Tuesday, November 1, 2011

SPCA seizure of pigs clear as mud

SPCA photo and caption: Sow and her babies recover at boarding farm after being seized from substandard conditions in an SPCA cruelty investigation.
     Most people are familiar with the positive work that the SPCA does, mainly in finding homes for cats and dogs that are abandoned, and educating people about the importance of spaying or neutering our pets. Most people don’t know that the SPCA has a great deal of authority in seizing pets and farm animals from people that the SPCA believes are negligent in providing care. In this way the SPCA play a critical role in ensuring that farm animals are cared for  to a set standard, according to the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.  The SPCA, although well meaning, have been viewed by some as lacking in expertise, overzealous, or even not providing the best solution for a situation, when it comes to farm animals.
     On October 5th and 6th, nearly 100 rare breed Berkshire pigs were seized from a Cowichan Valley farm by the SPCA, triggering a reaction from the community that raises questions about the way the SPCA operates and the power that the organization has. I think the SPCA thought it would be a textbook case of going in to take abused animals out of a poor situation, but it proved to be more complicated than that. The event coincided with a fall campaign by the organization to raise awareness about farm animals and the SPCA certified program, which provides a third party audit to farms that want to use the SPCA certified label on their farm products. The seizure was publicized in newspapers and on television, and quickly posted onto the SPCA website with a plea for money at the end of the posting.
     The event also coincided with the fall meetings and AGMs that farmers have. The seizure of the pigs was an emotional topic of discussion at the BC Sheep Federation AGM held in Duncan; many participants knew the farmer who owned the Berkshires, a rare breed that were raised to sell as weaners to other farmers. There were people there who bought pigs from Bill and found them to be in good health. They spoke of how much Bill loved his pigs. Was it necessary to take away all of his pigs in such a manner, which would probably result in boarding costs that eventually exceed the value of the pigs? There were many people who would have helped Bill out by taking some of the excess pigs, if they had known. A group of volunteers quickly organized and contacted the SPCA and Bill with offers to find homes for the pigs and help any way they could. Many letters from farmers and non-farmers were written to local papers, supporting Bill. A resolution was passed at the BCSF AGM to write a letter to the Minister of Agriculture about this situation and others regarding the SPCA seizing livestock.
      I think that many livestock producers worried that it could be them next - for keeping that old ewe who always gave you good lambs but should have been culled, the bottle fed calf that became one of your oldest (and now thinnest) cows, or the elderly neighbour who needs some facilities spruced up to be safe and dry for their animals.
      The majority of the populace are generations removed from the farm, and their main contact with animals are with their own pets or the farm animals in a petting zoo.  This complicates the issue when the SPCA finds itself dependent on fundraising to meet their mandate, and their pleas for funds appeal to the emotional love most people have for their pets. 
     Regarding the Berkshire pigs, it was not a simple case of an overzealous SPCA conducting their mandate, although there have been indications that the SPCA did exert a lot of muscle by using the RCMP. It was fortunate that the SPCA brought in the BC Farm Animal Care Council, a new producer organization that's role is to work with producers regarding animal welfare. The SPCA was getting a veterinarian to attend, and the BCFACC suggested a retired and well respected pig producer come along as well, someone who was instrumental in buying Bill some time with another two weeks to improve the housing. The pigs were overall in better condition that the authorities expected because they are hardy Berkshires, but there was concern over the mud and housing, especially since the situation was expected to become much worse once the fall rains arrived.   Bill was known to be overwhelmed with the work involved in feeding and caring for his growing breeding herd, and he struggled with the challenges of keeping several boars for the rare breed. Hindsight is 20/20 as they say, and Bill slipped between the cracks as a small farmer who is on his own with little support. Notwithstanding that, he worked hard to improve the housing in the two weeks, which was recognized by the industry experts but the SPCA decided to seize the pigs anyways.  And pigs being pigs, well, it's pretty difficult to keep them dry when housed outside since they are experts at making places muddier than usual through their rooting behaviour.
     The veterinarian and former pig producer were asked to leave by the SPCA prior to the seizure, so they did not witness the loading or new location for the pigs. There were reports that the boars were put together and ended up fighting and injuring each other, resulting in some being put down. The housing was an open barn, not a pig barn with separate pens, so the more vulnerable pigs were at risk - while under the SPCA's care. No doubt the SPCA is frustrated and embarrassed that their own actions caused distress to the very animals they were trying to protect. Perhaps they can appreciate that pigs and other farm animals are not cats and dogs, and that in areas that they aren’t experts they should work with the farm community.
     The SPCA and the public should also realize that farmers want to care for their animals, and most meet or exceed the standards outlined in the Codes of Practice according to the National Farm Animal Care Council. These Codes are currently being reviewed and rewritten in order to provide updated guidelines for livestock producers.
     So what can be learned from this incident? With the lack of government extension support for farmers there is a reliance on producer organizations, mostly volunteer. It is not only a good source of information on farming methods and resources, it is also a good source of camaraderie and support. There are many farmers who have found themselves in situations where they needed help, and neighbours who saw the need were there for them. One suggestion to come out of this was to have the BCFACC set up a peer network so that if there are SPCA complaints regarding livestock, there are producer associations and farmers institutes available to advise SPCA and help the farmers who are trying to comply but lack the resources and support to do so. The rapid and organized response to Bill's situation by various farm groups and individuals in the Cowichan Valley and beyond indicate that this approach may greatly improve and enhance the efforts of the SPCA to achieve their mandate in a more sensible way.
    Good farmers do not condone bad farming, so the formation of the BC Farm Animal Care Council is a positive move by livestock producers to work with producers "to address everyday challenges and to continue to provide a high level of care to their animals.  The BCFACC was formed to foster communication between producers, promote a high level of animal care, work to proactively address challenges in animal agriculture and communicate with the public on the sound, science-based and humane animal care practices farmers and ranchers implement in BC".

Do you have questions or concerns about farm animal care? Call the BC Farm Animal Care Line:1-877-828-5486


  1. Janice Johnstone RannieNovember 3, 2011 at 11:54 AM

    Great article, Barb. It is a shame that those that think that they know best, don't alway do. It is sad that all the work that Bill has put into raising and caring for these heritage pigs is all for nothing. I hope that he fights this!

  2. Well, since I posted this I have received emails from pro-SPCA people that indicate some of the pigs were living in poor conditions initially - which I had heard before - that is what made it difficult for people that tried to help him, because he was not intentionally cruel but some of the pigs did not have a dry spot to lie down. I wasn't sent any photos of his improvements - just some "before" pictures. He signed over his pigs and I don't think he will fight it. Local farmers who know him are finding homes for his pigs so the Berkshires will go to people who appreciate the heritage genetics. Like I say in the article, good farmers do not condone bad farming, so I support the BC Farm Animal Care Council in their efforts to educate the public about farm practices, and to communicate with producers and promote good farm animal care. I would also like to see BCFACC continue to work with the SPCA in cruelty complaints from start to finish or at least ensure that the special constables have the appropriate training and experience, due to the alleged fighting amongst the pigs while in the SPCA's care.

  3. Are you related to Navy Neptune Grimmer - that guy that was born out in Navy Channel?

    Harry Williams
    Old Road Farm

  4. Yes, we live in his house. He was my husband's great uncle.