A Life On Hold
Last week, Joshua Rockwood took his five-year-old son Hunter along when he went to pick up some geese someone had offered him for his farm. They pulled into a parking lot to go and buy something at a convenience store and Hunter noticed a car with blue lights on top. They were not flashing. It was a volunteer fireman sitting inside of his car.
Hunter turned to his father, "Dad, they are cops," he said. "We have geese in the car! They will take our geese!" Joshua assured his son that no one would be taking their geese. The volunteer firemen saw that Hunter was upset. "I'm not a cop," he assured the boy, "and it's not against the law to have geese in your truck."
It was difficult for Joshua to see his son think of the police in that way. "He's five years old," he said, "It hurts to see him thinking that way." But there is no much in Joshua's life that is normal these days, his is a life on hold.
It is not a simple thing to be fighting for your life and family and work at the age of 34 when your only crime seems to be having a farm during an awful winter, and having some things to learn.
These are the long hard days for Joshua Rockwood and for his family. Next Tuesday, June 2, yet another hearing is scheduled on the accusations of animal cruelty and neglect that were filed against him in March. He is not sure how many counts he faces – somewhere between 12 and 17 – and he reluctantly admits that the process is taking a toll. He says it is difficult not to be able to go on with his life.
Joshua Rockwood lives in the new world of hysteria over animal cruelty, where secret informers with their own very new ideas about animal abuse have the power to turn his life – and the life of many others – upside down, in a heartbeat, and with a single, often anonymous, phone call.
When he started his farm less than a year ago, Joshua Rockwood did not expect one of the coldest winters in history. Nor did he expect to facing 17 years in jail. He knows, he says, that he is not likely to be sent to jail on these charges – our farrier calls them "Bullshit Misdemeanors."
He thought if he was open and co-operative – he had nothing to hide, and hid nothing – the system would work for him. It did not.
He has not found it easy to ignore these very dark shadows hanging over his head, his family and his life. There is a very human side to being accused of awful crimes, when almost no one with any experience or sense of responsibility believes he is guilty of anything, when even the threat of going to jail hangs heavy over the life of a young and very idealistic farmer who was excited about offering healthy food to local people.
He is a proud part of a new local/healthy food movement sparked by young people that is sweeping the country. Six years ago, Joshua was diagnosed with a serious heart disease, doctors wanted to put him on medication for the rest of his life, he chose to study nutrition and change his diet as well, and his illness receded.
As a result, he decided to produce healthy food and sell it to people in his community. He was beginning to put it all together when the police and some animal rescue groups raided his home, took his horses and branded him an animal abuser.
He says it is hard for him to keep focus sometimes since the arrest, he was always up and out of bed by 4:30, sometimes he finds that he has trouble getting up that early now. Because of meetings and court appearances, Joshua had to miss several butchering appointments, he could not get his animals to slaughter, so he is behind his sales goals – and Joshua is very serious about goals, he has goals for every aspect of his farm. Then there is the ugly publicity surrounding his arrest, and the removal of three horses from his farm. When his mug shot was broadcast by local TV channels – he looked like a thug in the mug shot – he lost more than 10 per cent of his customers.
He is working hard to get them back, but it is hard to launch any sustained kind of marketing campaign when he faces so much distraction, so many meetings, decisions, concerns. Thursday, I spent the afternoon with Joshua at his farm once again, we walked all around his 90 acres, to the pigs, the cows, the hens, the sheep and goats, we climbed up hills, over fences, hiked around ponds, through mud and much.
Joshua is a farm geek, he knows every inch of the farm, keeps a count of the animals in his head. He has elaborate systems in place for rotational grazing, he moves the animals every day or to keep the shrubs down and the grass growing. He even moves the chickens around so that will eat the fly larvae in the cowpies which gives them protein and keeps the fly population in check.
Joshua is a careful man, a soft-spoken and very open man. He does not ever admit to feeling anger and fear, yet I can see and hear traces of both in him at times, and how could he not feel those things? Running a 90-acre farm with sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens, goats and working dogs takes an enormous amount of energy and drive and focus, and those are not easy things to feel and do when the state is seeking to put you on trial for things almost everyone – surely including me – believes he did not do. He fears being late for a feeding – the police might show up.
He is afraid to leave the farm unattended – secret informers might drive by often, he says, looking for a hole in a shelter, poor fencing, an animal wandering in the woods. These are not paranoid ravings, he says, they have happened to him. He won't buy a new truck because he thinks it would be unfair to the many people who contributed to his legal defense fund. He is afraid of taking time off, what if he is raided again? Plus, he says, the government hopes to put him in jail.
"It's a frightening thing," he said, in a very rare comment on his life now. "You think that the police and other people can't just come crashing into your life, take your property, accuse you of all kinds of things when you are not guilty, and then your life is turned upside down and you are threatened with jail and this long and expensive process…" He paused for a minute, and said, "I guess I wonder if some day they can't just come and take my children away."
If Joshua feels any anger, he does not show it. Sometimes, there is a sadness in his eyes. I asked him yesterday what it was that he most wanted in the world, and he answered without thinking too long that it was this: he wanted to be able to never say no to his wife, to make sure she had everything she wanted or asked for.
He thinks that is no longer possible for him, all of his money goes to surviving.
There are many thousands of Joshua Rockwood's in America right now, swept up in the new and very Orwellian hysteria over the abuse of animals. Some seem guilty, many are found to not be guilty, but in the long and frightening time between their accusations and disgrace and the resolution of their cases, the human toll on them and their lives is often staggering – shame and humiliation, enormous legal fees, the loss of their animals or businesses or farms.
The movement to curb the abuse of animals is becoming justice-by-mob, ranks of untrained, non-elected or sworn officers, non-professional, anti-science ideologues passing judgement on farmers and people who live, work and love animals. This new animal militia is often tied to the police and the courts in an ill-defined and quasi-legal way. They have a new and unscientific notion of what animal abuse, neglect and cruelty is, and their ideas about animals and abuse differs radically from the traditional definitions of the law, from common sense, from the experience of people who know and work with animals.
According to the online dictionary Wickipedia, "Orwellian is an adjective describing the situation, idea or social condition that the author George Orwell wrote about as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society, and to due process of law.
It describes a legal system controlled by propaganda, surveillance, secret informers, misinformation, denial of truth and the manipulation of facts, the past and the law. People who run afoul of this system are destroyed, they become "unpersons," someone whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory.
The people who came to Joshua's farm and up-ended his life – unknown accusers and informers, police officers, politicized veterinarians and animal welfare organizations – seem to have no real idea about what farms are like, or how farm animals live. Farm animals do not live in heated barns, their water sources often freeze when the temperature plunges well below zero, and farm shelters are much more adequate than the life in nature that so many people insist is the proper place for all animals to live.
Joshua is among the more fortunate, if you can call anyone in his position fortunate. Hundreds, if not thousands of farmers and animal lovers – sensing and seeing the injustice that hangs over this case like a dark cloud – have come to his aid, flocking the court hearings, contributing to his legal defense fund, offering his support and good wishes.
Joshua seems like a tough and resilient human being to me. But I can see the cost and potential harm, too. Joshua contains his emotions, but he can't hide them. He hurts sometimes. I wonder if the people who do this to people have any idea how much suffering they cause? They seem not to care, the targets are so dehumanized they are rarely considered fit subjects for empathy or compassion.
Joshua is young and idealistic, he loves farming and loves a life with animals, he is not an animal abuser, he is just a young man living with the very real possibility that his farm, his animals and his livelihood will be taken a way from him. He is worried about the toll on his wife and two children. He admits to losing energy and concentration, struggling to concentrate on his business, having the time to draw new customers to replace the ones he lost. Unfortunately, there are many people in our culture who believe what they see on television, another Orwellian trait is that the accused are presumed to be guilty, not innocent.
There is no justice for "unpersons." Just ask the New York Carriage Horse drivers, they have been living this Orwellian nightmare for years.
Joshua and I have an agreement that we will not discuss the details of his case. Sometimes, when I talk to Joshua, there is a sadness and weariness about him. Today, his mood had brightened a bit, it was a cool and beautiful Spring day, he seems to love nothing more than dragging visitors around every inch of his farm, describing most of the hundreds of animal – who is pregnant, who is too fat, who is approachable, who is not, which fences go where, which grass is rich, which weed the cows love to eat.
He is nearly obsessed with animal nutrition – grass and feed, body weight, color and tone. He has Italian Maremma animal guard dogs he moves from baby goats to sheep to meat hens each night to make sure they are safe. He wants his pork and beef and meat to be healthy and appreciated. He studies weight and talks in detail about transportation costs, butchering appointments (they have to be made a year in advance), online marketing and storage. He has joined a business group to learn more about how real businesses operate. He is planning for next winter, if he gets that far.
But he can't plan too much or too far or too long, his future is uncertain, his time and money limited, legal fees are eating up his savings, and his life revolves around court appearances and legal conferences whose schedules are not in his hands. "I want to get my life back," he says. His life is on hold, and may be for months. Because his water systems froze in -27 degrees, his barns and shelters – very typical of animal shelters on farms – did not please the police officers or humane society, a horse rescue farm recommended seizing his horses, his hay was in storage away from his animals, and two pigs had gray matter on their ears.
It is troubling for me to think about about his children and how this will affect them, it is painful to think about how it might affect him. What kind of people, I keep wondering, do this sort of thing to other people with such relish and thoughtlessness and cruelty? And then claim to be protecting animals from abuse?
It is an awful thing, as many people can testify, when someone spies on your life and informs on you secretly, when someone takes your animals and demands many thousands of dollars in order to get them back, when you are dragged into a nightmarish system that can invade your life on the reports of anonymous passersby and informers, take your animals and property, arrest and jail and fingerprint you and ruin your life. A system that claims to be equal for all, but which costs tens of thousands of dollars in order for people to navigate and defend themselves, while people far snipe away at the accused on their blogs and Facebook pages, leak ugly stories to reporters and hint at past evils and transgressions.
This is the hard time for Joshua, the crowds are gone, the media has moved on, it is just grinding and testing and difficult. It is so easy to accuse people of awful things in our world, it is as easy as typing a few words on Facebook or driving by someone's farm or backyard or making a phone call to the police.
In our world, there are legions of people eager to pass judgment, criticize and judge, this is becoming a permanent part of the national psyche and culture, it has created a shadow legal and police system without accountability or restraint when it comes to animals. It is difficult to consider the meaning of compassion and empathy and to try and gauge the human toll of injustice and cruelty. That, it seems to me, is the real abuse.
Joshua is entitled to get his life back and his farm back. He is the victim of a true injustice, as are many others in the animal world. You can help him in several ways. You can contribute to his legal defense fund (I am encouraging him to buy a truck if he needs one, and take a vacation if he so chooses). If you live near him, you can buy CSA shares in his farm, his customers were very happy and very loyal. You can read about his ideas on feeding and healthy, locally-produced food on his blog.
You can e-mail him in support at [email protected] If you are one of the many people traveling to the court to support Joshua (caution: this hearing may be about legal procedure, not the criminal charges) , his next hearing is scheduled for June 2, the time has not yet been announced by the court, it will be announced on town website.