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Undercover Footage Reveals Shocking Conditions at a NY Dairy

Undercover video shot at New York State's largest dairy depicts extensive abuse and horrific conditions for dairy cows.

Editor's Note: You can view the footage and additional coverage from Nightline here. You can also read more about the dairy industry in AlterNet's recent feature here and here.

"When searching for new employees at Willet Dairy, we look for skilled people who know how to handle animals and their illnesses," chief operating officer Lyn Odel told Farm Credit of Maine in 2006. But one look at undercover video shot at New York State's largest dairy in Locke, released this week, makes his remark sound like a sick joke.

One worker repeatedly forces his fingers deep into the eye sockets of calves to hold them in place while he burns off their horn buds. One calf collapses from the pain and hangs by a rope around her neck while the worker lifts her by her tail and continues with the second horn. As smoke from the burning flesh envelopes the bellowing calves, they then have their tails docked--an amputation procedure so painful and unnecessary it is banned in five European countries and opposed by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

So-called "downer" cows were left to suffer for as much as 12 days writes Mike, the humane investigator who shot the video for Mercy For Animals (MFA) after being hired as a maintenance worker last year. One worker, he writes in a diary, was shocked when an apparently dead cow he was moving with a forklift "[expletive] moved a little bit."

The downer cows, denied veterinary care or euthanasia, also experienced terror says veterinarian Holly Cheever after viewing the video. "Any cow, as a prey and not a predator species, experiences terror due to her immobility, since she knows she is helpless to protect herself with her instinctive fight or flight response."

Cows with hemorrhagic uterine prolapses at the more than 7,000-animal Willet Dairy were ignored for weeks as they progressed to necrotic states and death.  Some cows who were denied veterinary care and left pools of blood when they walked continued to be milked, according to Mike, and their milk was sold for human consumption.

FDA records reveal that agency inspections detected at least one incident each of excessive levels of the antibiotics sulfadimethoxine and gentamicin in Willet beef cows, potentially harmful drugs that are legally prohibited from edible meat tissue. "Our investigation found that you hold animals under conditions which are so inadequate that diseased and/or medicated animals bearing potentially harmful drug residues in edible tissues are likely to enter the food supply," wrote FDA officials Jerome G. Woyshner and Brenda J. Holman in correspondence directed to the dairy farm. Virtually all dairy cows are sold for beef production when their milk production wanes -- and their profitability declines -- at four or five years of age, a fraction of their natural lifespan.

At Willet Dairy Mike observed that the animals' drinking water was "opaque brown, with chunks of feed, manure, and other debris floating on top." Troughs and drains were never cleaned, according to a dairy mechanic, and one employee was observed deliberately contaminating the cows' drinking water by dipping feces-covered tools in the water troughs. That employee, a 19-year veteran of the dairy, apparently boasts of his violent abuse of the animals. He is specifically named in a complaint filed by MFA in August 2009 with Jon E. Budelmann, the District Attorney for Cayuga County in Auburn, New York.

"What do you think that wrench did to her?" the worker asks Mike, recounting a violent incident using one of his tools. "Cracked her right over the [expletive] skull."

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