it is always a shocking thing for me to see an innocent person treated like a criminal in his own community, I think when a culture criminalizes farming in the name of loving animals, it is turning to the dark side. Farmers are part of a nation’s soul, we fare as they fare, we suffer as they suffer, even if we rarely realize it. A country that forgets where it’s food comes from and what the real l lives of animals are like is losing itself in a different way.
Today, another hearing in the saga of Joshua Rockwood, a young farmer caught in a brutal winter, now facing 13 charges of animal cruelty and neglect in a community that seems to know nothing about farms or animals any longer. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a good day in the midst of this long, painful, expensive and arduous ordeal. But Joshua has set about proving that there is justice for an honest man, that the legal system can work for him as well as against him.
He had a good day today.
Unlike so many of the people caught up in the hysteria over animal cruelty and abuse, Rockwood knows how to use his blog and the Internet, he has raised $55,000 online for his legal fees and drawn a powerful army of supporters to his side. They are loyal and loving people, I am very happy to sit among them.
The judge announced the case today as “West Wind Acres Farm versus the complainant, Peaceful Acres Sanctuary,” so it has at least become clear who the complainant was and is. Today’s hearing – delayed from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. was not about the charges of animal cruelty, it is about how much Joshua is being asked to pay by the Peaceful Acres rescue farm in order to get his two draft horses and pony back, should that become possible.
To date, the bill for boarding the three horses is $7,500, according to Nanci Beyerl, director of Peaceful Acres. That is for the first 30 days only, it does not include the last month. Beyerl was called to testify about the costs of caring for Joshua’s seized horses, and Joshua’s attorney, Andrew SaFranko was eager to question her about her charges and fees. About 30 of Joshua’s friends, family and supporters came to the hearing, even mid-day, some came long distances to show support for him.
Real courtroom scenes are not like Law & Order or Perry Mason. Smart modern lawyers speak slowly and carefully, take notes, reference files, there are no fireworks, little drama. I’ve covered a lot of trials, SaFranko had done his homework, and knew his stuff. Court proceedings are almost uniformly boring, not exciting. There are lots of conferences, delays, reading of statutes. Still, the cross-examination of Beyerl was, I thought, both revealing and disturbing. It was something of a surprise to me.
And it did shed some light on some of the very troubling issues raised by the Rockwood case. First, Rockwood is accused of nothing that doesn’t happen on almost every real farm in America, especially in a brutal cold wave. Then, there is the increasingly incestuous relationship between some animal rights organizations and the police, who are being drawn into the deepening conflict over the future of animals in our world and the true nature of farming. Americans have, in fact, forgotten where their food comes from and they have forgotten the people who make their food possible.
There are issues relating to conflicts of interest involving people given great authority over other people, and who often have a financial stake in the outcome of their actions and accusations. As the animals of the world disappear in the new Inquisition over animal abuse, the fate of every one becomes more precious. No one is opposed to animal rescue or animal abuse, and so no one thinks to question animal rights organizations and some rescue operations about their procedures. But the Rockwood case is raising a number of questions.
And then, there is the powerless and frightening position many farmers and animal lovers – especially poor ones – find themselves in when confronted with the Orwellian power and aggression of the contemporary animal rights movement and its growing links to local governments. Joshua Rockwood knows how different his story might have been if he had not been able to raise all that money on his gofundme site.
I have three good friends who operate horse and animal rescue farms and sanctuaries – one of them, Ken Norman, our friend and farrier – was sitting right next to me in the courtroom, and in the interests of fairness, I cannot believe how hard they work, how little money they have or earn, or how open they are about what they do. It is all about the horses for them, I don’t think any of them know what a management fee is.
So I was interested in hearing Nanci Beyerl’s testimony.
Beyerl was part of the convoy that came to Joshua Rockwood’s farm in March – she testified that she was asked by the police. The raiding party seized the three horses, and left a large paper trail of charges and accusations, none of which have yet to be addressed in court.
Beyerl conceded that she charges twice as much money for impounded horses – those seized in cruelty cases – as she does for rescue horses who are not impounded. She is asking Joshua to pay for more than $800 a month for the care of his horses if he wishes to get them back, or even if he never gets them back. For rescued horses who are not impounded, she says, she charges $400. In addition, she is charging a daily management fee of $104.
She surprised the farriers and horse rescue people present when she testified that she does not charge for “loaded miles” in the way most animal carriers do, she charged by time and distance for transporting the horses. She is seeking $600 in reimbursement for transporting the three horses to her farm from his – a distance of nine miles.
Beyerl said her boarding rates for Rockwood’s horses are $28 a day, $13 more than her fees for horses that are not impounded. She is also charging Rockwood more than $1,000 for veterinary care – one of the horses is pregnant and about to foal.
She said impounded horses require more time and care than other horses, including talking regularly to the police and the DA’s office. I don’t know Beyerl, she seems to have saved a lot of horses, but she seemed angry to me and at times defensive. Once or twice, she appeared almost outraged that her expenses were even being questioned. She said impounded horses are expensive in part because she doesn’t allow her volunteer staff to handle them or care for them for insurance reasons. Yet she conceded that she brought eight people – all but one volunteers – along on the raid of Joshua’s farm that resulted in the seizure of his horses.
SaFranko pressed her on just how much time she spent managing two draft horses and a pony for $104 a day. She said caring for his horses took her away from her regular duties. She also said she was submitting invoices for $600 for transporting the horses – $400 from her and $200 from a second rescue farm whose trailer was used.
SaFranko then called Wes Laraway as a witness for the defense. Callalway is a history teacher and 20 year veteran of animal and wildlfe rescue runs his own sanctuary in Middleburgh, N.Y., he has five horses and eight donkeys and is lately specializing in exotic animal rescue. He was, I have to say, right out of central casting, tall, ruddy, white-haired, credible and direct.
Laraway (he was not paid to testify) said he never heard of a management fee and had never charged one. He did not charge any fee for the animals that he rescued and cared for, he did accept donations. He has never heard of the practice of charging more money for impounded horses than rescued ones, and has never done it. He said he used a “loaded miles” fee arrangement for all of the animals he had transported. That is, transport charges are computed and begin when the animals are loaded onto a trailer, and end when the are loaded off at their destination. He said most loaded ride fees range from $2 to $5 per mile on average.
If he had transported Rockwood’s horses, the invoice would have been from $40 to $50 for all three.
I contacted each of my horse rescue friends, all three said they have never heard of a management fee in horse rescue, all three said they charged on the basis of the “loaded miles” system, although often, they said, they had to waive the charge because horse owners had no money. “Often, these people are not evil, they are just broke,” one told me. They all said their daily boarding rates for a draft horse range from $8 to $16, and none charged more for impounded horses than conventionally rescue ones. In fact, they all said they simply accepted the horses they took into their care. They rarely, if ever, charged any fees for them unless they were boarded.
“This,” one said, “is why all horse rescue people are broke.”
I know these good people long and well, they are all broke and live to rescue horses in trouble, it is their life, none could imagine what a management fee might be. “Caring for one horse in trouble is just like caring for another,” said Susan, who runs a rescue farm in Maine. “Managing them all is what I do.”
So there we are, another chapter unfolds in the animal wars now raging across America. This is a case that should never have happened, criminal charges that should never be brought. I felt the prosecutor somehow felt the same thing, she did her duty, but she seemed to have little heart for it. And how could she?, it is the case, as Ken Norman said, of the Bullshit Misdemeanors. I watched the faces of the farmers and friends and family of Joshua Rockwood, there was a great deal of pain in their eyes. Sitting in a courtroom watching Joshua fight for his farm and his life was the last place they wanted to be.
And unfortunately for Joshua, this nightmare is just getting underway. He is holding up, he had a gleam in his eye I had not seen before in the courtroom, this is a stand he wants to take. “I’ll tell you one thing,” a neighbor whispered to me in the courtroom, “he will never give up.”
Neither, I think, will his new army, and perhaps that is what is most significant about his case.
As of today, there were no further hearing dates set, the judge is awaiting motions from the lawyers on the admissibility of some of the evidence.