Printed in Oct 22, 2007 version of Feedstuffs
The school of Hard Knocks
I have said it before but I have never said it louder, the true danger of the urbanization of America has nothing to do with the paving of prime farmland with concrete but everything to do with the urbanization of our nation’s thinking. You and I have voiced our frustration about the kid who doesn’t understand where his milk comes from but after you read this, I think you will have a much better understanding of how deep the disconnect truly runs.
I was recently contacted about an abuse of justice in the state of Michigan. While investigating the original incident, I have since learned about two cases in Michigan that started in a similar manner. The first one involves the Mills family in the thumb of Michigan. One day in March of 2007 during an illegal search of the Mills family farm, a dead horse was found. In what was recorded as a bad weather winter in Michigan, the family was waiting for the ground to thaw in order to bury the horse. In case you don’t know, it is virtually impossible to get a rendering truck to pick up a dead horse so waiting was the only real option.
Based on the discovery of the dead horse, felony animal abuse charges were filed against the entire family and the oldest daughter lost her crown as county 4-H queen. I need to emphasize that she lost her title as queen based on alleged charges of animal abuse. During the course of the summer, all felony animal abuse charges were dropped, primarily because the judge in the case happened to raise sheep and the arguments she heard made absolute sense as to the normal care of livestock on a farm in this country. Unfortunately, because of the publicity of the event at the time of arrest, the Mills family still feels the glare of community members that consider them to be animal abusers despite the outcome of the trial.
The second case is still in the court system and at this point the two individuals involved have not been so lucky as to find anyone in the judicial system that understands livestock agriculture. Matt Mercier and Jim Henderson have built a herd of racing horses. Not in the sense of a race track but rather horses that compete in barrel races. In March of this year the two men reportedly had 69 horses on the farm they lease near Grass Lake in Jackson County, Michigan.
I traveled to Michigan several weeks ago for a speaking engagement but I had intentions of going to Grass Lake to research this case myself. Upon arriving in Michigan, I casually polled people about the Grass Lake case. Everybody I asked had heard about it and they all (I am talking about ag folks now) indicated that the situation sounded awful. Come to find out, even though the criminal trial is scheduled for court on Dec. 3, 2007, the court of public opinion has already convicted these guys. I, however, from first hand experience and information I gathered about the situation, found these two guys to be poor managers but far from animal abusers.
You can find statements like the following in the press since the March 2007 impounding of the horse farm. The director of Jackson County Animal Control (JCAC) Kim Luce stated, "The survival rate right now is pretty good. There's still exceptions when we start treating such as worming them can cause adverse reactions."
Luce told the first horse rescuer, Bradley Chaltry, and the press that the horses had not been fed or watered for six months. Chaltry, who owns Ponies are Us and Ratcliff Animal Rescue Services, made the following testimony in court:
“Yeah, ain’t been fed and watered for six months. At that point I was wanting to breed my horses to it because you got a great horse if you don’t have to feed and water it for six months and it’s still alive. I mean, pardon me for that, but…”
At that point, Chaltry was interrupted by the prosecutor. He also said, still under oath, that after being called to come and assist with these allegedly severely starving horses, “We were wondering kind of as to why we were there.”
Chaltry indicated that 90% of the horses were in ideal condition and only 4 were thin, due to normal winter conditions combined with age factors, a couple of worming issues and one injury. Dr. Bob Shray, a large animal veterinarian of 28 years, testified that nothing was occurring on this farm other than normal animal husbandry and a lack of picking up junk at the farm. Shray reminded the court that any time you have a living animal, there is a chance that they could die. Despite the testimony of an industry professional, the court felt that it knows better how animals should be cared for than to take the word of a trained animal care specialist. If a veterinarian isn’t able to determine the well-being of a horse, how can someone who has no training or experience in the field? Yet these folks are calling the shots that affect the future of food production in this country!
First off, the Jackson County Animal Control did not like the report either of these professionals gave to the court so they replaced both of them. In fact, they found a replacement Animal Rescue organization that viewed the negative press as a potential revenue harvest of human emotions and stepped in. Laura Steenrod of Leelanau Horse Rescue stepped in and took over management of the horses. Incidentally, her operation is 200 miles away from the farm. But even admitted her intentions to the press in saying, “I've probably tried to field over 100 phone calls in the last 24 hours. People willing to donate anything from farmers with large quantities of hay willing to bring us large quantities of hay. However the primary concern at this time is monetary donations.”
I see this as the most serious case of legal abuse I have ever personally witnessed. Two individuals have more horses (69) than anybody in this snooty community think can be given personal attention. The judge, in a civil judgment, indicated that all horses should have a stall and maybe even the used blankets, as opposed to new ones, contributed to mistreatment. Based on this civil judgment hearing, the judge gave the Jackson County Animal Control authority to seize all equipment including $15,000 worth of horse tack plus pickups and trailers from the farm. What role does this equipment play in an animal abuse case and why is it able to be offered up as sacrifice in this case?
There is a sign at the front gate of the farm today that reads “No Trespassing; Visitors by appointment only by calling Leelanau Horse Rescue or send you donations directly to their address.” I called Ms. Laura and tried to schedule an appointment and she told me she had turned custody back over to JCAC three months ago. When I asked her why her sign is still up asking for donations she told me she needed to get that down. I inquired as to whether donations were still coming in and she said, “Well, yes, some of them take a while to trickle in”. Of course the fundraising in the name of animal welfare never seems to end.
The bottom line to this saga is this, two individuals are facing prison time because they were treating horses like horses instead of the family dog. Most of the facts I have gathered have come from local cattlemen who understand that what is happening to these two guys could happen to any one of us. Where is the uproar by the local livestock owners? Where is the Michigan Department of Agriculture? Oh, wait. They have been notified only to say that they have no control over local animal control officials. Urbanization is coming to your area sooner than you think. Wouldn’t you rather fight it somewhere other than your own soil? Matt and Jim understand that thanks to the oldest school known to mankind, the school of hard knocks.
Trent Loos is a sixth generation United States farmer, host of the daily radio show, Loos Tales, and founder of Faces of Agriculture, a non-profit organization putting the human element back into the production of food. Get more information at www.FacesOfAg.com, or e-mail Trent at firstname.lastname@example.org.