Jeff Jardine

Angry response means happy animal activists in dairy videos

Presumably happy cows in pasture at an organic dairy near Modesto in 2010.
Presumably happy cows in pasture at an organic dairy near Modesto in 2010. Modesto Bee file

Are California cows really happy?

The California Milk Advisory Board, some members of which are dairymen in Stanislaus County, suggests they are. Animal activists say they are not. The only guaranteed, 100 percent certainty is that these groups are not happy with each other.

Last month, members of an Illinois-based organization called SHARK (SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness) teamed with the Animal Legal Defense Fund to videotape cows at a dairy near Turlock. They’ve also protested outside of rodeos up and down the state. You’ve heard of the political activists MoveOn.org? These folks would be more like Moo-veOn.org.

The taunting and arguing that ensued during the February incidents could have passed for footage from a Donald Trump rally, sans the sucker punches.

Headed by SHARK President Steve Hindi, this clearly was not a stealth operation. Using elevated cameras and drones, they shot footage of dairy cows udder-deep in mud and whatever else is in the mud. They videotaped one cow limping along on an injured hoof. They shot video of some dead cattle. U.S. dairies average a mortality rate of about 9 percent, according to the Progressive Dairyman’s online industry publication. So it is not uncommon to see deceased animals awaiting arrival of the tallow truck.

Mostly, the activists succeeded in drawing the dairymen into verbal confrontations, which they videotaped and displayed in postings on YouTube. In one video, they were confronted by a burly dairyman who accused them of trespassing on private property when they shot their footage. He also claimed they cannot film private property, which indeed they can from public property. He played right into their hands and cameras perfectly. No paid actor could have done it so well.

They filmed Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies who responded to calls from the dairymen, pulling over the activists and questioning them about trespassing. They filmed a red Jeep that drove off the pavement, in one instance barely missing one of the activists. The same vehicle pulled in front of another activist and spun its rear wheels, spewing dirt and gravel at the camera and the person holding it. The instigators became the victims, at least in Hindi’s udderly one-sided play-by-play account.

And they tried to draw sheriff’s deputies into the argument, accusing Deputy Steve Gerhart of being corrupt because he refused to immediately arrest the driver of the Jeep, whose face couldn’t be identified in the video.

“... the deputy from Stanislaus County refused to do anything,” SHARK’s news release stated.

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson begged to differ when I talked with him Monday.

“They tried to bait our deputies, but (Hindi) sort of forgot to tell the viewers he had signed the citizen’s arrest document,” Christianson said. “They were pushing people’s buttons.”

A misdemeanor assault charge not witnessed by law enforcement must be filed as a citizen’s arrest, Christianson said. Gerhart later identified the driver of the Jeep as dairy hand Carlos Meirinho, who claimed he never intended to hurt anyone. Hindi filed the citizen’s arrest.

“Call me ignorant of the system,” Hindi countered on Monday. “They were able to look at the video clips and see for themselves. They gave us some forms to sign, and I signed them.”

The case is now with the District Attorney’s Office, which will decide whether to file criminal charges.

Hindi also filed a complaint criticizing Gerhart for not immediately reacting to demands that he question people at the dairy, and called Gerhart “corrupt.” That will merit an internal probe, Christianson said.

“But I have not found a policy that he violated,” the sheriff said. To the contrary, Christianson said Gerhart, Sgt. Frank Soria and the other deputies followed the department’s protocol when they didn’t engage the activists, refused to be drawn into arguments or retaliate in any way.

In fact, when the dairymen claimed the activists were taping from private property, Soria called Stanislaus County Public Works to confirm exactly where the public easement ends on Bradbury Road.

“He took a tape measure and measured 20 feet from the center line,” Christianson said. “They weren’t on private property.”

Jennifer Giambroni, the Milk Advisory Board’s director of communications, said the organization tries to prepare members for these kinds of events.

“California dairy industry groups have worked together to communicate with the farming community to be aware of their rights, to stay calm and to let law enforcement handle trespassers and other illegal activities,” she said. “While we understand that certain groups often deploy tactics designed to draw emotional responses to advance their cause, as an industry we don’t condone misbehavior or acts of intimidation. It’s important we all remember to show respect and restraint.”

The same would, or should, apply to the activists. Instead, the dairymen were mad at them. They feigned anger at the dairymen, who gave them the desired reactions.

And the cows probably looked at one another and thought, “And they worry about mad cow disease?”

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