published Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Idaho dairy workers charged with animal cruelty

In this photo taken Sept. 14, 2012, cows at the the Atsma-Cameron Dairy in take a break from feeding in Hanford, Calif. Across California, the nation's largest dairy state.  Three former dairy workers with Idaho's largest dairy operation have been charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty after undercover video shot by an animal rights group showed workers stomping, dragging and beating cows inside a milking barn. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)
In this photo taken Sept. 14, 2012, cows at the the Atsma-Cameron Dairy in take a break from feeding in Hanford, Calif. Across California, the nation's largest dairy state. Three former dairy workers with Idaho's largest dairy operation have been charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty after undercover video shot by an animal rights group showed workers stomping, dragging and beating cows inside a milking barn. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

REBECCA BOONE

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Three former dairy workers with Idaho's largest dairy operation have been charged with misdemeanor animal cruelty after undercover video shot by an animal rights group showed workers stomping, dragging and beating cows inside a milking barn.

The video was shot using a hidden camera by a member of Mercy for Animals who got a job at Bettencourt Dairies' Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen for a few weeks this summer. It shows workers at the dairy beating cows with a pink cane as the animals slipped and slid on the wet concrete floor; workers kicking, shoving and stomping cows that have fallen between the metal bars in the milking stalls; and a cow being dragged out of the barn by a chain around her neck as she lies prone on the concrete floor.

Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he filed misdemeanor animal cruelty charges against Jesus Garza, Jose Acensio and Javier Victor Rojas Loayza in late August after an investigation that was prompted by the video. If convicted, the men face fines of up to $5,000 each and jail time on a first offense.

Luis Bettencourt, the owner of the dairy, said that when the Idaho Department of Agriculture told him about the video and allegations, he was "sick about it." Bettencourt's dairy operation is the largest in Idaho, with 13 facilities and about 60,000 milk cows.

"We don't tolerate animal abuse. That's a big issue for us," Bettencourt said. "I love my animals and I've been in the dairy business since I was a kid. Animal care is a number one issue in our facilities."

Bettencourt said officials with the Idaho Department of Agriculture showed him the footage in August and he fired the five workers seen in the video the next day. In the weeks since, he said he's installed video cameras throughout his facilities and hired an additional supervisor.

"And we also showed the video to all the rest of the employees in our dairies, all 500 employees, and they had to sign a deal that said they understand that there's zero tolerance for animal abuse in our dairies," he said. "We've been in business 30 years and we've never had this happen before. We're all devastated here."

Nathan Runkle, the executive director of Mercy for Animals, said those steps amount to "too little too late." He hopes the video will convince Kraft Foods and the Wendy's fast food chain — both companies which Runkle says uses milk from Bettencourt Dairy — to stop using milk from the Idaho company and send a "clear message to the industry that animal abuse will not be tolerated."

"We believe this abuse is ongoing and was allowed to flourish, unchecked, until Mercy for Animal sent a hidden camera in," Runkle said. "There are no meaningful watchdogs inside a factory farm. ... Across the country this is actually our fourth dairy industry investigation that we've done and every single one of those investigations has led to animal cruelty charges being filed."

The organization wants Kraft to require suppliers to establish policies on the care and treatment of cattle, including prohibiting animals from being dragged without a sled, prohibiting dairies from docking the tails of cattle or removing their horns after a certain age, and requiring that the provide clean, dry housing areas and nonslip flooring in milking barns.

Kraft Foods' phone line for media wasn't working Tuesday and company officials didn't immediately respond to an email from The Associated Press requesting comment.

Loebs, the prosecutor, said Bettencourt Dairies has cooperated fully with law enforcement and investigators don't believe any of the dairy's upper management knew about the mistreatment.

"There's no indication at all that the owners of the dairy were in any way complicit in this behavior. In fact, they have been extremely cooperative with the investigation," Loebs said. "They were very supportive of the charges being filed and as far as I can tell, it's an isolated incident."

Pam Juker, spokeswoman for the Idaho Department of Agriculture, said the agency launched an investigation immediately after Mercy for Animals officials showed the department the video and other documentation.

"Obviously our first concern is the well-being of the animals," Juker said. "The images do not meet acceptable animal care or husbandry standards. So we did a preliminary investigation and then turned the matter over to local law enforcement."

The agency hasn't ever received any other animal welfare complaints involving Bettencourt dairies, she said.

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