23 March

Analysis: The West Wind Acres Affair. The Unlikely Hero.

by Jon Katz
West Wind Acres Affair
West Wind Acres Affair

Several days ago, I wrote a piece on the blog about a police and animal control raid on a small family farm in Glenville, N.Y. It is called West Wind Acres and is run by a sometimes controversial but well-known and respected farmer and animal lover named Joshua Rockwood. He sells meat and other food projects on his farm, which he has created to be sustainable. The piece has drawn by far the largest respond I have received on my blog in more than seven years. As of tonight, it has gone viral, gathering more than 7,000 shares on Facebook. That figure continues to grow.

I also wrote about Rockwood’s gofundme project, an effort to raise $50,000 for his legal fees, and for the return of his horses and other animals seized by the Glenville, N.Y., police and the town’s animal control officer. In three days, the crowdsourcing project has raised nearly $20,000. Rockwood was charged with 12 violations of the animal welfare code, ranging from frozen water (his water tanks froze in the bitter cold earlier this month)  to inadequate shelter and feed. He was also widely pilloried in the media for having an unheated barn for his pigs and other animals.

Rockwood goes to court tonight (Tuesday evening) at the Glenville Town Court. I am planning to meet with him and see his farm on Wednesday. The purpose of this piece is not to rehash the expected arguments about Rockwood and the charges that led to the the police raid and subsequent charges. Those will be ultimately resolved by the courts and debated in the many warring blogs of the animal world, as intensely polarized as the political world.

Rockwood is drawing enormous support from all over the country from animal lovers shocked and disturbed by the arrest, and by it’s implications for farmers and other people who live with animals and feel increasingly vulnerable to the avalanche of laws and regulations spawned by the wealthy and politically active animal rights movement. Rockwood writes in an honest voice. He does not claim to be perfect, he is surely no criminal. You can read his accounts here.

Why has this police action struck such a deep chord, one of the deepest I have encountered in my exploration of the widening chasm in American between people who have pets and people who have animals?

–  Among many animal lovers, and certainly many farmers, there is growing sense that the animal rights movement has simply gone too far in it’s efforts to ensure that animals live not only safe, but perfect and increasingly emotionalized and unrealistic kinds of lives. The movement is criminalizing even normal animal life and behavior.

The bar for farmers and many others – the poor, the elderly, the working class, people with working dogs, ponies, carriage horses, Hollywood horses, circus elephants – has grown impossibly high. It is Rockwood today, it could as easily be you tomorrow. The animal police don’t seem to need much cause to come knocking.

– The modern-day animal rights movement has become a kind of Hydra, it has raised many tens of millions of dollars – no one knows exactly how much – and it is becoming apparent that little of the money goes to actually saving animals. A staggering amount is going to political campaigns, lobbyists, marketers, legislators who seem to know little about the real lives of real animals, but are anxious to pass numerous laws and regulations that leave almost anyone with an animal open to prosecution.

The people who own and live with animals have almost no voice in the lives of animals or their future,  theirs or anyone else’s. That is being decided by politicians, lobbyists and  very wealthy organizations that claim to speak for the rights of animals but do not.

– It is also becoming apparent – this has been made clear in the New York Carriage  Horse controversy – that the people seeking to speak for animals and regulate them seem to know nothing about them, and that the modern-day animal rights movement is removing animals from our world rather than saving them and keeping them here. People who understand animals are simply excluded from the dialogue. Some animal rights organizations are also persecuting, harassing and defaming people who live and especially, who work with animals.

– The animal rights ideology, working with state and local legislators, have created a culture of secret informers – an Orwellian animal police – who “investigate” private citizens, farmers, researchers, animal lovers and report their suspicions to police and animal control authorities. These new animal police seem to have growing authority to invade private property, seize animals and file charges against their owners. The new laws and regulations appear to have radically widened the traditional understanding of abuse, and without the participation of any knowledgeable experts: veterinarians, behaviorists, animal lovers, or even the judicial system.

– Helpless farmers and animal owners are threatened by growing cadres of informers who they rarely see, and  cannot challenge or confront. This is a system of informers, of accusation and prosecution closer to Stalin’s Russia than to American traditions of justice. The American Revolution was sparked, in large measure, to stop British troops from invading Colonial homes on random search missions and without process or real cause. The new animal police do it routinely. Almost every farmer tells horror stories of people driving by and phoning the police because a horse looked sad or a cow was lying down in the mud or whenever an animal dies a natural death. One vet in Ohio was surrounded by police officers as her performed an emergency operation on a cow in a pasture struggling to give birth. Several passers-by called the police.

–  In most legalities, animal abuse occurs when an animal, usually a domestic animal or pet, is neglected to the point of grievous injury or death. But in many cases – Joshua Rockwood’s troubles come to mind –  investigations and arrests are launched for other, very new and unthinking reasons –  unheated barns, frozen water tanks, cows lying in the snow, cats let outside,  sheep lying down in mud, unkempt dogs, lack of certain kinds of shelter.

Rockwood was even challenged by the police because one of his dogs seemed shy. Even though two different veterinarians had come to his farm to certify his animals were healthy and well-cared for, their examinations were ignored and discarded. Rockwood believes in transparency, he even put up the charges on his blog and Facebook Page.

-There is no evidence – nor accusation – of traditional abuse in Rockwood’s case. He has not grievously harmed or neglected an animal to death, he is accused of not having a perfect farm in a cold wave that paralyzed communities all over the Northeast and shut down many municipal and private water pipes. And of not giving his animals the perfect life demanded by animal rights organizations and embraced by politicians, many of whom have received enormous contributions from animal rights lobbyists. (Consider the mayor of New York, who has never owned a dog or a cat, but has sought to destroy the carriage trade in New York City and ban the horses there after receiving his largest and most important campaign contribution from the head of NYClass, the animal rights group seeking to ban the horses.).

Soon after the contribution, which helped turn his campaign around,   he declared horses pulling carriages to be “immoral” and said the carriage horses do not belong in New York.

– In the 1940’s, 80 per cent of Americans lived in the country, they lived and work with horses and other animals and the idea that a draft horse pulling a light carriage in a park – or a pony giving a ride to a child, or a cow lying in the snow – was abusive of cruel would have been laughable. In today’s America,  only 20 per cent of Americans live in rural areas, and most Americans have no idea what cows, sheep, horses, pigs or donkeys live like.  They only know animals as pets. They don’t know that barns are rarely heated, it is far too dangerous. Or that horses are not depressed when their lower their heads, they are relaxed. Or that cows and sheep love to sit out in the snow, and can get minor frostbite in barns as easily as outdoors. Or that farm animals are not pets, and farms are not living rooms open to Facebook and Twitter.

Or that water tanks freeze in sub-zero weather and the animals sometimes  have to wait for water.

What they do see are photographs and videos online that show injured dogs and horses, and ask for donations. The animal rights lobby has become one of the most powerful fund-raising machines in America.

A farm is not a simple or easy place, life there is never perfect, not for people, not for animals. Farmers – very few have any money –  constantly scramble, adjust, improvise, and farm animals do not get treated like furbabies. Rockwood got all of his animals safely through one of the most brutal winters in history, and that is quite an accomplishment, as any farmer with testify. Half the farmers in America could be arrested for the things he is accused of doing. If most people have lost any sense of what animals are like, they know even less about where their food comes from.

– Increasingly, the animal rights movement and law enforcement and many politicians seem to focus their attention on the most helpless and vulnerable of people – the poor, the elderly, farmers, the homeless. The accusations against Rockwood are laughable when compared to the corporate cattle farms that supply fast food chains and treat animals in the most monstrous of ways.

The real abuse seems to be ignored. Corporate farming is the world’s largest and cruelest system for abusing animals, it is an ugly reflection on America’s humanity. Many organizations have documented the horrific conditions under which cows, pigs, chicken and sheep live before they are slaughtered on corporate farms. Many live their lives with no space to move,  without never seeing the sun or being able to turn around, or touching a blade of grass. You will not see police raiding corporate farms, arresting CEO’s,  and hauling animals out for treatment that is far worse than any pig or cow could or has possibly experienced on West Wind Acres farm.

– The deepening obsession with new and often ignorant ideas about abuse – when have you last met a dog owner who bragged that their dog was happy and healthy all of their lives? – has caused society to overreact to the inevitably challenging and sometimes fluid and individualistic treatment of animals,  and look away at the abuse of people.

The Glenville police did not raid homes in their town this winter because people were cold and their pipes had frozen or because some elderly people sat shivering because they couldn’t afford heating oil. They did not transport people to rescue homes and pay for their food and shelter. Do we really expect animals to have perfect lives, lives that are superior to people? Have we come to worship animals and exploit our love of them to hate people?

I have suffered frostbite more than once hauling water and hay out to animals stuck in the snow, and I cannot imagine anyone rushing to haul me off and warm my fingers. Life is not always simple, clean or pretty, not for us, not for animals. They are our partners, they share the joy and travail of the world, they are not owed perfect lives, they are not our piteous dependents.

And what kind of culture invades and shatters the life of an honest and hard-working farmer and citizen, destroys his reputation, seizes his animals and drags him through a long and expensive legal proceeding  – Rockwood has many admiring customers and supporters – without any real empathy or compassion for his life and well-being?

Those of us who love animals are increasingly concerned about the future of animals in our world. In New York, it’s okay to have as many cars, buses, trucks and condos as greedy developers and corporations want to build and make, but carriage horses, the most natural and organic thing in Central Park, have to go. The growing obsession with animal abuse is not saving or helping animals, it is driving them from the earth and away from human beings. People love to talk about how abused the elephants in the circus are, but no one talks much about what will happen to them when they no longer have work.

I read the comments of people every day who say the horses and the elephants belong in the wild, but do they really not know, I wonder, that there is no longer any wild for them to return to, and no good or easy life there even if they did?

For many people, the awful lesson of Joshua Rockwood may be that it is dangerous to own animals, we are all one anonymous call away from a visit from the police and the animal rights officers.

Many of us have been hearing Rockwood-style horror stories for some time, but social media is the new element, it has finally given people who truly care about the rights of animals  a way to speak with one another and support one another. The carriage horses have sparked a new kind of movement, a new social awakening. We wish to keep animals in our world and to treat them and their human beings in good faith. With love and respect and dignity.  It is not possible to treat animals well while abusing the people who share the world with them.

This is the message of the new animal rights movement – places like Blue-Star Equiculture, in Palmer, Mass. Now, there are beginning to be alternatives to the kind of madness that has descended upon Joshua Rockwood, we can use our computers to find them.

Rockwood was accorded no empathy, compassion, or dignity. The very government sworn to protect him and his freedom and property seek to take both away.

Without new technologies like social media, there would have been no way for most people to know about him, or to get him the money for lawyers in such a short time, and in such a solid amount.

I look forward to meeting Rockwood this week and seeing his farm. He is perhaps an unlikely symbol and a reluctant hero. And I use the word with care. You don’t have to shoot a gun to be a hero. Rockwood is a hero to animal lovers and farmers everywhere not because he is a perfect human being, or a perfect animal lover, but because he is neither. Doing the best you can under awful circumstances is not a crime, it is the nature of life as a human being.

From everything I have seen, read and heard, Joshua Rockwood is just a good and honest and hard-working man trying to survive in one of the most honorable and difficult jobs in American life – running a successful farm with real animals. I hope he makes it, for all of our sakes.

You can support his gofundme project here.



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