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Experts provide perspectives on undercover animal abuse videos

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 24 February 2014

As hidden camera investigations have been used to heighten public attention on animal care issues, the Center for Food Integrity (CFI) created an Animal Care Review Panel to engage recognized animal care specialists to examine video and provide expert perspectives for food retailers, the dairy industry and the media.

Since its formation in 2012, the ACRP has reviewed and offered their independent analysis of nine videos, including two of dairies, six of pork production and one of an egg farm.

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“In some cases, the experts condemn behavior that is reprehensible, and sometimes they simply explain that what is shown may not be visually appealing, but there is no harm to the animal,” says Mark Crouser with CFI. “Their goal is to provide an independent evaluation of what the video shows to reduce the sensationalism that normally accompanies an undercover video, with CFI facilitating that process.”

Each panel includes a veterinarian, an ethicist and an animal scientist to assure animal care, veterinary medicine and ethics are considered in the evaluation.

The most recent panel to review an undercover dairy video, released in December, included Dr. Jim Reynolds, a professor of large animal medicine and welfare at Western University; Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and Dr. Raymond Anthony, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Alaska – Anchorage.

Dr. Jim Reynolds, a professor of large animal medicine and welfare at Western University; Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and Dr. Raymond Anthony, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Alaska – Anchorage.

Progressive Dairyman reached out to each panelist to learn more about their experience and their perspective on the current state of animal welfare.

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What are you watching for when you review animal abuse videos?

REYNOLDS: I have been a bovine veterinarian for more than 32 years and have been involved in nearly every type of situation that can occur regarding animal health, treatment, handling and management, including the good and the bad. I look to see if animals are being treated with respect in any given situation.

Is an animal being abused? Is it distressed or in fear? Is it in pain? I look to see if the incident depicted is actually good and reasonable management that has been misinterpreted by the undercover videographer or if the incident is inappropriate and is causing fear, pain or distress to the animal or animals.

If there is abuse or mistreatment, is it an isolated incident or does it occur multiple times; is it systematic? Is the facility causing problems such as slips and falls or animal movement issues? Are workers trained to handle animals appropriately or are they trained to abuse animals?

GRANDIN: When I watch an undercover video, I look for obvious abuse, such as beating cows, kicking cows or dragging animals.

ANTHONY: When I watch and reflect on these videos, I consider if the depicted animals in these vignettes endure suffering and if they are being treated with appropriate respect. I consider if those handling the animals act in humane and professional manner. These reflections are based on ethical principles and norms and science-informed guidelines.

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I often look at a video at least three to four times. I consider the perspective of the farm’s overall health, culture and the management system. Then, I consider whether or not the specific instances of abuse or neglects are systematic, intentional, accidental or a result of ignorance, poor training and supervision.

What most alarms you in what you’ve seen?

REYNOLDS: Unfortunately, many videos depict systematic disregard for the welfare of animals. Down cattle are shown being beaten, dragged or moved with hip-lifts. Calves get dehorned with electric dehorners without anesthetics. Cows are beaten to get them into parlors. Essentially, the alarming part is the repeated acts of cruelty to animals on the filmed farms.

GRANDIN: I am most alarmed when people do deliberately cruel acts to cows such as kicking them in the head or poking cows with a pitchfork.

ANTHONY: Often, many of the abuse or neglect videos we see highlight callous behavior or the improper fit between the temperament of someone who has been hired as a stockperson or farm worker and the responsibilities involved in delivering care to the animals.

The videos tend to target specific persons who are usually overworked, underpaid, expendable, have little training or sympathies towards animals. Little attention is given to the overall culture of the farm, systemic issues like adequate training or to the responsibilities of managers and supervisors, for example, that could ultimately promote better universal animal care and handling.

How can dairy producers keep these situations from happening?

REYNOLDS: Do what they say they are doing. No one who owns animals wants them abused. Everyone says they take care of their cattle correctly. However, some farms simply lack the understanding of how animals are really supposed to be cared for and how to manage employees regarding animal welfare.

It is really very simple: Do what is best for the animal in front of you. The right thing to do for down cattle is to examine them, determine if they are suffering and try to make a diagnosis about the reason for them being down. Humanely euthanize the animal if it is suffering and cannot be treated successfully.

Move the animal appropriately on a sled or in a large tractor bucket, being very careful about the edge of the bucket. It is not appropriate to drag a cow or move her with a hip-lift. It will never be appropriate to dehorn calves without local anesthesia and analgesics.

If cattle slip and fall, fix the slippery area. If cattle are reluctant to enter the parlor, fix the problem. Move the cattle without forcing them. Train people who work with calves and cows what welfare is, what the animals need and work with them to continually improve the welfare of animals on the farm.

We do this with nutrition, mastitis control and fresh cow health, and we should be able to learn how to care for animals properly.

GRANDIN: To prevent abuse, dairy managers must not understaff or overwork employees. When they get too tired, they will get rough. Managers must do a good job of supervising employees. There are a few people who enjoy hurting animals, and they must be removed. Employers also need to receive training and gain a better understanding of cow behavior.

ANTHONY: Vigilance and initiative. Supervisors and managers must ensure a positive work environment and selection of qualified and compassionate personnel. Training and supervision are essential to respectful handling and care of food animals.

Abuses cannot be tolerated and must be addressed swiftly. Good practices by farm workers should also be publicized and rewarded. As much as possible, dairy producers should try to keep abreast of ways to improve the welfare of their animals by participating in animal and dairy welfare workshops and sharing information among each other and with society.

It is becoming increasingly important to the public that animal agricultural practices are made transparent. Perhaps popular social media platforms can be used to highlight good farm practices.

Do you think ag-gag legislation is a benefit or hindrance to animal welfare?

REYNOLDS: The only way we fix problems is to recognize them. Ag-gag laws are misguided attempts to control access to information, and people see through them quickly. Consumers should be confident in products we buy, not suspicious about the process.

The best way to make undercover videos go away is to treat the animals on farms well consistently and not provide evidence of systematic abuse. It is good that someone is willing to bring problems to light so these issues can be addressed.

GRANDIN: Ag-gag legislation is the most stupid thing agriculture has done. It tells the public that farmers are guilty and have something to hide. More dairies need to open their doors, like the Fair Oaks Farm that has become a tourist attraction.

ANTHONY: Ag-gag whistle-blower suppression legislation is designed to deter investigation of animal abuses on the farm, thus curtailing reporting of abuses. At the state level, legislation can take many forms, and the individual circumstances of the cases should be considered.

Broadly speaking, if food producers inculcate best practices voluntarily as the norm, and the public is satisfied that they are doing their best to promote animal welfare, and if the industry makes its practices more transparent in accordance with public demand for such transparency, this may make this form of legislation superfluous.

In your opinion, what is the number one animal welfare concern facing the dairy industry today?

REYNOLDS: Down cows continue to be a real problem in the dairy industry. Many, many dairies are handling them appropriately, but too many dairies are still creating too many down cows and then abusing them by moving them inappropriately and not providing them with shelter, water and feed.

Humane on-farm euthanasia continues to be a real problem. Too many calves and cows are left to suffer while they die. The moment we decide an animal is suffering, we must end the suffering either by medical treatment, slaughter or euthanasia.

We still see cattle euthanized incorrectly. Tranquilizers followed by exsanguination or IV salts is not humane. The moment of euthanasia is extremely important to the animal and must be done humanely.

Lameness is a serious problem within the industry that has improved in many regions but we still need to address. Cows are lame because they hurt; they have pain. Lame cows and calves need to be addressed quickly as true medical problems.

GRANDIN: Lameness is a major issue for the dairy industry. Dairy managers need to be good managers to avoid more nasty undercover videos.

ANTHONY: There are many improvements that are equally deserving of attention.

The ones that come to mind immediately include dairy calf welfare (e.g., separation from the cow, proper colostrum feeding, social housing, adequate access to milk, forages, concentrate and water during weaning), reduction of production diseases, proper nutrition during the dry period, training staff to have a respectful attitude toward individual animals so that they can recognize when animals are distressed and promptly act upon it, better technology and practices to handle downer cows, re-evaluation of the need to perform mutilatory practices such as tail docking, inclusion of pain management protocols on standard farm procedures such as dehorning and promotion of overall herd health by following current veterinarian and animal care recommendations.

What single message would you provide to dairy farm employees when it comes to caring for livestock?

REYNOLDS: Do what is best for the animal in front of you.

GRANDIN: Employees and managers need to look at everything they do and say to themselves, “How would this look if it was shot on a mobile phone and put on the Internet?” “How would your wedding guests from New York or Chicago react if they saw what you were doing?”

ANTHONY: Seek out training in animal care and welfare and consider the impact of your behavior on an animal’s welfare. Demand better supervision from management so that a healthy professionalism can be cultivated as part of the culture of the farm.

Your actions have consequences – for yourself, the farm where you work, your community and family, and the animals under your care. Know your rights so that you can be a more responsible stockperson. PD

karen lee

Karen Lee
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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