12 January

Joshua’s Great Victory. It’s Over…

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

The long and unjust ordeal of a good and  honest farmer ended Tuesday night in a Glenville, N.Y. courtroom. Eleven of the 12 charges of animal cruelty filed against him last February were dismissed, one charge — failing to have visible water for a sheep dog – will be held open for six months, and will then be dismissed. This is. called an ACOD dismissal, and is used mostly to protect law enforcement authorities from false arrest charges when their cases fall apart.

In six months, the one open charge – his sheep dog Thea, is no longer even on the farm – will also be dismissed. Joshua’s record will be clear, all of the charges against him will be expunged. It was, for all purposes, a rout.

The case has, I believe, enormous implications for the animal rights movement, which was largely responsible for the raid on West Wind Acres Farm, for the idea of secret informers spying on farmers and animal lovers, the politicization of some veterinarians, and growing pressure on police and prosecutors to intervene in animal welfare cases they know nothing about and are poorly equipped to handle.

Thousands of people from all over the country rushed to support Joshua against these outrageous and transparently false charges, they raised more than $76,000 to pay his legal fees, help him improve the infrastructure of his farm – improvements planned long before the arrests – and get his horses back. The horses are returning Wednesday morning, that will mark the emotional end of the case for Joshua Rockwood.

He will be a long time putting his farm and life back together.

Joshua pled guilty to nothing, was found guilty of nothing. The only legal agreement was an ultimate triumph for Joshua’s courage and resolve, an almost complete vindication of his reputation and his good animal care, and a victory as well for his very skilled and impressive attorney, Andrew Safranko. It was a victory for farmers and animal lovers, a growing number of whom face accusations from informers and people who know little about animals.

(In a sense the environment surrounding the alleged abuse of animals has become Kafkaesque. An animal control officer present at the hearing said she recently was told a couple in her town were starving and abusing a Golden Retriever who was left outside for days without food and water. She reported the call to the police, as required, and they found the dog was a plastic statue on the front lawn.)

Hundreds of farmers rallied to Joshua’s cause via social media and by attending his court hearings, that makes the case a landmark and a national symbol.

After the hearing was adjourned, I got the first photo ever taken of Joshua smiling, and Safranko told reporters that the case should never have been brought against Joshua. The troubles Joshua had last February – frozen water tanks, unheated barns – could have made against many farmers in the Northeast last year, including me. Safranko pointed out that the water and sewage system of the court where the hearing was held froze on the same day Joshua was arrested.

That day, the temperature fell to -27. No one was charged with having frozen sewage pipes in the town hall.

There was one bittersweet note, one thing that kept the evening from a sense of total justice, and that was Joshua’s reluctant agreement to pay $9,000 – half to a horse rescue farm, half to a veterinarian – for his own horses. Joshua had no choice but to pay that money to get  his horses returned and the legal agreement accepted by the court.

Quite obviously, the prosecution chose to abandon a prosecution that ought never to have happened, and could never have been proven. The main charges – frozen water tanks and unheated barns – were absurd. They did not rise to the level of chickenshit.

I called a criminal lawyer I have known for some time, and he said it was clear there was no animal abuse. “How could they leave all the animals there and return the horses and drop all of the charges if they believed he was abusing and starving animals?,” he said. “It makes no sense. Doing an ACOD deal in a case like this is a full retreat.” They wanted to get away from the case, he said.

Since February’s raid, the police never returned to his farm, no animals apart from the horses were removed,  none died or were seriously injured in that awful winter. If he was guilty of chronic and pervasive animal abuse, why did no one ever return to check on his animals or take them all away?

The remaining open charge also has no legal significance, the attorney said, because the dog no longer lives at the farm. “It is just a screen so they can say all this was about something.”

Tomorrow morning, Joshua and a trailer from Blue Star Equiculture of Palmer Mass. will go and bring  his three impounded horses back, including a new foal, from the Peaceful Acres Rescue Farm, where they were taken.

No one has yet to explain why anyone would have to pay thousands of dollars – the number would have been much higher if Joshua had not stood his ground – to get their own animals back when they are wrongfully impounded and no crime has been committed or proven – or now, even alleged.

I was grateful for this outcome. Joshua has suffered plenty and has a lot of good and hard work ahead of him to get his life and farm back together. He is up to it. He is awed and grateful at the support he has received, people stood by him every day of this 10-month nightmare.

Wednesday opens up a new chapter in Joshua’s life. He can begin to awaken from a nightmare that was especially frightening, because it was both true and unnecessary. He looks lighter already, I imagine he will accomplish anything he sets out to do, he is an unusual and remarkable man. I am happy to have him as a friend.

Tomorrow, I’m going to West Wind Acres to go and see the return of his horses, I can’t think of a happier trip to make. I am lucky, I got to follow this amazing and wrenching story, to make a valuable new friend and learn a great deal about how the legal system is interacting with the more extreme elements of the animal rights movement and with farmers and animal lovers. There are some important lessons to take from this and talk about:

–  Police need better training if they are to be drawn into the deepening conflicts between the animal rights movement and many farmers and animal owners. They need to find veterinarians who are independent scientists, not politicized activists. They need to learn much more about farms and how they really work. Prosecutors need to be more skeptical about accusations against farmers like Joshua Rockwood and not simply accept the perceptions and opinions of people with agendas. And we all need to reconnect with farmers, animals and the natural world.

– Farmers are learning to use social media, they used Facebook as a powerful tool to rally support for Joshua, so did friends and family members and neighbors and the people who bought this meat and food. In the future, people in a similar situation have a model to use for calling for help, and getting it.

– If you need help, ask for it. Crowdsourcing has become a powerful tool for people who were once voiceless and powerless.

– The secret informer system spawned by the animal rights movement is especially disturbing to me. It seems out of control and over the top. Joshua’s trouble began when somebody drove by his farm in the night and called the police to say he was abusing his animals. Police everywhere say they regularly receive calls about horses taking naps, sheepdogs running free on farms, animals that are naturally thin.

Joshua doesn’t know who the informers were, had no chance to confront them. Murderers have the right to confront their accusers, but farmers do not. To me, secret informers are the hallmark of authoritarian and Orwellian regimes, they have no place in our system of justice.

They had no cause to call the police, all of his animals were healthy and content. They could very easily have ruined his life, and escaped any kind of responsibility for their actions.

The cause of animals is not advanced by any violation of human rights. People who know nothing about animals should not be permitted to harass, terrorize or persecute them,  not in the name of loving animals.

Even now, people drive by his farm with big lenses, hoping to see animals they think are being mistreated or malnourished. Be careful about putting up plastic statues of dogs. For much of the year, his wife Stephanie kept her children indoors, she was afraid somebody driving by would say they were being neglected and call the police, who might come and try to seize them. Nobody should live with that fear in the America my grandparents fled to from czarist Russia.

It is still very possible to help Joshua return to his dreams and animals. You can check out his much-loved food here. I will follow his story.

Justice is not cheap in America, nor is the process always rational. One reason Joshua fared so well is that he was able to amass the resources to get a first-rate lawyer and stand his ground, improve his farm and stay in business. Without that, his evening could have gone much differently.

There is plenty of time to analyze this case, tonight belonged to Joshua and his family, and it was a joy to everyone in the room to see them smile for the first time in a great while. This was a victory for decency and truth. I believe in both.

Tomorrow, the victory continues, the Return Of The Horses.

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