Undercover dairy video shows "horrific animal abuse"

Oct 19, 2012

The most recent undercover video to be made public documented egregious abuse of dairy cows in the nation’s largest dairy farm. A team of experts assembled specifically to review such videos unanimously verified the actions depicted constitute actual abuse rather than out-of-context practices used to shock an uninformed public.

The video was captured by an agent of the animal rights group Mercy for Animals and was released Tuesday, Oct. 9 on a number of the group’s websites.

The covert videographer was hired as a milker on the dairy, located in Twin Falls County, Idaho, for a few weeks during August.

The three minute-long video shows multiple examples of workers beating cows with canes while standing in pens and milking stalls, milkers punching and kicking cows in the face, ostensibly to get them to leave milking stalls, and excessively aggressive and disturbing efforts to force cows who slipped in the milking stalls to get up.

In the several scenes dealing with apparently downed cows, workers are shown doing everything from jumping on their backs to kicking them to twisting tails to get them to move. One particularly bad scene showed workers chaining an alert downed cow by the neck and dragging her by tractor out of the milking barn. The closing scene shows a similar situation, though that cow appears to have been dead.

Among the more generalized issues depicted were severely lame cows, at least one of which had a broken leg, and a cow whose head got stuck in the raising gates on the milking stalls. She was lifted off her feet and effectively hung for a few unaided moments until she was able to free herself.

Though the video was only recently released publicly, it was turned over to the Twin Falls County Prosecutor shortly after creation. An investigation was initiated in late August against the men identified in the video. Misdemeanor cruelty charges were filed against Jesus Garza, Jose Acensio and Javier Victor Rojas Loayza. The men face fines of up to $5,000 and six months in jail if convicted.

The Animal Care Review Panel assembled by Center for Food Integrity is composed of several academic farm animal care specialists. Those who reviewed the video were animal behavioral specialist Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, Dr. Candace Croney of Purdue University, and Dr. Jim Reynolds of Western University. All three called the actions depicted in the video abusive in no uncertain terms.

“I watched the dairy video and the abuse of the downed cow with electric prods and dragging with the tractor. It was horrific animal abuse,” said Grandin. “The employees were constantly beating and kicking animals as hard as they could. The atrocious treatment of cows at this dairy is an indicator of a total lack of management supervision.

“If this abusive treatment had occurred at a slaughter plant, the plant would have been shut down by the USDA.”

Croney saw the behavior as an indictment on the dairy itself.

“The treatment of the animals in this video is scientifically and morally abhorrent. None of the people I saw in this video appears to have the training or compassion needed to work with animals. It’s not just that they’re improperly handling the animals—their attitudes are abusive, their language is abusive and what they are physically doing to these animals is abusive.

“As a woman, I would be afraid to work in that barn. The vulgar language and the repeated hitting and kicking even of cows that are doing nothing but standing in their stalls suggests an environment that is physically and psychologically unsafe. There are so many workers showing the same abusive attitude that there is clearly an issue with the culture at this dairy.”

Reynolds was apparently so disgusted with what he saw in the video, he voiced an opinion not often seen from the panel.

“There’s nothing in this video that can be defended or rationalized. I’m glad somebody is taking videos like this and showing them. Otherwise, the abuse seen in this video would not be corrected at this dairy. I hope they are prosecuted.”

Luis Bettencourt, the owner/operator of the dairy, said he was sick about what he saw in the videos.

“We don’t tolerate animal abuse. That’s a big issue for us. I love my animals and I’ve been in the dairy business since I was a kid.

Animal care is a number one issue in our facilities. We’ve been in business 30 years and we’ve never had this happen before. We’re all devastated here.”

Bettencourt has reportedly cooperated fully with the investigation and the Twin Falls County Prosecutor doesn’t believe management was aware of the mistreatment. Bettencourt also told the Associated Press he took swift action when he was made aware of the problem, including firing the milkers seen in the video, installing video surveillance systems in his milking barns, hiring an additional supervisor, and bringing the issue to his employees.

“[W]e also showed the video to all the rest of the employees in our dairies, all 500 employees, and they had to sign a deal that said they understand that there’s zero tolerance for animal abuse in our dairies.”

The video was taken at Dry Creek Dairy, the newest individual location which makes up Bettencourt Dairies. Overall, Bettencourt Dairies has 13 individual locations dotted across Twin Falls County which collectively milk around 60,000 cows. This number does not include dry cows, calves and replacement animals.

Bettencourt Dairies is the largest in the nation and has an annual milk production level which exceeds that of many states. Though its sheer scale invites the popular derision of “factory farm,” it is a family-owned and operated dairy, with Bettencourt being a third-generation dairyman who started off as a milker in his youth. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor