It was a sunny day when around 90 protesters from across Western Canada converged on the Jumbo Valley Hutterite farm just north of Fort McLeod.
According to news and police reports, the protesters arrived at 7:15 am on that Labour Day weekend morning to express their concern about the alleged “inhumane treatment” of the 4,000 birds they said were being kept at the farm.
The protesters lined the highway outside the property and about 30 of them allegedly broke into one of its bio-secure barns and occupied it. For their part, the farm’s Hutterite owners said they had nothing to hide.
Once the RCMP arrived, the protesters were given a tour of the barns. And they left around noon with five turkeys they had purchased to be given to an animal sanctuary. Despite the peaceful resolution of the protest, the incident has underscored an emerging conflict between farmers and animal rights protesters, who believe existing systems for reporting animal welfare issues are insufficient.
That’s why they claim protests such as the one at Jumbo Valley are justified, with the goal to cease all animal production. But, in doing so, they are also highlighting how much space exists between those who stand up for producers and animal welfare, and those fighting for animal rights.
Right now, one important means of reporting those welfare issues is Alberta Farm Animal Care. It was started by producers in 1993 with the intent of promoting responsible livestock care amongst those who raise animals for consumption. AFAC provides information to the public and producers about animal welfare and has an “ALERT” call-in line where the public can report animal abuse.
“Anybody can call AFAC if you have any questions about livestock welfare, whether you have livestock, or you don’t have livestock,” says the groups spokesperson Kristen Lepp.
Generally, the calls AFAC receives are from citizens concerned about the availability of food and shelter for farm animals seen by passer-bys. For example, phone calls from those worried about cows having snow on their backs during the winter are usually answered with information about how the cold doesn’t necessarily pose a risk to the animals’ well being.
However, AFAC will receive more serious calls which leads to them dispatch one of their province-wide volunteers, normally a producer or veterinarian. Lepp says that AFAC and its volunteers normally work with owners when they do find concerns with an animal’s wellbeing.
“AFAC tries to work as a proactive organization. So we’re there to help before things get worse,” says Lepp.
However, there are instances when the welfare of farm animals is at greater risk.
“If the calls are more extreme, if animals look like they’re in distress, if owners are uncooperative or aggressive, if there are dead animals — that’s when we work with the Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” says Lepp.
That’s because it’s the Alberta SPCA – not AFAC – that has the authority to conduct investigations and enforce animal welfare rules in the province. While the SPCA doesn’t keep statistics for animal welfare violations at commercial farm operations, many of the calls AFAC receives aren’t about severe issues.
According to their 2018 report, 121 of the 161 calls it received were considered cases, while only 21 of them were passed on to the SPCA. Of those 21, 15 were considered unfounded. But the work done by the group to assuage the public’s feelings about how production animals are treated is not enough for those who believe animals share the same innate rights as humans.
“It doesn’t matter how they’re treating the animals. We truly believe there is no humane way to kill something that doesn’t want to die,” says animal rights activist Claire Buchanan. She was one of the four people charged with breaking and entering to commit mischief in October as a result of her involvement in the incident at the turkey farm.
Activists say animal welfare groups like AFAC don’t go far enough to protect animals. “We’re not petitioning for bigger cages. We want empty cages,” says animal rights activist Sarah Gill. Fellow animal rights activist Trev Miller shares those sentiments. “We’re asking that animals be treated with respect and not as commodities.”
Like farms, sled dogs have also grabbed the attention of activists. Photo by Petr Kratochvil
The activists say groups such as AFAC are insufficient because organizations like it don’t address the underlying issue of animals being killed for food.
“They’re industry-driven and they’re ultimately not in the animal’s best interests. They’re in the best interests of industry,” Miller added.
Despite warnings from the province, Miller says actions like the one at Jumbo Valley will continue to happen. He used a similar protest in November at a Canmore dog kennel where 15 activists were arrested as an example.
In response to those developments, the Alberta government has beefed up laws against people who trespass on farms. Premier Jason Kenney, who described the Jumbo Valley incident as “dangerous” and “harassing” announced amendments to the Animal Health Act on Oct. 3.
Those amendments raised fines for biosecurity breaches to the tens-of-thousands.
Activist Alex Cuc says provisions within animal protection legislation that permit farmers to kill animals justify their actions.
“It’s not necessarily something that we want to do, but unfortunately the reality of what actually happens to animals is hidden from the public,” says Cuc, adding that the abolishment of animal production is their main goal.
“I would like for them to change their product line…I mean, it’s inhumane and it’s unethical at this point.” Cuc says.
Buchanan agrees, saying, “We ideally would love farmers, and everyone who’s taking part in this to switch to a different alternative — switch to plant-based farming, try to farm things other than animals.”
However, that goal may be far away. The idea that these animals are being treated cruelly even though may not be mistreated under the law creates a situation without a quick remedy. AFAC’s recommendation is dialogue. They encourage anyone who has any questions about the welfare of animals to call them or reach out to a farmer directly.
“There are so many producers throughout Alberta that just love what they do, and want to talk to people about it,” says Lepp.
And while the activists don’t feel like there is much to discuss other than a transition away from food animals, Buchanan admits that she’s not sure what resources producers have which could be transferred to crop-based farming.
“We are also trying to figure that out. It’s not an easy task to switch your livelihood from something you’ve been doing your whole life.”
Editor: Halen Kooper | firstname.lastname@example.org