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Abuse at Conklin Dairy Farms, not an anomaly

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

I think by now everyone has seen or at least heard about the 4 minute undercover investigation video released by Mercy for Animals earlier this week. Workers at Conklin Dairy Farms in Ohio engaged in sadistic abuse of the animals they are paid to care for. Calves having their heads stomped on, diary cows tied and then beaten in the head with crowbars, cows having their udders stabbed with pitch forks…

What industry allows employees to get away with this? Imagine an employee at a grocery store stomping on perfectly good tomatoes. They would be fired on the spot. But what if the tomatoes were too rotten to be sold? I suppose then, the employee might get away with it. Perhaps the manager would even join in on one particularly frustrating or boring day at work. I think this is precisely what happened at 4th generation, family-operated, Conklin Dairy Farms.

In the undercover video footage, you see Conklin employee Billy Gregg bragging to his new co-worker (the undercover investigator) about abusing a cow that was being sent to slaughter because her inflamed udders would not allow her to produce any more milk:

“we beat the fuck out of this cow, we stabbed her, I broke her tail in three place, kept stabbing her ass. Beat her. Next day Gary says, “we’re gonna send her to beef” Cuz she had mastitis and all. Couldn’t get her in the parlor. I drugged that cow. I beat that fucker until her face was like this big around”.

In an industry that treats sentient animals like production units and commodities, a dairy cow with mastitis is as good as a rotten tomato at a grocery store. And since there are about as many laws protecting a rotten tomato as a unproductive dairy cow, you can do whatever you like with them.

In the days following the release of the footage, the agriculture community in Ohio denounced the activities that had taken place at the farm and blamed it on one bad apple, Billy Gregg. He was charged with 12 counts of animal cruelty and has been jailed. Under current Ohio animal cruelty law, Billy will not be charged with any felonies, just misdemeanors. Before you start trashing the hillbilly Americans and their backwards law system, please note that Canadian animal cruelty laws are about the same – if not worse.

The owner Gary Conklin said in a statement, “The video shows animal care that is clearly inconsistent with the high standards we set for our farm and its workers, and we find the specific mistreatment shown on the video to be reprehensible and unacceptable”. Ironically, Gary Conklin was one of the guys shown kicking a downed cow in the video (at 1:26).

Everyone in the small Ohio farming community is putting on a fabulous display of outrage by vocally denouncing Billy Gregg’s actions and painting him as a psychologically disturbed criminal who acted alone. But no one else shown on the video has been charged with animal cruelty and the dairy farm has not been shut down.

It is clear that the community’s attempt at denouncing animal cruelty is disingenuous. If there really is a culture that rallied around good husbandry and condemned deliberate acts of abuse against the farm animals, why did Billy Gregg feel so comfortable bragging to a newly hired employee (the undercover investigator) about all the egregious acts of cruelty? If it wasn’t a socially accepted practice, why did he do it in front of his coworkers and why did the owner take part in the abuse? It is apparent that the precedent set by the culture around Billy Gregg is that abusing animals is tolerated, accepted and even celebrated.

Billy Gregg in court (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

What happened at Conklin Dairy Farms is not an isolated incident by any means. Every time an animal rights group hires an investigator to go to a randomly selected farm they come back with more than they set out to get. Even without any of the abuse shown in the 4 minute footage, Mercy for Animals would have obtained footage that documented the systematic abuse of dairy cows who are kept constantly pregnant, suffering from chronic mastitis and the killing or disposal of new born calves.

The animal agriculture industry is mostly self-regulated and it is obvious that this system is not working out. This November, people in Ohio will have the opportunity to vote for a ban on some of the worst practices in animal agriculture. It is true that the proposed law will not stop the abuses documented at Conklin Dairy Farms, but it will ensure that the animals on farms will have the bare minimum, such as the ability to turn around, stretch their limbs and spread their wings. It is not much too ask for, but even so, there is strong opposition from the farming community against the initiative to give farm animals just enough room to stretch their limbs. In fact, they are spending millions of dollars to make sure that this initiative does not pass. It really makes me wonder why anyone in animal agriculture would think Billy Gregg is a psychopath.

The week in review

Friday, November 20th, 2009

Eating Animals

Many pieces appeared this past week about Eating Animals, the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer. There are some reviews and a few interviews. There was even a live Q and A with readers that appeared on the Washington Post website.

The Huffington Post: My Q and A With Jonathan Safran Foer

The Vegan Dietician: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer: Some of My Favorite Reviews

On the Eating Animals forums, someone posted that he was inspired by Eating Animals to go vegan, and he chronicling his journey on his new blog: I Quit Eating Meat. Check it out and offer some support!

Striking at the Roots: The Power of Storytelling

Vegan Etsy: Eating Animals: All or Nothing or Something Else – the second chapter of the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

The Gothamist: Jonathan Safran Foer, Author

VegDaily: Jonathan Safran Foer NYC Book Signing Packs the House…And A Punch

Washington Post: Jonathan Safran Foer on ‘Eating Animals’

Washington Post: Jonathan Safran Foer’s animal farm Jonathan Safran Foer on Martha Stewart

Geoff Nicholson in The SF Chronicle: ‘Eating Animals,’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Pig farm investigation

There was a whole bunch of coverage around Mercy For Animals’ pig farm investigation.

Digging through the Dirt: Pig Video Too ‘Disturbing’ for Fox News

Discerning Brute: Bacon Bumption & The Pork Industry Shocker Animal Rights Blog: Undercover at the Pig Farm: This Is Where “Bacon” Comes From Pork Industry’s Pathetic Response to MFA Investigation

And in other news… Animal Rights Blog: Willful Slow Food Ignorance and the Pain Animals Feel

New York Times: Going Vegetarian for Thanksgiving

Glenn Gaetz in the Georgia Straight blogs: A little bit of veal is in every glass of milk

Digging through the Dirt: Game Gives Kids Distorted Glimpse of Dairy

Forbes: Drop That Burger Animal Rights Blog: Compassionate Giving Does Not Involve Cruelty to Goats

A Trip to the PNE, Part 1: the Abuse

Monday, September 14th, 2009

I went to the PNE last week, specifically the Agrifair bit.  I can sort the problematic issues with the Agrifair into two fairly neat categories: the first involves some unsurprising animal abuse.  The second was actually far more troubling.  I’ll get to that in a bit.

First, the abuse.  Here is a photo of the hocks of one of the dairy cows:

Sores on the hocks of a dairy cow.  These are caused by insufficient bedding.

Sores on the hocks of a dairy cow.

As you can see, there are strange sores on the cow’s legs.  There were three or four other cows chained nearby, and oddly enough, they all had identical sores.  You can probably guess why: when they aren’t at the PNE, they aren’t resting on piles of straw.  I wrote to an organic dairy to ask their opinion, and they helpfully confirmed what I was thinking, stating that “the cow in the picture has sore ‘hocks’ and the likely cause is insufficient bedding”.  (Note: obviously I am not in favor of any kind of dairies,  since the system itself requires unnecessary suffering–but organic dairies are more likely in general to be concerned with animal welfare. Learn more about organic, “humane” animal products here.)

Here’s another fun shot.  It’s of a calf, two days old, and born at the fair.  There were six or seven other calves, all less than a few weeks old, and already separated from their mothers.  Not only that–they were all separated from one another as well.

A lone two day old calf.

A lonely two day old calf.

Now, if you know much about the dairy industry–organic or not–you’re aware that calves tend to be taken from their mothers at a very young age so that we can drink their milk.  You might also know that cows are very social animals.  When allowed to, they are form friendships that last throughout their entire lives.  The relationships that cows form with their babies is no different; in fact, when the female calves grow up and give birth themselves, the proud grandmother is there to help her offspring care for her new baby.

I think you can guess what my opinion is of the PNE’s decision to not only take such young animals away from their mothers–almost definitely permanently–but to separate them from each other.  I also have to wonder what the fate of these calves will be.  Will they become veal? Will they be raised for beef, or to be dairy cows themselves?  Will they simply be discarded?  Such is the fate of calves born to dairy cows.

Here’s another example of something troubling.  In the poultry section, I came across this exhibition of Norwich Croppers:

A sick pigeon.

A sick pigeon.

Being a pigeon enthusiast (learn more about what makes these birds so fascinating) I was disturbed by the appearance of this particular bird.  You can probably tell that he doesn’t look well.  I still wasn’t sure, though, so I contacted the Canadian Pigeon Fanciers Association.  Here is part of the response I received: “Yes in this picture this pigeon does look sick. I am not so concerned about the feathers as the dull listless look of the bird in the picture.”

We have no way to determine exactly what this pigeon was suffering from, but it is the responsibility not only of the pigeon’s breeder but the PNE to monitor the condition of these birds.   It is worth noting that pigeons, like most prey animals, generally do not reveal such obvious sickness until they are already quite ill.

There were also 12 or 15 roosters being exhibited in a series of very small cages.  They looked bored and unhappy, which should come as no shock to anyone who has spent much time around chickens.

Let me out!

Let me out!

In addition, about half of them had absolutely filthy water.  I contacted Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns about this, who stated that while though the cups were anchored to keep them from tipping over, they were not clean enough–that chickens should have “fresh, clean, clear water to drink at all times.”  I don’t want to rule out the possibility that an attendant would come through periodically to give the chickens fresh water, but from the looks of it, it wasn’t happening very often.

More wood chips in here than water.

One of many dirty water cups.

Next photo.  Yep, these are baby chicks, albeit a very small subsection of what were there.  There were, in fact, at least a hundred baby chicks in two open crates, all within a couple days of age, being heated by lamps and poked at by children.  There was even an incubation box, with eggs in it…some of which had just hatched.



Throughout this, there was a PNE attendant standing in each crate, picking up individual chicks and allowing children to pet them.

Poke.  Poke.

Poke. Poke.

Another LibBC volunteer, Joanne, asked the PNE attendant how long she would hold each individual chick while allowing children to pet them, and she told us that she usually holds them for 15 minutes each.  Can you imagine?

Joanne also asked the attendant where the chicks’ mother was…and that brings us to part 2 of my day at the PNE–the unbelievably pervasive lies.

The life of a veal calf

Saturday, July 25th, 2009
Veal huts in Abbotsford, BC

Veal huts in Abbotsford, BC

If you’ve ever driven through Abbotsford or any other rural farming community, you may have seen little white huts set up outside of dairy farms. These are veal huts. Occasionally they contain female calves, but most often they contain the males.

Pretty much all of the male cavles born on dairy farms become veal. This is an unfortunate fact of dairy production. In order to produce milk, cows need to give birth. They have one calf per year for however long they are being milked (4 years or so usually). The dairy farms can use the females to replace the older, “spent” cows, but the males aren’t good for anything.

These calves are taken from their mothers right after they are born and tethered in these white huts so that they can’t run around or play with each other. The dairy industry says this is so that they won’t fight with each other or get sick. They don’t have their own mother’s milk to drink (we drink that) so they are not passed any natural disease resistance from her, as would be the case in nature.

That’s about it. Their lives are spent standing around, laying down, doing nothing. Because they never got to nurse they will try to suckle on anything. It seems cute, but it’s really a sign that their instincts are being thwarted. Just as their mother’s reproductive system has been hijacked for our own benefit (the benefits of milk are greatly debatable) these little boys have their bodies hijacked to produce the soft and tender veal that we all love.

Sustainability is just a start

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

I often hear of sustainability referred to as an end goal, as if when we reach a level of sustainability, then everything is good.

foie gras protest at a restaurant praised for sustainability

foie gras protest at a restaurant praised for "sustainability"

In this way many questionable activities, like the seal hunt, like fish farming, like intensive farming of animals, are excused as being sustainable.

However, I think that sustainability is really the baseline of what we should all be doing. After sustainability comes ethics, humane treatment, caring and kindness. Sustainability is really all about meeting our essential needs without destroying the planet. Our responsibilities extend far beyond sustainability.

Often when restaurants get protested because they serve foie gras or veal their supporters excuse them by saying how great they are because they serve local foods or sustainablly caught fish. But how is this reason for praise? Isn’t this something everyone should be doing?

To me it sounds like praising someone for taking care of their family or keeping their job. Like praising them for doing something that every responsible adult should be doing.

Are eggs and dairy worse than meat?

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Imagine being raised for meat, fattened up, and slaughtered.

Now imagine being raised for your breastmilk, or your eggs.

In the case of milk, you are artificially inseminated and impregnated. After a period of months—nine, in the case of both cows and humans—you give birth to a baby. Within hours—or days, if you’re lucky—your baby is taken from you. You won’t see it again. If born male, he usually will become veal. (The veal industry was actually created as a way to make money off of those extra male dairy calves.) If female, she will be raised to replace other older cows at the dairy.

Machines are attached to your nipples, and, for a few months, the milk meant for your baby is siphoned out.

Then it starts all over.

You’ll give birth to four or five babies, and then it’s off to the cows_dairy1_usdaslaughterhouse. You’ll be turned into cheap meat—of course—because your body is so weak and worn out after four years of producing seven to ten times more milk than you would in nature, and even though you’re perhaps a quarter as old as you could become. Now that you can’t give any more milk, your body is a byproduct.

If you are a chicken, raised for your eggs, you won’t have your babies taken away from you. No matter where you are, though, you will feel an intense drive to prepare for the arrival of chicks. Even in a battery cage, where there is no bedding material, you may attempt to make nests out of the body of a dead cagemate. Your eggs roll down the slanted wire floor of the cage and away from you.

After a year or a year and a half, you will be incredibly weak from your calcium-deficient diet—the creation of an egg requires many nutrients, including calcium—but in order to get a few more hundred eggs from you and the other hens, the farm will induce a period of forced-moulting by starving you. For at least five days, there is no food. Six days pass.Seven.They will be in here for 1-2 years.

The farm may go fourteen days or longer without feeding you, and if you live, you will have lost 30% of your weight. (5 to 10% of the other chickens will die, and on an average farm that adds up to thousands of birds.) You might be force-moulted one more time, or even twice, in order to get as many eggs from your tired body as possible. And then, when—like the dairy cow—you can’t produce enough of your reproductive secretions (yum), you become cheap meat—dog food, soup, or baby food. You will be less than two years old, less than a fifth of your potential lifespan.

People sometimes stop eating meat because of their concern for animals, but they continue to consume other animal products. But broiler chickens die at around 45 days old, rather than languishing for a year or a year-and-a-half, and even beef cattle die a couple of years younger than those raised for dairy. Comparatively, the egg and dairy industries cause far more suffering. Think of it this way: egg-laying chickens and dairy cows are still killed for meat—they just suffer longer first.

I can think of few things more horrible in farming today than the standard methods by which we procure milk and eggs.

(And yes, I include organic and free-range stuff in this as well.)