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The animal activist video: Veterinary edition

Progressive Dairyman Editor Jenna Hurty Published on 24 November 2015
George Palmer

Dairy veterinarian George Palmer has learned that just because you’re not doing anything wrong, it does not mean an animal rights activist will not target you.

Palmer never considered A.I. or prolapses to be an animal welfare concern until People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) published a video of his client’s dairy, Adirondack Farms.

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Four years ago, PETA listed those concerns, and two others, as animal welfare issues that an undercover activist found during his employment at Adirondack Farms.

To Palmer and Adirondack Farms in the Champlain Valley of New York, the video and its claims felt like an attack. Palmer recently shared what he learned from the experience and how the dairy “moved forward” at AABP’s annual meeting in September.

At the time the undercover video was filmed, the dairy was milking 1,800 cows. The cows were averaging 90 pounds of milk per day, and the farm’s somatic cell count was around 200,000. The dairy was one of only a handful of dairies participating in a state-run animal welfare program under which they were animal welfare-certified.

The morning of the attack, the dairy received an email from PETA detailing the alleged abuse and left a voicemail for Palmer. Farm owner John Rulfs then made some phone calls to make sure the story didn’t go to press without media hearing his side of the matter.

Palmer says he knew right away that this was a big deal, and he started making phone calls to some of his contacts in the hope that, together, they could work toward a quick resolution of the situation.

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However, he later found out that Agri-Mark, National Milk Producers Federation and the New York State Department of Agriculture had all received similar but slightly different emails from PETA that morning regarding Adirondack Farms. PETA wasn’t just attacking the dairy; they were attacking an industry and its practices.

As a proactive strategy, Rulfs invited the reporter who was supposed to cover the story to visit the dairy. The reporter declined the invitation, since they were three hours away, but informed him that they would not be running the story because after some research and reading an article from ProDairy, they began to question the validity of PETA’s claims. He invited a few other people to visit as well, all of whom declined.

The next day, PETA held two press conferences in neighboring towns. Both of them were sparsely attended. That same day Adirondack Farms released an official statement to the media to clarify the facts. They took full responsibility for their employees and the treatment of the animals and said how they would update their protocols and deal with their employees to ensure animal welfare on their farm.

PETA then demanded that all employees in the video be fired. In the days that followed, the sheriff did a formal investigation of the dairy since PETA had filed a formal criminal abuse complaint with the sheriff’s office. After taking several statements and depositions and having six veterinarians do a five-hour farm audit, the sheriff found no issues on the farm.

The state re-certified the farm, and the sheriff found no reason to arrest anyone or move the case forward. The district attorney wasn’t quite so quick to let the charges drop, so the dairy had to go before a grand jury in January 2013. However, the abuse charges never went to trial.

In the right light, even common practices or uncontrollable medical incidents can be made into animal welfare issues, Palmer says. In this case, semen straws used in the dairy’s A.I. protocols were dubbed “sperm guns” and prolapses were counted as animal welfare issues.

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The farm has since made a number of changes to its management and animal welfare policies.

The PETA worker who shot the undercover video had originally showed up on the farm with a sob story. Since the farm was short on help, he was hired the same day. They did not check his references although, given his motive, those might have been false to begin with. Now the dairy checks all references thoroughly to make sure the employee is who they say they are and is a good fit for their dairy.

Protocol drift had been an issue for the dairy, so those were reviewed, revised as necessary, and employees were trained or retrained on them.

Throughout the ordeal, Palmer was highly vocal in his support of the dairy. Since then, a number of people and organizations have told him they think that was a big reason the incident wasn’t worse than it was. However, it was not without its faux pas.

Shortly after the attack, Rulfs called an emergency meeting with his employees and the farm’s stakeholders. At the end of the meeting, everyone left out the back door except Rulfs, who walked out the front door to face the media who were waiting outside.

Feeling he needed moral support, Palmer followed him and soon found himself in front of a camera being interviewed. The reporter had clearly done her homework and asked him some tough questions about whether or not the calf being dehorned in the video was in pain.

At that point, Palmer had not yet sat down and studied the video, so he just repeated what others had told him, which did not quite go well. Looking back, he realizes he made some statements that he did not quite agree with once he went back and studied the video.

One of the biggest lessons Palmer said he learned: It’s OK to say “No comment” when the media asks you a question that you are not yet fully prepared to answer.

Palmer urged his fellow vets at the meeting to use their influence to step up their clients’ animal welfare policies. He thinks that many give that up and don’t focus the conversation on animal welfare enough.

They need to speak up and bring it to the forefront, he said. He admits that some operations are easier to work with and are more open to that than other; however, he urged his fellow vets to at least try.

He encouraged vets to prepare talking points for themselves and their clients beforehand to be prepared if anything were to happen.

In addition, he suggested vets and their producers invite the media to contact you with questions. If they do, he said you will then have the opportunity to tell your side and hopefully balance out the story.  PD

PHOTO: Dairy veterinarian George Palmer has learned that just because you’re not doing anything wrong, it does not mean an animal rights activist will not target you. Photo by Jenna Hurty.

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