Three young men caught in undercover videos violently abusing cows at a Chilliwack dairy farm have been sentenced to jail time.
BC Supreme Court Justice Gary Cohen handed the least culpable defendant Travis Keefer to seven days jail and he is forbidden from being in care or control of animals for one year.
Chris Vandyke and Jamie Visser were sentenced to 60 days in jail and are banned from owning or handling animals for three years. Their sentences will be served intermittently on weekends to allow them to keep their jobs.
There were tears in the courtroom from family members as the three young men were handcuffed, Keefer taken in to custody to serve his sentence immediately.
Defence lawyer Craig Sicotte said his clients were obviously disappointed but added that the judge had very little precedent to go on for sentencing.
“The great majority of case law is not very helpful,” Judge Gary Cohen said in reading his reasons for sentencing.
Cohen called some of the acts “reprehensible,” others “wanton cruelty” and “gratuitous violence.”
The lack of training the men received from the company was seen as a mitigating factor, as was the early guilty pleas and the three men’s otherwise upstanding lives.
Outside the courthouse, Sicotte was asked about how the young men have been vilified on social media because of the international media attention the case has drawn.
“Just like all Internet trolls and the nasty things they say about people, I’m sure there will be more,” he said. “They say horrible things how [his clients] should be treated in response, some of the things that are suggested are way worse than what they’ve actually committed.”
The three young men pleaded guilty to two counts under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) act and one count under the Wildlife Act (WLA) in connection to the long, drawn out case of abuse that has received international attention.
The incidents that led to the charges date back to 2014 when undercover videos were filmed by an employee of the animal welfare group Mercy For Animals (MFA) who was hired by Chilliwack Cattle Sales (CCS) – Canada’s largest dairy farm – to work the night shift at the dairy.
The MFA footage that resulted during the period between April 30 and June 1, 2014 showed cows repeatedly hit by the men, punching, kicking, tail-twisting and otherwise attacking the cows, often accompanied by cheers and whoops of seeming enjoyment.
“I just f—-ing hit that cow like 50 times,” Vandyke is heard yelling in one clip.
“This is more fun than milking,” Visser says in another.
The defendants pleaded guilty to a total of 18 counts of animal cruelty and three counts of molesting a bird.
At the sentencing hearing for the young men on April 14, Sicotte blamed the company for hiring teenagers with no supervision, no company guidelines, all working in a culture of accepted violence.
“What we are dealing with here is the dark side of the agriculture industry to some extent,” Sicotte told the court.
Back in December, CCS President Kenneth Kooyman pleaded guilty to three charges of animal cruelty on behalf of the farm itself and his brother Wesley, a CCS director, pleaded guilty to one charge personally. They were assessed fines totalling $300,000 in addition to $45,000 in victim fine surcharges.
Wesley was the only owner who attended the barns that house approximately 2,800 cows during the night shift, never intervening or stopping the abuse, according to Sicotte. The court heard that another brother, Brad, was in charge of human resources. He hired the young men, assigned shifts and “showed them the ropes.”
And while Sicotte asked Cohen to hand the men fines, community service and probation, Crown counsel Jim MacAulay said the “egregious” and “inexplicable” animal abuse caught on video warranted prison time.
“This case demands a jail sentence,” MacAulay told the court.
After the sentence, MFA praised the Crown and the SPCA for pursuing the file, and vice-president Krista Hiddema insisted the case pointed to rampant abuse in so-called “factory farms” in Canada.
“The dairy industry is no exception,” Hiddema said in a statement. “This isn’t a case of ‘bad apples,’ but a rotten tree. This case graphically illustrates the need for lawmakers to protect vulnerable farmed animals from extreme cruelty by giving the Dairy Code of Practice the force of law in every province.”
In issuing is sentence, Cohen pointed to how violent the abuse was in the videos, but he added as a mitigating factor that the actual running time of the clips was relatively short considering the MFA undercover employee worked at the farm for more than a month.
Visser, for example, pleaded guilty to seven counts of animal abuse that amounted to two-and-a-half minutes of video.
“I am taking the brevity of the evidence against these two individuals as a mitigating factor,” Cohen said.
The sentencing May 18 does not spell the end of the case. Four other employees – Lloyd Blackwell, Brad Genereux, Cody Larson and Jonathan Talbot – face a 12-day trial from May 29 to June 15 on a total of 13 counts.