2015 and in Lohne in Lower Saxony in 2016. Now the company had to switch to other slaughterhouses, including the plant in Königs Wusterhausen. “In the industrial estate, one animal transporter lined up after the next. Some were open and I could see that many chickens were in a very bad state. Some were even dead already.
We didn’t put up with that,” says Gudrun Eichler from the citizens’ initiative. A banner hung above Bahnhofstraße with the words: “Wiesenhof cheats, the government watches.”
The dispute between Wiesenhof and the citizens’ initiative escalated until authorities forced the company to slaughter less. Wiesenhof claims that not even half a percent of the animals died during transport. Moreover, trucks were not lined up in the industrial area, but were parked on the grounds of the slaughterhouse.
The enormous speed at which the slaughter line at Wiesenhof runs is striking. A former employee of the responsible veterinary office says it was impossible to control the quality of the meat. “We had to inspect three chickens per second.” The legal requirement is about seven times that time. The former veterinary office employee says: “To see the chickens on the conveyor belt, you have to move your eyes back and forth very quickly. It’s almost like hypnosis. That’s why many fall asleep.” When Edmund Haferbeck is asked about the conditions at Wiesenhof, he replies: “Agricultural mafia, mass murder, of course, still, of course.”
But PETA doesn’t get much of that. It is enough for Haferbeck that “the company is moving” and today has a vegan product line. One could go on like this for a long time, reporting on small scandals and big ones, one could let the Wiesenhof boss have his say again, who asserts: “We have developed in the direction of animal welfare.” But what does all this mean?
If one draws a wide arc, from the mafia hunter Haferbeck to the maltreated chickens, from the threatened moor in Lower Saxony and the stench in Brandenburg to the hypnotised employees of a veterinary office, from the campaign radicalism of the PETA association to the sacrificed radicalism in reality, then one conclusion is very obvious: PETA, the alliance for higher justice and punishing anger, has served the enemy and thereby opened up unimagined freedom for it. Wiesenhof has never been as powerful as it is today, so unhindered in its power. The increased power of the company corresponds with the tactically dosed power of the animal rights activists, who have learned to look the other way. Once PETA wanted to change the system. Now the system is changing PETA. And the system remains as it is.
BEHIND THE STORY
The authors initially wanted to write a general portrait of the animal rights organisation PETA. But during their research they came across the surprising connections between PETA and the meat industry. They talked about this with PETA officials, with the head of the poultry company Wiesenhof, with lawyers, politicians as well as representatives of companies, environmental associations and animal protection groups – about 50 people in total.