Feature Story Thursday, June 26, 2014
A City Under Siege
Chilliwack dairy farm has high standards of care says owner
Staff/Voice photos/REVISED with files from Mercy for Animals Canada
A beleaguered Jeff Kooyman stands next to his rotary milking platform on Monday. Below, workers hook cows up to milking machines.
wo weeks ago, a militant animal rights group called Mercy for Animals delivered an iPhone video to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), depicting what looked like eight workers abusing dairy cows at Chilliwack Cattle Sales on Prairie Central Rd.
The 2 minute video montage was allegedly taken by a secret operative whom the company had inadvertently hired. Some in the community who have watched the clip, say that it was remixed and remastered, dubbed over with dramatic music and looped in some spots for added effect.
The SPCA reviewed the clip and came out with guns blazing. They immediately sent out a dispatch indicating that eight employees at Chilliwack Cattle Sales on Prairie Central were being investigated for animal abuse. There are rumours circulating that even the individual who filmed the clips may be a part of the investigation.
Almost simultaneously, social media exploded with an endless barrage of hateful and disparaging remarks about Chilliwack Cattle Sales and the Kooymans.
Then, armchair activists started engaging in one-upmanship. Some even crossed the line with musings about “murder”. Eventually, the comments began to include other local dairy farms.
Then it came. On Sunday, someone in Langley posted a blanket statement in Twitter that indicated Chilliwack residents were cow abusers.
“What’s wrong with you people in Chilliwack abusing cows?” she asked.
As time went on, it became clear that not only did Chilliwack Cattle Sales have to do some major damage control, but now because people equated Chilliwack with cow abuse, the entire City needs damage control. We’re talking some serious cow-hugging selfies here.
Brad Kooyman was busy in the big green barn Monday morning. It was milking time and he was slowly moving the herd forward up the gangway to the big milking platform. The cows looked eager to go in. Suddenly the line stops.
“You need to back away. They won’t go in with you standing there,” he says.
His brother Jeff, who is part owner of the dairy, has been handling the media tsunami. He dropped what he was doing to speak with the Voice about how things were going since the video aired.
He trots around the outside of the building, a tired smile on his face, his hand outstretched.
To say that the Kooyman family was hit hard by the abuse charges is an understatement. They were devastated. Plus, they’ve endured a barrage of anonymous threats, including death threats.
“It's been a long couple of weeks for me and as a family,” he said.
Chilliwack RCMP spokesperson Cst. Tracy Wolbeck confirmed with the Voice that the Kooyman family filed a threats complaint with them, but she wouldn’t be more specific citing privacy concerns.
“No charges have been forwarded to the Crown, however we are still investigating the complaint,” she said.
A milk-faced Mercy for Animals Canada vegan undercover agent photographed on the job eating Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The next thing he did was install closed circuit cameras in the milking parlour which he says should keep employees on their “best behaviour.” The company has also pledged to improve training for staff.
“We still have more cameras to install inside the barn, but our milking facility is monitored,” explained Kooyman. “We're only using that as a tool to check up on some milkers, looking at key management issues. Obviously, there are some issues that got missed here and we're trying to correct that as soon as possible.”
“Animal welfare on this farm has been as good as you can get. Two qualified vets came in last week for independent reports and there have been no problems. As a matter of fact, they rate our farm on the high end of animal welfare,” he said.
There was talk about streaming the barn cams live on the internet, but Kooyman says he doesn’t think that’s necessary because of the recording capabilities of the cameras which can be reviewed later.
Kooyman admits he had no idea the abuse took place and says they usually have a family member present during the milking shift. But because they were doing field work at the time, none were available.
With cameras installed now, the Kooymans could never again say that they didn't know abuse was going on.
A question came up about if the former employees were asked to perform the antics for the camera. If so, then it would indicate the abuse wasn’t systemic.
“I feel strongly that the staff were provoked into some of their actions,” he said.
Mercy for Animals Canada spokesperson Anna Pippus told the Voice Monday on the phone, and via e-mail, that they wanted to clear up any misconceptions based on the information that was reported to us.
For one thing, she insists their agent didn't provoke or encourage employees.
"The MFA Canada investigator performed his job duties as he was instructed to do by the company while simply documenting what took place around him. At no time did he encourage or incite any employees to take any actions whatsoever. This is all provable as it is documented on video," wrote Pippus.
A “crowd gate” is used to move the herd forward at a gentle pace. But according to Kooyman, the person who took the video purposely scared the animals to get them into bad situation in order to make the video as graphic as possible.
“He created a ruckus. He pulled the gate too tight. He was on the switch and the cows got all squished. It's supposed to be automatic, but he overrode it and squeezed the cows and got them all excited and a cow fell down in the parlour,” said Kooyman. “Obviously, he'd go to all kinds of lengths to disrupt the operation.”
Pippus says that's untrue and that the investigator actually worked as a milker, soaping udders and hanging the milking equipment.
"At no time did he ever have access to or control over a "crowd gate" or the flow of animals into the parlour. The claims that the person who took the video overrode an automatic gate, deliberately scared the animals, or otherwise disrupted the operations are blatantly false. This is all provable as it is documented on video," she wrote.
A small group of people were outside the farm last week and released a protest video afterward. Kooyman says the family got a tip that another group of protestors would be there on the weekend, however that protest didn’t materialize.
“It's been hard, even on the kids. They haven't been charged yet. They're good kids from good families and just did a stupid thing. They got worked up, and looking back, I'm sure if we had cameras installed they would never have done that.”
There's been fallout. According to a source, one of the teens was ostracized by his school peers and banned from going to a grad party.
An employee told the Voice last week that in one scene in the video, the person lays a chain down on the cow and looped faster so that it looked like the cow was being whipped.
But Pippus says that information was wrong.
"This is false. The video was not altered," she said.
Although only 2 minutes of the alleged abuse was widely released, Pippus says they actually have much more archived.
"Many hours of footage depicting ongoing and systemic violations of the law were provided to law enforcement authorities," she said.
Another segment of the video showed someone hoisting a cow up by the neck.
“That was something we've always done. The strongest part of the cow is their neck. It's the audio around that is unacceptable I think,’ said Kooyman when pressed. “The cow gets up on the video and she walks away. They showed that on the video and we never see the cow again.”
One of the orders the SPCA has given is that workers aren’t allowed to lift cows by the neck anymore. When asked what they do about a 1500 lb. cow down on the deck or laying in the gangway, Kooyman says they’ve been told they have to shoot it in the head with an air gun.
“We're upset about that because it's not only our farm. This has to be an industry decision. It’s every cow in every parlour, even if it's not a rotary milking system. You have to put a chain on them because sometimes that's the only way to get them up and out,” he said.
“We're concerned about that decision as an industry because if you euthanize the cow on the deck, you still have to put a chain around her to pull her out. The SPCA considers them dead once they hit the deck. That was their order, so if we're going to do it, then everybody has to do it.”
Another SPCA order the farm has to contend with deals with cows in resting areas.
“We have a pen of 100 cows with some of the fresher animals, and maybe a touch lame cows, but they're all cows that will be better in a couple of days and we just give them a sawdust pack and bed care where they lay outside of stalls. But what they're ruling now is that we can't milk any of those cows in this rotary parlour any more. That cuts into our profit big time. We have to milk them in another barn and the milk goes down the drain.”
Contrary to what Kooyman says, the SPCA order indicates those cows may be at higher risk to go down.
“I don't agree with that. Some of those cows are just fooling around too much and they'll just slip and fall down. They're not always ‘downers’. Some have a small tow laceration and they need a wrap on and a little bit of time on a nice comfortable bed.”
Kooyman would like to see their vets more involved in the SPCA's decision-making process. He feels they've overstepped boundaries by trumping their own veterinarians and giving them two weeks to comply.
“We want our vets to walk with them. They're trying to diagnose animal cruelty with a cow that has a little bit of a sore toe and they're trying to insist it be put down. It's frustrating. The vet says she's fine and they have overruled a couple of times on the vet's decision to say that 'she's got to be euthanized right now' and that she's fine for slaughter,” explained Kooyman.
“Our vets are fighting feverishly against that order. They say it's not necessary because those aren't cows that are going down in the parlour.”
Kooyman says, at the end of its life, a dairy cow is worth $1000 for the meat. But it can cost up to $2500 to buy a good one.
“These cows, when they go for meat, it’s for lean hamburger because when you buy heavy fat steaks that comes from grain-fed cows. The skinny cows make the best lean hamburger,” he said.
When asked if he felt the SPCA was being heavy-handed, Kooyman says they can do what they want.
“They're in a good position to do that, but we should all be concerned about these new changes and I think we need to sit down and discuss it. If the SPCA thought this was a problem farm they would have shut us down on the first visit. Never once did they indicate that they we were going to get shut down,” said Kooyman.
Dairy giant Saputo’s knee-jerk response was to stop taking milk from the farm. But last Friday, the company relented and announced they would continue with milk pickups, but not before 40,000 litres and then another 250,000 litres of milk went to waste. Milk which Kooyman says will be paid for by the BC Milk Marketing Board.
“It's coming out of the farmer's pockets, so that's not very comfortable for us. It's not a good feeling when your fellow peers are helping subsidize what we think was not our problem. We had everything qualified. There have not been any problems here,” he said.
“That was hard on the family just to know that we've got 100 per cent good milk going down the drain.”
Kooyman feels Saputo was reacting to a North American petition that 110,000 people signed calling on the company to "implement particular animal welfare policies."
“Personally, I think they got more pushback when they made that decision than they expected,” said Kooyman.
The farm also plans on bringing in a Human Resources person to do the hiring and to supervise.
“He's going to interview the employees more often just so that if there's an issue we can catch it in the bud. We're going to be targeted again. That's our feeling. We've got a couple other farms too in Chilliwack that they could be sneaking onto with cameras anytime,” Kooyman said. “We're struggling as a family now, like where do we go next? They're trying to set precedents here for farms across the country.”
A murky pall has been cast over the city over the abuse allegations.
Until Chilliwack figures out what to do about its image then were
all going to be seen as cow abusers.
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