While it may seem obvious to an onlooker that punching, kicking, beating, and hoisting a cow by the neck with a chain is cruel, when it comes to the law, it's not always so black and white. That's part of the reason why it took nearly two years for animal cruelty charges to come down on a Canadian dairy farm where the above abuse allegedly took place.
"It sound a bit trite, because to the average person it seems quite obvious what the distress is," said Marcie Moriarty, the chief prevention and enforcement officer for the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). "But when you're trying to prove that an offense has taken place, veterinary expert evidence is essential."
It all started in May, 2014, when an undercover investigator for animal welfare nonprofit Mercy for Animals started videotaping at a BC dairy farm—one of the largest in Canada. After documenting workers beating and kicking cows, as well as cows limping and bearing open, untended wounds, Mercy for Animals handed over the footage to the SPCA in June 2014. The SPCA can't lay charges, but it can make recommendation to the government to do so if it thinks there's enough evidence that a crime has been committed, so it immediately launched its own investigation, Moriarty told me. A few days later, Mercy for Animals also publicly published some of the footage online:
The SPCA investigation took a good six months to complete, due to the breadth of actions and number of participants, Moriarty explained. There were lots of people in the video doing lots of different things, some of which are grounds for charges, while others aren't. Investigators had to identify all of the individuals involved and a veterinary expert from the US had to be called to review the footage and do an on-farm inspection to provide insight as to what these actions would be doing to the cows. From there, the SPCA had to sort out what evidence it had for what charges, and then it passed its case over to the Crown attorney (essentially Canada's version of a district attorney). But the Crown took more than a year to decide whether or not the evidence warranted charges, a delay that drew criticism from animal welfare groups like the Humane Society.
"Our underlying concern with all of this is just whether the Crown is taking this case … as seriously as it should be," Peter Fricker of the Vancouver Humane Society told the Canadian Press last month. "We had expected there would be some word on charges much sooner."
This week, those charges came: 20 counts of animal cruelty against the farm, Chilliwack Cattle Sales, and seven employees, facing up to $75,000 in fines and two years in jail for each count. Sixteen of those counts are charges under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, according to Moriarty, while the remaining four charges are of "molesting a pigeon," under the Canada Wildlife Act.
"In the video, four of the individuals were seen throwing a pigeon back and forth, tying a string around it, and causing it pain and suffering," Moriarty said of those last charges. "It's very callous and disturbing footage, I will say."
Though the investigations by the SPCA and the province were lengthy, there was an upside: It gave a window for the SPCA to lobby for improved farm animal welfare legislation. Shortly after the video was made public, the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle—national guidelines for basic standards of care—were adopted by BC under the province's Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The local milk marketing board also incorporated those standards into its requirements for farms and the Dairy Farmers of Canada—a national trade group—also folded these requirements into its national programs.
"It was an incredible outcome stemming from such a horrific case," Moriarty said.