Associated Press

Watchdogs are not "man's best friend." They can be loud, obnoxious and relentless.

But they are vital to a free and open society.

That point was driven home recently when PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) provided officials with a videotape of farm workers in Iowa slamming piglets on the ground to kill them and smacking other pigs with rods. Now farm operators are dog-paddling as fast as they can to get out in front of the issue and make needed changes.

In George Orwell's "Animal Farm," the pigs were the cruel ones. They'd use the rifle of Farmer Jones on anyone who crossed them.

A watchdog on "Animal Farm" might have helped to save the day for the innocent victims.

In the real world, of course, human beings are the ones who cause unnecessary injury, who cheat, lie and "finesse" information for their personal gain.

Fortunately, there are concerned citizens doing what they can to keep others honest.

The media are officially called "the watchdog" by many. And, indeed, newspapers, bloggers and television reporters are always on alert to ferret out abuses.

But it takes more. And despite the fact private watchdog groups can be loud, Johnny-one-note organizations, they, too, are crucial. Without someone on guard, truth and justice can quickly degenerate into ugliness. (Another lesson from "Animal Farm").

The best watchdog groups have a history of crying wolf when wolves are actually a threat. Some of them include: Judicial Watch, Amnesty International, Consumer Affairs, Common Cause, The Freedom Forum, The Better Business Bureau and The Anti-Defamation League. There are dozens of others.

As for those pigs in Iowa, the fact people in an enlightened society can relapse so quickly into Neanderthal behavior shows that eternal vigilance is needed. Just as diseases such as measles tend to resurface just when citizens grow complacent, so do brutish, inhuman actions come to the fore unless someone is diligent in monitoring such things.

In the pig case, PETA was the group recording and exposing an ugly situation.

In the months to come, undoubtedly many other watchdogs will be going public with findings that show how some people cannot resist taking advantage of the innocent and defenseless.

Their tactics can be annoying and even grating at times. But their bark is not nearly as frustrating as a world where the powerful, sneaky and dishonest get a free pass.