The cruelty against pigs videotaped at West Coast Farms in Oklahoma last year was so sickening Tyson Foods immediately dropped the supplier. The National Pork Producers Council demanded that authorities “bring criminal charges against workers who abused animals.” Yet a year later, workers have apparently not been charged and may have fled town as the Creek County District Attorney’s office drags its feet.
Video shot at the West Coast Farms in Okfuskee County by an undercover worker for Mercy For Animals last year “shows pigs being kicked, hit, and thrown, as well as pigs being slammed into the floor to kill them,” said NBC news. “On three separate occasions, I reported abuse to the owner,” said the undercover worker but “After each report, the abuse continued by workers, and all of the workers I questioned told me that that owner had not spoken to them recently about animal handling.”
When confronted with footage from West Coast Farms, Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said, “We’re extremely disappointed by the mistreatment shown in the video and will not tolerate this kind of animal mishandling” and that Tyson is immediately “terminating our contract with this farmer and will take possession of the animals remaining on the farm.”
The National Pork Producers Council said “providing humane and compassionate care for pigs at every stage of life is one of the ethical principles to which U.S. pork producers adhere. U.S. pork producers are committed to caring for animals in a way that protects their well-being. Just as it is to others, abuse of animals is appalling to pork producers. Farmers do not defend and will not accept abuse of animals.”
Yet, when I recently asked Assistant Creek County District Attorney Glen Hickerson if any of the suspects were interviewed and if he knew if they were still in town, he answered, “I recently received additional information from the Okfuskee County Sheriff’s Office which spurred my request for some additional information,” in an email. “I will not be able to comment or be in a position to make a filing decision until I have received all the information requested.”
What’s the District Attorney’s office is waiting for?
In a 25-page affidavit hand-delivered to Max Cook, the District Attorney for Okfuskee County a year ago, six employees were identified in specific acts by the undercover worker who had worked at West Coast Farms.
An employee called Faustino allegedly struck a non-ambulatory sow with a “wooden sorting board” to try to make her walk. Jose Manuel Martinez was documented allegedly gouging a sow’s eyes with his fingers, bashing many piglets and throwing a bowling ball at a sow’s head while laughing. An employee known as Armando allegedly “spiked” piglets to the ground like they were footballs from four feet away before killing them. Maria Martin allegedly ignored a dying downer piglet pathetically twitching for over three hours. Piglets she allegedly slammed against the wall to “kill” were still kicking and breathing afterwards and when told about one survivor, she allegedly smiled.
Photos, license plate numbers and, in some cases, home addresses of the employees allegedly committing the acts were provided to the district attorney’s office–literally doing their work for them. Yet charges have apparently not been filed, likely letting the perpetrators elude punishment. Hickerson did not answer whether the suspects had even been interviewed.
To reporters who cover charges of farm animal abuse, the West Coast Farms case reveals two confounding themes. One is the willingness of authorities to allow the same farm operators and regulators who permitted abuse to self-police. After the video surfaced, Lonnie Herring, West Coast Farms owner, told NBC he had “a renewed commitment to animal care” and planned to pay more attention to activity on the farm. “I can do better than this video shows and will do better in the future,” he said.
“Self-policing” works so well that the Los Angeles Times wrote in 2008, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has 7,800 pairs of eyes scrutinizing 6,200 slaughterhouses and food processors across the nation. But in the end, it took an undercover operation by an animal rights group to reveal that beef from ill and abused cattle had entered the human food supply.” The Times was referring to downer dairy cattle rammed with forklift blades, electric shocked and “waterboarded” by employees to make them walk at Hallmark Meat Co.
The other confounding theme is outright contempt for animal abuse complaints themselves. After seeing the West Coast Farms images, Maxey Reilly, assistant district attorney for Okfuskee County, said “If I do decide this warrants more action, I will still mount an independent investigation. I don’t want to be pressured into doing something that’s not right.” How could hitting sows with boards and bowling balls and gouging their eyes not “warrant more action?” Reilly said she needed to learn more about “industry standards.” Who knows? Maybe they were acceptable practices!
The Oklahoma district attorneys are not alone in putting animal abuse last. After gruesome tail-docking and horn-burning at Willet Dairy in Cayuga County, NY was shown on Nightline, CNN and ABC in 2009, Assistant District Attorney Diane Adsit of the Cayuga County DA office reportedly said “who cares” when asked to bring charges–she had “human” cases to deal with.
Thanks to such attitudes, the West Coast Farms perpetrators may already be working at a new pork operation while the Creek County District Attorney’s office seeks “additional information.”
Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).