Four charged with animal abuse at McArthur Dairy

OKEECHOBEE — Three McArthur Dairy employees have been arrested on animal abuse charges and a fourth is sought on a felony warrant, according to information released Thursday by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office.

Okeechobee County Sheriff, Noel Stephen called a press conference Thursday afternoon to release information to the press regarding an investigation of the recent alleged animal abuse taking place at local dairy farms.

“Several individuals from ARM (Animal Recovery Mission) were subpoenaed to the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) and gave a statement to Detective Lieutenant, Brad Stark, and Assistant State Attorney, Ashley Albright, in regards to the information we received about Larson and Burnham dairies,” said Sheriff Stephen in his opening statement of the press release.

“On Dec. 5, 2017, ARM came back to OCSO on their own and gave us additional information in regards to McArthur and Davie dairies. They were going to do a press release on Dec. 6. We have asked them to give us some time to avoid what happened with the previous investigation to try and identify and arrest the individuals depicted in the videos that have committed a crime,” continued Sheriff Stephen.

Det. Lt. Stark and Mr. Albright reportedly reviewed the videos from Davie and McArthur dairies the sheriff made note of during the press release.

“Yesterday, on Dec. 13, we arrested three individuals from the video of the McArthur dairies that had committed a crime that was viewed on the video. We are still conducting further investigation, we have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of video that has been supplied to us that we have not been able to go through. We have to go through that minute by minute, so this case is ongoing. There is another individual that is identified in the McArthur dairies investigation, we had to obtain warrants for one individual that we were not able to locate yesterday,” concluded Sheriff Stephen.

Mario A. Hernandez, 31, U.S. 441 North, Okeechobee was arrested on a felony charge of excessive or repeated infliction of cruelty to animals. His bond was set at $2,500. Hernandez, an assistant superiors at the dairy, was accused of striking a cow in the face with the sharpened piece of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe and hitting the top of cows with PVC pipe.

The other two individuals were arrested on misdemeanor charges of cruelty to animals, one for allegedly striking a cow udder with a piece of PVC and breaking a cow’s tail, and the other for holding a flame to a cow’s face and striking a cow’s udder with PVC. Their bonds were both set at $500 each. All the individuals arrested in the McArthur investigation have since been released from jail on bond.

The four total dairies that were reported to OCSO were Larson, Burnham, Davie and McArthur.

“At this point we have identified the individuals that we know based in the video that we’ve been able to see that have committed a crime,” he said.

“The way that these videos were reported are very problematic and make it an issue for us to investigate. I would like to have had the videos in a more timely fashion to be able to identify the cattle in these videos to see if they are injured. McArthur Dairy for instance, they’ve got 1,100 cows out on their farm. There is no way that we are going to be able to go back to be able to identify the cows depicted in this video to see if they are in fact injured, and we’re talking two and half to three months ago. So, some of those are cows probably not even on that farm. That’s very problematic for us to prosecute these cases from.”

Sheriff Stephen did not hold back in his response when asked how to handle a situation like this in his saying, “I’m starting my 31st year here at OCSO. I graduated high school here and it’s very offensive to me to be pointed out that I’m going to show favoritism even though we’re friends. That’s not going to stop me and has not in 31 years of being a law enforcement professional in today’s society and provide service and protection. My citizens here in this county elected me to do a job and that’s what I’m going to do. It very much offends and bothers me for them to point a finger at me that they don’t know me but they don’t want to bring me the information to let me properly investigate this … it makes it very problematic and unfair.”

“All four farms have been very cooperative in working with Det. Lt. Brad Stark and giving him all the information that is necessary to properly prosecute these cases” the sheriff iterated.

“In regards to the Larson investigation we were able to apprehend one of the four individuals. The other three that we obtained warrants for we did further investigation and found that the information identifying those individuals was in fact false. So, we had to recall those warrants so we could properly identify the individuals depicted in those videos, but I don’t know how we’re going to do that now. Once again, it refers back to the problem of delay in reporting. There is nothing that has been found to identify Jacob Larson as committing any crime. This investigation was looked at by Det. Lt. Brad Stark and the Assistant State Attorney, Ashley Albright. No matter what people’s opinions are, we can only prove that of what we see in the video. The video does not depict any crimes that Jacob Larson has committed” stated Sheriff Stephen.

Sheriff Stephen concluded his press release with the final statement “We feel that identifying these individuals that have committed a crime that we have on video is our priority right now at this point.”

A video of the press conference by Sheriff Stephen can be found on the Okeechobee News Facebook page.

ARM releases more videos of alleged abuse

OKEECHOBEE — Animal Recovery Mission, a Miami animal rights group that promotes a strictly vegan diet, released two videos this week alleging abuse at Okeechobee area dairies.

ARM reportedly sent undercover agents into the dairies as dairy workers who secretly filmed inside the dairies. According to the ARM press release, the undercover agents were at Larson Dairy and Burnham Dairy for about three weeks in August and September, and at McArthur Dairy for a longer period from August to October.

In November, ARM released videos alleging dairies workers had been abusive to cows at Larson Dairy #5. Video released to the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office shows three dairy workers kicking the cows and hitting and poking them with some kind of metal rod.

Following an OCSO investigation, one dairy worker was arrested on a misdemeanor count of animal cruelty and felony warrants were issued for three others who had already left the area, and may have left the country.

On Dec. 12 ARM released more videos online, alleging that dairy owner Jacob Larson should have known about the abuse and fired the abusive employees sooner. The video shows Mr. Larson working in an office area near the milking parlor.

Jim Sleper, CEO of Southeast Milk Inc., released the following statement: “Southeast Milk, Inc. (SMI) has conducted comprehensive and independent third-party audits on the Larson dairy farm, and we are cooperating fully with both national and local law enforcement authorities. As announced last month, SMI has begun to implement comprehensive remedial management trainings on cow and calf care, and is also encouraging its members to implement and strengthen video surveillance on their farms.

“We are also working with The National Dairy FARM Program to accelerate adoption of its newest iteration, Version 3.0, on every SMI member farm over the next six months. This version of the program requires documented training of workers on animal care throughout every stage of a cow’s life, stricter requirements for working with veterinarians, and mandatory corrective action for farms not meeting the standards.

“Animal abuse is never tolerated, and rather than speculate about what may have happened in the past, as ARM did during its press conference, we instead are fully focused on moving forward with a renewed commitment to animal care and employee management and training.”

On Dec. 14, ARM posted a video from McArthur Dairy in Okeechobee County on their website, with allegations of animal abuse at that dairy. After posting the video online, ARM founder held a live online press conference.

“There were no signs of cruelty to make us go undercover,” said Mr. Couto. “We basically pulled the name out of a hat as we did with the other dairies.”

He said the McArthur investigation was conducted over two and a half months.

He said two investigators were hired as dairy workers at McArthur Dairy.

“The crimes that were witnessed at McArthur were extreme,” he said.

Mr. Couto claimed that while giving birth, cows were “electrocuted” with cattle prods in order to speed the birthing process.

“Animals are being beaten with makeshift spears,” he alleged. “They are burned, which we have never seen happen before.”

Video posted appeared to show workers using a propane torch to singe the hair on cows’ udders.

An article published in April 2000 by Oregon State University, “Flame-clipping Udders on Dairy Cows,” explains that removing the hair from a milk cow’s udders helps promote a healthy mammary gland. Unclipped udders accumulate more dirt and make it more difficult to sanitize the udders, according to article.

“Using flame to singe hair from udders is a fairly new practice that has been developed to replace electric clipping. Flame-clipping is similar to singeing the hair off your arm. You don’t burn your arm because of the quick, short exposure to the flame,” wrote authors M. Gamroth, T.Dowling and A. Peters Rudell. “Although the idea of running a flame around the udder of a valuable cow may seem foolish at first, flame-clipping udders is safe and very effective when done correctly.”

In the press conference Mr. Couto said while the investigators were on the farm during Hurricane Irma, the incidents on the video had nothing to do with the hurricane.

“We did not just get lucky being hired in a particular barn, at a particular time when a few bad apples were working there,” he said.

“This isn’t an issue with the Florida dairies,” he said. “This is an issue with dairies as a whole.”

He said consumers should stop consuming dairy products and switch to a vegan diet.

“Instead of picking up that gallon of McArthur milk, pick up and try some almond milk,” he said.

Dean Foods released this statement on Dec. 14: “A press release and video were issued today by an organization called Animal Recovery Mission (ARM) falsely stating that Dean Foods Company owns or controls McArthur Farms, a Florida dairy farm. We want to make it clear that Dean Foods does not own or control any dairy farms. While we proudly own the McArthur Dairy brand and dairy processing plant located in Miami, the “McArthur” name is totally coincidental. Dean Foods has no ownership interest and is in no way involved in the management of McArthur Farms.

“Any queries regarding McArthur Farms should be directed to McArthur Farms or the Southeast Milk Cooperative.

“However, we are still very engaged in the animal welfare issues highlighted in ARM’s video because McArthur Farms is part of the Southeast Milk Inc. (SMI) and is consequently in our milk supply. Dean Foods is appalled at the behaviors shown in the video released by ARM.

We believe that providing for the health and welfare of dairy cows is the right thing to do, and we expect all farmers to ensure their animals are being cared for and handled according to sound animal welfare principles. We acknowledge that SMI is taking proactive steps with their members to address animal welfare on their farms.”

Following the release of the McArthur videos, Jim Sleper, CEO of Southeast Milk Inc. stated:

“As we’ve said, we take these allegations extremely seriously. We have zero tolerance for animal abuse and will make any improvements needed to ensure the health and well-being of all dairy cows. Southeast Milk, Inc. (SMI) continues to take corrective action including holding mandatory management and animal care trainings for all SMI member owners this week.

“We are working closely with our members to install or improve video surveillance on their dairies and have accelerated the adoption of the newest iteration of the National Dairy F.A.R.M. Program, which requires even more employee training on farms and stricter requirements for working with veterinarians, among other standards. These actions reaffirm our commitment to our customers and consumers that animal care is our top priority. ”

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