What’s their beef?

Advocates for farm animals employ education, investigation and exposs

Eric Zakis sits at a table surrounded by hundreds of photos of animal suffering — sows raised in total confinement, hens crammed in battery cages and various sick or injured animals left to die slowly in below-freezing temperatures.

Despite his radical appearance — he wears a t-shirt sporting an illustration of a rare steak in a pool of blood, with the word "Death" below it– Zakis, a Southwest High School graduate who was raised in Armatage, is soft-spoken as he talks about Defending Farm Animals, Inc., a non-profit organization made up of himself and four other people dedicated to reducing the pain and suffering of farm animals through investigations, exposs and public education.

Perhaps you’ve seen the weekly cable-access television show, which airs on Channel 6 every Saturday at 11:30 p.m. The vignettes in the half-hour show range from cute — a piglet named Petunia scampers through the snow in a Wisconsin sanctuary — to grisly — several improperly stunned pigs hang upside down in a slaughterhouse, squealing and shrieking as their throats are cut.

Or, maybe you’ve caught a glimpse of a yellow truck that members drive around town several times a week. The truck is specially outfitted with five television screens that broadcast much of the same gruesome footage as the television show.

"Pigs get a bad rap," said Julie Derby,

co-director of Defending Farm Animals, Inc. "When they are cute and fuzzy at the State Fair, Minnesotans ooh and aah over them, but then they walk off to get a Pronto Pup."

Derby said that one aim of the six-year-old organization is to try and dissolve the line the public often draws between farm animals, like cows, pigs and chickens, and companion animals, like dogs and cats.

Co-director Peter Erdman, a self-described "struggling vegetarian," grew up in Rochester, the son of a Mayo Clinic animal researcher.

"That started my awareness," Erdman said.

In addition to producing the weekly television show and driving around in the video truck, Defending Farm Animals, Inc. logs hundreds of hours each year investigating and documenting first-hand animal atrocities in stockyards, slaughterhouses, rodeos and factory farms.

Member Michelle Bultman said the organization tries to raise public awareness about the cruel conditions that sometimes befall farm animals because knowledge leads to change.

To that end, Derby said, the organization has taken over 1,000 photos.

"We just sit in the car, lay low and try to watch what’s going on," she said, adding wryly, "We’re pretty good at laying low."

Derby recounted one recent incident at the St. Paul Stockyards where a "downer cow" — an animal too weak or injured to walk — was repeatedly shot with a .22 gun.

"We felt this animal should have been euthanized properly," Derby said. "They shot this cow eight times with a .22, which is way too small a gun."

Erdman is quick to point out that all members have full-time jobs — he heads up a software engineering and consulting firm, Derby is a locomotive engineer, Zakis delivers pizza for Pizza Luce, Bultman is a social worker and Renae, a member who did not want her last name printed, is a software engineer.

In general, members say that the public — in particular, Southwest Minneapolis — has been a welcoming and responsive environment.

Boltman hypothesized that Southwest Minneapolis is a prime audience because its residents are usually wealthier and more highly educated than in other parts of the city.

"People with a higher education want to know more," she said. "They want to learn and are more intellectually curious."

Zakis even has a story about a Linden Hills woman who got in her car and chased down the video truck.

"It turned out she just wanted some information on the organization," he said. "She even gave us $5.

"I think, in general, people in Southwest Minneapolis are even more receptive than the University crowd."

Of course, the organization and its difficult-to-watch footage are not always welcome. Sometimes, people and businesses — most recently, the restaurant Figlio’s — complain about the truck being parked in front of their homes or places of work. But the members of Defending Farm Animals, Inc., who work closely with the 5th Precinct to make sure they are breaking no laws, say they are interested in getting the message out peacefully.

"We are not interested in inciting anger," Derby said, "only empathy."