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Concerned Citizens and Vilified Farmers: Thoughts on Animal Welfare Complaints

The growing divide between farmer and citizen intersects at the topic of animal welfare. 

I received a call today from a concerned citizen who was worried about some cattle that had been left out for the winter.  I was happy that they called me first instead of the authorities, and we had a calm and intelligent conversation about animal welfare and the realities of animal husbandry on farms.  Although motivated by good intentions, her understanding of livestock anatomy was not complete.  My job is to provide just this information to whoever may need it.  As I was speaking to this person, I realized that each party, the farmer and the citizen, was completely ignorant of the other’s intentions and concerns.  So in this installment I am going to paint a picture of both parties to provide some understanding of where they are both coming from and how we can all work to be better communicators, farmers, and citizens. 

Cattle are particular well suited to the climate of the Northeast, so long as they are allowed to slowly adjust to the cold and make the necessary physical and metabolic changes necessary.

First off, let me paint a picture of Farmer Joe’s life so far.  Joe grew up with his 4 brothers and his parents on a diversified farm in the Hudson Valley.  He began working and learning about farming at a very young age.  He participated in 4-H and FFA and even won the dairy bowl one year.  As he entered his teens, his parents were adamant that he not take over the farm and he struggled watching his parents toil for little return.   Everything that Joe knows from farming he learned from his father and his peers.  These people were counseled and guided by various farm agencies across the land (including Cornell Cooperative Extension) in what were the best practices at the time. 

Now Joe is grown, and his parents have finally relinquished management of the farm to him and his family.  He does his best despite plunging milk prices, a droughty summer, and then last week a few concerned citizens calling the humane society, the state police, and the local livestock sanctuary over concerns about his dairy cattle.  They said that the cattle looked skinny, that they did not have a barn to live in, and that there was mud in the pasture.  Joe cannot understand that after having a hand in raising thousands of animals the best way he knows how, and after winning many awards for his practices and herd health, that he is now the subject of an animal cruelty investigation.  Joe is devastated and angry.  Why would these people single him out?  He is just getting by, his animals are well cared for, and he would never abuse any animal. 

The reason he is singled out is that typical citizens are so far removed from agriculture that they do not understand the realities of farm animals or most animals for that matter.  With our big brains full of empathy but low on understanding, it is easy to anthropomorphize animals in the wild and on farms.  Most people who make these calls are genuinely concerned and that is a great thing.  What is also great is that what the farm is doing is transparent for all to see.  Joe is not hiding his techniques, and he is even active on social media showing off his farms everyday.  It’s when farming practices are obscured that we should get worried.   I understand that these people think these animals may be being abused, but regardless of your stance on animal cognition it is obvious that animals are much better adapted to environmental stressors than our fleshy, heat losing bodies.  Cattle are particular well suited to the climate of the Northeast, so long as they are allowed to slowly adjust to the cold and make the necessary physical and metabolic changes necessary.   In order to naturally adapt, they need to spend time outside, to allow the lowering temps to trigger them to grow heavier hair coats, for fewer hours of light to slow their metabolism, and for the fresh air to help to contain diseases that tend to thrive in the crowded conditions you would find in a barn but never in nature.  Cattles’ hooves are flat and fat because they tend to walk on grass and in muddy wet surfaces.  These are just a few of the many adaptations that animals have developed for a life outside.

On the other side of the fence we have the concerned citizens.  These folks did not grow up in agriculture.  They have been bombarded by commercials and exposes outlining some very horrific animal husbandry practices on commodity farms and are demanding more accountability in agriculture. There are agendas and budgets and lobbies that are focused on making you support their particular organization.  They have developed scientifically calculated campaigns designed to both elicit emotions for either side and to open up your wallet and take a bite. This media presence has caused folks to see all production models as inherently unhealthy for people and animals alike, and they feel they are providing a voice for the abused and the voiceless.  What the folks who called the authorities didn’t understand is that the last thing this farmer wants is for his animals to be hurt or hungry. Not only does it hurt his bottom line, but it goes directly against everything he was taught.  Not every farm is a disgusting filth pit of death and not every farm is the idyllic white picket fence yard.  Farms are in between and those who criticize would do themselves a great service if they were actively visiting farms and speaking with their local producers.   And that is where Cornell Cooperative comes in.  My hope is to continue educating all of those that I meet, to listen and take in what each party is concerned about.  We are all part of the same community, and embedded in that word is communication.  As soon as we shut someone out because of their basic views, we are doing everyone a disservice. 

When the authorities come to Joe’s he feels betrayed and removed from his local community.  He is bombarded by accolades in some circles and then vilified in others and all for doing what he thinks is right.  When this happens it only reinforces his and the farming community’s fear of folks they consider to be extremists.  This anger only manages to further divide the community and shut down the dialogue.   

We are now actively seeking to develop a response team with the local Sheriff’s office and the ASPCA to address livestock abuse investigations.  So if you see something that bothers you, call me.  If you don’t understand why a farmer is doing something, call me.  If you would like for me to host a class that brings together farmers and citizens to have a safe, and productive dialogue about farming, let me know.  If you love animals like I do and want to talk about your pet pig Fluffy, call me.  The point is that through education and dialogue we can all increase our understanding of animals and the roles they play in our lives. 

I know this is controversial and there is a LOT more to say on this subject. One of the best things that farmers can do, at the risk of being vilified, is to show animals in their true state in the winter.  Many dogs live outside year round and would overheat inside next to the hearth.  Cows sometimes get muddy and ice forms on their coats.  Basically, make your farming transparent so that the norm will no longer be the white picket fence yard of an ornamental farm.  And the best thing citizens interested in the welfare of the animals they see on farms can do is talk to their neighbor.  Ask them questions or for a tour of the property, and most importantly, speak to them.  Instead of anonymously calling the sheriff’s department, introduce yourself and start a conversation.  Don’t privilege what you watch on television or read in magazines over the knowledge of the members of your community.  We can’t effect change in our community unless we all work together. 


Jason Detzel

Jason Detzel is the Livestock Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extensive in Ulster County. He can be reached by phone at 845-340-3990 ext. 327

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