THE IMAGES WERE SHOCKING no matter what you thought about the case: dead calves by the side of barn and a well-known farm family being taken from their farm in police cars. What kind of a world do we live in?
Eleven animals died at the Clapp farm in Hillsdale. Nobody disputes that. Law enforcement officials determined the four cows and seven calves, as well as other cattle at Sunny Mead Farm, appeared emaciated or malnourished as the result of the failure of the farm’s owners to provide them with adequate feed. Recent news reports have documented instances of other livestock–racehorses in one notable case–deliberately or negligently starved by their owner. To see how the Clapps were treated, it looked at first as if they had acted with similar indifference to the suffering of animals.
But that explanation makes no sense at all. The family once ran an exemplary farm, and anyone who operates a dairy farm has an economic incentive to keep the cattle alive and well. Something at the farm went terribly wrong, and instead of finding a way to help resolve the problem the government overreacted and made matters worse.
The elder Clapps are in their mid-70s. Their son is 49. They obviously know their days as dairy farmers are over; they sold their milking cows and reportedly had plans for taking care of the remaining animals. They did give the cows food, but not enough for some of the weaker animals to survive until the pastures had enough grass to sustain them. So some of the animals died, more than is normal under less-stressful conditions. A neighbor reported seeing a carcass and an animal cruelty investigation ensued.
Some people familiar with the case say they regret that the family did not ask for help to purchase feed for their cows, which might have prevented some of the deaths. The Clapps haven’t spoken publicly about the incident, so we can’t say whether pride, misjudgment or some other human failing contributed to the deaths of animals. But does this offer enough of a reason to haul them off to jail?
The animal investigator in the case says he’s sure the animals suffered. We don’t doubt his sincerity or his commitment to the welfare of animals. But we do question his judgment. What good was served by the arrest and humiliation of a family that worked hard at the honorable and essential task of producing the food we eat? What lesson do we learn when armed officers, no matter how well-intentioned and regardless of their eagerness to protect the welfare of animals, treat these people like criminals? What has happened to common sense?
This type of out-of-proportion response works against the public interest. It risks undercutting the support for the important work of those who are dedicated to preventing animal cruelty. If the public fears that these people can swoop down on farmers and drag the farmers away, how can it help but erode support for emergency intervention in legitimate cases of cruelty?
Heavy-handed responses also threaten to discourage young people from taking up farming at a time when it’s already tough enough to recruit a new generation willing to take on the rigors of farm life. Farmers don’t need or deserve an exemption from adhering to animal cruelty laws, but their actions need to be evaluated in context.
What happens when a farmer becomes overwhelmed by economic pressures, age, illness or some other circumstance resulting in decisions that pose a threat to a farm’s animals? As the population ages, we expect more cases like this will arise. Should the government turn a blind eye?
No. But before things get to the point of arresting farmers, why not apply other forms of intervention, including emergency caretaking or removal of animals when that’s practical. Where the law does not already provide those tools, perhaps it’s time to create them.
If nothing else, we hope the sorry scene that unfolded at the Clapp farm last month will serve as a wake-up call, reminding us that it makes no sense for agents of the government to arrest farmers for growing old or struggling financially. What many farmers need is help, not handcuffs. If the government offers assistance and a farmer refuses it, that’s a different matter. But because our lives depend on farming, we’d better find ways to support, not intimidate, our farm community. Otherwise, our species won’t be around to protect all those animals.