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No Charges Filed Yet in Dairy Atrocity Seen on Nightline


Cruelty vivid enough to inspire a Nightline investigation and appear on CNN and ABC's World News would seem to warrant district attorney charges.

But two months after a January television broadcast of calves' and heifers' tails cut off and horns burned with no painkiller and hours-old calves dragged away from their mothers, no charges have been filed against Willet Dairy in Cayuga County, NY by the district attorney's office.

The same footage of employees beating and kicking animals and digging their fingers into eye sockets that convinced Denver cheese maker Leprino Foods Co. to drop Willet as a milk supplier and Manhattan Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal to introduce anti tail-docking legislation - is "not necessarily illegal" says a statement from the Cayuga County District Attorney on YNN News 10.


Leprino clients include Domino's, Papa John's and Pizza Hut.

Tail docking is illegal in California, New Jersey, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and other European countries.

The decision to bring criminal charges says the District Attorney's office hinges on an investigation by a local animal group which is authorized to make animal cruelty arrests - the Finger Lakes Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) of Central New York - but in December, the group had neither received or viewed evidence from Mercy For Animals (MFA), Nightline's source for the video, according to email correspondence.

Moreover, during a December visit to the Cayuga County DA office, Assistant District Attorney Diane Adsit remarked of the Willet case, "Who cares," and threw her hands in the air according to Daniel Hauff, Director of MFA Investigations. She added that she had "human" cases to work with.

The 5,000 to 7,000 animal Willet Dairy, located in Locke, is New York's largest dairy. The undercover video, which appeared on Nightline, CNN, World News and YouTube, was shot by an unidentified humane investigator hired as a maintenance worker last year. Footage depicts cows with open sores and prolapses, downers so weak they can move only their eyes and an employee attacking a cow with a wrench.

The employee, later identified as Phil Niles, brags to the investigator of "stomping" animals, braining a bull with a 2 by 4 and cracking animals' skulls with wrenches while they are "in a headlock." Niles is believed to have worked at Willet for 19 years and was suspended after the Nightline video.

Celebrity animal expert Temple Grandin of Colorado State University agreed with the Niles' termination upon viewing his deeds on video." One thing I've learned over the many years working with animals is that there are certain people that enjoy hurting animals," she told ABC.

But others have leaped to Willet's defense.

Tail docking "protects animals and farmers on large dairy farms," says Cayuga County District Attorney in an issued statement.

"It could put your eye out" if you're working behind an animal that switches its tail agreed farmer Nancy Robbins on the YNN News 10 Web site.

(Experts say that trimming the hairs on the animal's tail will protect humans and that tail docking is unnecessary.)

Nor is it in the interest of a farmer to mistreat an animal say Willet defenders.

"A cow is going to make milk according to her comfort. Now if that cow is uncomfortable having her tail docked, for several days, they're going to lose that milk production from the cow," says Robbins.

Jessica Ziehm of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets agrees with the Plantation Defense - Cows are farmers' "livelihood and they do all they can to make their cows comfortable, happy and healthy," she says in the Post-Standard - and takes it a step further.

Farmers, "provide special bedding, in the summer they have misters and fans to keep them cool, they put in special floors to prevent slipping, they have regular pedicures, they are checked routinely by vets, they have nutritionists who formulate special diets." Right.

Chris Gallen of the National Milk Producers Federation is similarly off message, not even understanding the case against Willet.

ABC's "thesis was that the U.S. has inferior milk quality," he says about the Nightline segment in an article in the ag weekly, Feedstuffs which shows a photo of the grazing cows in pasture that Willet does not have.

"We were able to convince them that milk quality is not an issue here in the U.S," he concludes. Case settled.

While Cayuga County officials drag their heels in prosecuting the Willet case and the dairy industry rolls out a we-can-police-ourselves initiative called the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) program, two unanswered questions loom.

If Willet, as a dairy farm, is an exception with bad employees, why was it not discovered before? Why is it not prosecuted now?

If Willet is not an exception and the footage that made America cringe two months ago is everyday dairy farm practice, why are there not laws against it?

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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