Last night I rode to Glenville, N.Y. to attend a preliminary hearing in the Town Court for Joshua Rockwood, a young farmer who has been accused of 13 misdemeanor violations charging him with the abuse and neglect of the animals on his farm – lack of food and fresh water and adequate shelter. (He was cited for having an unheated barn also, but that is not against the law yet.)
More than 250 people showed up, most of them farmers from all over the Northeast. Joshua's neighbors were there, his customers, friends, other farmers. If you judge a man by his friends and supporters, Joshua Rockwood ought to have gone free last night. But this is not a just or rational world, or a just or rational trial. The actual hearing is set for 5 p.m. April 21st. You can mark it in your calendar, I will be there.
Lily is a friend and neighbor of Joshua's. She asked me who I was, and I told her I was a writer, and she pulled out her Iphone and asked me if the piece she and her friends had been sharing all day was mine. It was. "He is the gentlest, most honest and conscientious human being I know," she said. "He just would not hurt a fly, let alone an animal." Jim, a dairy farmer, has known Joshua for some time. "He loves his animals and takes good care of them. He is a farmer, his animals are not pets, they are hardy animals and like everyone else, they can suffer from the cold. Most of us had water tanks that froze, it happens all the time." Deborah is not a farmer but has two horses. "I just wanted to be here, to support him. This is very, very wrong," she said.
Jane said she has bought meat from Joshua for a year, "he takes such great care of the food his animals eat, his food is healthy and very special. He would not do anything to harm those animals."
I hope when my time comes, I can get a fraction of the people Joshua got to come and speak up for me, if nothing else, he ought to be proud, there was a lot of love and affirmation in that room.
I heard these descriptions of Joshua all evening, one person after another came up to me and thanked me for writing about him on the blog. It felt very good to be a writer. These were real people, farmers and friends and neighbors, they looked me in the eye and told me of the heartbreak they felt over Joshua Rockwood's ordeal. All through the brief hearing – it was just a formality, there was no testimony, I heard the same words about Joshua: honest, hard-working, gentle, transparent.
Joshua has been instructed by his lawyer not to give out public statements or talk to the media, common legal advice, but we did meet and communicated briefly and I am going to see his farm this week, perhaps as early as tomorrow.
Glenville is an hour or so away from Bedlam Farm and Ken Norman, our friend and farrier, wanted to go and support Joshua, so he agreed to drive me in his stinky, rumbling, venerable and giant SUV. Ken is a lifelong horse lover, and has devoted much of his life to animal rescue. There are many rescued horses on his farm in Vermont. He is very sensitive on the subject and does not blink or look away at people who neglect their animals. I was very eager to get his input.
He has been poring over the police videos and the citations for neglect on his Iphone. He saw all of it, he saw the pigs ears and the horses hooves and the lean-to shelters.
(Joshua Rockwood is the most honest and transparent villain in the history of animal confrontations, he even has the citations photocopied on his very open blog and Facebook page. He does not seem to know how to behave like an animal abuser facing the wrath of the local animal police squad, the bad guys don't usually post photos of their animals on their blogs. They usually run and hide.
Ken and I went over the evidence against him and I asked Ken what he thought. Ken is a man of few words but they are always honest and direct words. He is incapable of dissembling or equivocating. I call him the Grumpy Care Bear. He frowned and answered quickly:
"Bullshit misdemeanors," he said. "All of them."
I couldn't agree more. Ken and I – and every farmer in the world – knows that pigs and sheep can have frostbitten ears while sleeping under a hay bale in an enclosed barn or walking outside to drink water. How come, I wonder, don't the Animal Control people in Glenville know it? The pony's hooves, he said, were overgrown by a month or so, and he wouldn't have gone to trim them in -20 degree weather either.
"What are these people thinking of?," he asked, "have they ever seen an animal that is really abused?" Ken sees them quite often, so do I. Neither of us saw any in the photos and videos taken in support of the charges against Joshua. The people prosecuting him do not seem to know that pigs never live in heated shelters, they burrow into hay bales and dirt mounds and draw heat from one another. Lean-to's are standard shelters for pigs.
They don't seem to know that many, if not all, farms lose their heated water when the temperature plunges in high winds. Or that the food bowls of farm dogs freeze overnight and in cold temperatures and are replaced once or twice a day. They don't seem to know it isn't always easy to get a farrier to trim hooves, sometimes you have to wait a few weeks or a month, and the hoof of a horse or donkey can be overgrown, that does not harm them unless the hoof curls back onto the leg. Some farmers wait a month or two if they are short of money, that is a circumstance, not a crime.
The charge of inadequate food seems bizarre, if all of the animals were of good and healthy weight (they were) and were hydrated and active, then how is it possible they were not given adequate food?
His supporters jammed the courtroom, he had an SRO crowd. And they appeared very committed and determined. They will be back for each hearing. So will I.
A writer for the Albany Times-Union was there and we both agreed we had seen smaller media crowds at murder trials. There is something special about this confrontation, it is touching a deep chord. Joshua Rockwood is at the center of it, but it is bigger than that. I had the sense that the beleaguered farmers and animal lovers of our world had had enough and were making a small revolution. Or perhaps a big one.
I think the farmers and animal lovers of the world are sick of ignorant and nasty people harassing them, invading their homes and work, and telling them how to treat the animals they love and care for. They are tired of the secret informers of the animal police – Joshua apparently had one informing on him. They are tired of people who know nothing about animals making judgements about their care and feeding and shelter. That's what it felt like in Glenville Tuesday night, I kept thinking of the Beatles song, "you say you want to make a revolution?"
I think the farmers in the Glenville Court do want to make a revolution and I think they kicked it off last night. The court officers were startled at the quiet but large and very well-behaved crowd. I had the sense that the other side – the police and the people from the horse rescue farm who took Joshua's horses and claim it costs $28 a day to feed each one (Ken says it costs from $5 to $8 to feed a horse each day – were a bit defensive, they sounded a little desperate. A police spokesman said two of Joshua's horses needed veterinary care, but it was not clear for what and absolutely nobody at the hearing believed it for a second that the animals had been seriously mistreated.
"A vet can always find something to treat," a farmer told me,"they always do. If it was serious, they would have been shouting it from the rooftops for the media to hear."
I met at least a dozen people at the hearing who had seen the rescue dog the police took away from and his horses, and all of them said they had seen the animals looking active and healthy. So did two veterinarians who checked his animals before the police came. I am eager to attend the formal hearing and find out whether any of the animal police talked to any of these people.
I haven't even seen the horses and I didn't believe these charges either, and I like to check my facts firsthand, the way I was taught. But the whole thing did have this bullshit feeling about it, none of it was persuasive or made sense or seemed grounded. I was a reporter for a long time, and a good one, and I have learned to trust my instincts. If it feels wrong, a great reporter once told me, trust that feeling. It probably is wrong.
This felt wrong. Very wrong. I kept wondering, how did it come to this. What are we doing there? How did this get so far?
Joshua Rockwood is a good guy trying to be a good farmer. They have no right to take this all away from him on the basis of what feels like a lot of, well…bullshit. A great waste of time and energy and tax money, an awful thing to do to a hard-working human being.
And that was the other dominant feeling of the night, the Night Of Bullshit Misdemeanors. It would have been a farce – heated barns for pigs? – if it wasn't such and ugly and frightening thing and if it didn't threaten to destroy the life and dreams of an honest and hard-working young farmer. Isn't this what we need, for young men and women to choose a life of meaning that keeps animals in our world, helps heal the earth, and provides good and healthy food?
But it is not a farce. The truth is Joshua is facing a long and grinding – and expensive – legal fight, one that could cost him his farm and his dreams. He has started a gofundme campaign to raise $50,000 for legal fees and bond to get his animals back. He has raised more than $29,000 dollars in just a few days. I believe he will get there.
I think what is happening is this: the farmers and the animals have had enough of idiots telling them that they are criminals and abusers. They are finally beginning to fight back. If that was the message of Tuesday night's hearing, it may all be well worth it.