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Three open minutes with Gary Conklin

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 20 July 2010

On July 6, a Union County Grand Jury cleared Gary Conklin, co-owner of Conklin Dairy Cattle Sales LLC in Plain City, Ohio, and others, of allegations of animal abuse brought about by the Mercy for Animals YouTube video release on May 26. Released of all charges, Conklin talked freely with Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee, answering the questions that follow.

How were you made aware of the video?

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CONKLIN: I first learned of the video when a reporter called and asked if I was aware of the video to be released at a later date. They alluded that it would be posted to YouTube in the next 24 hours. I went home and saw it that night on YouTube.

What was your initial reaction?

CONKLIN: Absolutely destroyed. Terrible. We had no idea anything like that was going on. It made all of us family members feel absolutely terrible. We saw it late in the evening and immediately began discussing firing the employee [Billy Joe Gregg] in the video when he arrived for his shift at 6 a.m. the next morning. We began the termination process, getting our attorney and local sheriff involved to have them there when he arrived for work.

Whom did you turn to for advice?

CONKLIN: Initially our attorney, after seeing the video and how it does not replicate in any shape, way or form how we treat our animals or how we want them to be treated. Our initial goal was to fire that employee and for him to face legal consequences brought by local officials.

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Were there any signs that something was going on that you now see in retrospect?

CONKLIN: The employee, Billy Joe Gregg, doing the abuse, was born and raised on a dairy farm in Michigan. He had milked cows consistently and cared for young animals. There were no red flags. According to his resume, he was honorably discharged from the military and claimed to be an Iraq veteran.

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

CONKLIN: Moving forward, we talked with our current employees and reemphasized the proper handling of cattle and reemphasizing proper techniques. The camera man, or undercover activist, if he would have come to us much earlier and brought it to my attention or the local sheriff, we would have dealt with the situation immediately, but it was “more important” for him to get more video. According to his testimony, he had been in contact with Mercy for Animals and they told him to get more video.

Why was the video more important than protecting the animals?

CONKLIN: The people of Ohio need to make their own judgment on if all of this coincides with the signature drive [for the HSUS ballot initiative in Ohio] that actually revved up in late May at the same time as the video release. The people need to draw their own conclusions whether a connection is there. If [the motive] was to protect animals at all costs, then someone should have come forward right away.

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Do you think someone should look into the actions of Mercy for Animals?

CONKLIN: I will leave that call to the prosecuting attorney’s office.

How will this change how you dairy?

CONKLIN: Being dairy cattle brokers, as far as our business, we are trying very hard to get our business back on track and to move forward. Certainly, in part of that equation is the well-being and care of our animals, which, with the exception of what Billy Joe Gregg was doing, is something we do every day. All family members and all current employees have been cleared of any wrongdoing. There is concern about the amount of time Mercy for Animals sat on the information of abuse and there might be something forthcoming there. It is unbelievable the number of threats myself, other family members, county officials and the property have received.

Is anything being done about the threats?

CONKLIN: That is all in the hands of the prosecuting attorney.

What advice do you have for other producers?

CONKLIN: I would say one of the things we will be doing is to look at our potential employees a lot more thoroughly than we did in those two cases. We will continue to reemphasize proper animal handling techniques and that everything is being maintained and working well with our current employees. We will go over protocol and take more time to observe their behavior.

According to a press release from the Union County prosecuting attorney, the grand jury found no probable cause to believe Conklin committed any crime. “They saw the unedited video of Mr. Conklin’s actions, not the highly inflammatory version released on YouTube by Mercy for Animals,” said David Phillips, Union County prosecuting attorney.

Phillips explained that the cow depicted in the video needed to be lifted up to avoid further injury to the animal. “These animals, sometimes called ‘downer cows,’ must be brought to their feet. The sheriff’s office had the video reviewed by four experts, each of whom agreed that Mr. Conklin’s actions were entirely appropriate.” The prosecutor noted that the experts were veterinarians with extensive experience in large animal care. Each agreed that delivering a sharp blow to the animal to get it to rise was not abuse. The veterinarians told law enforcement that cows that remain down are at risk of injury or death.

The grand jury also heard testimony from the undercover operative put on the Conklin Farm by Mercy for Animals, Jason Smith of Texas. Smith had told law enforcement that he did not witness any abuse by Conklin, and that Conklin did not know of the abuse by Billy Joe Gregg.

Phillips said the grand jury also considered charges against another employee of the farm, the undercover agent, and Mercy for Animals officials, but ultimately decided there was not enough evidence to proceed against them.

Phillips said that law enforcement continues to receive reports of threats against the Conklin family and farm. He said such threats are being taken seriously and will be prosecuted. A referral may also be made to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “Threats of harm against the Conklins may be a felony under the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act,” Phillips said. “Blogs and internet sites continue to advocate harassing Mr. Conklin and his family. Some have called for violence, including murder. This federal law is designed to meet just this situation.”

Billy Joe Gregg faces twelve counts of animal cruelty in the Marysville Municipal Court, each a misdemeanor of the second degree. Ohio law sets the maximum sentence on these charges to 18 months in jail. Gregg also faces a fourth-degree felony weapons charge in the Union County Court of Common Pleas. The felony carries a maximum of 18 months in prison. PD

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