"When searching for new employees at Willet Dairy, we look for skilled people who know how to handle animals and their illnesses, chief operating officer Lyn Odel told Farm Credit of Maine in 2006. But one look at undercover video shot at New York state's largest dairy in Locke, released this week, makes his remark sound like a sick joke.
One worker repeatedly forces his finger deeply into the eye sockets of calves to hold them in place while he burns off their horn buds. One calf collapses from the pain and hangs by a rope around her neck while the worker lifts her by her tail and continues with the second horn. As smoke from the burning flesh envelopes the bellowing calves, they then have their tails docked--an amputation procedure so painful and unnecessary, it is banned in five European countries and opposed by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Downed cows were left to suffer for as much as 12 days writes Mike, the humane investigator who shot the video for Mercy For Animals (MFA) after being hired as a maintenance worker last year. One worker, he writes in a diary, was shocked when a "dead" cow he was moving with a forklift "[expletive] move a little bit."
The downer cows, denied veterinary care or euthanasia, also experienced terror says veterinarian Holly Cheever after viewing the video. "Any cow, as a prey and not a predator species, experiences terror due to her immobility, since she knows she is helpless to protect herself with her instinctive fight or flight response."
Cows with hemorrhagic uterine prolapses at the more than 7,000-animal Willet dairy were ignored for weeks as they progressed to necrotic states and death--and cows who left pools of blood when they walked (also denied veterinary care) provided milk for the public says Mike.
FDA records show harmful drugs were detected at least twice in Willet cows sold as meat--the antibiotic sulfadimethoxine at excessive levels and the antibiotic gentamicin, not allowed in edible tissues at all--after inspection. "Our investigation found that you hold animals under conditions which are so inadequate that diseased and/or medicated animals bearing potentially harmful drug residues in edible tissues are likely to enter the food supply," wrote FDA officials, Jerome G. Woyshner and Brenda J. Holman to the dairy farm. Virtually all dairy cows are sold for their flesh at four or five years, a fraction of their natural lifespan, when profitability decreases.
At Willet dairy, the animals' drinking water was "opaque brown, with chunks of feed, manure, and other debris floating on top," writes Mike and troughs and drains were never cleaned, according to a dairy mechanic. One employee even deliberately contaminated the cows' drinking water by dipping his feces-covered tools in the water troughs for spite.
The employee, believed to have worked at Willet Dairy for nineteen years, boasts of and enacts such violence against animals, he is named in the Mercy For Animals complaint to Jon E. Budelmann, the District Attorney Cayuga County in Auburn, New York submitted last August.
"What do you think that wrench did to her?" the worker asks Mike, recounting a violence incident using one of his tools. "Cracked her right over the [expletive] skull."
"With her head in a headlock?" asks Mike.
"Yep. Dropped her right down. [yells] Stupid b*tch!"
The employee also describes braining a bull with a two by four and then kicking its genitals, "stomping" an animal by jumping off of a gate and onto her head repeatedly and brutalizing a tied up calf so badly the manager asks why it's so bruised.
While newborns at Willet are allowed to die from the cold--many freezing to death in unheated, coffin-like tin sheds spaced every few feet in the snow--their mothers also suffer. Video shows the cows following their days-old calves as they are pulled away by one or two legs to become veal, vocalizing plaintively. They "run around the box stalls" searching for their offspring "for days" a worker confirms.
After finding a severely ill calf at 8:30 in the morning, the worker responsible for newborns tells Mike she was "cold" and would soon be dead. But "at 4:30 p.m. the dying calf was still in the same place, her throat barely expanding and contracting in slow breaths" writes Mike. "Her eyes were completely gray. I sat down beside her and stroked her hair. She did not respond, but when I got up to walk away, she let out a weak bleat, so I returned and continued to pet her."
Tipped off about the MFA video, Holstein World Online tells dairy producers to alert the "national issues management team" if reporters contact them "before making any statements beyond our general messaging on animal care and milk safety."
And what is the "general messaging"? In the past it has been shock at the video and a claim of ignorance along with a vow to investigate and apprehend the "bad apples" including ones they haven't known about for nineteen years.
But the grisly footage that every farm randomly chosen for investigation--MFA has investigated 11--seems to yield, indicates the violence is not isolated, not coincidental, but agribusiness-as-usual.
Even Lyn Odel admits Willet Dairy is not unusual. "We don't farm any different than anybody else does up and down this road," the Syracuse New Times quotes him saying in 2008 when neighbors complained about the dairy. "This is about the nature of our business, about how we farm. It's not about Willet. It's about the dairy industry."
Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health, is distributed by Random (more...)