Feb. 19, 2010 -- A dairy worker seen on video in exclusive ABC News reports striking a cow with a wrench has been suspended from his job at an upstate New York dairy.
Lyndon Odell, CEO of Willet Dairy, confirmed that Phil Niles was suspended from his job on Jan. 28, two days after the ABC News reports aired. "He had not worked since that date," said Odell.
Animal rights groups, however, say that suspension is not enough, and that Niles should be fired and brought up on criminal charges.
"This employee should be fired, prohibited from working around animals, referred for psychiatric evaluation, and criminally prosecuted for abusing animals," said Nathan Runkle of the advocacy group Mercy for Animals, whose undercover investigator filmed Niles striking the cow at Willet, one of New York's largest dairies.
"This action is too little, too late and fails to address larger underlying issues of animal cruelty at Willet Dairy."
Video shot by the undercover investigator 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.
Temple Grandin, a professor of animal husbandry at Colorado State University and an internationally recognized expert on the handling of livestock, told ABC News after reviewing the tape that Niles was "the kind of guy that ought to be fired."
"One thing I've learned over the many years working with animals," said Grandin, "is that there are certain people that enjoy hurting animals and they should not be working on dairies. They need to be fired."
Repeated attempts to reach Niles for comment were unsuccessful.
Odell, who told ABC News that Willet Dairy has a history of firing employees who mistreat animals, said the final determination on whether Niles would be fired would hinge on the outcome of an ongoing SPCA investigation of the farm. The SPCA is investigating on behalf of the Cayuga County District Attorney, following a complaint that Mercy for Animals filed against Willet Dairy based on the undercover video.
Cayuga County DA Jon Budelmann told ABC News he had met "at length" with the SPCA investigator, who had "spent quite a bit of time at the farm." He said he needed to obtain a deposition from the undercover investigator from Mercy for Animals who shot the video, and also needed to review the results of an independent audit of the farm conducted by outside experts.
Budelmann said no decision on any prosecution would be made until the investigation was complete. Earlier Budelmann had told ABC News that action would be taken whether or not charges were filed. "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 ABC News reports, 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."
Runkle 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 Phil Niles, 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.
Lyndon Odell of Willet Dairy 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.