Sydney Morning Herald

Story by NIKKI BARROWCLOUGH, Additional reporting by Sue Neales.

Saturday December 13, 1997

While ill-treated cats and dogs grab the headlines and the community’s sympathy, farm animals are often kept in shocking conditions. But the RSPCA rarely prosecutes farmers for cruelty. Why not? Inadequate laws? Public indifference? Or is the society bowing to pressure from the powerful rural lobby?

Under the cover of darkness on a freezing night in November last year,

50 animal-rights activists raided the largest piggery in the Southern Hemisphere in an operation codenamed “Pink City”.

Planned with military-style precision, the raid at Bunge Meat Industries Corowa piggery in New South Wales was both graphic and dramatic. The protesters, who had travelled from all over Australia, and who included the Independent MLC Richard Jones as well as a vet, claimed to have found almost 40 ill or injured pigs living in sheds in the deplorable conditions synonymous with the worst excesses of intensive farming.

In small metal stalls, pigs with no room to turn around were sucking and biting on the bars of their pens. Some were lame, with bleeding feet and festering, maggoty wounds. Others had severe swellings and lesions. (Jones later told NSW State Parliament he had

learnt that some employees of the piggery were in the habit of amusing themselves by slamming metal gates in the faces of the animals.)

At 6 am, the politician telephoned the police and asked them to come to the piggery, before chaining himself to a stall with his fellow raiders. When police arrived, they embarked on their own inspection. Instead of making arrests or trying to remove the protesters, they ordered a veterinary inspection of the piggery.

This took place the following day, with officers from the RSPCA, the NSW Agriculture Department and the Rural Lands Protection Board. As a result of the inspection, one pig was shot immediately and three were put down within the hour.

A fortnight later, two activists returned to the piggery and took graphic video footage of sows with bleeding prolapsed uteruses. In an official cruelty complaint to the police, one activist described how two of the prolapses were seething with maggots and how one pig screamed in pain as another pig stood on its prolapse.

An activist from the first raid compared Bunge with an asylum. “Looking at

these frantic animals, some mad, some pathetically broken, just sitting and staring, I understood the true tragedy of it all,” she said.

The raid attracted some publicity – but there was no victory for the Bunge pigs. The RSPCA did not prosecute.

With one exception, there have not been any prosecutions against intensive farms in NSW in the past five years.

The director of the Victorian branch of the RSPCA, Peter Barber, says that in the 18 years he has been there, while the RSPCA has been influential in the closing down of two intensive-farming operations, there have been only a few intensive-farming prosecutions – all against battery-hen farmers “and where there was unarguable evidence … with thousands of dead birds”.

In animal-welfare circles, anger is growing over the perceived betrayal of farm animals in general, and intensively farmed animals in particular, by the RSPCA, the country’s oldest and most respected animal welfare organisation.

Blame the law, says the RSPCA. The outspoken Barber says the organisation’s hands are tied when it comes to doing anything about factory farming practices that the average person would find horrifying. “They may be cruel, they may be offensive, they may be abhorrent,” he says. “But the fact is that the live sheep trade, the isolation of veal calves and the production of eggs via the battery cage system are permitted practices, given government and industry protection.”

Critics argue that it’s not as simple as that. They claim that the RSPCA, which is both a charity and a significant prosecuting authority, and is largely dependent on public donations, is concentrating its energy on the more lucrative fundraising area of ill-treated dogs and cats, and putting the plight of farm animals in the too-hard basket.

Then there’s the more controversial question of the influence of the farming lobby. In NSW, critics of the RSPCA – including a senior member of the organisation – claim an unholy alliance exists between the State branch of the society and powerful farming groups.

It’s a hot issue. At one stage during the research for this story, as tales of leaked documents and clandestine meetings emerged, a letter arrived from the NSW RSPCA’s solicitors, warning that “our client believes you have interviewed a number

of disgruntled former employees …”

Certainly, some people interviewed once worked for the RSPCA. However, several of the most serious allegations come from the senior RSPCA member who talked of a lack of will on the part of regional inspectors to pursue cruelty issues on farms.

Charles Wright, the controversial Canberra political lobbyist who became chief executive officer of the NSW branch four years ago, emphatically denies any hands-off policy towards highly profitable intensive farming operations.

Like Victoria’s Peter Barber, Wright says he doesn’t like intensive farming, but that laws allow it to exist. “And they indicate you act reasonably within the process,” he says. “When you have large numbers of animals [such as at] the Bunge piggery, which has 200,000 sows, four [sick or injured animals] out of 200,000 would be regarded as reasonable, bearing in mind [factors] such as regular checks by vets and so on.”

The RSPCA’s annual report does not provide a breakdown of the 188 prosecutions it carried out last year, but Charles Wright claims about one-third involved farmers. He details two cases.

Not good enough, says the RSPCA insider, who explains that both cases would have involved “hobby” farmers and adds, “I think you’d find most prosecutions concern cats, dogs, rabbits and horses. Farmers control more animals than anyone else in society, and so few farm prosecutions in 12 months doesn’t make sense.

“The public is paying taxpayers’ money for the RSPCA to police The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, and it’s just not being done.” The source, who has requested anonymity in order to continue to work from inside the society, says farming prosecutions are lower than they’ve ever been.

Former chief inspector Charles Meader, who worked at the NSW branch for

10 years, confirms that prosecutions were substantially higher between 1986 and 1992, when the branch was run by veterinarian David Butcher. “One year

we had well over 200 prosecutions,” says Meader, although he’s unable to provide

a breakdown.

Butcher himself can recall only three intensive-farming prosecutions, and says

it has always been difficult to prosecute under the Act – which, he points out, fails to address the problems often, but not always, associated with intensive farming. (Butcher, who now heads the World Wide Fund for Nature, left the RSPCA under a cloud in September 1992. His supporters claim he was ousted by conservative farmers’ lobby groups.)

The fact is, say both Peter Barber and Charles Wright, prosecutions are time-consuming, expensive and largely unsuccessful.

When Wright was appointed CEO of the RSPCA, he found “something like 12 prosecutions in the bush that were in the appeal process, and which were costing the society around $500,000 a year”.

Wright says one of those cases concerned a farmer who was being prosecuted for, among other offences, failing to provide food and water to sheep. “This went on for four years until the farmer won on appeal and the RSPCA had to pay $60,000 in costs.

“Any animal that’s inflicted with unnecessary pain or suffering affects me personally. But we can’t break the law. We’re not Animal Liberation. And why [spend] $100,000 in court if you know you’re going to lose? We’ve got people who give us $5 donations, who give us $3,000 or $4,000 as their last dying wish. Do you want me to [waste] that money when all the advice is we’ll lose?

“One of the great frustrations with the rural community is that when we take them to court [the appeal process] just goes on and on. It’s clear that magistrates and judges take a more sympathetic view to the owners of farm animals than they do to the owners of cats and dogs.”

The allegations that farming interests exercise de facto control over the society in NSW and its farm-cruelty policy, came to a head last year. The NSW Farmers’ Association sent out a newsletter urging farmers who were members of the RSPCA to vote for moderate candidates in the society’s December elections for board members, “in order to defeat a push by Animal Liberation to gain greater control over the organisation”.

This was undoubtedly a reference to Mark Pearson, the president of New South Wales Animal Liberation and a member of the RSPCA. Pearson was unsuccessful, but all the 1996 candidates backed by the farmers were elected.

They included long-time board member and grazier Graham Hall, a member of NSW Farmers’, and Shirley Holmes, a former nurse who was first elected to the board in 1992 and became president of the NSW branch in 1994.

Holmes is indignant when asked whether farmers control the RSPCA. “No way!” she exclaims. “Let me tell you, the RSPCA is in bed with no organisation whatsoever. We have no affiliations with anyone.”

Charles Wright, who says farmers have been trying “to water down” RSPCA powers for years, points to recent changes to the Act in NSW, the first major changes to the legislation since 1979 (yet to be gazetted).

He says these changes, many of which the RSPCA and Animal Liberation fought for jointly, and which include much tougher penalties for animal cruelty – up to $11,000 for individuals and up to $55,000 for corporations – have infuriated farmers. An example

is the banning of the controversial electro-immobiliser (a device used to immobilise cattle by using an electrical current which causes muscle spasm). “I fought against the electro-immobiliser vehemently, much to the disgust of the farmers,” says Wright. “The rural community fought to have codes of practices not regulated, and we have now got them to become law.”

Wright is referring to the 22 codes of practice which apply to the rural sector, and which should be attached to the Act by the end of next year. In Victoria, codes of practice are already incorporated. Mark Pearson remains unimpressed: “The farming lobby consists of a small group of very determined companies and their representatives, who have gone about taking over the RSPCA by having representation on the board, covertly or overtly, or by any other means they can contemplate,” he says.

Peter Comensoli, chief executive of the NSW Farmers’ Association, is incensed by such accusations. “We don’t control the RSPCA board – far from it,” he says. “And I think the RSPCA’s approach to the [recent] amendments to [the Act], their irrational and unsubstantiated claims about the effects on livestock of electro-immobilisers and their emotive opposition to the live sheep trade [the RSPCA begins a national campaign against the trade shortly] would say to any casual observer that these allegations of control are just rubbish.”

Comensoli points out that issues such as the banning of the electro-immobiliser, for example, occurred after last year’s election – the one supposedly manipulated by the farmers.

“It’s a pity that we can’t have closer consultations,” he adds, “because the vast majority of farmers depend on humane and productive management of livestock for their very livelihood.”

Charles Wright reacts to the criticisms from Pearson and Comensoli with the wry response: “If you’ve got Animal Liberation against you, and the farming groups against you, you must be doing something right.”

David Butcher lost his job as head of the NSW RSPCA despite the fact that Morgan & Banks, a recruitment firm hired by the society to find a replacement, recommended

he stay on. (His contract was coming up for renewal.) Butcher was voted

out at a board meeting: the vote, he believes, was five to four.

“It was just in the last few months that things became very tense,” he says. Butcher claims a number of people who had current court cases going against them were in direct contact with senior members of the RSPCA. “That was unethical, to say the least.”

Barbara Steffensen, former secretary of the Northern Rivers RSPCA branch, agrees there was a push to get rid of Butcher. (RSPCA headquarters in Sydney placed that branch in suspension in August 1995; there is now only one RSPCA inspector dealing with the entire north coast region.)

Steffensen says the bid to oust Butcher was spearheaded by members of the Australian Society for the Protection of Animal Carers (ASPAC), an organisation formed in the Lismore area in 1992 by a group of farmers and other individuals who’d been prosecuted by the RSPCA.

One RSPCA inspector in particular, Brian Glass, was well known for his uncompromising attitude regarding the welfare of farm animals. According to Steffensen, people linked to ASPAC turned up at court cases where Glass

was prosecuting, to harass him.

Steffensen also says Butcher was criticised openly at Northern Rivers branch meetings by Shirley Holmes, who was, at the time, president of the Nambucca branch and North Coast regional president. “Shirley Holmes said the inspectors were being too hard on the farmers … That was the sort of thing that was always being said.” (Holmes denies this, and that she criticised Butcher publicly, although she admits making a confidential comment to an inspector.)

Butcher is still convinced the cases his inspectors took on were justified, but argues that they may have hastened his departure. Two in particular involved defendants with strong links to the NSW Farmers’ Association. Holmes says the board was “dissatisfied” with Butcher but declined to explain why, except to say it had nothing to do with pressure from farming groups.

Just as Butcher’s departure from the RSPCA caused a stir, Wright’s appointment in October 1993 raised more eyebrows. Wright, a former lobbyist for groups such as the tobacco company Philip Morris, was already a high-profile figure. He was mentioned during the WA Inc Royal Commission as the conduit for $80,000 to pass from the former West Australian Premier Brian Burke to his secretary Barbara Bush, although the commission made no adverse findings against Wright. He was also a one-time adviser to the Federal ALP on fundraising.

One RSPCA source describes Wright as “heaven-sent” in terms of government relations after Butcher’s “confrontational” approach. He “opened up lines of dialogue” with both side of politics, as well as with the rural community.

Certainly Wright has shown his mettle in some instances. Two years ago, he extradited a man from Queensland over the brutal killing of a dog – the first time in 100 years the RSPCA had used its special extradition powers. (The man was sentenced to a year’s jail.)

Independent MLC and animal activist Richard Jones says he likes Wright: “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that he has a genuine commitment to animals. But he finds himself stuck by having to negotiate with those who are cruel to animals, and therefore compromises more than he’d like to.”

After Wright joined the RSPCA, he commissioned what became known as the Fleming Report, an inquiry into its inspectorate conducted by Kel Fleming, a former policeman.

“I needed an independent person to investigate the operations of the inspectors,” Wright says. “When I came into the place, there were a lot of accusations about the performance of inspectors [and] whether they were suitable for the job.”

Asked if the real purpose of the inquiry was to get rid of such hardcore inspectors as Brian Glass, Wright replies, “I think there had been a general view there’d been some farmers who thought they were badly treated, but in all the cases I’ve ever seen, there were grounds for the actions [the inspectors] took.”

Wright says he knew of ASPAC, the group of disgruntled farmers, but that none of its members ever contacted him.

The inquiry failed to find any evidence of serious wrongdoing on the part of the inspectors (one inspector claims he was accused of stealing racehorses) but, gradually, a core group all left the society.

Asked why, Wright answers, “Well, they got other opportunities … I insisted on things like uniforms, I put a different, more educational approach without reducing our powers in any way.” Later, he adds: “Either they haven’t fitted in or they’ve left of their own accord.”

Two former inspectors, who didn’t want to be named, are critical of what they saw as Wright’s reluctance to prosecute. “Wright said he thought our role was to hit people up for an on-the-spot donation [instead of prosecuting],” said one.

Asked whether he ever asked any of his inspectors to drop a prosecution, Wright replies, “No. They [the inspectors] would put up a recommendation, and sometimes those recommendations were accepted or not, depending on the advice. It’s not only inspectors’ recommendations [that have to be considered] but legal advice, veterinary advice, before you take the matter to court. There may have been times when I felt there’s a better way of handling it – sometimes there may have been times when I thought [a prosecution was necessary].”

Asked whether he ever suggested an on-the-spot donation might be a better way of handling a case, Wright replies, “Absolutely not! I just don’t know where this garbage is coming from. It’s simply a concerted campaign to try and discredit me and the RSPCA, which I think is outrageous. It’s just not on.”

In August 1995, following a complaint about a calf which was unable to stand, an inspector visited a property in Moss Vale, in the Southern Highlands, owned by Tom Lewis, a former Liberal Premier of NSW.

The inspector found the calf in poor condition, “emaciated, recumbent and moribund” and called a local vet, who decided the animal should be destroyed.

An internal RSPCA memorandum says Lewis wouldn’t participate in an interview with the inspector. Two inspectors who managed to speak to him later claimed that when they asked if Lewis had called a vet to examine the calf, he replied, “It was going to live or die.”

The memorandum spelled out that it was by no means a clear-cut situation. However, Lewis hadn’t sought treatment for the calf despite knowing it was ill, so chief inspector Don Robinson recommended he should be prosecuted.

Although the board ordered the prosecution to go ahead, it never actually took place. It seems that, unbeknown to the board, negotiations between Lewis and Charles Wright’s office resolved the matter, thereby avoiding litigation.

The matter came to light after a series of cloak-and-dagger meetings between Mark Pearson and sources he won’t name. Pearson dropped the first bombshell at last year’s annual general meeting, when he stood up and asked the board why the prosecution had been stopped. He was bombarded with questions from astounded RSPCA members but his own question remained unanswered.

A week later, he was contacted and told to drive to Sydney airport to await a box with special marking which would come through on a baggage carousel. The box contained, among other material, documents about the Lewis prosecution, as well as copies and originals of RSPCA board minutes. More calls and documents followed, not always from the same source.

Charles Wright is an impassive man who answers questions calmly, but he doesn’t bother to disguise his irritation when the subject of Lewis is raised. “That matter has been dealt with and I won’t go into it any further,” he says. “This is the Animal Liberation dig-up line. They see a ghost in it. There’s no ghost in it.”

Asked whether a prosecution against Lewis was justified, Wright replies, “We don’t go into court with every matter … it was dealt with through the normal process and that was the end of it. The board was satisfied with the result.”

However, according to RSPCA minutes obtained by Good Weekend, the board wasn’t happy at all. It seems the former Premier got on the phone to Wright, and that a private conversation between the two men took place.

A copy of Wright’s report to the March board meeting reads: “Mr Lewis took it upon himself to call me and outline that he was responsible for the RSPCA obtaining the Yagoona [its headquarters] location, and that David Butcher suggested he call me. I have no proof that this call was ever made.” (Wright made it clear he did not appreciate Lewis’s call about the charges he was facing.)

The report continued: “That aside, I suggested he have his solicitor contact

our chief inspector to come up with suggestions on how it could be solved. The end result was a satisfactory agreement that saw Lewis paying all reasonable costs and the matter resolved. Whether it was Mr Lewis or Mr Smith, we would have attempted to come to the same satisfactory conclusion as we have with many others.”

(When asked by Good Weekend if he’d been contacted by Lewis, Wright’s reply was ambiguous. Later, he left a message confirming that Lewis had rung him briefly at the office. “I

referred him and his lawyer to the chief inspector. I didn’t even know who he was at the time.”)

After a session held in camera, the board resolved to issue a formal warning to Wright for disregarding their instructions to prosecute. Says Shirley Holmes now: “He [Wright] made a bad mistake … and that’s the end of it.”

Tom Lewis himself is disinclined to discuss what happened. “I don’t give anything to the press,” he says on the telephone at his Moss Vale property, before hanging up.

In May this year, Mark Pearson led a 5 am raid on a 30,000-hen egg farm near Orange, owned by the MP for Orange, Russell Turner. The property has 3,500 free-range hens while the rest are kept in battery cages. Describing the condition of the battery hens, Pearson told journalists, “There were clear signs of neglect, with dead, sick and injured animals obviously left unattended for some considerable time.”

The raiders claim they saw more than a dozen dead chickens in one shed, some of them in various stages of decomposition and with other birds nesting on top of them. About 20 birds were taken away from the farm, some of which had to be put down. There was no prosecution against Turner.

Asked why not, Wright replies, “Because there were no grounds for prosecution … under the Act. The Act says it’s got to be reasonable or unreasonable. And if you’ve got 20,000 birds and three might be dead – and I could go into a free-range farm and find three dead tomorrow – that’s regarded by the courts as not unreasonable.”

Says Pearson: “Sure, if a bird suddenly drops dead, and it’s found within a

24-hour period, then that’s reasonable. But the birds we find – after postmortems have been done – have obviously died a long-suffering death due to untreated disease [or] the inability to get to food or water.”

In Australia, public concern over battery hens was given an unexpected boost in February this year, when Canberra magistrate Michael Ward dismissed trespass charges against four activists, including Mark Pearson and Lynda Stoner, vice-president of NSW Animal Liberation, after they entered Parkwood Eggs at Belconnen, ACT, in 1995 and rescued 23 hens.

In an extraordinary summing-up, Ward said, “Portia argued successfully, and with popular acclaim, that Shylock could extract his pound of flesh provided that it caused no harm and provided that no blood was spilt. It is not a fanciful argument to say that you may only raise hens in a battery of cages, provided that, in so doing, no harm was caused, the hens were given adequate exercise, allowed to stretch, nest, ruffle etc. Instead, the hens are kept in conditions so bad that they are useless, and put down after a little more than one year in the cages, after about one third of the normal life span of a hen. This is a good measure of the savagery of the system. If the above does not constitute a ‘reasonable excuse’ for mild trespass in order to make a point, then I do not know what would.”

Animal Liberation members were ecstatic, although Ward’s ruling was later overturned by the Supreme Court in Canberra. The defendants recently started federal proceedings against that decision.

In Victoria, the RSPCA has focused on working with the State Government, the Victorian Department of Agriculture and the government’s animal welfare advisory committee, to change the laws allowing battery hen farming – to no avail.

Victorian RSPCA head Peter Barber has learnt through bitter experience that to take an egg farmer to court on the grounds of finding a few dead birds in a shed packed with 20,000 hens is a recipe for disaster. Armed in the court with government and independent agricultural experts, the farmer invariably argued that such small “losses” of a few birds are unavoidable, under even top-class management.

Barber says that unless a whole shed full of thousands of dead birds is discovered, a prosecution is never successful. “It’s not a defeatist attitude, it’s reality.

“I am sick of hearing the RSPCA blamed for ‘doing nothing’ about these matters,” he says “while government and industry hide behind the Society and allow it to be pilloried, knowing full well their own systems of ‘self-regulation’ are to blame.”

Retired Victorian RSPCA inspector Barry Tapp doesn’t buy that line. “I’ve had a gutful of the RSPCA abrogating its responsibilities, especially to hens. The condition of hens at the moment is ludicrous. If dogs or cats were kept in cramped cages without any exercise, there would be community outrage.”

Tapp says he’s been in hundreds of henhouses where there’s been ample evidence of cruelty, but that senior RSPCA officers have always knocked back prosecutions.

On a hot day in western Sydney, hundreds of hens are roaming around socialising with each other in a large airy barn full of natural light. There are private nesting spaces, thick sawdust for the hens to roll in, clean, raised feed pans and a clever drinking system where hens pull at a long row of water “nipples”.

In both NSW and Victoria, the RSPCA has initiated an accreditation system for farmers who produce barn-laid eggs. The hen hotel described above is owned by Pace Farms – the first egg producers in NSW to receive accreditation for their barn-laid Liberty Eggs.

However, the deal with Pace has attracted criticism from Animal Liberation, which points out that while Pace has eight barns turned over to hens, most of its birds are still reared under the battery method.

In Victoria, barn-laid eggs – which cost about $1 more per dozen than battery hen eggs – are marketed under the collective RSPCA-approved brand, Mrs McKechie’s Barn Laid Eggs.

Already the barn eggs have captured 3 per cent of the market, and Peter Barber is hopeful that within a few years, more than one-sixth of all eggs will be farmed this way.

Such barns, including two run by Philip Szepe, the president of the Victorian Farmers Federation egg production group, are checked five or six times a year by RSPCA inspectors.

“Like any industry, we have many good farmers and a few bad ones,” he says, “but mostly the arguments are over philosophy, rather than welfare.”

In NSW, another kind of concern is voiced by Richard Jones, when he says, “The demand for Liberty Eggs is tremendous. How can we be sure some of the eggs aren’t siphoned off from battery eggs?”

Charles Wright responds: “Because we check the facility regularly, we have all the computer records, we know what the production levels are. We’ve inspected

the premises and of course we’ve made sure that if anything like that happens they’ll lose their accreditation.”

Wright, who’s negotiating a similar accreditation scheme with two major pig producers in NSW, which would see pigs out of pens and living in more sympathetic environments, says the Liberty Eggs label has been so successful that most of the State’s major producers of barn-laid eggs are seeking similar RSPCA accreditation. He expects many will have it in the next few months.

More plans are afoot. Next year, says Peter Barber, the RSPCA is going on the attack with a shock-tactics national television, radio and press campaign designed to make the public more aware of how intensively farmed animals such as pigs, hens and veal calves are treated. The RSPCA’s critics will, no doubt, watch carefully to see whether it results in more intensive-farming prosecutions.

“It’s a bit hard to tell,” says Wright. “One would hope these industries would clean up their own act, bearing in mind they’re not running an illegal operation.”

Says former NSW RSPCA boss David Butcher: “There are some excellent intensive farms. My major gripe is that the farming lobby as such, rather than getting rid of the cowboys at the edge of the system, rallies around and protects them.”

Peter Barber says bluntly, “The farm lobby is extremely strong and powerful and will fight anything and anyone that appears to want to interfere in the freedom of farming enterprises. But the RSPCA is also a force to be reckoned with. We have been too politically conservative in the past, but not any longer. We’re not anti-farming, we’re just pro-animal welfare. We’re not against using animals to make money as long as they’re treated with absolute compassion.”

Pigs crammed together in piggeries and hens crushed three to a cage will

be happy to hear it.

But their happiness may well be lost in the noise of us consumers, concerned with getting our shopping done as economically as possible, rushing into supermarkets to collect our bread, groceries, bacon and eggs.

And if we were asked to boycott the bacon we buy so conveniently? The eggs which never run out? What price compassion then?

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