ALBANY, N.Y. — An animal-rights group released a video Tuesday showing an upstate New York farm worker lopping off a calf's tail and burning off its budding horns as the animal moans and struggles frantically to escape, prompting a state lawmaker to propose that New York follow California's lead in banning tail-docking for dairy cows.
The video was recorded in an undercover investigation at one of New York's largest dairy farms, according to Chicago-based Mercy For Animals, a not-for-profit group that publicizes what it calls cruel practices in the dairy, meat and egg industries and promotes a vegan diet.
The video, posted on YouTube, shows workers punching and kicking cows to get them to move and dragging newborn calves from their mothers by one leg. After seeing it, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, a Manhattan Democrat, proposed a tail-docking ban similar to one enacted last year in California.
The video also shows cows with various injuries, including swollen and festering sores and a prolapsed uterus, and several animals too sick or injured to stand.
Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy For Animals, said the video was shot between December 2008 and February 2009 by an undercover worker at Willet Dairy in Locke, 30 miles southwest of Syracuse, in hopes of persuading law enforcement to lodge cruelty charges. The Cayuga County District Attorney's Office declined to press charges in August, Runkle said.
"If this dairy producer mutilated, neglected or cruelly beat puppies or kittens like they do dairy cows and their calves, they could face imprisonment on grounds of cruelty to animals," Runkle said. Farm animals deserve the same protection, he said.
Robert Baker, director of farm animal welfare for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said he also tried to get the district attorney's office to investigate but was told the attorneys were too busy.
"These things appear to us to be blatant acts of cruelty," Baker said.
The only person authorized to comment for Willet Dairy was out of the country and unreachable, said Laura Wells, the farm's accounting manager. Attorney David Cook, who successfully defended the farm against a pollution lawsuit filed by neighbors several years ago, was also out of the country, his assistant said.
Assistant District Attorney Diane Adsit said in an e-mail that many of the actions shown in the videotapes "are commonly accepted practices used to protect both animals and farmers on large dairy farms."
"While shocking to look at, these practices are not necessarily illegal," Adsit said. If an investigation by the local SPCA leads the organization to file animal-cruelty charges, "we will prosecute anyone so charged," she said.
Dairy officials say the practice of cutting off cow tails to prevent them from slinging manure is practiced on a small percentage of dairy farms. It is usually done without numbing, either with sharp shears or with a tight rubber band that stops the blood flow and causes the tail to die and fall off. Dehorning is done to prevent the animals from goring each other or their handlers.
While some dairy operators have argued that removing tails improves sanitation, research has not supported the claim and in 2004 the American Veterinary Medical Association came out against the practice.
With animal advocacy groups focusing increasing attention on the dairy industry, the National Milk Producers Federation is urging dairy operators to participate in a voluntary program it's starting this year to help them demonstrate that their products are "cruelty free."
The program's guidelines specify that tail docking and dehorning should be done only under proper anesthesia. The guidelines also discourage malicious striking or dragging animals.
"Responsible animal stewardship is a good thing for people and cows, and the ... program is designed to promote the best practices in animal care that consumers have come to expect from the dairy sector," said federation spokesman Christopher Galen.