By Connor Lynch
CHILLIWACK — Three young farm workers were sentenced to jail time last month in an animal cruelty case in British Columbia.
The three B.C. farm workers pled guilty to charges of animal cruelty. Travis Keefer was sentenced to seven days in jail and is barred from owning animals for one year. The other two men, Jamie Visser and Chris Vandyk, each were sentenced to 60 days in jail and are barred from owning animals for three years. All three sentences will be served on the weekends. Four more farm workers were to appear in court May 29.
Chilliwack Cattle Sales Ltd. first found itself in trouble after an undercover animal activist with Mercy for Animals released a short video in 2014 that was collected while working at the farm for one month. The two-and-a-half-minute video included incidents of farm workers beating cows with rubber implements to get them into the rotary parlour. Two or three workers sometimes appeared to strike a cow firmly with rubber canes, and at other times swung the canes hard with two hands, kicked the cows, or beat them forcibly, rapidly and repeatedly. A worker was filmed striking a cow with a length of chain with a hook attached to it as the cow lay in a stall. Another was recorded kicking a cow in the face repeatedly as another worker kicked it from behind. A cow was also lifted by a chain wrapped around its neck with a tractor to get it out of tight space. Another worker punched the cow three times in the face as it was being raised. The cow was then set on the ground and stood up.
At one point, a farm worker was recorded jumping into the air and forcefully thrusting a needle into a cow’s hindquarters, and the cow appeared to stagger.
Another worker was filmed striking a cow in the ankle with an implement as it was walking towards the milking parlour, which caused it to trip.
One worker was filmed squeezing a wound on a cow’s leg causing pus to squirt out.
During part of the footage, two cows appeared to be trapped on the edge of the milking parlour in the same aisle, and one appeared to be dragged by the parlour as it rotated.
The farm, which is the largest dairy farm in Canada, was fined $300,000 last year, after the farm owners both pled guilty to charges of causing an animal to be in distress.
Farm co-owner, Jeff Kooyman, told CBC News in 2014, after the video first surfaced, that “the guys were going crazy. I couldn’t imagine how people could do that to animals.”
Director of producer relations and communications for the BC Dairy Association, Trevor Hargreaves, told Farmers Forum that what happened in the Mercy for Animals videos was “unequivocally” not a normal farm practice and “if I’d told farmers that this could happen, not one would agree.”
Lifting a downer cow is “something that is done,” he said, but “they weren’t doing it in a manner that was acceptable. When the association was first shown the footage, board members were completely dumbstruck and completely upset. This is something that we thought could never happen in the province. This was not the owner of the farm. You’d never see a farmer treating his animals that way.”
Though rare, it’s not unheard of for a Canadian farmer or farm worker to go to jail for animal cruelty. Farmers Forum did not find any cases in Ontario but a beef farmer in Manitoba was sentenced to a 45-day jail sentence in 2014 for neglecting 67 animals to the point of starvation in 2011. Fifty-two other animals were near the point of starvation.
In his judgement, Judge Gary Cohen included numerous mitigating factors for the defendants, including the fact that they weren’t adequately trained, and that the undercover activist filmed for a month, and the longest video produced was six minutes.
Keefer received the lightest sentence because he committed the least violence and Cohen ruled that his actions were more motivated by trying to meet the requirements of his job than “wanton disregard for the well-being of the animals in his care.”
Another mitigating factor in sentencing was the fact that workers were under serious pressure, and had to move as many as 2,800 cows through a milking carousel in one shift.
In Cohen’s sentencing, he noted both the fact that Keefer struck a cow on its hocks to get it to move and that he also was documented punching a cow, jabbing one in the face with a metal pole, and twisting the tail of a cow until it made a popping sounds, but did not distinguish between the two, or what importance each played in Keefer’s sentencing.
Cohen noted that incidents involving Vandyk, however, “show examples of violence that have no obvious explanation and so appear to be nothing less than examples of wanton cruelty.” Those included punching a bull in the testicles, kicking a downed cow, pulling out cows’ tail hairs, and throwing feces at the cows, among other things.
Therese Beaulieu, assistant director of communications for Dairy Farmers of Canada, told Farmers Forum that what was depicted in the video does not represent a normal farm practice.
“Certainly, Mercy for Animals was trying to depict this as a normal practice when it’s not,” said Beaulieu.
Farm and Food Care Ontario, The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity and the Dairy Farmers of Canada, declined to comment on the specifics of the case when contacted by Farmers Forum.