He seemed just another guy looking for work, hungry enough to sign on for the midnight shift in the milking barn of the Chilliwack Cattle Co., the largest dairy operation in Canada. He had no inside knowledge about the operation, or how it treated its 3,500 head of cattle; it was just the first company to hire him. His initial shift as a milker was April 30, the start of a month from hell, for he wasn’t a rookie farmhand but a modestly paid investigator for a young Canadian non-profit group, Mercy for Animals, equipped with a hidden camera.
It soon became clear there was little about life on the night shift that resembled the heavily marketed image of milk as the wholesome product of contented cows. Instead, workers used rakes, pipes, chains, workboots and fists to whip and pummel helpless cows. There were cows with open sores and infections. Ailing cows had chains wrapped around their necks and were hoisted onto their hind legs with a tractor. “Woo hoo! Leave her like that, leave her hangin’,” shouted one worker as a cow dangled from the hoist. All this was surreptitiously recorded on video, and outlined in a 25-page complaint sent to the RCMP in Chilliwack and the cruelty investigations team of the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA). Constables for the SPCA launched an investigation and announced June 9 that they had submitted a report to the B.C. Crown attorney’s office recommending Criminal Code charges against eight employees for “wilfully causing unnecessary pain, suffering and injury to animals.”
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The investigation continues and the Crown has yet to determine if charges will be laid. But the video, which has gone viral, has already had a devastating impact, adding to Mercy for Animals’ growing reputation as a potent force for animal welfare. The B.C. Dairy Association is co-operating with the SPCA. David Taylor, chairman of the association, said the group is “deeply concerned and saddened.” The Chilliwack Cattle Co. quickly hired a media public relations company and issued a statement by Jeff Kooyman, a co-owner of the company: “These allegations are extremely serious and we are devastated by the thought that animals in our care have been harmed.” Days later Kooyman announced the workers in the video had been terminated, and the company, which supplies much of its product to the Dairyland brand, will be working with the SPCA to improve training to new employees, and will put all staff through a course on animal welfare. “Further to this, the company will be installing closed-circuit cameras to ensure round-the-clock security for the cows.” Amid calls for a boycott, Saputo, Canada’s largest dairy producer and owner of the Dairyland brand, issued a statement saying, “We will not accept milk from the B.C. Milk Marketing Board supplied by this farm until we are fully satisfied that strict animal welfare practices are in place.”
Mercy for Animals, modelled on a related U.S. charity, began Canadian operations two years ago. Where groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) rely on outrageous stunts, Mercy, operating on a modest $350,000 budget last year, sends people undercover into factory farms. The Chilliwack case is its sixth, and all yielded stomach-churning examples of abuse and neglect, including a Quebec veal farm where calves were chained into crates and often beaten; an Ontario chicken hatchery where chicks that fail the grade are scalded to death or ground alive; a Manitoba farm where pregnant pigs are jammed in cages so small they are unable to move. The group doesn’t rely on tips; investigators work where they get hired. Because of the random selection, said Anna Pippus, director of legal advocacy, “it leads us to believe cruelty runs rampant throughout the factory farming industry.”
While the pro-vegan organization advocates for laws requiring farm inspections and enforceable cruelty standards, it’s the undercover work that draws attention and shock value. The male and female investigators, ranging from accountants to tradespeople, are trained in hidden-camera work, record keeping and safety strategies to extract themselves from risky situations. “They love animals and it’s hard for them to stand back and document [abuse],” said Twyla Francois, director of investigations and a former investigator herself. She acts as their handler. “I check in with them every day. We talk about how they’re doing, how they’re coping with what they’re seeing.” The agent at Chilliwack, while careful not to blow his cover, reported abuses and intervened when he could, she said. “I think they learned to tune him out, unfortunately.” He quit before the video was released and is working at another factory farm, one of several investigations under way. “He’s hardcore,” Francois said with pride.