May 10th, 2008 by Westminster Eagle columnist Kevin Dayhoff (1,997 words)
Author’s note: A shorter version of the following was published on May 14, 2008 in the Westminster Eagle newspaper and The Tentacle – an online magazine.
On May 7, the Humane Society of the United States – HSUS - released videotape of an “undercover investigation” which claimed to show the “shocking abuse of ‘downer’ cows occurs not just at slaughter plants but … at livestock auctions and stockyards around the country.”
One of the stockyards “investigated” was the Westminster Livestock Auction (WLA.)
The event was to serve as a follow-up to the sensational video the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) released last January which “documented” an undercover investigation of conditions at the Westland/Hallmark Meat Packing Company of Chino, California.
The HSUS had hoped, in January, to stimulate some action on an initiative that began in earnest in 2002 which, according to a HSUS press release, resulted in Congress directing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) “to investigate the question of downed animals at livestock auctions and markets.”
The investigation was to include “the scope of problems, the causes, and the resulting cruel treatment of animals,” and follow up with “regulations to provide for the humane treatment, handling, and disposition of nonambulatory livestock by stockyards, market agencies, and dealers.”
Last February, shortly after the HSUS released the video of its “undercover investigation” of the Chino meat packing facility the USDA ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of beef that came from that California processing plant. As a consequence of the recall, the facility closed and has yet to re-open.
The HSUS had hoped “the largest meat recall in U.S. history,” would get Congress moving. It did not.
If anything, the video released in January further called in question the tactics of the HSUS. The video in question “documented” an incident at the Chino plant that was alleged to have happened four months earlier in October 2007.
In spite of the suggestion by Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS, that the video depicted, “torture … right out of the waterboarding manual,” and that the video “must serve as a five-alarm call to action for Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” the HSUS – curiously - sat on the video for four months before releasing it.
After four months more product was introduced into our nation’s food supply, the HSUS exclaimed, “Our government simply must act quickly both to guarantee the most basic level of humane treatment for farm animals and to protect America's most vulnerable people, our children, needy families and the elderly from potentially dangerous food.”
The 143 million pounds of beef recalled amounted to the volume of product processed in the four months the HSUS failed to produce the video.
USDA Secretary Ed Schafer said the recall was the result of “one cow that we know of went down just before moving into the gate, and we were supposed to be notified and were not,” in spite of a 2004 government requirement, as a precaution to prevent bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) from entering the food chain. The 2004 rule requires that livestock be able to walk after USDA inspection.
Speaking at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association conference shortly after the January HSUS video surfaced, Secretary Schafer, according the news reports, “condemned the treatment of the dairy cattle shown on the undercover video taken at a Hallmark Meat Packing Co. plant in Chino, Calif.”
However, he added “that ‘The Humane Society, since late October, has been willing to let animals suffer out there,’ rather than notify USDA immediately of the abuses.”
Secretary Schafer “ordered a review of the plant's practices and an inspector general's investigation of the company. He said that investigation has already uncovered violations of federal regulations.”
In February, Secretary Schafer reiterated that, “for four months, theoretically, animals were not being properly treated, and the Humane Society stood by and allowed it to happen,” according to the New York Times.
Fast-forwarding to the recent HSUS investigation, which involved the WLA, The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association put the matter in an additional context in a statement released on May 7:
“At noon today, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a long-time critic of animal agriculture in this country, released a video and news release calling attention to the alleged mishandling of downer cattle at livestock auction markets in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Texas.”
Livestock Marketing Association President Jim Santomaso then pointed out, “America’s 1,200 livestock marketing businesses annually handle an astounding number of livestock. In 2006, according to government figures, 35.6 million head of cattle and calves moved through those markets. The overwhelming majority of those markets practice appropriate handling of all livestock moving through their businesses – because proper handling is both a humane and economic necessity.”
Undaunted, the HSUS’s next step was to prove that state regulations of the livestock industry are inadequate. On May 7, the HSUS asserted that the “video evidence produced by this (recent) investigation clearly demonstrates that dairy farmers and auction houses have not solved the problems on their own—far from it.”
Mr. Pacelle emphasized on May 7th: “These new video images show that the rot in the factory farming system of raising animals goes much deeper. The problems are systemic, the laws and regulations are inadequate, and the industry's resolve insufficient.”
A press release which accompanied the press conference, claimed that the released video of “undercover investigation,” which included the Westminster Livestock Auction (WLA,) showed the “shocking abuse of ‘downer’ cows occurs not just at slaughter plants but may be an everyday happening at livestock auctions and stockyards around the country… Animals are “left to suffer for hours and in one instance overnight.”
The media immediately pounced upon the story like so many aroused vultures. The headlines screamed: “Sick Cows Abandoned To Die At Auction Houses” – “WUSA News 9 Now”: and the “Maryland Daily Record” web site cried, “Video: Mistreated cows at Maryland auction house.”
In the carefully choreographed press conference on May 7, Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle played the “undercover” video shot at the WLA and exclaimed: “This is just pitiful… This poor creature, too weak to move, just left there to languish and to die…”
For the animal lovers among us, and those of us who actually know “where our food comes from”; we understand that the integrity of the food chain is only maintained in the real world by constant vigilance. In that capacity, the HSUS has historically played an important role. It is concurrently critical that the HSUS remain above reproach in their advocacy.
Having some background in livestock auctions and hauling livestock from when I was much younger, I was curious. And a review of the video indicated immediately that it just didn’t add up.
“Every place we looked, we found problems with downed animals,” said Pacelle.
Well, everyplace I looked, I found problems with the HSUS’s allegations – and what may be “pitiful” is the HSUS’s “undercover investigation,” of the WLA on April 22. The more the “incident,” was looked into, the more the mysteries multiplied.
In the first seconds of the HSUS video, a cow that is unable to walk is filmed in the unloading gate at WLA.
In a follow up interview, Jim Horak Sr., the owner of the WLA since 2004, said that a hired trucker unloaded the cow at a busy moment that evening, just as “the man who handles the gate was (away) moving other cattle that had just been unloaded.” Please understand that this is occurring at a busy time at the stockyard, which handles as many as 800 or more head of livestock the evening of a sale.
When the “gatekeeper” returned just as the cow was unloaded, he found the cow “down.” Upon being told that the WLA did not accept livestock that cannot walk, the driver refused to take the cow back and quickly left.
The cow was immediately, “carefully,” moved outside of the gate and offered alfalfa hay, according to Horak. Meanwhile the owner of the cow was notified that the WLA would not accept delivery of the cow and that the owner had to come back and pick up the animal. The owner refused.
“They were not here to buy or sell anything – the cow was placed here to cause trouble,” concluded Horak.
Horak states he has handled thousands of animals and no one – until the HSUS - has ever questioned him before about how the yard handles animals.
Indeed, one of the immediate mysteries about this incident is how is it an HSUS undercover investigator just happened to be there for the “minutes” this one particular cow, out of hundreds of animals, was still in the unloading chute?
The fact that the cow was humanely moved is obvious. One of the most important advocacies of the HSUS is that diseased and sick cows - which the HSUS implies may even have “mad-cow disease” - are being inhumanely “dragged and prodded with inhumane handling methods, and increasing the threat of carrying and passing disease.”
One can be sure that if the cow had been handled inhumanely it would have appeared on the HSUS “undercover” video.
Later, “Fox 5” TV reported that it discovered the HSUS knew the cow was not sick or diseased and in fact knew the cow had just had an operation for a twisted stomach – and was in a post-surgical weakened state. Not only was that information not revealed by HSUS at the press conference - but one has to wonder just how the HSUS knew that information in the first place?
Another TV station, “WUSA,” said HSUS accused that “auction workers were unwilling to waste a bullet to shoot her, so she sat there all night, and into the next day, until investigators finally called local officials, and they euthanized her.”
An allegation vehemently denied by Mr. Horak, who noted that many of his employees have been with the stockyard for decades and are dedicated to the history and traditions of the livestock auction and are keenly aware of the proper handling of the animals. Moreover, none of his employees could recall talking with a representative of the HSUS or making any such remark.
The employees did recall feeding and looking after the welfare of the cow.
On May 2, a week before the press conference in which the video was shown, “The HSUS brought preliminary evidence of the abuse to the attention of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer … at a face-to-face meeting…”
In a letter handed to Secretary Schafer, HSUS claimed, “A downed cow left overnight at a Mid-Atlantic auction is shown. The day following the auction, she was filmed by HSUS investigators in an advanced state of physical distress. Her breathing was labored and she flailed helplessly on the ground. She had no protection from the elements and was without food or water for almost a day.”
However, Horak says that in spite of the fact that it could not stand (because of the surgery,) the cow not in distress. A fact of which is proven in the HSUS video, which one can be sure was edited to show the worse.
As far as the cow staying out overnight; that’s what cow’s do. They rarely if ever come into the farmhouse to watch TV at night. Furthermore, an employee checked on the cow at daybreak the next morning and gave it water and hay.
The cow died because hours later the HSUS called the local humane society which came out and shot the cow. The HSUS then put a picture of the dead cow on their press release.
If I ever have stomach surgery, please don’t take a video of me not being able to walk. Then claim “in distress,” and that I’ve been abused and have me shot by the local humane society so that a picture of my dead body can be put on a press release.
In a statement on May 7th, the Maryland Department of Agriculture said it is investigating. Perhaps what needs to be investigated is the HSUS’s “undercover investigations,” in its ongoing war on food.
Kevin Dayhoff is a retired nursery stock farmer and the former mayor of Westminster, whose family has farmed in Carroll and Fredrick County since the 1700s. He writes a regular column for the Westminster Eagle, the Sunday Carroll Eagle, and The Tentacle on current events, history, agriculture, and politics. He can be reached at: kevindayhoff AT gmail.com