Feb. 2, 2010 -- Animal rights groups are calling for prosecution of the owners and employees of a "factory farm" featured in a recent ABC News report, saying the workers and owners of Willet Dairy in upstate New York broke the law by abusing animals.
The video, shot by an undercover investigator for the advocacy group Mercy for Animals, shows sick animals, cows being dragged, workers kicking and hitting animals, and tails and horns being removed without anesthesia. Portions of the video were broadcast on World News and Nightline, and also published on the Blotter.
The SPCA official investigating the case against Willet Dairy on behalf of the Cayuga County District Attorney's office says an "active investigation" is underway. "Things are in motion," said Joshua Crane, who would not make any further comment.
Cayuga County District Attorney Jon Budelmann told ABC News that no decision on prosecution would be made until that investigation is complete, but said action would be taken regardless. "Either charges will be filed," said Budelmann, "or policies will change to address certain issues where we work with the farmer on making those changes."
Among the needed changes Budelmann cited were treating sick cows with analgesics, providing anesthesia to cows prior to tail docking and dehorning, and only performing the procedures on young animals. He said he also wanted to see if the animals at Willet Dairy lived in crowded conditions "for hours or for just five minutes" at a time.
In a statement released after the Nightline report, Budelmann said if the SPCA's investigation develops admissible evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that New York laws have been violated, and the SPCA files charges, his office "will prosecute anyone so charged."
A national ASPCA official familiar with the case said the Cayuga County District Attorney's office and the local SPCA are "feeling the pressure" to take action in the wake of the ABC News report.
Jim Baker, Director of Farm Animal Welfare at the ASPCA, said if Willet is going to tail dock and dehorn, then proper anesthesia should have been administered.
"That was not proper animal husbandry," said Baker.
Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, claims the tape made by his organization's undercover operative shows practices that violate New York state's anticruelty statute.
"Whether it's the worker who dug his finger in the eye sockets of the cow," said Runkle, "or [the employee] who is seen hitting the cow with a wrench in the video, or the tail docking and [dehorning] done without anesthesia, we believe all parties responsible for abuse should be held accountable."
"Our message is clear: dairy producers are not above the law," said Runkle. Willet's CEO Lyndon Odell told ABC News that his operation produces high-quality milk and does not tolerate the abuse of animals. Odell said the Mercy for Animals video shows "a few isolated incidents."
Odell maintained in an interview with ABC News that his farm's practices -- including the way it dehorns and tail docks -- are in accordance with industry standards.
In response to District Attorney Budelmann's assertion that practices would have to change at Willet Dairy, Odell said if there was an opportunity to improve care of Willet's animals, he would take it.
"We are always looking for opportunities to improve our cow care," said Odell.
Last week, Denver-based Leprino Foods Co., which supplies cheese to the Domino's, Papa John's and Pizza Hut pizza chains, said it will stop using milk from Willet Dairy, given the treatment of cows shown in the undercover footage.
"We are no longer served by that dairy," Mike Reidy, a senior vice president of Leprino, told ABC News. Reidy said the decision was made the day after ABC News broadcast the footage.
"We take these issues seriously," said Reidy.