Let's start our abuse primer this way: The greatest abuse in the history of animals – corporate farming, the wanton destruction of habitats by blind governments and greedy developers – is not illegal. Even though millions of animals are tortured cruelly or perish as the result of corporate farming and development, no one is ever arrested for either, there are no raids, no animals are trucked out and re-homed on rescue farms. Many more animals die awful deaths in corporate farms or die from development than could ever be harmed by a young farmer named Joshua Rockwood.
At the end of the very bitter winter of 2015, Rockwood, a new farmer in Glenville, N.Y., committed to the local food movement – he sells pasture-fed beef, pork, chicken and lamb – was reported to authorities by a secret informer. He was visited several times by the police, an animal control officer, and a worker for the Humane Society. Three of his horses and one dog were taken from him, and he was charged with 13 counts of animal abuse, cruelty and neglect. He was accused of having frozen water tanks, inadequate shelter for his pigs, overgrown hooves for his pony, and of keeping animals in an unheated barn.
On February 27, one of the same days he was raided by the police and charged with having frozen water tanks, the sewer pipes in the Glenville Municipal Building froze, and the toilets backed up and were unusable. No one was arrested
Rockwood's arrest raises serious questions about the persecution of farmers. It also raises issues relating to freedom and privacy, the right of the state to invade private property and seize it without hearing or trial, and the growing role of secret informers searching everywhere for animal abuse. Government, formed to protect freedom and property, does neither when people like Joshua Greenwood are denounced for animal abuse.
The persecution of Joshua Rockwood is Orwellian.
Orwellian is an adjective that describes a situation or idea that the writer George Orwell (1984, Animal Farm,) identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society. It refers to an attitude and policy of intimidation and draconian control of issues by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of events. It describes the targeting of the "unperson," someone who is publicly denounced on modern media, whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, who is arrested by police with great authority, and who is thus disgraced and discredited. The dehumanizing of people, wrote Orwell, is a common practice of repressive governments.
The action against Joshua Rockwell was Orwellian, it fits every definition of the idea.
In our culture, people accused of animal abuse are shunned and disgraced, removed from the community of moral people, denied the right to acquire and own animals, listed on registries posted in public. Police invade their homes, seize their property, they are denounced publicly before trial or hearing, they become a non-person.
This is the fate Joshua Rockwood is quite determined to avoid. He insists on his identity, he defends his identity as an ethical human being.
The real problem here – and in many other cases around the country – is that Joshua Rockwood is almost certainly not guilty of animal abuse as it is known and has always been defined. The charges against him could have – and can be – lodged against almost any real farmer in the country in the middle of winter, and against almost anyone who owns a dog or a cat.
They could be lodged against you:
If your water pipes froze while you were at work, and you were running low on dog food, or built your own doghouse out of plywood and tar paper, a hostile neighbor, a disgruntled co-worker, an anonymous person on Facebook who saw a photograph you posted, or any other informer, peeked through your window, or drove by your home and called the police. The police could enter your home on an open warrant, charge you with failure to provide water, shelter, adequate food or heat. They might find that you failed to keep your dog's claws properly trimmed. They could take your dog away. At any time. You would see yourself shamed on the evening news, a photograph of your wet and miserable looking dog seen by your friends and neighbors.
And all this before you have any chance to defend yourself.
Your dog could be euthanized without your permission, and if he or she were kept alive, it would cost you thousands of dollars to get it back, assuming that became possible.
Rockwood's animals are right there for everyone, including the police, to see – healthy, hydrated. Two different veterinarians said they were healthy and properly cared for. They survived an awful winter safe and intact. They were not beaten or whipped, seriously ill or injured, or abused to the point of grievous injury or death. At worst, Rockwell was guilty of being inexperienced, and unprepared for one of the worst winters in American history. It is not easy to have animals on a farm, especially in a brutal winter.
He could have been charged with being overwhelmed, but that is not yet a crime. Or maybe it is. And he could have been helped instead of arrested. Is it abuse to use home made shelters for pigs? Is it abuse when a water tank freezes in – 27 degree or higher temperatures? Is it abuse when you are a month or two behind having the hooves of your horses trimmed? They used to call it farming. And how many municipalities, I wonder, send the police into private homes when there is no heating oil and take the people inside to warmer homes.
So I've written a short Q &A primer on abuse, I hope it is helpful. I have been working on it for a long time.
1. What abuse is: Animal abuse is defined almost everywhere, according to the American Legal Dictionary, as this: The extreme neglect of domestic animals to the point of great suffering, grievous injury, or death. There are plenty of laws on the books of every state and municipality in America regarding animal abuse. It is illegal. In recent years, animal rights organizations have lobbied to re-define abuse – working with animals, being entertained by them, keeping them in low-fenced areas, using them for research, even their experiencing inevitable accidents, sickness, and death.
2. What abuse is not: The opinion of someone sitting at a computer screen in some distant city, diagnosing an animal from a photograph or image. The opinion of someone driving by a farm and seeing a cow sitting in the snow, or a photo online. The opinion of someone driving by a private home and seeing a dog sitting in the rain. A horse lowering his head and raising a rear leg (this is an equine sign of relalxation. The use of a tool – a bullhook, a crop, a stick – to control a large animal or steer them in a direction. There is no state in the country that has found the work of working animals to be inherently abusive. The use of dogs to herd sheep or work with the blind is not abuse, nor is the use of animals to entertain and uplift people, as in therapy work.
3. Killer whales. Is it appropriate for killer whales to be confined in aquariums and water parks for the amusement of tourists? There is no law prohibiting killer whales in theme parks, but I am clear in my mind. It is wrong, it is not technically abuse, but it ought to be illegal. Killer whales are not domesticated animals, they have not ever worked safely or easily with humans, unlike draft horses or Asian elephants. They have never lived in confined areas close to people and structures. To me, the use of killer whales in confined pools and spaces is not acceptable to me, it is clearly wrong.
Animals fall into three categories – pets, domesticated animals, wildlife. Legal definitions of abuse are different for all of them, and all animals are not pets. Nor are they children with fur.
4. Why isn't it cruel for all Asian elephants to be in any circuses? Because there is little or no evidence of systematic abuse of elephants by Ringling Bros. Why not improve the lives of elephants rather than ban them, and doom them? A half- dozen courts have ruled the Ringling Bros. elephants have been well cared for. Animal rights groups – the U.S. Humane Society, and A.S.P.C.A. were fined more than $21 million by a judge for paying witnesses to claim the elephants were abused. There is considerable evidence that their elephant trainers love them, train them gently. Asian elephants have worked with people for thousands of years, there is nowhere else for them to go, there is no wild for them to return to.
5. I hope I am not the first one to tell you that everything you see on the Internet is not true, every image of a suffering animal is neither accurate nor genuine or tells the whole story of any species. Be careful where your money goes. (If you want to save money and see it go directly to animals, find organizations like Blue-Star Equiculture, which uses donations to save animals and encourage people to keep them and care for them. I support organizations that work to keep animals among us, not to take them away.)
So there is a sense of unreality and very selective morality about real abuse. Abused animals bleed, starve, die. Corporate farmers who house their animals in unimaginably horrific conditions – who abuse them in every moral and social sense of the term – go unpunished, while farmers, carriage drivers, pony ride operators, circus owners and sled dog mushers are considered criminals and are harassed and persecuted. Abuse has ironically become a blinding obstacle, a distraction that keeps us from figuring out how to keep animals among us. We ban them from their lives and work, and look away as they fade from the earth and are never seen again.
Stopping abuse is not the same thing as saving animals and keeping them in our world.
For all of human history, the relationship between people and animals have been private, sacred, individual and personal, as long as the animals are treated decently. They are not owed perfect lives, and cannot be spared the travails of life. The very people who insist that animals need to be released to the wild persecute farmers because their animals are sometimes in the wild.
Animals in barns in bitter weather can get frostbite just as quickly as animals outside without shelter And most of the real farmers in the Northeast could have been charged with abuse at almost any point in February. Everyone's water tanks froze. That's why they are flocking to support Joshua Rockwell. They believe they have the right to live their own lives in peace, as long as they break no laws.
There is an epidemic of abuse emanating from the animal world, but more and more, it appears that it occurs to the most vulnerable humans – farmers and the people who live and work with animals and most often love them, rather than to the animals themselves.
Joshua Rockwood is not an unperson, a grainy photograph on the evening news. He is a human being, fighting for his existence because the people in charge of the welfare of animals no longer have any idea what animals or farms are like. Nobody is lobbying to pass any laws protecting Joshua Rockwood and his rights, or helping him to get through the worst cold wave in decades.