12 August

Joshua Rockwood’s Painful Ordeal: A Tyranny, A Hero Journey

by Jon Katz
Joshua Rockwood's Ordeal
Joshua Rockwood’s Ordeal

In March, the police – secular and animal –  arrested Joshua Rockwood and accused him of starving, freezing, and neglecting his pigs, cows. Curious that in the six months since his arrest, none of them have returned to his farm to see  how the animals are doing. I wonder why, if his animals were being treated so badly, they have left them all there on their free-range, pasture-fed farm to suffer.

I suppose I know the answer. If they did return, they would not find much. Joshua’s animals are alert, fat and busy.

I met Joshua Rockwood at the Round House Cafe in Cambridge this morning, we have become friends, I hadn’t seen him for a month or so. He is engulfed in the legal and psychological detritus of his arrest in March on 13 counts of animal abuse and cruelty, he will not use the word, but he is struggling, his life and plans and farm in limbo, the fear and uncertainty nagging at him and his family in a number of different and frightening ways.

We spent a couple of hours talking, I realized I need to keep writing about his case, it is important, and he needs help, even as he is loathe to admit it.

Joshua’s life and business are struggling. Both are on hold as he navigates motions, hearings, money, testimony and records and prepared to go to trial, and he says, possibly to jail. He won’t let his children outdoors alone now, he visits his animals at all hours of the day and night to make sure no one is informing on him.  People come by all of the time to take photos, he is living under a microscope.

He refuses to take the advice of farmers who say they hide their animals out of sight of the road because the new informers drive by all the time and call the police if they see horses napping or cows with snow on their backs.

He says he has nothing to hide, and will not hide his animals.

I believe that Joshua is hurting and will need some more help getting through this, and soon. He seems resolute, but also discouraged, sometimes depressed.  I trust he will ask for help and that he will get it.  He needs to get ready for the next winter. I, for one, am committed to his cause. He is not a perfect man any more than I am, but he is a good one, a loving father, husband and friend. He is also an animal lover, in almost every sense of the term.

I believe it is quite apparent now that Joshua’s arrest was an exercise in ignorance and arrogance, a clear injustice. Farmers, animal lovers, vets, farriers have been to see West Wind Acres, no one apart from the police have found anything wrong. It is a farm, much like any other. Joshua is a young farmer, just like many others. There are things for him to learn, but he is no criminal or animal abuser. We have lost perspective and rationality in dealing with the domesticated animals of our world. Joshua should never have been arrested.

He is doing what we wish so many young farmers would do, raising food and produce locally, treating his free-range animals well.

But this is all taking it’s toll on his life.

Earlier this year an Albany journalist named Chris Churchill asked this question in a newspaper column: “Is Joshua Rockwood A Hero?”

According to Wickipedia, a hero is a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. A hero is a person who is brave. So yes, Joshua is a hero to me.  You don’t have to stand in front of enemy machine-guns to be a hero. Joshua could have settled the case a long time ago, the prosecution’s case is made of rice paper,. He had the chance to have all of the charges against him dropped.

He refused, he says he wants to be able to tell his son to stand up for what he believes is right, and if he doesn’t do it, how can he expect his son to do it?

He will not, he says, plead guilty to something he did not do.

I would define hero more narrowly than the dictionary. To me, a hero is a person who responds to great fear, injustice or danger with grace, humility and courage. Joshua is a hero to me.

The police raided Joshua’s 90-acre farm in Glenville, N.Y. in March.  They said his animals – cows, pigs, sheep, chickens – were out in the cold or in unheated shelters. Some didn’t have food, police say. And the water, though frozen, may have been tainted by feces.

The bitter cold wave – the temperatures dropped to – 27 degrees – froze water tanks all over farms in the Northeast, including mine. Joshua’s food and hay are stored at his home, a  mile away from the farm.  At Glenville Police headquarters, the sewage pipes leading to the bathrooms froze, the toilets were backed up. No one was charged or arrested.

The police said if they couldn’t see the food, then they had to assume it wasn’t there. Joshua had fed his dogs earlier in the day, and the food bowls were empty. The police and animal rights workers who came to the farm did not know that there are hardly any heated barns on farms – it is neither safe nor healthy for livestock – or that few animal shelters on farms are heated. Two veterinarians had come to the farm just before the raids and will testify that his animals were healthy, well-fed and hydrated. Their reports were ignored, three of Joshua’s horses were seized and remain on animal rescue farms, which are demanding tens of thousands of dollars for their return.

It is common for some feces to be found in agricultural water tanks, as animals like sheep and chickens are not particular about how and where they defecate. Farmers everywhere know all this, that’s why more than 200 of them showed up at his first court hearing.

In the Orwellian world of animal rescue and animal rights, a new kind of national Inquisition, secret informers patrol the lives of people who work with animals, reporting them to the police if they see anything that disturbs them.  It seems that no one in the process knows much about farms, animals, or real life.

I am no hater of government, but Joshua is not only living a horror, it is an Orwellian one in almost every respect.

Orwellian is an adjective describing the situation, idea, or societal condition that the author George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.  It denotes an attitude and a brutal policy of suffocating control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past, including the the branding of the “unperson,”  someone who is arrested and vilified before his community, and  whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory.

That is Joshua’s experience.

Although confronting one’s accusers is a staple of the criminal justice system, it does not apply to the secret informers of the animal world. They function more like the Stasi, the dread East German secret police, reporting and condemning sometimes innocent people and then melting away without accountability, transparency or challenge. In this world, if you are accused, you are guilty. The charges do not have to be true or credible or make any sense, you are plunged into a costly and shattering process, humiliated before your neighbors and friends, your sustenance, finances and livelihood threatened.

For the farmer, and for many others, like the New York carriage drivers, the hammer always hangs over their head. It might be a frost-bitten ear, or a frozen water tank, or a horse that stumbles in a hole, or horse taking a nap, or a sheep with rheumy eyes. In the new and surreal world of so-called animal abuse, it can be anything anybody driving by thinks it is. It seems, sadly enough, that the police too often no longer know the difference, or care much.

The idea of animal welfare, an important social issue, has been distorted beyond all reason to advance impossible and costly standards for animals that hardly any humans have, and to make the people who love and work with them vulnerable to sudden persecution.

People like Joshua, an idealistic young farmer committed to growing and healthy and locally-produced food, find their lives shattered, overwhelmed by legal fees and proceedings, their reputations attacked on the Internet, local TV stations and newspapers. Joshua has always practiced and argued for a transparent and open life. It may cost him his farm.

Everyone with animals or a farm knows that the police could have come for anyone of us, and devastated our lives and reputations as well. We have lost perspective on what it means to protect animals.  A farm is not an easy, pretty or simple place. We have lost touch with farmers and with the real lives of real animals, we routinely claim to be saving them while abusing and destroying the lives of people.

Joshua’s wife was terrified by his arrest, he says, convinced that the police could break into their home at any moment and seize their children. The fear has challenged their relationship, invaded their lives. If they could take the loved and healthy horses, she said, why couldn’t they take the children? Joshua says he no longer lets the children play anywhere – even in their backyard – alone, people come by all the time trying to take photos of him, them, and his animals. He says his son Hunter keeps asking him why their home is now a prison. He rushes back and forth to his farm, making sure everything is perfect in case the police show up again.

Living under threat of trial and jail is an unnatural way to live, no innocent person should ever have to endure Joshua’s ordeal.

Joshua said since he had nothing to hide, he opened his farm up to the police when they came. He didn’t know he didn’t have to, and probably should not have. When they told him they were going to get a search warrant, he was confused. Why did they need a warrant, when they could come anytime?

Joshua didn’t get their license plates or videotape them or call a lawyer or make them wait for his vet to come, things he is entitled to do under the law. He couldn’t imagine that they would look at an empty food bowl for a dog and accuse him of starving his dogs. He never thought they could simply take his horses away because their hooves needed trimming (my farrier looked at the photos and said it was quite common for hooves to get long in the winter, he called it a “bullshit misdemeanor.”)

In the future, Joshua said, he will follow the advice of the Farmer-To-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, formed to help farmers survive the waves of arrests, raids and sometimes bizarre accusations against them during what has become a national hysteria over animal abuse. How sad, but so many farmers have told me the greatest threat to their farms and their futures have come from people and organizations who believe they are protecting the rights of animals, while increasingly trampling on the rights of people. Every farmer I know asks the same question: Where to most Americans, the fattest and best fed people on the earth, think their food comes from?

Joshua is allergic to complaining, raging bitterly against the system, or asking for help.  But he admits he is trapped in a nightmare, the strongest word he will use. We are good friends now, but it took me a long time to pry the truth out of him this morning, he is stubbornly stoic. His business is struggling now, not because his meats are not good or popular, but because he is profoundly distracted by legal preparations, meetings, and the work caused by his arrest. He has spent hundreds of hours on the paperwork spawned by his case. He has dropped or suspended plans to expand his customer base, to open a farm store, to market his meats more effectively.

“The truth is,” he says, “I don’t have time to think.”

He says he is too busy, and he is, to focus on  his business, and I suspect, he is running out of money. Joshua’s Legal Defense Fund raised more than $58,000. If he goes o trial, as expected right of now, that money will vanish in a heartbeat. “I don’t like to ask for help,” he says, “people have helped me so much already.” And his tractor just broke down.

I asked Joshua if he needed help, financial or otherwise. He looked sad and discouraged to me, he smiled but did not answer.

“Will you ask for help if you need it?,” I pressed. “I don’t know,” he said, “I”m not good at it.” I will stay on him about this.

When we got up to leave the care, my friend Scott Carrino, the owner, came over to meet Joshua and talk with him. Afterwards, Scott came over to my car and grabbed my arm. “How awful,” he said, “what a nice kid.”

So these are the trying times, I think, for Joshua,  the times that try men’s souls. As Thomas Paine wrote about hard times: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

This is a small tyranny, not a big one like a Revolution. But it is a tyranny still, an abuse of authority and power, by government, but the people who say they speak for the rights of animals.

I urged Joshua not to despair, easy for me to say. I believe his cause is just and that he will prevail, and win a clear victory over a new kind of modern tyranny, the kind that thoughtfully invades the life of an honest and hard-working man and devastates it without thought or reason.

Joshua needs about $15,000 to get ready for another winter, to make sure no police raids will put him in peril again when the temperature drops to -27. He needs to build more shelters and he needs a new frost-tree winter water system. Would he ask for help for that, I asked him? He shrugged. Joshua has a lot of pride. He will have to decide, but I told him many of us are ready to help him raise this money if he gives the word.

Is Joshua a hero?  Should he have been better prepared for winter? Probably. Were his animals abused, did a one of them die or suffer grievous wounds? No. Is he cruel?  No.

He does not need to be a hero, just a good man and a conscientious farmer.

He is a good person, he is not criminal or animal abuser. In a just world, the police would have offered to help him get fresh water during that brutal cold wave, not bury him in this cruel maze.  I have been to his farm a number of times, his animals are all big and alert and shiny and healthy.

So his case drags on, pulling his life along with it. I am getting ready to try and help him, as so many others did,  I hope some of you can come along for the ride.

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