Another sad and unnecessary controversy is unfolding in the deepening animal rights movement's war against the farmers, this one in Long Island, New York.
It is a nightmare increasingly familiar to farmers and people who live and work with animals, from the New York Carriage Drivers to the young farmer Joshua Rockwood to people who live with horses, cows, chickens and on working farms.
Bob Benner, a long-time farmer from East Setauket, New York, has joined this sad list of victims.
Benner and his family have learned how to do something that is increasingly difficult in modern times – live off of their 15-acre farm in affluent, crowded Long Island since 1977. "We learned, made, and had our own heat. We made our own food. We made our own clothing. We raised a garden," said Benner, who is 75.
In a rational world, this would be considered heroic, especially in our time, where such independence and self-sufficiency and respect for the environment is almost unheard of. We talk about sustainability all the time, the Benners are living it. We talk about keeping animals among us, and finding value in them. He is doing that.
He ought to get a medal, not death threats online and on the phone.
Benner and his wife Jean have also figured out how to make his family farm an attraction to the urbanized community around him. With a family of six to feed, he kept refining his budget and began raising some of his farm animals as a source of food. His farm offers strawberry picking, birthday parties and class trips for schoolchildren.
Opening his farm up has threatened it in an ugly way. On April 2, Jean Benner was taking a birthday party group on an educational tour of the farm, answering questions about what it is like to live on a farm. They met Minnie the cow.
A housewife and mother named Kimberly Sherriton asked about the fate of Minnie and was told she would be used to feed the Benner family.
Sherriton was upset, she said she would find a sanctuary where Minnie could live out her life.
Jean Benner tried to explain the difference between an animal on a farm and a pet, explaining that the farm was a homestead where animals have been raised for meat since 1751. "We grow and produce food for our family on our property," said Benner. That is how the family is able to keep their farm going.
When she learned that the two-year-old cow will be going to slaughter to help feed the Benner family, Sherriton organized a series of protests outside of the Benner farm to demand that the cow be spared. She started a petition on change.org and collection more than 2,000 signatures and opened a Facebook Page to save the cow that has more than 700 supporters.
Benner said he is nearly overwhelmed with angry, sometimes obscene, phone calls, Facebook posts, bad reviews on his web page and threats on his family.
"There have been literally thousands of people who have supported us," said Benner, "and a majority of them live right here in the community," he said. "The people who are trying to impose their values on us do not live here. We're talking about a national group of people who have a direction – they're trying to tell us how to live."
Sherriton's comments to the media shocked me, even by the very low standards of animal rights rhetoric and lobbying.
"He doesn't need this cow to survive and feed his family," Sherriton told a reporter for FiOS1 news. "He puts a sob story on there. Please, tell him to go to Whole Foods and go get some antibiotic -free beef there."
In a scenario now familiar to many farmers, Benner and his family are now being constantly harassed.
"We are getting nasty e-mails, warnings, and being threatened, " he said. For now, the peaceful and meaningful way of life they built together has been shattered. It is not clear when and if they can get it back.
The assault on the Benner Farm is unfortunately typical of the way in which the animal rights movement has drifted away from animal advocacy and towards the persecution of people who are too often innocent of any wrongdoing. The New York Carriage Trade was accused almost continuously of cruelty and abuse, charges that were not only proven to be false but which were rejected by the community at large.
Joshua Rockwood, a farmer in Glenville, N.Y. was arrested in 2014 and charged with 13 counts of animal cruelty, including having frozen water tanks in – 27 degree temperatures and an unheated barn. After a grueling year, tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and a series of court hearings, and the forced removal of his healthy horses, Rockwood was cleared of all charges, in part because of the unrelenting support he received from farmers and neighbors. '
Almost any farmer in the Northeast could have been arrested on those charges that winter. His animals were all well-fed and healthy. His arrest was outrageous.
Tawni Angel, a long-time pony ride operator in Santa Monica, Calif., lost her contract to give pony rides to children at the farmer's market because an animal rights activist claimed she was abusing her ponies. Two thorough and separate investigations by the Santa Monica police department found the charges to be completely without foundation, but the Santa Monica City Council panicked and she lost her contract to give rides there.
Angel is suing her accuser for defamation.
All of these people reported being harassed, targeted, threatened online and in hateful telephone calls, all said their businesses were threatened, damaged or destroyed.
Sherriton's comments about Whole Foods are revealing.
Whole Foods is a trendy, upscale grocery chain that operates in affluent neighborhoods in cities and suburbs in the Northeast. It claims to be America's healthiest food store. It is expensive and targets affluent consumers and food-conscious Yuppies and Millenials. It's market suggests it's food is organic and healthy.
Nutritionists who evaluate Whole Foods say it does offer some healthy food, but that it operates mostly like a conventional grocery chain, except it's more expensive. About 20 per cent of the products are organic or marketed as "health foods." They sell meat and poultry and fish.
Sherriton apparently does not know that the meat Whole Foods sells also comes from animals, just like Minnie. These animals may or may not be fed and raised differently, although grass-fed cows from small farms have far better lives than any cow on any factory or corporate farm. She also knows nothing about a farm and how it operates. How does she think farmers can possibly survive if every animals someone comes to visit and deems to be cute and loving can never go to slaughter?
How does she think the people who can't afford the distinctly higher prices at Whole Foods are supposed to eat and feed their families? How are farmers supposed to earn a living?
As common as it is, there is still something shocking about the idea that a complete stranger can enter the life of a farmer or any citizen, tell him how to live his life and what to eat and where to buy it, and through the use of cheap and often mindless technology, threaten his family, livelihood, peace of mind and way of life. The attack on the carriage horses was also an attack on the idea of freedom, of living one's life freely and within the law and without persecution.
The animal rights movement was founded in the 1970's as an animal liberation movement, its primary focus was on the industrialized factory farms where nine billion animals live, many under horrific conditions. Those conditions have only worsened, the animal rights movement has not shut down a single one, even as they harass struggling farmers carrying out a way of life that has existed for centuries. The idea that farmers or anyone who choose to raise their animals humanely should be forced to shop at Whole Foods rather than eat the food they raise and grow is staggering.
No one who knows a single thing about farming would ever suggest that, it would not be possible for most farmers to even afford it.
Sadly for animals, the animal rights movement has, in so many ways, and so often, become a series of hate groups functioning well outside of reason and the law, or with any real knowledge of what animals need. They reject science in every form – behaviorists, trainers, biologists. They are strangers to truth or facts. Their assaults, like the one on Benner, are often purely emotional, based on nothing but anger and manufactured re-inventions about animal abuse.
You can read more about what a hate group is here, and on the websites of the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is a sad thing to compare the assaults on people like the Benner family with the definitions of what a hate group is. Sherriton is not advancing the rights of animals, she seeks to take away the rights of farmers and citizens, and what is happening to the Benners fits every definition of how a hate group functions. It is wrong.
The backdrop against all of this is the fact – Jean Benner suggested this – that Americans, most of whom once lived on or near farms, have become utterly disconnected from nature and the real world of real animals or farms. They no longer grasp the different between a pet Labrador and a cow. They expect the markets they shop at to be full of food, but have absolutely no idea where the food comes from or what it takes to produce it.
They have launched a war on farmers, among others.
The equation of animal rights with human rights has also led to a frightening erosion of human rights. For most of American history, the idea that some total stranger could come to your home and farm and attempt to force their own radically ill-formed values on you or on a farmer and tell him how he or she must eat would have been unthinkable.
Now it is commonplace.
The animal rights movement seeks to legitimize the role of the secret informer, people traveling to farms and private homes in search of animals who are, in their view, victimized. These tactics do not evoke animal advocacy, they evoke the Stasi, the dread East German secret police. These people are rarely, if ever, held accountable for their actions and function as a sort of enraged and increasingly feared private militia. Farmers all over the country keep their cows in barns, hide their horses when they lie down to nap, are harassed for letting guard dogs sleep outside with sheep.
It is very difficult to defend oneself against charges of animal cruelty, and very painful for animal lovers to be accused of abuse.
The tragedy of the assault on the Benner family is that these are people – like the New York Carriage Drivers – who have figured out how to keep animals in our world, treat them well and humanely, and use them to earn a living and feed their families. The Benner cow has a better two years than almost any one of the millions of cows trapped in giant factory farms who never get to go outside, be petted by children or cooed over by housewives who think there is free food at Whole Foods for farmers.
For animals who feed us, that is a good deal, better than most animals have.
The good news is that when communities rally around animals and the people who work with them and farmers – the animal rights activists are losing. Many of their vigilante campaigns are cruel and unjust. The movement has alienated itself from farmers, animal lovers, behaviorists, trainers and biologists. There is a new social awakening. In order to keep animals in our world, we need to understand them and their true nature. We can not only see them as pets and emotional toys to make us feel better.
The excesses of the animal rights movement are spawning a new way of looking at animals, a movement to treat animals and people well, and to keep animals among us rather than exiling them into extinction and oblivion.
Sending a cow -or a working draft horse or an elephant – to spend his or her life on an animal preserve to eat hay and drop manure is not a humane act. It is simply the new abuse, sanctioned to make humans feel better about themselves. Minnie is where she belongs, and her fate is no one's business but the Benners. You might remember this idea of minding your own business. Before Facebook, it was quite popular.
Minnie is one of the luckiest cows in the world, how sad Kimberly Sherriton is so blind, she cannot see what is right in front of her, she can only see farm animals through the prism of victimization.
What is the lesson for Bob Benner and the other farmers who struggle all of the time to supplement their incomes (dairy prices have not risen for most farmers in 20 years)? Either lie when visitors come, or hide their animals from public view or shut down their farms under a barrage of cruel and sometimes vicious harassment.
No animal rights movement can find a high moral ground or hope to succeed when it targets so thoughtlessly the very people who love and live and work with animals and treat them well. I hope Benner pays little attention to online petitions and Facebook posts. They come easy and are cheap and temporal.
They make a lot of noise but are the weapon of the coward and the dilettante. It is a very difficult thing to run a farm for decades in the face of over-development, red tape,, ignorance and hostility. It is very simple to sent a nasty message on Facebook – it takes a few seconds and is free.
I hope Bob Benner knows that he can triumph if he stands firm.
A local reporter told me that he has the community firmly on his side. His farm is much loved by the thousands of people and children who have visited it.
The animal rights movement is much more cruel than it is savvy. The carriage horses won their battle. Joshua Rockwood won his. I hope Bob Benner sets up his own Facebook page and he will be buttressed and supported by the many thousands of people who love animals and actually know something about them. And who will stand on the right side of the animal rights war against the farmers and people who support the most elemental right of animals: to remain in our everyday lives.
You can raise your voice against this injustice and offer support by contacting the Benner Farm here. Facebook and online petitions are a two-way street, they can do good as well as promote hatred and ignorance.
(Today, the Benner Farm announced in an e-mail that Minnie had been moved off of the farm, they said they would not be answering any more questions about her.)