.Hatching a Lawsuit

altLitigants say DA’s office is withholding documents in animal cruelty lawsuit

The video footage taken inside of local Cal-Cruz Hatcheries, Inc. in 2009 shows the mutilated bodies of dead or dying chicks and ducklings that lay trapped beneath processing machinery, newly hatched chicks with open bloody wounds, exposed organs, and mutilated feet and legs gasping for air in bins, and workers tossing baby birds into a bucket of liquid waste where they struggle to escape before drowning. The footage also depicts workers dumping unwanted hatchlings by the bucket-load into an eggshell disposal chute and forced, alive, down a clogged drain with a pole and high-powered hose.

The footage was taken by an investigator with the animal rights nonprofit Compassion Over Killing (COK), who worked undercover inside of the hatcheries for one month in 2009.

The images were immediately released to the Santa Cruz District Attorney’s Office (DA) as well as the Santa Cruz Animal Services Authority (SCAS). SCAS launched a response investigation, conducted by a humane law enforcement agent, which confirmed the abuse, and resulted in the impoundment of 88 ducklings.

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Farm Sanctuary, an animal protection organization, reported that many of the birds were so sick they required euthanization. The rescue group took 38 survivors.

“I think this hatchery is in clear violation of animal cruelty law, and in California the animal cruelty law does not exempt common practices, as do a lot of other states,” says Cheryl Leahy, general counsel for COK.

California has the strictest laws in the nation regarding the abuse of, cruelty toward or neglect of animals. Unlike some states whose animal cruelty laws protect only domesticated pets, California’s Penal Code 597 PC also protects stray animals, wild animals and farmed animals.

alt“I think this hatchery was particularly sloppy, particularly callous and neglectful, and in the case of the drowning, that’s clear cruelty,” Leahy continues.

Penal Code 597 PC specifically prohibits maliciously, intentionally, or cruelly maiming, mutilating, torturing or wounding a living animal. It also prohibits maliciously, intentionally, or cruelly killing an animal, depriving an animal of necessary food, drink, or shelter, failing to protect an animal from severe weather conditions, and riding, driving, overworking, or otherwise using the animal when it is unfit for labor.

Despite the Animal Services Authority’s additional documentation, the DA’s office held the case for several months, and officially declined to prosecute the hatchery for violations of California animal protection laws in late April 2010.

An email response to Good Times from the DA’s office says that “experts in the field” were willing to testify that the hatchery committed no criminal violations according to federal law and industry standards. The DA would not comment, however, regarding the California state laws in place.

The DA’s office writes that they are committed to investigating and prosecuting animal neglect and abuse cases, but said that in the matter of the allegations brought by COK concerning the local hatchery, the evidence and the law did not meet the burden of proof required to initiate a criminal prosecution.

The DA’s office also noted that, because the maker of the videotape was an employee of an organization advocating animal rights, the DA gathered evidence that undermines his credibility as a witness “and therefore the veracity of the videotape.”

The DA further notes that their decision was not made lightly.

“Unlike advocacy groups, our role as prosecutors is [to] seek justice based on the actual facts and our belief that a case can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” the office writes.

KGO-TV reported in 2010 that Cal-Cruz Hatchery president Brian Collins had viewed the video and confirmed it was taken in his facility. He told the San Francisco TV station, “I think the employees get desensitized to the actual handling of the bird, and for them, it’s a job.” Collins added that he may make one change in his policies: “Right now, the guideline is every 30 minutes you empty those boxes, I might make it 15 and be more diligent about it.”

Collins did not respond to numerous phone calls from GT

COK released the gory video images to the public in 2010. Since then, COK teamed up with the Animal Legal Defense Fund in a lawsuit against Cal-Cruz Hatcheries, which was filed in the California Superior Court on Jan. 11.  

“There’s no question that what you see in that video is horrific animal cruelty,” says ALDF’s director of litigation, Carter Dillard. “The only question is, ‘Is there going to be justice served?’”

Cal-Cruz hatches and ships millions of chicks each year to growers that raise the birds until they are slaughtered. The resulting poultry product is ultimately destined for meat counters at Northern California grocery stores.

When the lawsuit was filed in January, a Whole Foods Market spokesperson announced that moving forward, the large natural foods chain would not be working with any ranches that receive chicks from Cal-Cruz Hatcheries.

As described in the lawsuit, the video documents numerous routine abuses, including acts amounting to felony animal cruelty that are in violation of California law. The lawsuit argues that these practices, in turn, constitute unlawful and unfair business practices under the California Business and Professions Code.

Sections 17200 through 17209 of the California Business and Professions Code are known as the Unfair Competition Law, and prevent just that. “Unfair competition” is defined in Section 17200 as encompassing any one of five types of business “wrongs,” any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice, and unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising.

The lawsuit argues that the hatchery cut corners and costs at the expense of the birds’ welfare, which enabled it to undercut its competitors in violation of the unfair competition statutes.

While COK and ALDF have received some requested documents from the DA and County Counsel as the result of a subpoenae request, the DA appears to be blocking the release of several documents relevant to their case.

To the best of their knowledge, these so far unreleased documents include the report filed by the Santa Cruz Animal Services when they went into Cal-Cruz Hatcheries facility during the response investigation in 2009.

 “As far as we are aware, the report [Santa Cruz Animal Services] wrote to memorialize what happened during their investigation corroborates our evidence of animal cruelty,” she says.  “The DA’s case is closed, unprosecuted for reasons that remain a mystery. It makes you wonder, what are these county offices trying to hide or prevent the public [from] knowing?”

Following a dozen phone calls and emails from  GT, the DA’s office did not answer multiple questions GT asked regarding these documents.

Leahy says COK received a document from Animal Services after their lawsuit was filed, which logs some activity relating to the case.

“There’s an entry in that document that talks about a file,” says Leahy. “At the request of the DA the file was sent to a blacked out, redacted expert. … I’m interested in knowing what’s in that file. Was the report in that file? Why are we not even getting a list of what that file contains?”

Todd Stosuy, field manager for the Santa Cruz Animal Services Authority, refused to speak with GT at the DA’s request.

“At the request of County Counsel and the District Attorney’s Office, our office will not be making a statement on this case,” Stosuy writes in an email to GT.

The DA’s email did not respond to questions regarding their request that Animal Services not speak with GT.

COK and ALDF received a letter from the DA the week of March 1 in response to their requests for a meeting. In the letter, the DA agreed to a meeting, but, despite many requests by the ALDF, had not yet set a meeting date as of press time on March 20.

“We’re still trying to set up a meeting to try to obtain portions of the file they’re withholding,” Dillard said on March 13.

COK and ALDF are continuing attempts to discuss the matter with the DA’s office. Once files are obtained, their lawsuit will move past the discovery stage.

While Dillard says the video footage obtained is shocking, he adds that these sorts of cruel practices are indicative of what factory farming does to animals.

“When animals are reduced to becoming become widgets in the machine, we see practices like this over and over again,” he says. “At this point I really think the only solution is boycotting animal products.”


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