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The footage of Northland dairy cows being hit on the legs with a steel pipe highlights the difficulty whistle-blowers face attempting to protect farm animals and the limitations of the current complaint-based system.

It took volunteer animal advocacy group, Farmwatch, to expose abuse the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is supposed to protect farm animals against.

Farmwatch volunteer investigator John Darroch believes it’s time cameras are installed in cow sheds to monitor the treatment of cows.

“The current complaints-based approach isn’t just broken, it can’t work,” said Darroch.

The MPI approach to which Darroch refers requires complaints people are often scared to make, and evidence of abuse – of which there is no current monitoring.

Concerned former staff from the Northland dairy farm where cows were hit with a steel pipe had twice called MPI about the sharemilker’s treatment of cows. An MPI investigator visited the farm after the first complaint, but as there was no evidence of abuse, closed the investigation.

With nowhere else to turn and wishing to remain anonymous, the former worker contacted Farmwatch for help gathering evidence.

People can complain about abuse they have witnessed to MPI anonymously. MPI is bound by the Privacy Act to not divulge details of the complainant.

“If you’re a worker who goes to MPI about animal abuse then the reality is you’re probably going to find it hard to get another job in the same industry.”

However, for a court case against an animal abuser to be successful there needs to be evidence, such as video footage showing the abuse occurring, or testimony from somebody who witnessed it.

Testimony in court can be given in person, or provided as a written statement, which must include the name and address of the witness. A judge may allow the name to be redacted, but this is not guaranteed.

“The people who contact us are coming to Farmwatch because they don’t want to go to MPI,” said Darroch.

“They’re terrified, they’re scared of being identified and anyone finding out they were the one that came forward and reported it.”

He said people in small, rural communities fear they will be targeted if they complain about their neighbours, and farm workers fear for their careers.

“If you’re a worker who goes to MPI about animal abuse then the reality is you’re probably going to find it hard to get another job in the same industry. What dairy farmer would hire a worker if they knew that worker was willing to go to the authorities when they knew something was wrong?”

The solution Farmwatch uses to protect complainants’ anonymity is to remove the need for them to testify.

Darroch said when the group strongly suspects abuse is occurring and there is no way to collect evidence they will install hidden cameras. According to Darroch, 95 percent of the time the cameras capture evidence of the abuse.

Farmwatch then turns the footage over to MPI and cooperates with MPI investigators. Darroch said video evidence is essential.

“Basically, without video footage, all a farmer needs to do is act friendly and MPI will go away. Even if there is a complaint MPI aren’t going in with a vet and checking every cow on a farm for injuries. Without video footage it’s pretty much impossible to prove how injuries occur.”

When asked why he thinks MPI is not gathering evidence itself, he said he has been privately told by MPI staff there is a lack of resources.

“The fundamental issue it comes down to, in my opinion, is they only have around 23 staff members and they lack the capacity to do thorough investigations. That has left a massive gap.”

“There is no monitoring of farms. We simply cannot know how common deliberate abuse is.”

As far as Darroch is aware, MPI does not use hidden cameras when they suspect abuse. He thinks it’s absurd the burden of collecting evidence has fallen on a small group of volunteers.

“This places our organisation in an unfair position. MPI won’t obtain their own evidence, and the public aren’t going to them when they know animal abuse is occurring.”

MPI acting director of compliance services, Gary Orr, told RNZ Morning Report MPI does not have the legal authority to conduct hidden camera operations for breaches of the Animal Welfare act as the maximum penalty is five years in prison. The Search and Surveillance Act only allows hidden camera use where the maximum penalty is more than seven years.

“Any such change would require changes to the Search and Surveillance Act or the Animal Welfare Act and a significant amount of consideration and consultation.”

He said staff, consisting of 23 animal welfare inspectors and 20 compliance investigators, follow up “virtually all complaints”.

“For example, in 2017, of the 1050 complaints investigated, 306 could be considered a breach of the Animal Welfare Act or regulations (from minor breaches to serious beaches).”

The outcome of investigations ranges from prosecutions to fines, said Orr.

“Sometimes we need to provide specific assistance and education, sometimes we need to issue formal warnings, and sometimes, prosecution is the most appropriate tool. The action that we choose to take is dependent on the facts of each matter and what we consider to be the most appropriate method for resolution.”

Audits are also conducted. Orr said 300 farms have been audited during the last two years. Farms audited are either randomly selected or targeted.

Orr said as well as audits and public complaints being followed up by staff MPI, employ over 200 veterinarians who work at export meat plants throughout the country.

Animals arriving in an “unfit” state, such as being lame, or with mastitis, cancer of the eye, or with ingrown horns are referred to compliance staff at MPI so their condition can be followed up.

Suppliers whose cows are in ill health, but not ill enough to trigger a follow-up can be targeted by the audit programme.

“Basically animals need to be dead or dying before MPI can take action.”

Darroch thinks intervention could occur well before animals arrive at the meat works.

“There is no monitoring of farms. We simply cannot know how common deliberate abuse is.”

He thinks cameras should be installed in every milking shed in the country.

“These cameras would be randomly monitored by an independent third party. This would take the pressure off individual workers and neighbours to report animal abuse,” said Darroch.

He acknowledges this would be expensive but points out proactively monitoring an industry is not without precedent.

Fishing boats are monitored by onboard observers and there have been trials of cameras placed on boats. On Saturday Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash said he was planning on putting a proposal requiring all commercial fishing boats in front of Cabinet.

DairyNZ strategy leader Dr Jenny Jago said some farmers already have cameras in sheds for security and various reasons but DairyNZ do not have a policy around this.

She said installing cameras and having footage independently monitored would be “complex”.

“There’s complexities with it, there are practicalities with it and I’m not sure it would really solve the problem here.”

She said there is a range of support available to farmers to encourage “good behaviour on farms”.

In the case of the Northland sharemilker Jago was confident it was an isolated incident which needs to be dealt with by the appropriate channels.

Federated Farmers dairy sector chair, Chris Lewis, said in a recent discussion about monitored cameras, a farmer posed the question: “How well has the fishing done with the idea of cameras? They’ve had a lot of struggles.”

Lewis said he has cameras on his own property for to prevent thefts, but the cameras never catch crime because people know they are there. He also pointed out cameras can’t effectively cover an entire farm.

“We handle our cattle and cows all over our property. Not just the cowshed but lots of places every day, sometimes twice a day for milking, but never catch staff misbehaving.”

Lewis said Federated Farmers and DairyNZ have 0800 numbers. He said people with concerns about animal welfare are welcome to call them and sometimes a local response to industry problems can be more effective.

“Ring one up till someone answers, and tell them what you have seen.”

“I think MPI need to be stripped of their animal welfare responsibility.”

He acknowledged enforcing the law can be an “ass” sometimes and a high burden of proof is needed. 

“Sometimes you know things are happening but you can’t get the evidence. Sometimes MPI is frustrated, but to have an industry response where it is dealt with in the local way can sometimes be more effective.”

Associate Agriculture Minister Meka Whaitiri would not comment on whether MPI should have acted sooner in response to earlier approaches from farm workers in the Northland case, but said there needed to be greater transparency when it came to addressing complaints.

Whaitiri said a new government framework for action on animal welfare outlined the need to improve funding for monitoring and action, as well as the possible creation of an independent “commissioner for animals”.

“I actually think we need an independent voice on animal welfare issues, as well as strengthening codes, I think – no, I know – will make a big difference on how we treat animals in this country.”

Farmwatch’s Darroch questions whether MPI is effective at ensuring farm animals are safe from abuse.

In an interview on RNZ’s Checkpoint Darroch said: “I think MPI need to be stripped of their animal welfare responsibility.”

He said he is calling for Damien O’Connor to front publically and explain what MPI is doing. 

“The current animal welfare system we have in New Zealand is incapable of effectively preventing animal abuse. Basically animals need to be dead or dying before MPI can take action.”

Read more:

Hidden cameras reveal milking shed beatings

A long history of animal cruelty and neglect

‘Abhorrent’ behaviour has no place in dairy industry

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