12 May

For Truth, Justice, Rationality, Animals: Joshua Rockwood Wins A Great Victory

by Jon Katz
Joshua's Great Victory
Joshua’s Great Victory

Good news from the heart of the animal wars for farmers, animal lovers, sanity and for truth and justice. Early this morning, a judge denied a horse sanctuary owner’s attempt to be reimbursed nearly $8,000 for caring for three of Joshua Rockwood’s impounded horses for 30 days.

I believe this is the beginning of the unraveling of the unjust assault on Rockwood, a turning point in the increasingly cruel and irrational conflict all over the country between people who have animals and people who only know animals as pets. It isn’t over, the criminal charges against him still stand, a hearing is set for Glenville Town Court for June 2. I told him he ought to be proud of himself, he has accomplished something that is extraordinary.

Judge Paul Davenport ruled that Peaceful Acres Farm, the horse rescue facility that helped the police seized Rockwood’s horses, did not prove that any animal cruelty took place on his farm. On March 15, Rockwood was charged with 13 counts of animal cruelty and neglect – failing to provide proper food and shelter to his animals –  and his horses were taken away. Nanci Beyerl, the owner of Peaceful Acres, was seeking $7,750 for the first months’ care. The horses have now been at Peaceful Acres for nearly three months.

I am still talking to people about the ruling, but I believe it is significant, even precedent-setting. I can find no evidence of any other case in which a judge has ruled that people do not have to pay impound fees for animals who are seized without compelling evidence of abuse or mistreatment.

The name of the original complainant remains a secret. The raid on Rockwood’s farm followed one of the worst cold waves in the modern history of the Northeast, the water streams and bowls on his farm froze. He was accused of having an unheated barn and of not providing shelter for the pigs that was warm enough for -27 temperatures.

I have met Joshua, been to his farm, seen his animals more than once, he is guilty of this: being part of a local foods movement farm during a brutal cold wave, and for being inexperienced in farm infrastructure. Despite the historically cold winter, he kept his animals fed and cared for. Two different veterinarians have certified – right before the police raid – that Rockwood’s cows, pigs, chickens, sheep and horses were healthy and hydrated. His shelter is adequate and typical of livestock shelters for sheep, pigs,  horses and cows.

The charges embodied the lunacy surround the many conflicts sprouting up between people who live with animals and self-appointed advocates for animals who seem to know nothing about them. Joshua’s animals all are free-range, they are treated far better than almost any of the billions of animals kept on gigantic and inhumane industrial corporate farms. And they are all fed natural and pasture food.

Around the time Rockwood was arrested – the authorities tried to set bail, claiming he was a flight risk – the sewage pipes at the Glenville Town Building froze, and the pipes backed up.

No one was arrested or charged with cruelty.

But there is what is different about this case:

Hundreds of farmers and animal lovers from all over the country seemed to decide that enough was enough, they gathered together to support Rockwood, mostly through social media, and to raise more than $56,000 for his legal fees. Hundreds of people came to his hearings. They will be there on June 2 as well. Before social media, these people had no simple way of connecting with one another, or supporting one another. Rockwood has introduced a new dynamic to the deepening confusion over what is abuse for animals and how they can remain in our world.

I can also share this: I am told that Joshua was offered a plea deal just before his last hearing in which virtually all of the charges against him would be dropped if he would agree to pay the fees for the transport and boarding of his horses.

He declined, he has told friends that he will never plead guilty to something he didn’t do.

This was a good offer for him to walk away from these troubles, he could have simply made the deal. Most people would have, I think I would have. It took strength and courage for him to refuse, and it appears that his own sense of right and wrong was vindicated last night. Not many people would have done that. Rockwood is an inspiration to the growing numbers of younger people seeking to return to nature and to help find new and healthy ways of raising and selling food locally. When you buy food from Joshua, you know where it comes from and how the animals have been treated.

I can tell you as one who loves animals and has lived with them for some time that Joshua’s animals are among the most fortunate ones, they are treated well.

Judge Davenport ruled that because the Glenville police officer and small animal veterinarian who participated in the raid were not called to testify or made available for cross-examination, the evidence had to be considered hearsay and therefore inadmissible.

Rockwood’s lawyer argued that the horses should never have been seized and that the reimbursement costs were not justifiable or reasonable. All over the country, thousands of animals on farms and in private homes are being seized by people – often anonymously – claiming they are neglected or abused. When the animals are seized by the police and sent to rescue farms and preserves, the owners are billed for their care and boarding, whether or not they are found guilty. People arrested are routinely humiliated and disgraced on television and in local media, the final outcomes of the cases are almost never reported. Many are found innocent, or see the charges dropped.

As the Rockwood case reveals, the people lobbying for arrests and prosecutions do not always know how farmers or animals live, or what abuse really is, they often argue that all animals should be returned to nature, but when they are – Rockwood’s animals live very close to nature – the people who own them are often arrested.

Rockwood’s animals could not have been denied food, they are all healthy and vigorous, food farmers do not starve their livestock, they would have no meat to sell. I showed three different pig farmers photos of the shelter for Rockwood’s pigs (two out of 100 had gray matter on their ears) and none could begin to fathom why he was charged with cruelty.

Rockwood, an idealistic young farmer who left construction work to start a CSA farm (CSA farms sell shares to consumers, they get produce and meat in return, they share the risk and bounties of farming) and to sell healthy, locally grown food from naturally fed animals, found himself struggling for his farm and his reputation. A lot of people who knew him and many who did not decided enough was enough, they supported Rockwood in an unprecedented and powerful way, perhaps setting a new kind of model for the victims of this kind of persecution.

And make no mistake about it, this was a persecution. There is almost nothing to these charges. The judge seemed to me to be making that very statement in his ruling yesterday.

Rockwood’s animals were well cared for, any farmer in the Northeastern United States this February could have been arrested just as easily, and had their animals hauled away for no reason, and then face enormous legal and boarding costs whether or not they were guilty of any wrongdoing.

The national hysteria over animal abuse and animal rights has become a new kind of social mob action, it seems much more Orwellian – secret informers, outrageous demands of money made against innocent people who seem almost without rights, a hysterical and unbalanced news media, damaged businesses and reputations, a way of life that is being destroyed, and a civic culture that has lost any connected with the natural world, or any real understanding of farmers, farming or the needs and lives of animals who are not pets.

But Joshua Rockwood’s trials are not yet over. It is not clear how and when he might get horses back. A June 2 hearing has been set for the criminal charges against. I imagine he will be offered a deal again, my guess is that he will never take a deal. One of the cruelest things about this story is that Joshua Rockwood is the last person who should be fighting for his life on the basis of absurd charges like this. It is important to protect the rights and welfare of animals, but not by trading their well-being off against the rights and freedom and dignity of human beings.

Joshua still needs support for people care about keeping animals in our every day lives, who wish animals to remain in our lives, who support new and humane ways of farming and who believe that people and animals both have the right to be treated with compassion and dignity.

You can help: People in the Glenville, N.Y., area can buy his healthy and popular food offerings.

People elsewhere can contribute to his legal defense fund. As one farmer told me, “this time, they came for him, next time they will come for me, and so I am going to do everything I can to support him.”

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