What constitutes ‘cruelty to animals’? Should there be separate standards for farm animals and pets? Obviously, responses will vary. Disagreement is likely.
That being the case, what are the rules, and who shall decide how they are applied?
The Province of Ontario as well as the amalgamated City of Ottawa have both seen a good many disputes between farmers and various regulatory agencies, over all sorts of issues.
Some have characterized this as a cultural clash: more and more people live and work in urban areas, fewer and fewer have any personal connection to agriculture. Regulations and agencies seem increasing shaped by urban views and alliances, including the separate subject of unions. (Unionized employees have rules, procedures and powerful political alliances that become part of the story, for good or bad. But let’s leave that aside for the moment.)
Basically, rural areas often feel ignored and trampled, subject to oversight from people who have no appreciation for (or understanding of), that which they regulate.
No doubt the opposite view would be that regulations are carefully crafted to protect the health and greater good of all, and there’s no justification for making rural regions, or farmers, exempt from this process.
A recent case from Chesterville, Ontario involving charges of animal cruelty represents many such undercurrents and is making waves as it rolls toward resolution.
The specific complaint doesn’t seem that momentous: was it cruel to let dairy cows outside on a mild winter day?
Some readers are saying “You’re kidding, right?” Others might say “Well, I don’t know. Was it?”
Here’s the story – at least according to Ian Cumming in the June issue of “Farmers Forum”:
CHESTERVILLE — Last December, an unidentified caller to the Ontario Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) fretted about a dozen bred, healthy Holstein heifers standing outside a Chesterville-area farm. The heifers had free-choice baleage, later tested at 20 per cent protein, free-choice water, shelter beside the dairy barn and a nearby grove of trees. The temperature on the day was minus four degrees Celsius. It was a pleasant day for cows. It turned out to be one of the worst days in the lives of David and Marilyn Robinson, who owned the farm
When OSPCA investigator Bonnie Bishop ordered the Robinsons to put their heifers back in the barn and later charged them with animal cruelty, they decided to fight back. That resulted in more charges and $720,000 in fines — $60,000 for each charge of animal cruelty brought against them.
The article is full of details guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of farmers or farm sympathizers. I shan’t repeat them all. Here’s the dry part that speaks to why incidents like this are bound to come up again and need better resolution:
All witnesses for all sides testified under oath that the orders issued by the OSPCA exceeded the written Dairy Codes of Practice.
OSPCA inspector Bonnie Bishop, when grilled for eight hours on the stand, stated that, “no one has said that the Code is what the OSPCA relies on.” She added correctly that, by law, she alone can legally determine whether an animal is suffering distress or not.
One witness for the OSPCA, Bishop’s former sale barn inspector, was found to have broken the rules of evidence collected by not showing them to the accused 10 days prior to the hearing, as required, and was not allowed to testify.
The days of running farms without any rules at all are gone forever. And the OSPCA typically refrains from commenting on unresolved cases, leaving them at a disadvantage in defending their position here.
But farmers can’t spend all their time guessing which rules apply, or which individual agencies (or inspectors) they have to be wary of offending. Like all citizens, farmers are certainly entitled to due process. Speaking of cruelty, the incredible stress of fighting ruinous fines ($720,000?!) and unexpected legal fees ought to matter too.
If farms and farmers are to survive, fair and predictable treatment serves everyone’s interest.