JEFFERSON, Ohio – Like a tangled web sliced into pieces by a frenzy of official action, the case of animal abuse in Ashtabula County remains a jumble of loose ends and unanswered questions.
Harlan Baldwin of rural Ashtabula was charged March 30 with 49 counts of animal cruelty. The charges stem from a March 23 investigation by the Ashtabula County Humane Society of a barn Baldwin rented on a Sheffield Township farm.
The barn was packed with manure that was in some places at least three feet deep. The bodies of an undetermined number of cows and calves – estimated at from 23 to 42 – were buried in the manure and scattered around the lot.
There were another 43 head of cattle in the barn.
Dead and living animals.
The charges filed late Friday afternoon by the Ashtabula County Prosecutor’s Office in Eastern County Court charge Baldwin with animal cruelty on counts that concern both the dead and living animals.
Thirty-one of the charges relate to dead heifers, seven to dead calves, and the remaining 11 are in connection with heifers that suffered from dehydration or emaciation.
Arraignment was scheduled for April 5.
Baldwin has retained Ashtabula attorney David Pontius, however Pontius had no comment when contacted.
According to Assistant County Prosecutor Sue Thomas, a second search warrant was obtained from the court March 30 in order to remove the remaining 43 cattle from the barn.
They are all Holstein heifers with the exception of a herd bull and a second immature bull. Local veterinarian Cheryl Beinhardt said some of the heifers may be pregnant.
Humane society complaint.
The original search and seize order was issued to the humane society by the Eastern County Court on the grounds of a complaint and an initial investigation by Ashtabula County Chief Humane Officer Dorothy Bluhm and humane society president Judi Ferguson.
The humane society led a contingent from the sheriff’s office, the county prosecutor’s office, and an investigator from the Ohio Department of Agriculture to execute the order.
Agriculture inspector Roy Hively posted the property March 23 ordering that it be cleaned up by March 25. On March 24, when humane society representatives returned to assess what was necessary to remove the cattle from the barn, Baldwin was on the scene beginning the clean-up himself.
On Monday morning he e-mailed the Ohio Department of Agriculture that the dead cattle had been removed from the barn and had been properly buried on the farm.
Hively and a state veterinarian returned March 27 to inspect the burial and to test the remaining cattle for contagious disease.
According to R. David Glauer, head of animal industry for the department of agriculture, the burial was conducted according to state regulations, with the local health commissioner present. The bodies had been put into a 15-by-15 foot pit, and covered over with 6 feet of dirt. The pit was at least 1,000 feet from the Ashtabula River and a quarter mile from any well or drinking water source.
Glauer said the state did not deem it necessary to have an official on the site when the cattle were buried or to test the dead cattle. The initial report of Ashtabula County veterinarian Beinhardt, who went to the scene with the humane society, was that there was no sign of disease among the remaining live cattle, Glauer said.
Average body score.
The cattle remaining in the barn had average body scores ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 on a 5.0 scale. Blood tests were taken on five cattle.
According to Bluhm, the animals were still in the barn as of April 2 because temporary housing arrangements had not been finalized. However, since the barn has been completely cleaned out, she said they might not be removed at all.
Normal death rates.
According the studies of dairy herd cull rates taken in New York and in the Midwest, cattle deaths in a mature herd can be expected to run from 6 percent to 10 percent, with disease representing another 6 percent.
A death rate of up to 50 percent in a small herd of heifers would have to be considered excessive, according to large animal veterinarian Richard E. Wiley of Wooster.
Wiley did add that it would possible for a virus to move through a herd rapidly and not be detectable in surviving animals two or three days later.
Beinhardt, however, said she was at the barn for several hours March 23, and examined each of the animals and saw no sign of any illness.
“When there is a virus or something going through a herd, you generally hear at least one cow coughing,” she said. “There was no coughing or sneezing in the herd. They had no nasal discharge.”
“I’m not saying this herd was perfectly healthy. All small dairy herds have some problems with leukosis and other conditions. At the very least, they are probably all suffering from some kinds of parasites. But they did not die of disease.”
Had to be there.
“You just couldn’t believe, unless you were there, how bad it was,” Beinhardt said. “When I walked through the pen to examine the water supply on the other side, I had to step on the bodies of cows or I would have sunk up to my hips myself.”
She also said the bodies were in various states of decomposition, with some consisting only of bone and hide, indicating they had been dead for some months.
“In the winter, with no insects, that degree of decomposition couldn’t have happened in a short time,” she said.
Baldwin, a former president of the Ashtabula County Farm Bureau and active in Farm Bureau at the state level, had leased the barn in November 1999.
Land owner Fred White of Canal Fulton, Ohio, said he had not been to Ashtabula County to look at the barn, but had heard it was in bad condition.
He said he had written Baldwin when the one-year lease was up in November telling him he would not renew the lease and asking Baldwin to vacate the barn by December.
Baldwin also faces a civil suit in Eastern County Court filed last October by Adam Paziorko of Copake, N.Y., who owns a dairy farm in Conneaut that Baldwin has leased since 1997.
Baldwin’s son is currently living on the farm.
Baldwin lost his own farm in 1995 when it was foreclosed on by the lender, according to court documents.
The charges against Baldwin are misdemeanor charges, and carry a maximum fine of $750 and 90 days in jail for each charge.
Thomas said the maximum Baldwin can serve is 180 days. If convicted of all 49 counts, and assessed the maximum on each, he faces fines totaling more than $36,000.
“I think if he merely receives a slap on the wrist people in this community will think this is just the way dairy farms are run,” Beinhardt said. “It will be a terrible image for agriculture.
“To say that what happened was not his fault would be doing a disservice to the dairy industry.
Bob Cotterman, past president of the Ashtabula County Cattlemen’s Association, said the cattlemen’s group would be watching the case closely to see what the judge does.
“I’ve never seen anything this bad,” Cotterman said. “I don’t understand why this isn’t a felony case.”
(You can contact Jackie Cummins at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)