By Connor Lynch
CHILLIWACK — One of last year’s most stunning stories was of a dairy farm in Chilliwack, B.C., where six farm workers were sent to prison in a national-headline grabbing animal cruelty case.
Court submissions from a defence lawyer recently obtained by Farmers Forum paint the portrait of one of those involved.
An undercover video shot by Mercy for Animals emerged in 2014, shot by an activist on the dairy farm. Including clips of men hitting dairy cattle with canes and chains, it showed animals trapped in the parlour and one clip of a dairy cow being lifted by a chain around her neck.
Seven men who worked on the farm were convicted last fall. Six of them went to jail. Among them was 18-year-old Brad Genereux. He was sentenced to 45 days behind bars, to be served on weekends, and banned from caring for large animals, with an exception so he could keep his job at another farm. He had no prior criminal record.
But submissions from his defence lawyer, Edward Cooper, last June don’t paint a picture of a reckless animal abuser so much as a young man under significant pressure making poor decisions while being held to exacting standards.
There was no dispute of the facts. But the submissions put them in a new context. On May 9 and 21, he struck a cow with a cane. On May 7, he pushed a rake in a cow’s face to keep it from mounting one of his co-workers. Said Cooper: “Your Honour saw a very short video clip of Mr. Genereux pushing the rake towards the cow’s face. The context of that is Mr. Williams, Matthew Williams, the person with the camera was just beginning working there. He was with the cow, he had been there just minutes before and the cow was rubbing its head against Mr. Williams and that’s a sign that the cow is in heat and when cows are in heat they — I don’t know a better word, they mount other cows, and Mr. Genereux was concerned about Mr. Williams’ safety because he wasn’t getting away from the cow and Mr. Genereux was concerned that the cow was going to try to mount Mr. Williams and injure him and pushed the cow away with the rake.”
Genereux also attached a milking machine to a bull’s testicles. It’s not clear exactly why, but the portrait painted by the proceedings suggests a frustrating and intense work environment where employees blew off steam however they could, sometimes in very inappropriate ways.
Compare that to the sentence another defendant, Travis Keefer, received. He got seven days in jail, the lightest of any of the defendants, because Judge Gary Cohen believed his actions to be motivated more by trying to do his job than “wanton disregard,” of the animals. Said Cooper: Keefer beat a cow with a cane on May 6; “twisting a tail to the point that it makes a popping sound or a snap and that was on May 12. And then beating the cow with a cane while it was in the parlour, on May 13. Hit the cow in the head with a steel pipe on May 13 and hitting the cow — cows on May 14. The pull — he pulls on a bull’s testicles. There’s a number of different things, grabbing cow’s udders, which I’ll stop there.”
Added Cooper: “They were told to pinch the cow’s udders in . . . an effort to get them to move. He kicked and stomped a downed cow on May 16, punched a cow on May 23 and he was — participated in the lifting of the cow on May 28. He was the one that put the chain around the cow’s neck.”
As Cooper pointed out, “Your Honour can’t really see the mind of the cow.”
Convincing cows to testify as to how distressed they are is difficult at best, but Genereux was facing strict liability offences. A strict liability offence means the only relevant question is, did the defendant do it or not. Why, how, what his intentions were or the context don’t matter. Factors like trying to prevent a co-worker from being injured are at best mitigating factors, reducing a sentence but not eliminating culpability.
In Ontario, causing distress to an animal is actually defined. But part of the definition leaves itself dangerously open to interpretation, said Ottawa-based ag lawyer Kurtis Andrews.
In Ontario, “distress means the state of being in need of proper care, water, food or shelter or being injured, sick or in pain or suffering or being abused or subject to undue or unnecessary hardship, privation or neglect.”
One word stands out. “I find hardship to be extremely subjective,” Andrews said. He’s not the only one. A raid of 16 Amish farms in the Lucknow area in Bruce County in 2012 saw the OSPCA seize 73 dogs. According to spokesperson Alison Cross, many dogs suffered from medical problems involving their skin, eyes, ears and teeth.
But not all the cases. Orders were also issued to some Amish families to give their dogs toys, because they lacked sufficient environmental stimulation, Andrews said. The OSPCA can only issue orders to relieve animals of distress.
Far from the courts, the animal police are often the ones most often interpreting what is or is not distress.
If farmers want to defend against this, they need an expert to weigh in. That’s why Andrews recommends that if you get wind that the OSPCA isn’t happy with conditions on your farm, get your veterinarian in at any cost. It’ll save massively on legal costs down the road, and if an OSPCA officer chooses to disagree with a veterinarian’s expert opinion in a legal setting, it’s not a fight they’re likely to win, he said.
“You need that opinion documented, and to hold it as your potential get-out-of-jail-free card.”