Dairy’s run-in with Ontario SPCA raises questions, big and small

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.

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18 Comments on “Dairy’s run-in with Ontario SPCA raises questions, big and small”

  1. dave says:

    To answer the question being raised: Cruelty is cruelty… no matter who it is done to, or who it is done by.

    But I feel like this isn’t a story about that. Unless I am missing something in that article. This sounds more like a disagreement over whether any cruelty happened at all… not that cruelty happened but it was ok because they were cows.

    That is a grossly biased article you linked to though, I’d be interested in reading a more professional report on the situation to get a better idea of what happened.

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  2. Jim Bullard says:

    Two observations: First I doubt that this constituted cruelty. Animals are more tolerant of cold than humans. In fact it has been shown that keeping them couped up in the barn all winter causes more disease than having them outside. Note all the new style barns with open sides that now dot the landscape.

    The other is that I saw an article in the paper that Pattie Richie is sponsoring a bill to make it illegal to photograph or videotape farms or farm animals without the express permission of the farmer. If such a law was in effect and there was a real case of cruelty, the person photographing it would be fined when they reported it. I suspect that since the ‘evidence’ was illegally obtained it couldn’t be used. That’s silly too.

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  3. Mervel says:

    It was not cruelty at all and you are right outside is usually always better for cows as far as health goes. Cows are not human, they do not have human emotions or feelings, they do feel pain and we need to treat them in a way that honors their service to us and is not overly cruel. But cows exist for one reason to serve human beings either with their meat or their milk or their skin.

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  4. Pete Klein says:

    Cruelty. That’s another one of those words that can be difficult to define. It is often in the eye of the beholder.
    Since I am not an expert on cows, I have no idea of how cruel it might be for them to be outside when the temp is a little below freezing.
    Obviously, cows are not human but so what? That said, I fully realize that when it comes to crimes and punishments, humans are never going to be charged with murder for killing any animal. But that’s not the issue.
    Was the farmer punishing the cows for not producing enough milk or did he just let them out for a little fresh air? None of this is mentioned. All we know is someone complained and the bureaucrat responded.
    Was the response correct? Again not enough information.
    One thing I do know. I don’t like “unidentified callers.” Accusers should always be identified. The accused should always know who is making the accusation because sometimes it is pure and simple harassment. Same goes for whistle blowers and all the other cowards who want the government to hurt someone and haven’t got the guts to do it on their own.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  5. Solidago says:

    Ugh. OSPCA investigator Bonnie Bishop sounds like she is better suited for engaging in PETA publicity stunts that have little to do with improving animal welfare. Zealots like this who go far beyond what most would consider reasonable inevitably hurt the cause they are trying to promote.

    Some farmers are guilty of cruelty from time-to-time, and they should be shown the problems and the solutions, and punished if necessary. Also, any good dairy farmer knows that stressed animals don’t produce all the milk they could be, and get sicker more often, hurting the farmer’s bottom line. Keeping cows content and comfortable is essential to good dairy farming.

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  6. Mervel says:

    True and the way to do that is get them out of the barn, this shows the insanity of trying to put human values on agricultural animals. Would humans like to be outside in 33 degrees, I would; but not all would, but would cows “like” that; yes they would. The cruelty to dairy cows comes from the factory farms out west where they stuff them in containment barns for their entire life. This farmer should be commended for getting them out of the barn, not persecuted by people who don’t understand agriculture or even basic animal husbandry.

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  7. Bret4207 says:

    “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.”

    I don’t know how the law in Ontario works, but in NYS you need to follow the actual law as it is written, provide proof and evidence in a professional manner and in line with the Criminal Procedure Law and then offer testimony that backs up your allegations. Last I knew in NYS it took a Veterinarian to establish an animal cruelty case in an instance like the one discussed.

    Being fairly familiar with livestock, I think this case in entirely bogus.

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  8. It's All Bush's Fault says:

    Speaking from experience, it is much heathier for the livestock to be outside. If there is sufficient food present and water available, the livestock would enjoy being outside is temps colder than what was reported. The presence of shelter and a grove of trees would allow the livestock to get out of any wind or precipitation.

    You gotta love when it when the collective IQ of an anonymous caller and the responding agency investigator is less than that of the livestock.

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  9. Walker says:

    I guess in Ottowah, they take the deer herd inside in the winter?

    Pete, they weren’t being punished for not giving enough milk: they were bred heifers– young cows who would give milk for the first time after calving.

    This is ridiculous! There must be an appeal process in Canada? They seem to do so many things better than we do, it’s hard to believe these charges will stick.

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  10. tootightmike says:

    The inspector stepped in it big time. She should be sent to work on a dairy farm for a year as educational penance…and to learn a bit of practical reality.

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  11. Two Cents says:

    Cows are food, not pets.

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  12. MrSandwich says:

    I’ve never been in an insulated cow barn. I’m a little more concerned about Ritchie’s new bill making it illegal to photograph farms.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2

  13. NotABreed says:

    I too felt the article written by Ian was quite biased.
    But, what I noticed was a fact buried in the article that really made me stop and think…

    And I quote: “The appeal hearing was to contest an order to have the herd’s body condition score UP TO 2.5 by July 1.”

    Then another line jumped out at me: “The OSPCA veterinarian and key witness, Bruce Robertson … the body condition score was LESS THAN two”

    Here is a description from the Ontario government regarding a 2 BCS:

    What that leads me to believe is the cattle were actually emaciated at the time of the complaint. If the cattle were emaciated (the Ontario government says 2.5-3 is acceptable body weight), and standing outside in -4 weather, that IS abuse. Underweight animals can not keep warm in cool weather.

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  14. john says:

    The OSPCA need to be checked and regulated by the goverment.
    I guess Bonnie Bishop need some commonsence, livestock are no pets. Take a sample at nature.
    Also people who complain shouldn’t be able to be anonym.

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  15. CJ says:

    If Bonnie Bishop wants to move here, she could work for the State Health Department in Canton.

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  16. Farm Girl says:

    I would just like to make note that on the government website for the Dairy Cow body conditioning, score 2 says absolutely nothing about the animal being emaciated. Body condition score 1 is being emaciated score 2 the cow is only thin and if you look closely at the pictures provided for score 2 and score 3 there is not much of a difference. And the fact that these were HEIFERS and not COWS and much like cows heifers carry different body conditioning depending on their stage of gestation. Now where has it ever mentioned how far along in pregnancy these heifers were. Here is the website where the dairy cow body conditioning scores can be found. I would suggest looking it before stating that these aniamls were emaciated and also realize that two vets deemed these heifers in healthy condition, one vet deemed otherwise. Also one of the vets that deemed them healthy has been in practice since 1956 so I have no doubt in my mind that he knew what he was talking about.


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  17. Caroline Youmans says:

    And would this unbiased 3rd veterinarian mentioned in the July 13, 2011 Press Release by the OSPCA be the same veterinarian speaking in defence of the OSPCA on this matter?

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    Dairy farmers face 13 charges under animal cruelty legislation
    If found guilty, the Robinson’s would face a maximum of $720,000 in fines

    Section: News Page: A10

    Cornwall -On May 11th, one day before the resumption of their appeal to the Animal Care Review Board on Orders issued by the OSPCA to have a body condition score on their dairy herd average 2.5 by July 1, David and Marilyn Robinson from Chesterville were charged with 13 counts of animal cruelty under the OSPCA Act.
    All but one of these charges each carry a $60,000 fine, totalling $720,000, said lawyer Kurtis Andrews.
    Local veterinarian Dr. William Armstrong had given an average body score of 2.5 after viewing the herd on the evening of April 12, he told the hearing the next day. However OSPCA lawyer Brian Shiller, brought down from Toronto to take the lead in the case from lawyer Paula Thomas, protested that statement not be allowed in the hearing.
    Chair Rae Slater Legault agreed that it be stricken from the record, noting, “we’re not here to talk about the night before.”
    One of the original OSPCA orders had stipulated that the Robinson’s, in conjunction with a vet, take measures to bring the herd back up to a 2.5 average body score.
    Another local vet, Dr. Lawrence Gray, had given the herd an average score of 2.5 the day of the April 4th raid. The OSPCA vet from Campbellford, Dr Bruce Robertson, had looked at 25 cows and given an average score below 2

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  18. mario st-aubin says:

    it’s just unbeleivable to read something like.surely Bonnie Bishop is no longer employed by the ospca.Police escorts,who pays for them????Sounds like paranoia to me.

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