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Fair Oaks ARM video: Animal Welfare Expert talks about what is and is not abuse

In a News 18 special report, we’re taking a closer look at some of the footage released of animal abuse at Fair Oaks Farms. A warning to our viewers that the video in this story shows some footage that is disturbing.

Posted: Jun 24, 2019 10:13 AM
Updated: Jun 24, 2019 10:36 AM

NEWTON COUNTY, Ind. (WLFI) — In a News 18 special report, we’re taking a closer look at some of the footage released of animal abuse at Fair Oaks Farms. As News 18 previously reported, a pro-vegan group called Animal Recovery Mission went undercover at the farm to gather the footage. Since the videos were released, Fair Oaks Founders have promised to make changes.

News 18 sat down with an animal welfare expert to talk about the videos. Dr. Candace Croney is the Director of the Center for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University. Dr. Croney watched the videos with us to help us get a better idea of what does and does not classify as abuse on farms.

While she could not comment specifically on this video of Fair Oaks Farms released by ARM, she did provide information on the usual treatment of cows at dairy farms.

Turns out, not everything we’ve been seeing on these videos is abuse. A warning to our viewers that the footage in the video version of this story shows some footage that is disturbing. 

A lot of people have already seen the video released by Animal Recovery Mission, or ARM. 

And a lot of people wish they didn’t.

“I’ve deliberately stopped watching,” said Dr. Croney. 

But what are we really watching? The videos released by the pro-vegan activist group portray several instances of animal abuse at Fair Oaks Farms.

The farm admitted to the abuse. Mike McCloskey, Founder of Fair Oaks Farms, said in part, “I am disgusted by and take full responsibility for the actions seen in the footage, as it goes against everything that we stand for in regards to responsible cow care and comfort.”

McCloskey also responded to the information ARM gives in the videos.

“They’re showing a practice and misrepresenting it or explaining it wrong,” McCloskey said in a video statement.

Was the public fooled by ARM’s explanations of the footage? Was some of the interaction in these videos harmless?

Dr. Candace Croney confirms some of the footage made out to be abuse in the videos is standard practice at a dairy farm.

Including a scene showing cows, who recently gave birth, being milked. The voice-over in ARM's video said, “moments after giving birth, and afterbirth still visible, mothers are forced on the milking line.”

Is it abuse? Dr. Croney explained to us why it's not. 

News 18: "How long do those cows need to recover after birth until they can be milked again?"

Dr. Croney: "It’s a good question. The answer’s going to be different for every cow. In general, you are going to want to milk cows very soon after giving birth. One of the reasons you want to do that is those cows are giving milk because they’re pregnant. They just delivered a calf. So what you want to do is get that milk because it’s got colostrum in it that’s going to provide that calf with all the antibodies it needs. That’s going to happen in a relatively short window of time. In the first 12 hours you really do want to milk that cow so that you can get that colostrum to that calf.”

A main attraction on Fair Oaks Dairy Adventure is the rotary milking system. Tourists can watch as cows, one by one, walk themselves onto the moving platform. Workers then attach milkers to the cows udders to milk them. According to Fair Oaks, it’s about an 8 minute process for each animal.

In ARM's video, the rotary system is made out to be torturous for the cows. In the video ARM's Founder Richard Couto said "Cows hate the rotary system."

Dr. Croney: “Cows are herd animals. On farms when people keep them together, when they monitor carefully how they’re moving from point A to point B, when they have designed facilities that help those animals move through effectively and in a way that is aligned with more of their normal behavior than not, they are more comfortable in that regard. They are certainly less uncomfortable than they would be.”

A lot of ARM’s video showed calf in small hutches. Are those too small of a space for the babies?

"People may think those are harmful. If they’re well designed, if they’re kept clean and dry, if they’re situated to protect animals from the elements, they’re not harmful to them,” Dr. Croney said. 

While Dr. Croney helped us to understand the footage that would not classify as abuse, she also told us what does. 

“I’ve never seen on any responsible working farm anyone routinely rough handling animals, throwing them, cranking their tails, roughly dragging them to get them on transport trucks," Dr. Croney said. "That is not the norm that goes against everything that is best practice for any dairy farm operation.”

Dr. Croney says when it comes to animal abuse, size doesn’t matter.

“You can have animal welfare problems on small farms you can have them on large farms," Dr. Croney said. "It is not the scale of the farm that dictates the quality outcome for the animals it really is the management.”

Is management to blame? Or did Fair Oaks just have a few bad seeds? 

“Animal work is hard. Cow work is hard. Calf work is hard. So yes, people can get frustrated. They can lose their tempers," Dr. Croney said. "If someone’s getting frustrated and mishandling them there are a couple reasons they might do that- one, they might not really like animals to begin with. Two, they might not have been trained well with what you do to handle animals effectively so that they aren’t frustrated themselves or panicked or confused."

She said there are ways to prevent this from happening. 

"If somebody’s really having a hard time one of their coworkers should be able to say hey I’ll take over or let’s go get management and figure out how we do this better.”

So what comes of all this?

"If there is a positive aspect to this, what ARM has done is demonstrate how easy it is, potentially, for farms to have problems that they themselves may not be aware of.”

Dr. Croney said in situations like these, farms should own up to everything that happened. She believes McClockey's response was appropriate. Fair Oaks has recently provided content on its website to communicate its new changes to the public, that can be seen here.

Dr. Croney does have a working relationship with some of the personnel at the Pig Adventure at Fair Oaks Farms. She explained that includes sharing information with the farm, such as new science or research that would benefit the pigs. She also has conversations about the safety, well-being and overall health of the pigs with personnel at the farm. 

As we previously reported, several employees were terminated from Fair Oaks following the release of these videos. Three men were charged in this animal cruelty case. The charge is a class A misdemeanor.

31-year-old Santiago Ruvalcaba Contreros, 36-year-old Edgar Gardozo Vazquez and 38-year-old Miguel Angel Navarro Serrano are charged.

Ruvalcaba Contreros and Angel Navarro Serrano are not in custody.

The Newton County Sheriff's Office told News 18 there are outstanding warrants for both of their arrests. However, Edgar Gardozo Vazquez is in custody. He was arrested a week ago. We recently learned his court date is scheduled for July 17th at 8:30 a.m.

News 18 has been unable to get in contact with the McCloskey. A manager at the farm gave us contact information for Julie Basich, the COO of Fair Oaks. She did not return our calls. News 18 does plan to follow up with Julie and continue to reach out to McCloskey. 

We have provided links to ARM's original videos below.

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