By Connor Lynch
TAVISTOCK — An ammonia leak that destroyed a hog farm and sent one farmer spiraling into severe depression has taken another tragic turn. The devastated hog farmer is now facing numerous animal cruelty charges.
Tavistock-area farmer, 28-year-old Benjamin Stein, pleaded guilty to four provincial charges in a Simcoe courthouse last month.
Over a year ago, Stein was amongst “the Rolls-Royce of pork producers in Ontario,” said his lawyer, Ron Ellis.
But an ammonia leak from manure storage on the farm decimated the herd. Stein was overwhelmed, unable to cope with the stress, and the animals went unattended, Ellis said. Ammonia gas can cause severe damage to the eyes, and if inhaled will burn the inside of the mouth and throat, and can cause the complete collapse of the respiratory system, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, a U.S. federal public health agency.
On Feb. 17 last year Stein’s farm was raided by Ontario Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) officers. Inside the barn, officers discovered more than 1,000 dead and dying hogs. They found that hogs had been eating the carcasses. Other sick hogs had to be destroyed, the OSPCA said. Ultimately, 1,500 hogs died or were later destroyed.
Stein was in need of help when the OSPCA officers arrived. “He was suicidal and was found to have had a shotgun, ready to kill himself,” Ellis said.
OSPCA inspectors cut holes in the side of the barn to release the vile odour. One inspector fell through a grate in the floor and ended up waist-deep in water saturated with animal corpses and waste, Ellis said.
Ellis said that the tragedy could have been avoided if Stein hadn’t succumbed to his mental health struggles. “If (the dead animals) had been cleaned up initially, there was nothing wrong with the barn. The systems were functioning.”
Stein will appear in court on April 26.