27 October

Joshua Rockwood’s Pigs, Animal Rights: Imagining What Could Be

by Jon Katz
Photo By Joshua Rockwood
Photo By Joshua Rockwood

One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to help people in ways we often can’t do as individuals. When a community fails in it’s moral responsibility to help one another, then society is broken, our ties to one another cut. From the first Joshua Rockwood’s story is one of community.

More than 30 piglets were born in the past week or so at Joshua Rockwood’s West Wind Acres Farm in Glenville, N.Y. That is happy news.

Life on the farm goes on, despite the persecution of the good man and  honest farmer who runs it.  Joshua Rockwood is straining to deal with legal bills, the distraction of waiting to see if he goes to jail, an agonizingly complex and expensive legal system, and is fighting every one of the 13 counts of animal cruelty charges lodged against him.

Joshua Rockwood is a person of principle, he will not admit to any wrongdoing that he has not committed. Hundreds, if not thousands, of farmers, animal lovers, friends and customers have rushed to his aid. Almost to a one, they say the same thing: it could have been us.

Joshua’s life is very much on hold:  three horses remain on the rescue farm that impounded them along with the police last March. Joshua is uncertain how or when or if ever he will be able to get them back or afford the mounting boarding and veterinary fees he would have to pay for their return, no matter if he is guilty or innocent. It seems that animal rights justice is different from people justice. Unlike accused murderers, Joshua has no right to confront the informers who upended his life, he must pay to get his animals back, even if it is found they were never treated cruelly or neglected.

It is a terrifying thing to be the target of a vast legal and police apparatus, it is a nightmare if you are innocent. Once Joshua’s face appeared on television, online and in all of the local newspapers, he lost some of his customers, and of course, has had to put on hold many of his ideas for improving the farm and it’s infrastructure, for distributing his meat, or selling more CDA shares in his farm. West Wind Acres was created to produce healthy meat from free-range and pasture fed animals that is sold to local people.

Joshua is part of a movement that helps people  trust the food they eat and know where it comes from. We hear more and more about the dangers of processed foods,  the waste and inhumanity of the grocery chain food system. Joshua doesn’t sell processed foods shipped thousands of miles.  In a rational time, he might get an award for helping save the earth and promote good health for people and animals.

The political and institutional community surrounding Joshua Rockwood has failed him terribly, but a new kind of community, joined by common experience and connected with new technologies has risen to help him. The need for community, it seems, is more powerful than the need to hate and persecute.

Joshua Rockwood is an open man, a transparent farmer. He tells no lies, keeps no secrets. Check it out for yourself.

It seems we are not living in a rational world, certainly not when it comes to the lives of farmers or the welfare of animals.

Unlike the nine billion animals in industrial factory farms living in sometimes horrific conditions, Joshua’s animals live on a 90 acre farm. They all range freely on pastures and hillside grass, they live in shelter, they receive  regular medical attention, they drink out of fresh streams, they are not fed chemicals or artificial foods. They are slaughtered in the most humane possible way.

And they live on a farm where the farmer cares for them, knows each one of them. Like the New York Carriage Horses, these are the lucky animals of the world.

Sometimes I imagine what might have happened to Joshua last winter (it was one of the world cold waves in the history of the Northeast)  if there was a truly humane animal rights movement and a rational understanding of farms and animals. The persecution of Joshua Rockwood is a study in the growing arrogance and cruelty of the people who claim to speak for the rights of animals,  and of government overreach. In the American experiment, government was meant to protect freedom and property. In the nightmare that has engulfed Joshua Rockwood and has farm,  government seeks to take both from him, on the flimsiest imaginable grounds.

Joshua has been accused of having frozen water tanks unheated barns and shelters, even though no animal died last winter or was found to be starving, de-hydrated or injured. His horses were taken from him because their hooves were overgrown. He was given no warning, had no chance to explain or defend himself, was given no time to correct any of the allegedly inadequate conditions on his farm. The farmers are right. It could have been you. It could have been me.

I doubt there is a horse or animal lover of any experience who would argue that the horses are better off now, languishing on their rescue farm, than they were in their own safe and  healthy environment. Like dogs, horses attach powerfully to the people they live with. It is traumatic for them to be separated so abruptly, it is a kind of abuse of it’s own.

But does it have to be this way? Are we not a people of communities, responsible for one another, connected to each other? All kinds of people who have rushed to help Joshua it it was known he needed help – farmers, animal lovers, farm organizations.

Imagine if the secret informer who called the police and nearly ruined Joshua Rockwood’s life had knocked on the door instead and asked him if he needed any help.

Imagine if there was an animal rights organization that might have helped him  rather than accuse him and take his animals away during that awful bitter winter that saw the temperatures plunged to nearly -30 degrees day after day. Joshua was not an impoverished owner who couldn’t afford to care for his horses, they were loved, healthy and very well cared for.

Imagine if a horse rescue group offered to help him care for his horses instead of seize them, offered to find a farrier who would come in such weather and help trim the hooves (the did not  pose any kind of health risk or danger to the horses, according to several farriers who saw the photographs of them posted online).

Imagine if the police chose to ask Joshua if he needed help in that awful cold and offered or arranged assistance rather than raid his farm, threaten him with jail, push  him towards financial ruin and endanger the lives of all of the animals on his farm. Imagine if the town government actually had a program to support farmers rather than simply prosecute them on the say-so of extremist ideologues  and the growing number of secret informers spying on private citizens. These informers are not held accountable in any way for the charges they make and the great trouble they can cause.

Imagine if the rights and welfare of farmers and other human beings were held to be as precious as the rights and welfare of animals. Imagine if the media and the animal rights organizations talked to farmers and sought to understand their lives and went to help some of those nine billion animals in industrial factory farms.  Criminals make us think about evil, says the moral philosopher Hannah Arendt, but hypocrites are the lowest form of life.

Two different veterinarians came to West Wind Acres in the days before Joshua was arrested and said his animals were all healthy and hydrated and well cared for.

Imagine if we lived in a rational world where that would have been enough, and the police could have driven away and tended to preventing and prosecuting actual crimes.

In a rational and humane society, this story would never have happened.

Joshua’s farm would not be struggling today, an honest and idealistic young man would not have to fight to deep his very good reputation from being destroyed, his face offered as a mug shot on every TV station and newspaper for miles around. He would not have had to spend tends of thousands of dollars in legal fees. His wife would not have to forbid her children from playing outside for fear some informer would call the police and claim they were being neglected. Imagine if Joshua were free to work his farm and raise his family and pursue his life, rather than have to fight for its survival.

There is no point, truly, in raging against reality and bitterly decrying fate. Joshua is fighting back in a civil and principled way. Many people are supporting him. They understand that the charges against him are unjust, that it could have been them, that this a perversion of the very idea of animal rights, not an affirmation.

For me, this is no longer an argument, it is a new kind of movement. Animals and the people who own them and live and work with them deserve better, if animals are to remain in our everyday lives at all. We need to get on with the work of restoring sanity and compassion to the animal world, we need a better and wiser understanding of animals than this.

I believe if we imagine the way it might be and should be, that it will one day come to pass. Animal lovers are awakening, they will fight long and hard to keep animals in our world.  In the meantime, it is happy news to see the new piglets on Joshua’s farm. He has more than 30, all but one survived and is healthy. However long they are to live in this world, they are the fortunate pigs.

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