Commentary: The scourge of the next great animal handling scandal

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The Facebook nation and twitterverse exploded with outrage when the E6 undercover video was released by Mercy for Animals. The outraged were a surprisingly diverse group ranging from dedicated animal activists to animal ag people. 

Although animal rights people and animal ag people rarely agree on anything, including when the sun rises in the morning, they spoke with a unified voice on this atrocity.

“It has just plain %^$# got to stop!” (Phrasing is mine; the attitude is wide-spread, however.)

This quickly issued dairy industry statement courtesy of NCBA disavowed and condemned the practices exposed on the video.

Dairy Industry Statement:  April 20, 2010 -- The actions depicted on the Mercy for Animals video are appalling and completely unacceptable. The dairy industry takes claims about animal mistreatment very seriously, and we trust that state and local authorities will respond aggressively to investigate this particular case and take appropriate action. The actions in this video do not reflect the practices of the thousands of hard working dairy farm families across the U.S. who care for their animals every day. Dairy farmers and their employees take this responsibility very seriously. Texas' dairy farmers, as well as dairy farmers across the country, are as outraged by this video as the public. The dairy industry is committed to animal well-being, and has proactively put in place several initiatives reinforcing this commitment.

Tom Field, Ph.D., a Colorado rancher and Executive Director, Producer Education National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, issued this statement: Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) guidelines, which are funded by The Beef Checkoff and have been in place since 1987, emphasize the humane treatment of cattle. According to BQA, euthanasia is humane death occurring without pain and suffering.

The decision to euthanize an animal should consider the animal’s well-being, and when euthanasia is necessary, BQA clearly states it should be done by either a trained employee or a veterinarian in accordance with the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) guidelines.

BQA program guidelines were developed, and are continually updated, in partnership with leading animal health experts including AABP. BQA guidelines, which are available in both English and Spanish, are put into practice through hands-on training programs for cattlemen and their employees.

The beef industry is a leading advocate for research funding to close knowledge gaps and implement the best science-based practices on all cattle operations. The BQA Code of Conduct states that abuse of animals will not be tolerated. We believe any individual who witnesses inappropriate animal treatment is responsible for making every effort to stop it immediately.”


The key statement is the last sentence.
NCBA and most other organizations let no one off the hook. If you see abuse – whether you be a ranch hand, a farmer, a passerby or an MFA/HSUS/PETA undercover agent – do everything you can to stop it immediately.

Two comments sent in my direction were what I call Aha! moments when it comes to those ridiculous bills several states are trying to pass that would outlaw the kind of undercover video MFA released.

DavidMashton on Facebook said,It's pretty clear why they are trying to pass laws to outlaw undercover farm videos.

Ed Yaffa Twittered, Chuck, I believe it’s probably more widespread then we hope...the problem is that often bad behavior is considered industry accepted practice. That is why there is big ag in many states supporting a bill to make undercover filming illegal.

About those bills:  The industry would be better served by improving their hiring and training practices and operating as though an undercover MFA agent is standing amongst us 24/7.  Hiring a sadistic son of a bitch to help manage your livestock is insane.  Hiring anyone and not giving them adequate training in how to handle animals is like saying to PETA, “Thank you sir, may I have another.”

It has to be abundantly clear and underlined emphatically every day that abuse of any kind will not now, not ever, be tolerated.  Period.  I know it’s done in most animal ag arenas but as long as the abuse continues to surface, the message has to be made – more loudly and clearly until everyone understands.

Leading animal agvocate, Michele Payn-Knopfer used her Cause Matters blog to shed some genuine tears over the abuse while cautioning everyone outside the industry not to paint the business with the same fecal-stained brush of shame.  She wrote: “All I have to do is look at the pictures in Mercy for Animals (MFA) propaganda and I shed a tear for images that can be likened to prostitutes representing all females. Some would describe it as gross, others are sickened, while some of the population tries to ban it. But in both cases, the images are not a fair representation of the population. My girlfriend who milks my cows is no more of a prostitute than she is an animal abuser. Nor am I. And it breaks my heart to know that some think that’s all there is to farmers. Isn’t it time we change that with a conversation? Take responsibility today!”

Her call for comments resulted in this from Ray-Lin Dairy in California
“This afternoon I learned of another undercover video of animal abuse in agriculture and quite honestly I feel let down by a fellow farmer. I am as horrified as ever that some of the things caught on tape are even happening in agriculture today. There are proper means to euthanize animals to end their suffering, using a hand tool to prolong that suffering is not proper or ethical.

Many farmers like myself and my family spend long hours caring for our animals the proper way only to have one bed actor ruin it for thousands. I personally have given up sleep and meals to make sure the cows came first I know farmers who brave some of the worst weather know to mankind to rescue animals and the thanks we get from a “brother” farmer is a slap in the face. I hope anyone found guilty of any wrongdoing faces the maximum punishment possible.”

From Minnesota’s Orange Patch Dairy
“It was really hard for me to watch such pain and disrespect for these calves. Heart wrenching doesn't even begin to describe how I felt.  I wanted to reach through the screen at take a swing at the abusers!  Everyday, dairy farmers like myself work diligently, putting the care of our calves and cows first, most times before our own care.

It is a black eye on our industry when another situation like this is found. Abuse of this nature is not commonplace in our industry, even though some activists would lead you to believe this. Orange Patch Dairy and other dairies across the nation strive everyday to improve the care we give our animals. We do not treat our animals like waste and we do not withhold medication/medical care. Our cows get our VERY BEST, EVERYDAY!

Thank you MFA for finding and reporting this abuse. It is an example of completely INAPPROPRIATE animal care.” 

And this from Haley Farms in Ohio
“I would like to thank Mercy For Animals (MFA) for finding and reporting this abuse to authorities after they were done with their two week investigation, even though I feel that they should have reported it quicker.  This is one of several undercover video’s that was released by this group over the past few years.  Surely they have been on thousands of farms that treat their animals with respect.  If this group really want to show America how farm animals are treated across the majority of farms in the United States that they show footage from these thousands of farms as well.”

Mercy For Animals
Comments posted on Mercy For Animals web site included a statement from Debra Teachout, DVM, MVSc, who viewed the video and said, “There is evidence of overt animal cruelty and neglect in this facility. Death by hammer blows to the head is an unspeakably brutal way to die for any animal.

There is total disregard for proper calf husbandry or treatment. Caretaker interactions with calves are threatening, heavy-handed and totally unacceptable with calf welfare and suffering not a priority at all. Standards for sanitation are appalling, suggesting there are likely no standards at all. The physical and psychological needs of the calves are ignored and jeopardized by management at this facility.

The calves are undeniably suffering. This facility should be shut down immediately.”

MFA also published a written statement from three experts from Colorado State University. The authors are Bernard E. Rollin, Ph.D., Professor of Animal Sciences; William Wailes, BS, an extension dairy specialist for the Department of Animal Sciences, and Terry Engle, Ph.D., an associate professor.

“This current video of atrocities committed at what appears to be a calf ranch, is without a doubt one of the worst I have ever seen.

Most egregious is the method of killing calves utilized by the workers. Anyone possessed of an ounce of common sense or common decency would know even without being told that one does not kill a calf by bludgeoning it repeatedly on the head with a claw hammer ... Given the non-secretive way in which these workers went about killing the animals, I must assume that the owner and/or manager of the farm knows what is going on and expresses no disapproval.

A number of calves are covered with nasty, open sores which very likely come from their being bedded on quicklime with no straw protecting them from its corrosive effects. The handling of these calves is also so outrageous as to count as cruelty, as when the animals are roughly and painfully picked up by the ears and tail, something so obviously hurtful that one hardly needs any experience with calves to know that it is wrong.

[We] urge everyone in a position of authority to serve notice to the world that this sort of behavior has no place in a society wishing to consider itself civilized. These people must be corrected with the full force of the legal system. If we allow such deviant and blatant cruelty to go unpunished, we are in effect condoning that sort of behavior, something we surely have no desire to do.”

I was concerned that, like many of these videos before, the images were held back for weeks so a carefully timed press conference could gain maximum impact.  Nathan Runkle, founder and executive director of MFA, responded "We went to federal authorities while our investigator was still an employee at the farm. We went to local law enforcement immediately after receiving the green light from the feds - about one week after pulling our investigator out."

While that’s a much better time frame than the criminally drawn out HSUS video taken at Hallmark a few years ago, the MFA video should have been taken to local authorities immediately. Waiting for a week and a ‘green light from the feds’ hardly puts MFA in the clear.  To me, their actions contributed to at least an extra 7 days of intolerable abuse.

Temple Grandin's response
What should be the final and most impactful statement came from Temple Grandin who said, “I viewed the calf farm video and the euthanasia practices were terrible. Handling practices during unloading of the trailer were rough and stressful. Picking a calf up by the ears and the tail is stressful and cruel.  The living conditions for the calves were filthy. It is obvious that both the management and the employees have no regard for animal welfare.”

Temple’s comment is enough for me to say, it’s time to hold E6 management’s feet to a very hot fire; put them on the witness stand and grill them about what happened and why.  Trent Loos of Loos Tales made a call to Kirt Espenson, owner of the feed lot and asked him point blank if he was aware that his employee was using a hammer to euthanize calves.  Espenson said he was not aware of it but claimed the MFA employee was also caught on tape using a hammer.  You can listen to the tape here.

I’ll give Espenson credit for accepting responsibility, but no one should give him a pass for not knowing what was happening.  To be blunt, it happened on his watch and he has to accept the consequences.  It’s also a wake-up call for anyone in animal ag to check what’s happening in their backyard. 

“I didn’t know what was going on,” is not an acceptable excuse.  You absolutely must know.  The process is in your hands and you must control it.

Bottom Line: It’s time that every trade association that touches animal agriculture and has an operating statement that promotes good animal handling practices to reiterate that statement to all its members in the strongest possible terms.  Those organizations should then have the courage to ban for life any ranch, farm, feedlot, harvesting facility, etc. that violates that statement.

Those associations need to publicize the ban, too.  My Amish friends call the practice ‘shunning’ and it’s a good thing to do in these cases.  

Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing..

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Bea Ⓥ Elliott    
Florida  |  April, 21, 2011 at 03:04 AM

The question was put (at 2:20): "Did you know anyone was using a hammer to perform euthanasia on these animals?" Owner Kirt Espenson says "I did not. They had a rifle". And then the interview get's kind of splicy sounding... Further - If you watch this video here (at 1:10) you'll see clearly that Espenson WAS aware of the hammer use It appears there's a lot of fibbing and CYA going around.

Janet Weeks    
Sacramento, CA  |  April, 21, 2011 at 09:26 AM

After listening to the interview, I have several questions for Mr. Espenson: Why were those calves not protected from frostbite in the first place? How many calves were killed? Why did he take on so many animals he obviously could not protect from the extreme cold weather? Are the facilities not temperature controlled? Was there no heat? One of the basic requirements of good husbandry is providing adequate shelter, is it not, along with clean water, decent food, and basic medical care? I also did not appreciate the way he tried to implicate Mercy For Animals' agent for not coming forth immediately. It was MFA's agent's objective to gather a sufficient body of evidence to prove the abuse was ongoing and not some isolated instance, as industry frequently tries to claim. Where was Mr. Espenson all this time? Why didn't he know what was going on at his farm? Why did he not put one of his 75 "trained" employees in charge of "euthanizing" the frostbitten calves? Why were untrained individuals given this task? I also have a very hard time believing that MFA's agent took full part in the abuse unless that was the "job" he was assigned to do by his employer and he was forced to take part, however half-hearted, to avoid blowing his cover. What training was MFA's agent given? Mr. Espenson takes full responsibility for putting four untrained workers in charge of killing an untold number of frostbitten calves and left them unsupervised and, apparently, without proper equipment or training to do the task. Mr. Espenson said that the three workers were fired even before the video came out and that they probably have left the country. Were they employed in this country legally? Did Mr. Espenson notify authorities of their criminal acts of animal cruelty before he fired them, so they could be arrested, charged, and prosecuted for their crimes? Will they do time? Without answers to these questions, and with legislation moving forward in three states--Ohio, Florida, and Minnesota--to shut down undercover investigations and to criminalize whistleblowers rather than the animal abusers, it is clear animal factories have much worse they are trying to hide than this "isolated case." If as he says, Mr. Espenson takes full responsibility for the criminal actions at his farm and the tragic and brutal deaths of infant calves, he ought to pay the price and accept punishment to the fullest extent of the law.

Bea Ⓥ Elliott    
Florida  |  April, 21, 2011 at 08:41 AM

The video I'm referring to that shows the ranch owner knew exactly what was going on is here:

Robin Vigfusson    
New Jersey  |  April, 21, 2011 at 10:19 AM

Some of us have seen enough of these atrocities to give up dairy altogether. Over and over, at the Bushway slaughter facility in Vermont, at the Conklin Dairy Farm in Ohio, the owners wring their hands just as this man does and assures us this is 'not standard operation.' Standard operation in Factory farms, where most dairy and meat are produced is ghastly enough as it is. All these exceptionally brutal incidents do is remind us that at CAFO's, sadism and sociopathy are occupational hazards and that the agricultural industry as it now operates is systemically cruel, broken and corrupt.

So CA  |  April, 22, 2011 at 10:13 AM

Re: the comment on giving up dairy all together... While I understand and agree with the outrage felt toward the people who are committing these acts; blaming the whole industry is absurd. Would you sanction or condemn all parents of children because some parents abuse their kids? I think not. Everything should be done to help assure that this type of animal abuse is rooted out and dealt with to the fullest extent of the law, but in a civilized society, the whole group should not be punished for the sins of the few. There will always be bad apples in any group.

Olympia  |  April, 24, 2011 at 07:04 PM

Nowhere in this article did I see a representative of the dairy industry say they need regulations and enforcement. Voluntary guidelines are meaningless. Every farm must be certified humane, with strict standards, inspections, enforcement and bonding. Why should any farm be exempt from these reasonable requirements? The problem of abuse is widespread. Mercy for Animals conducts random inspections and has found abuse at 100% of the farms it has investigated. This is revolting and has got to end. There is no question that abusers are attracted to this kind of work and they need to be screened out during the hiring process. Video cameras need to be on 24/7. So what if that makes dairy and eggs more expensive? That is the price of civilization.

Laura Farrell RN    
chesapeake va  |  April, 25, 2011 at 05:05 AM

I went vegan about a week ago after watching other videos, this one just confirms ive made the right decision. Im not going to argue it with anyone here because im tired already of the industry cover ups and the people who keep saying they care for their animals... well if you really do care, is that an open invitation to do hidden camera investigations at your farm? I DOUBT IT. you people talk a lot of talk but where is the transparency? The world is watching and we are disgusted. according to my understanding MFA goes to farms at random and finds gross abuse and negligence 100% of the time. call it propaganda if you like, but a picture is worth a thousand excuses. if you folks want to save this industry, then police it and stop standing in the way of more oversight. the only reason to shun better laws is because you think what you do is acceptable, and you dont want change because bottom line... its all about profit regardless of who get hurt.. The Love of money is the root of all evil.


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