A long history of animal cruelty and neglect
The Ministry for Primary Industries has repeatedly shown it is not willing to enforce animal welfare laws.
Now it’s time to give the job to someone who will act.
MPI’s basic purpose of supporting and increasing exports conflicts with its responsibility to monitor and enforce animal welfare and the two roles need to be separated to ensure that both are properly carried out.
Newsroom’s story about the Northland farm manager caught by hidden cameras beating dairy cows with a steel pipe is one in a long line of cases of neglect and ill treatment of farm animals.
In addition to the horrendous cruelty, there are two key concerns.
The first is how many of these cases are uncovered by animal activists and members of the public, rather than by MPI. There are now numerous examples of ill treatment and neglect of pigs, hens, rodeo animals and cows being revealed by organisations other than MPI. Most notably, Farmwatch’s hidden camera footage has exposed appalling treatment of calves, pigs and hens.
Secondly, MPI’s failure to prosecute when it is provided with footage, witnesses and other information is a recurring theme. In recent years, the agency has been provided with hundreds of hours of video of animal cruelty and neglect, but has filed charges in only a very few cases.
The agency’s failure to enforce is also apparent in the fishing industry, where reports and news stories have revealed MPI’s lack of action over illegal fish dumping and its failure to take a tough stance against fishing companies which refuse to let observers onto their boats. A leaked MPI report called Operation Hippocamp said that illegal fish dumping was an issue “that we have known about for a long time but has generally been considered in the too hard area”.
MPI is funded to monitor and enforce animal welfare, but devotes only a tiny fraction of its resources to that task.
One reason for this is that, as noted above, the Ministry has a conflict of interest in respect of animal welfare. Its key purpose is to support and increase exports. The Ministry’s website says that it is “helping maximise export opportunities for our primary industries, improve sector productivity, ensure the food we produce is safe, increase sustainable resource use, and protect New Zealand from biological risk”.
Animal welfare is not mentioned at all. The drive to increase export returns obviously sits uneasily with animal welfare, as good treatment of animals is likely to be more expensive than doing the minimum. Economics are the reason cows are left to starve, veterinary treatment is not obtained for sick or injured animals, and pigs and hens are crammed into tiny spaces.
In the short term, it is beneficial to export returns to disregard animal welfare and produce farm products at the cheapest-possible prices.
A second issue is that MPI has always had very limited resources for animal welfare. In the 2010/2011 financial year, Animal Welfare Education and Enforcement and Animal Welfare Policy Advice were in total appropriated $5.132 million. The figure for the 2011/2012 financial years was $6.569 in total. The total for 2012/2013 was $6.012 million. This meant that the amount of funding was actually falling.
In Budget 2015, the Government allocated $10 million over four years to boost MPI’s animal welfare compliance and capability and to develop more transparent and enforceable animal welfare regulations. That was an increase of only $2.5 million per annum, and was still far from adequate to deal with the number of farmed animals in New Zealand.
New Zealand has up to 160 million animals being commercially farmed at a time. However, the Ministry has at times employed as few as 11 animal welfare inspectors to deal with all animal welfare complaints on farms around the country. This is completely inadequate resourcing and means the Ministry can respond only to the most serious allegations of animal neglect and abuse. There is no regular monitoring or inspection of New Zealand farms.
Education is an important tool for securing compliance with laws. However, criminal charges are another part of our enforcement system. Both weapons must be used, but MPI is very reluctant to prosecute animal cruelty.
For example, in the year to December 2015, MPI prosecuted approximately five percent of the 698 animal welfare complaints it received. That was a tiny fraction and utterly inadequate to send a message to farmers that cruelty and neglect of animals are unacceptable. In 2014, farm workers who stomped on and killed piglets were not prosecuted and a farmer who deliberately rammed cows with a quad bike was not charged. MPI was slow to act on the deliberate cruelty to calves revealed in TVNZ’s Sunday programme in December 2015. MPI has also not prosecuted in relation to the many specific cases of cruelty at rodeos provided to it.
As far back as 2011, a comprehensive report on MPI’s failure to enforce animal welfare was prepared. MPI did not act on the recommendations and, when a journalist requested the document under the Official Information Act, MPI refused to release it on the grounds that doing so would damage the New Zealand economy.
The list at the end of this story summarises some cases of cruelty to cows since 2005. When one studies the examples in detail, a number of concerns emerge.
The first is that many of the farmers are elderly. The fear, accordingly, is that they may have been perpetrating this ill treatment of cows for decades without being detected.
Secondly, it is often animal advocates such as Farmwatch or members of the public who blow the whistle on the ill treatment. MPI should be doing a much better job of uncovering this behaviour itself.
Thirdly, the Ministry frequently responds to neglect and poor treatment by giving farmers the chance to improve their treatment of animals. However, MPI’s advice is in a number of cases disregarded and the farmer does nothing. This greatly prolongs the animals’ suffering. Taking a much tougher stance from the outset would reduce the cows’ pain.
The case of Maungatapere farmer Lester Johnstone epitomises, in a horrifying way, all of the above points. He was convicted of aggravated cruelty to a cow, three charges of neglecting an animal, two of keeping an animal alive when it was cruel to do so, and one of cruelly ill-treating an animal in 1993.
In 1997, he was fined $12,000 and disqualified from farming for two years after being convicted of cruelty and neglect.
In 2005 Johnstone was fined $34,000 and banned from owning stock for five years following further cruelty.
Then, in 2015, Johnstone was convicted for failing to meet the physical and health needs of six calves. Two calves starved to death, one had to be put down and three were removed from the property to reduce their suffering. MPI paid four visits to the farm in 2014 to inspect skinny calves after a complaint. They found animal welfare issues, including a mob of skinny weaner calves in a paddock without grass or water, an emaciated young cow having difficulty standing, and two calves who had died of starvation.
MPI staff several times directed Johnstone to provide better grazing and supplementary feed, but he ignored them.
In 2015 Johnstone was finally banned from owning stock for 20 years.
But, in the meantime, animals had suffered for decades.
So what needs to be done ?
1. The Government should create a Commissioner for Animals, which would be an independent and properly-resourced role. The commissioner would focus solely on animal welfare and would not have the conflict of interest which MPI suffers in dealing with animal welfare. A large increase in funding for animal welfare is required. We should regard this as an investment, rather than a cost. New Zealand is highly dependent on export income and that, in turn, depends on us having a good international reputation for our treatment of animals. The Commissioner for Animals would work alongside the minister with responsibility for animal welfare. The current Government has for the first time given a minister a specific animal welfare portfolio and Meka Whaitiri is to be commended for her initiatives, such as the ground-breaking animal welfare hui she organised earlier this month.
2. Staff from the office of the Commissioner for Animals should make unannounced visits to farms to monitor animal welfare. It is clear that pro-active monitoring is required, rather than the current system of relying on whistle blowers to bring ill treatment to public notice.
3. A much tougher approach to cruelty and neglect should be taken, rather than allowing animals to suffer in the hope that farmers will gradually improve their behaviour.
4. New Zealand should follow the example of other countries and install cameras in all slaughterhouses to monitor the treatment of animals. Israel’s Agriculture Ministry in December 2015 ordered the installation of cameras in slaughterhouses, with footage being beamed to a central ministry control room in a bid to reduce mistreatment of animals. The French National Assembly in January 2017 passed a bill making it mandatory for cameras to be placed in slaughterhouses from 2018. In the United Kingdom, cameras will be required in slaughterhouses from later this year.
5. New Zealand should aim to brand itself internationally as Number One in the world for animal welfare by pro-actively adopting the highest standards for the treatment of animals. This would complement our (admittedly discredited) clean, green image and would enable New Zealand to charge a premium for its products.
*Catriona MacLennan is the convenor of Animal Agenda Aotearoa.
Some cases of cruelty to cows
* February 2005 - Far North dairy farmer Alan Summers pleaded guilty to ill-treating an animal and a representative charge of ill-treating an animal after MAF officials removed 386 cows from his farm and took them to another farm, where 68 had to be shot immediately as they were close to starvation;
* 2005 - Lester Donald Reuben Johnstone of Maungatapere was fined $34,000 and banned from owning stock for five years after being convicted of animal cruelty. Earlier, in 1993, Johnstone was ordered to pay fines and costs of $1906 on one count of aggravated cruelty to a cow, three counts of neglecting an animal, two of keeping an animal alive when it was cruel to do so, and one of cruelly ill-treating an animal. In April 1997 Johnstone was fined $12,000 and disqualified from farming for two years after being convicted of cruelty and neglect (see also 2015 conviction);
* November 2007- Alan Summers was sentenced for breaching a court order relating to three previous offences concerning starving cows;
* January 2010 -Rotorua farmer Mark Spitz pleaded guilty to five charges after hundreds of starving and dead cattle were found on his property. Spitz was visited in July 2007 by MAF after a complaint about dead and starving cattle. He was given written notice to improve animal welfare conditions. Further notices were issued when MAF visited the property again and found Spitz had done very little, if anything, to alleviate the growing concern about his animals;
* 2012 – Lourens Erasmus broke 115 cows’ tails and beat cows repeatedly with steel milking cups and a three foot long steel bar. He was convicted and sentenced. The initial sentence was overturned on appeal and he was sentenced to jail;
* February 2012 – a Dunedin farm labourer was convicted of ill-treatment of a calf hit in the face with steel pipe and blinded;
* September 2012 - Tjeer Visser was sentenced for failing to meet cows’ physical and health needs, with more than 120 animals dying;
* September 2012 – neglected cows found at Rotomanu had to be euthanised;
* September 2012 Waikato – 80 cows were left without water and inadequate food for four days. No charges were laid and the farmer was let off with a warning;
* September 2012 - 180 cows found starving on the West Coast were euthanised;
* February 2013 - Michael Jackson pleaded guilty to failing to alleviate pain or distress in 230 injured cows with twisted or broken tails;
* August 2013 – Kevin Smith was convicted of breaking 154 cows’ tails and hitting cows with a pipe;
* September 2013 – Canterbury dairy farmed Geoffrey Deal pleaded guilty to animal welfare offences after 70 per cent of his cows were found in poor condition;
* September 2013 - dairy farmer Saul Beaumont pleaded guilty to breaking 46 cows’ tails. When a vet visited his farm in January 2103 and examined the herd of 500 cows, more than 200 had some degree of tail damage. The SPCA laid 46 charges against Beaumont of failing to prevent animal suffering. Beaumont was seen grabbing a cow’s tail and snapping it. He was told he would receive a written warning and that if he continued the behaviour he would be fired – an inadequate response to such deliberate cruelty. Several weeks later, fresh tail breaks were noticed and in January 2013 Beaumont was again seen breaking a cow’s tail;
* October 2013 - herd manager Nathan Morunga was dismissed for cruelty to a cow;
* August 2014 - the media reported that MPI was investigating an alleged animal neglect case on a dairy farm in Rodney. Several dairy cows were put down;
* October 2014 - Stratford dairy farmer Timothy Gilbert was sentenced after pleading guilty to animal cruelty. An MPI inspector visited Gilbert’s farm and found 65 cows with maimed tails. Some animals had multiple breaks in their tails – injuries that take considerable force to inflict;
* March 2015 - West Coast cattle farming father and son Robert and Jeremy Ussher were sentenced and banned from owning animals after 152 starving cows had to be euthanised on a West Coast farm. Robert Ussher was convicted on six charges of ill-treating animals and one of failing to supply sufficient feed. His son was sentenced on a representative charge of ill-treating animals and failing to supply sufficient feed. MPI said that it was one of the worst cases it had encountered;
* April 2015 - Leeston dairy farmer Clyde McIntosh pleaded guilty to three charges under the Animal Welfare Act and his company, Riverbrae Dairy Farm Ltd, pleaded guilty to four charges, including recklessly ill-treating dairy cows. The charges arose after a member of the public reported seeing severely lame dairy cows. MPI District Compliance Manager Peter Hyde said the pain in the hooves of some of the cows was so severe they could not stand or walk to water troughs;
* May 2015 - Lester Donald Reuben Johnstone was convicted of failing to ensure the physical and health needs of six calves were met. Johnstone was disqualified from owning stock for 20 years and fined. Two calves starved to death, one had to be put down and three were removed from the property to reduce their suffering. MPI staff paid four visits to the farm in 2014 to inspect skinny calves after a complaint. They found animal welfare issues, including a mob of skinny weaner calves in a paddock without grass or water, an emaciated young cow having difficulty standing, and two calves who had died of starvation. MPI staff several times directed Johnstone to provide better grazing and supplementary feed but he ignored them;
* July 2015 - South Waikato dairy farmer Tony Clayton was sentenced for the neglect and ill-treatment of cows who became malnourished or starved to death;
* October 7 - 2015 Michael Whitelock was sentenced to four-and-a-half years’ jail and banned from owning animals for 10 years after pleading guilty to ill-treatment of animals. Whitelock was the dairy manager on a farm near Westport where he beat cows, broke their tails and shot them in the kneecaps. 152 cows and 57 heifers had their tails broken. Whitelock beat a cow with a fencing baton, resulting in a traumatic eye injury. When he failed to euthanise the animal, she was placed in the offal pit while still alive;
* December 2 - 2015 Taranaki farmer Rodney Wilson was sentenced for breaking 157 cows’ tails – the tails of more than half the cows in his dairy herd;
* July 17 2015 - South Waikato dairy farmer Tony Clayton was convicted of the neglect and ill treatment of cows who became malnourished or starved to death. Clayton pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the physical, health and behavioural needs, or neglect, of animals in his care and reckless ill treatment of animals resulting in death. Five cows died of starvation as part of a mob of 19 cows confined to a paddock with little feed. A further seven cows died after being confined to a paddock with insufficient feed. The neglect charges related to 14 malnourished and diseased weaner calves in a group of 120 calves with insufficient feed;
* September 2015 - an investigation was launched after a former Waikato farm worker allegedly mutilated his then-employers’ cows by severing the teats of 20 animals after a dispute with his employer;
* July 14 2016 – Taranaki contract milker Claudio Da Costa was sentenced for cutting the teats off 12 cows by placing rubber rings on them and slicing them off with scissors. He was fined $3750;
* December 2016 - West Coast dairy farmer Warren Arthur McNabb was fined $15,000 and banned from any involvement with milking cows for six months after being convicted of reckless ill treatment of two dairy cows by breaking their tails and a further charge of failing to ensure that 210 cows with broken tails received treatment. 201 of the 446 milking cows on the farm had broken tails, with 20 of them having multiple breaks. None of the animals had received veterinary treatment for their injuries. A vet described the scale of the breakage as being symptomatic of prolonged animal abuse;
* June 29 2017 - Noel Pirika Erickson successfully appealed a prison sentence imposed after he was convicted on eight charges of abusing animals for mistreating 111 bobby calves at a slaughterhouse, including killing one in a way that meant the animal suffered unnecessarily;
* July 28 2017 - Te Kauwhata farm manager Kerry James Murphy was sentenced after he drove his four-wheel drive into a herd of cows and hit them with the bull bars. The animals were running as fast as they could to the paddock where Murphy wanted them to be, but he continued to drive into them with his vehicle. He was convicted and fined $3500;
* August 2017 - Waikato farm owner Shane Kingsley Torstonson was fined after leaving a herd of cows to starve on his property. Some were left for dead and seven disappeared. A vet who assessed the animals found signs consistent with the animals being underfed for a prolonged period of time;
* August 15 2017 – an Invercargill dairy company and two of its managers were fined after one of the worst examples of long-term neglect in the dairy sector. Castlerock Dairies Ltd and Jared Matthews and Dean McMillan were fined a total of $60,000 after cows were found to be suffering “catastrophic” lameness. The neglect led to 193 cows being euthanised and 761 requiring treatment for their injuries. 24 vets spent weeks on the two farms treating the animals. A vet described the animal welfare issues as almost beyond comprehension and unparalleled and unprecedented;
* August 22 2017 – South Canterbury farmer Daniel Alexander Little pleaded guilty to two charges of ill treatment of animals and one charge of wilfully ill-treating an animal between 1 June 2015 and 7 September 2016 after using repeated and excessive force and violence and cruelty against an unknown number of cows. Little broke the tails of an unknown number of cows; repeatedly punched and struck the cows on the legs, face and head with an alkythene pipe; and dragged calves by their ears and legs and threw them into a trailer. Little was seen by staff breaking cows’ tails and, hearing the tails break, leaving them bent and curved in. He took no steps to obtain veterinary care for any animals he injured. 579 cows were examined by a vet and 81 were found to have broken tails. 19 were assessed as being very recent or acute and having occurred within three weeks of the inspection;
* March 9 2018 - Taranaki farmer James Ernest Cover was sentenced on three animal welfare charges after a cow was seen lying dead in a drain and dozens of starving and emaciated cattle were found on his farm. A welfare visit was made to the farm following a complaint to MPI. A vet said two downer cows were in a “shocking state” and other cows were visibly affected by feed shortage and in extremely poor condition. The vet said 32 cows were emaciated and 20 sheep were in poor condition;
* March 23 2018 - Golden Bay farm manager Steven John Wells was convicted of ill-treating cows in his care. He was convicted of six counts under the Animal Welfare Act for breaking cows’ tails, hitting them with a metal pipe, kicking them, kneeing them and punching them in 2015 and 2016. A number of his employees and former employees gave evidence about Wells’ ill-treatment of animals and anger management issues. Judge Tony Zohrab said Wells’ actions, including slamming a gate into a cow’s head, all constituted “extreme violence.” On 16 May 2018 Wells was banned from owning animals for five years;
* June 22 2018 - A Nelson farmer was banned from owning or caring for cows for 10 years after ill-treating cows and calves. An inspection of his property found dead, rotting and dying calves, cows in “obvious pain and distress” with skin sores and diarrhoea and cattle housed in a shed that was a “deep boggy mix of sawdust, mud, water and effluent.” Raymond Albert Gardner was sentenced on three charges of failing to provide treatment to ill and injured animals, three of failing to meet animals’ needs, three of keeping a suffering animal alive and two of ill-treating an animal. MPI gave Gardner advice and plans to address the condition of the animals, but he failed to take action. In some instances, Gardner thought calves had already died but one moribund calf half-buried in mud and said by Gardner to be dead was still breathing. Gardner said nine other calves had died from scours as he had fed them lamb’s milk powder and green top milk as he had not been able to obtain calf milk powder. One calf was found collapsed, emaciated and flyblown, with mature maggots and new eggs and had to be euthanised immediately.
Credible information is crucial in a crisis.
The pandemic is pushing us into an unknown and uncertain future. As the crisis unfolds the need for accurate, balanced and thorough reporting will be vital. Newsroom’s team of journalists is working hard to bring you the facts but, now more than ever, we need your support.
Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.