By Bee Friedlander,
Most readers by now know about the horrific case of abuse on a dairy farm in Ohio that was captured on tape by an undercover investigator working for Mercy for Animals [Ohio Dairy Farm Brutality]. The video depicts gratuitous violence toward cows and calves. It is graphic, extremely difficult to watch, and has had a visceral impact on those who watched it.
In the aftermath of the video, several predictable things happened. First, the farmhand prominently featured in the video was fired, with the owner of the farm decrying his employee's behavior. Second, there was an outcry by factory farming interests that this was unacceptable, and the result of "bad apples" who did not represent the industry (read the Ohio Farm Bureau's statement here). Third, there was much negative publicity after which, fourth, the county prosecutor investigated and brought charges against the one farmhand, with fifth, the farm's owner, who could be seen committing violent acts against cows and calves at his farm, not charged with the comment that his acts needed to be taken in context (the county prosecutor 's explanation is in this press release). And finally, sixth, MFA and its undercover investigator were criticized for not reporting the crime sooner.
Misdemeanor charges were brought against one person, the farmhand, 24-year old Billy Joe Gregg. (The single felony charge resulted from the fact that he was arrested with a loaded weapon in his vehicle.)
The ASI became involved in early September when I received a call from a man who identified himself as the attorney for a defendant in a "high profile" case involving animal abuse. He did not want to tell me more about the case, but said that he was in negotiations with the prosecutor and wanted to propose that his client undergo psychological counseling as part of the plea agreement. He had come across our AniCare program, and wanted information. I explained that it was the only published psychological assessment and treatment specifically designed for animal abusers. It was designed to prevent abusers from committing future acts of violence toward animals. I gave him the names of therapists who had attended an Ohio AniCare training in 2009.
There was no further contact until the day of Mr. Gregg's sentencing on September 24. The judge sentenced him to 90 days in jail, 3 years' probation, and ordered him to have "no contact either directly or indirectly with any animals." Judge Grigsby also included this provision: "Defendant shall enroll in counseling through the Animals and Society Institute and follow their counseling recommendations."
There was immediate condemnation and not only by animal advocacy groups. MFA's Executive Director Nathan Runkle said:
Gregg's punishment is a slap on the wrist compared to the unimaginable suffering endured by the animals who were victims of his malicious abuse. It's an outrage that in Ohio it's a mere misdemeanor to sadistically punch, beat and stab farmed animals, break their bones and otherwise torture them. This case should serve as a wake-up call to all compassionate citizens that Ohio must do more to strengthen its animal cruelty laws.
The New York Times Magazine online edition headlined its report "Something Biblical Seems in Order for the Guy Convicted of Cow-Punching"
I agree with these assessments. However, I don't think the analysis should stop there.
It's worth re-framing through a lens that considers the institution of industrial agriculture in this country. Is it possible that the reaction to the cruel treatment of cows and calves at an Ohio dairy farm can be seen as a crack – however minute – in this powerful system?
Here's why I'm taking what is for me – usually a confirmed realist if not pessimist – a position that some may consider Pollyanna-ish and naive.
First, the case has been widely publicized, and not just in animal and farm media. This coverage did have an effect on the general public, as I observed myself. The video was released last spring, during the waning days of a signature gathering effort by Ohioans for Humane Farms, which sought to put a measure on the ballot that would phase out three egregious factory farming practices: battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates. While not directly related to the subject matter of the initiative, the Conklin Dairy video did influence it. While collecting signatures in Ohio in early June, I had several people specifically mention the video as the reason they were signing (or had signed) the petition. Soon thereafter, a settlement was negotiated, after proponents collected enough signatures, and Ohio's governor intervened to bring all concerned to the table.
Second, there was a serious and thorough investigation by the Union County sheriff with assistance from the local Humane Society, the county Health Department, and the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
Third, as unsatisfying as it was, there was a successful criminal prosecution. Such prosecutions are rare due to the fact that most state anti-cruelty laws exempt "standard" agricultural practices.
Fourth, the industrial agriculture interests were put on the defensive and went on record condemning the actions. Why? In a word, self-interest. I see it as tacit recognition that these powerful individuals and organizations recognize that the public does not tolerate cruelty to farmed animals.
Fifth, those in the criminal justice system, from defense attorney to prosecutor to judge, recognized that Mr. Gregg needed counseling. He certainly deserved punishment, but by undergoing AniCare assessment and treatment, the chances that he will harm another animal in the future are decreased. And that's the purpose of AniCare and the source of my cautious optimism.