Three young men seen in undercover videos violently abusing cows at a Chilliwack dairy farm were teenagers with no supervision, no company guidelines, all working in a culture of accepted violence.
That was the message from the defence counsel for Chris Vandyke, Travis Keefer and Jamie Visser at a sentencing hearing in Chilliwack provincial court on April 14.
The three pleaded guilty in the high-profile case of animal abuse at Canada’s largest dairy farm, Chilliwack Cattle Sales (CCS).
“What we are dealing with here is the dark side of the agriculture industry to some extent,” defence counsel Craig Sicotte told the court.
Vandyke, Keefer and Visser pleaded guilty to two counts under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) act and one count under the Wildlife Act (WLA), the latter for abusing pigeons in the barn.
The incidents that led to the charges date back to 2014 when undercover videos were filmed by an employee of the animal welfare group Mercy For Animals (MFA) who was hired by CCS to work the night shift at the dairy.
The MFA footage that resulted during the period between April 30 and June 1, 2014 showed cows repeatedly hit by the men, punching, kicking, tail-twisting and otherwise attacking the cows, often accompanied by cheers and whoops of seeming enjoyment.
“I just f—-ing hit that cow like 50 times,” Vandyke is heard yelling in one clip.
“This is more fun than milking,” Visser says in another.
And while Sicotte asked Judge Gary Cohen to hand the men fines, community service and probation, Crown counsel Jim MacAulay said the “egregious” and “inexplicable” animal abuse caught on video warranted prison time.
“This case demands a jail sentence,” MacAulay told the court.
One of the serious challenges Cohen faces is that there is essentially no precedent for abuse of this violent nature captured on video so clearly.
“There is nothing quite like this in the case law,” MacAulay said.
During the hearing, the court watched repeated incidents of the men kicking downed cattle and hitting animals with a cane. The two most obviously horrific videos, according to Cohen, involved a tractor lifting cows with chains around their necks, as at least one individual cheered. (A two-and-a-half-minute series of undercover video clips is posted on the Mercy For Animals website.)
While defending the technique of moving a downed cow as standard practice taught by the company, the lawyer for the men conceded the behaviour was disturbing, hence the guilty plea.
But Sicotte argued that since they had no supervision and started their jobs after one shift of job shadowing with another young employee, their actions were normalized at the CCS facility owned by the Kooyman family.
Back in December, CCS President Kenneth Kooyman pleaded guilty to three charges of animal cruelty on behalf of the farm itself and his brother Wesley, a CCS director, pleaded guilty to one charge personally.
They were assessed fines totalling $300,000 in addition to $45,000 in victim fine surcharges.
Wesley was the only owner who attended during the night shift, never intervening or stopping the abuse, according to Sicotte.
The court heard another brother, Brad, was in charge of human resources, hired the young men, assigned shifts and “showed them the ropes.”
The young men were told that the cows had to be milked or they could get mastitis, and that a downed cow had to be moved at all costs lest the entire operation grind to a halt.
The violent behaviour, notwithstanding the expressions of pleasure elicited, was part of the job as they understood it, Sicotte argued.
“This was implicitly or explicitly condoned by the corporation,” he said.
All of this was put forth as “an explanation, not an excuse.”
After the pleas on April 13, Mercy for Animals (MFA) issued a statement praising the BC SPCA and the Crown for pursuing the file. MFA vice-president Krista Hiddema pointed to the fact that the investigation prompted B.C.’s agricultural minister Norm Letnick to amend the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act to incorporate the Dairy Code of Practice.
“The wheels of justice are finally turning for these tortured animals,” said MFA vice-president Krista Hiddema. “Only the most sadistic acts of cruelty are being prosecuted, however. It is obvious the dairy industry is incapable of self-regulation. Until the Dairy Code of Practice has the force of law in every province, animal abuse and neglect will run rampant in the Canadian dairy industry.”
In addition to the corporate owners and these three men, and despite the videos and no public apologies from the abusers, four of their colleagues have opted to go to trial facing the same charges.
A 12-day trial for Lloyd Blackwell, Brad Genereux, Cody Larson and Jonathan Talbot is scheduled to run from May 19 to June 15. Blackwell faces two charges and Genereux and Larson each four charges of causing an animal to continue to be in distress under the PCA Act.
Talbot faces two such charges in addition to one charge under the WLA for allegedly injuring a pigeon.
Judge Cohen asked counsel present at the hearing if the MFA undercover employee was present. He was not.
“I was going to thank him,” Cohen said. “Not for causing the pain here, but for bringing it to a stop.”
Cohen is scheduled to hand down his decision on sentencing on May 18.