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Backyard farms drive increase in farm animal cruelty cases

Jo Ciavaglia
Bucks County Courier Times
Many find themselves in over their heads with small-scale or backyard farming, creating a trend with bad results for animals for many years.

PLUMSTEAD, Pa. (AP) – "The problem of people getting in over their heads with small-scale or backyard farming is ongoing and has been a trend with bad results for animals for many years."

When animal welfare workers removed four sheep and nearly three dozen ducks and chickens from a Plumstead farm last week, it was like a deja vu for Nikki Thompson.

A year ago last month, the chief humane officer for the Bucks County SPCA oversaw the rescue of more than 50 goats, 80 chickens and five turkeys among other livestock living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions on another Plumstead property.

The year before that, the animal welfare agency rescued three goats from the trunk of a car parked at the Walmart in Tullytown and eight dairy cattle that were malnourished and living in unsanitary conditions in Tinicum.

While dogs, cats and other domestic companion pets remain the majority of animals the Bucks County agency removes from dangerous living conditions, the number of farm animals seized or surrendered has nearly quadrupled in the last five years, according to the agency.

Thompson and others suspect that some of that rise can be attributed to the growing popularity of the self-sustaining lifestyle movement. Problems occur when hobby farmers are unprepared for the demands that come with raising livestock and poultry.

One of the eight cows seized in 2018 by Bucks County SPCA officials from a Tinicum farm where the animals were allegedly malnourished and living in filth.

Farms operated by someone whose primary job is something other than farming represent the largest category of farms in the U.S., and the number is rising. Since 2012, this category has increased from 38% to 41% of farms, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Frequently, the people who contact The Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, New York, had expectations of small-scale backyard farming that were unrealistic, said Meredith Turner-Smith, a spokeswoman for the animal protection organization that advocates for farm animal rights.

"The problem of people getting in over their heads with small-scale or backyard farming is ongoing and has been a trend with bad results for animals for many years before the pandemic and the self-reliance trend it's sparked," she said.

During the summer, the organization is typically inundated with calls for rooster and duck placement, Farm Sanctuary's national placement manager Ashley Pankratz added.

Often, the animals were purchased as chicks or ducklings in the spring as pets, but now the owners don't know what to do with them, Pankratz said. Other times the owners get attached to the animals and they're unable to slaughter or sell them.

Bucks County SPCA staff and humane police officers rescued more than 130 farm animals kept in filthy overcrowded conditions in Plumstead last July.

In other cases, the animal owners will take sick or injured baby livestock and attempt to make them companion animals, but the demands, and expense, are too much to handle, Pankratz added.

In neighboring Montgomery County, neglect cases involving livestock have been rising the last three years, according to Montgomery County SPCA's lead humane society police officer Tracie Graham.

The animal cruelty cases mainly have involved horses, but also goats and cattle, she said.

Most recently, the agency in March executed a search warrant and seized two emaciated horses from a West Pottsgrove farm, Graham said. The case is still active, and the horses are recovering.

Graham attributed the rise in investigations and prosecutions with more public awareness of expanded neglect and cruelty laws including the 2017 Libre's Law, which included new protections for farm animals.

Between 2016 and 2018, the Bucks County SPCA rescued 219 animals including five goats, one goose, three horses, two pigs and 34 chickens, Thompson said.

Since 2018, though, the number of animals rescued has jumped to 909, including 125 chickens, two guinea fowl, 53 goats, four horses, 25 ducks, four sheep, and two pigs.

Last year was the busiest in recent memory for the agency, with 545 live animal rescues or surrenders as a result of an animal neglect or abuse investigation, Thompson said. The agency filed more than 300 summary and five misdemeanor charges for animal cruelty.

Thompson added that she and other officers respond to far more calls that involve visiting properties to investigate and provide education to animal owners on how to properly care for their livestock under the law.

Rescued livestock often are in poor condition and malnourished, which puts an extra financial burden on animal welfare agencies for medical treatment; locating suitable new homes for these animals also typically is difficult and time consuming.

"Dogs are in and out; cats are pretty close to in and out," Thompson said. "But farm animals take a bit longer."

The eight dairy cattle the agency rescued from the Tinicum farm in 2018 took a long time to re-home, Thompson said. A sanctuary in Maryland took the one steer, and some of the cows went to a farm in New York, she said.

Currently, the only livestock in the SPCA's custody are the dozens of animals seized in the most recent animal cruelty cases in Plumstead, and four of the 52 goats seized last year, Thompson said.

Two of the goats were adopted, but then returned, and the two others still are being treated for different illnesses, she said.

Thompson and her officers have also encountered longtime farmers who have become complacent in animal care. Sometimes they are unable to physicially keep up with the work demands or they are unaware of changes in animal cruelty laws, she said.

Among the most common mistakes she sees with livestock is incorrect feeding and waiting too long before contacting a veterinarian for a health problem, Thompson said.

"A lot of times people will try to self-medicate or use Dr. Google," she said. "There are some situations where that is OK, but if you are going to have farm animals, especially, you should have a good relationship with a vet that takes care of farm animals."

New farmers also may not realize that the care involved with poultry and livestock is vastly different than other companion animals.

There are hundreds of breeds of chickens with different needs. Chickens are also dirty, which means frequent water changes, especially in the summer, and frequent cleaning of their coops. If the coop is not large enough, overcrowded chickens may peck each other to death.

"It's just basically knowing what you're in for," Thompson said. "You don't get a day off when you have farm animals."

Those looking to raise livestock should reach out to their state Extension cooperative to learn about the time, labor and expense involved in raising the animals. Potential 'backyard farmers' should spend time on a farm to learn firsthand what is involved including the equipment necessary in caring for animals. It is also important to locate a veterinarian who is experienced in treating livestock before you buy an animal. And last, check with your municipality as not all municipalities allow livestock. Make sure your property meets any requirements such as acreage.