WOOSTER, Ohio – There was a collective sigh of relief from the defendants and their supporters when Wayne County Municipal Court Judge Stuart Miller cleared Creston hog farmer Ken Wiles and his employee, Dusty Stroud, of all animal cruelty charges after a day and a half of testimony June 19-20.
Ken Wiles’ son Joe, who manages the farm, was found guilty of one charge of animal cruelty for carrying or conveying an animal in a cruel or inhumane manner.
Video evidence gathered at the farm by an undercover animal rights investigator showed Joe Wiles throwing piglets from farrowing crates into metal carts used to move the pigs to other areas at the farm.
Joe Wiles, 22, was fined $250 plus court costs, ordered one year of probation and related fees, and ordered to attend a humane handling training session subject to review by the county humane society.
The Wileses and Dusty Stroud were charged with a combined total of 10 counts of animal cruelty. Judge Miller dismissed one count each against Stroud and Joe Wiles after hearing the state’s arguments.
The slew of charges came after a former farm employee, Ingrid DiMarino, complained to the California-based Humane Farming Association about farm conditions. The association planted an undercover investigator on the farm who shot video and audio of conditions there as part of the investigation.
The association claimed it found several ongoing violations on the farm, including lack of humane euthanasia for killing sows by hanging; lack of veterinary care and adequate shelter; and filthy conditions and inhumane handling. The association also alleged gross neglect and maltreatment.
The association took its video to the Wayne County Sheriff’s department. Sheriff’s deputies, Wayne County Humane Society officials and a veterinarian raided the farm Nov. 8, 2006.
In his ruling, Judge Stuart Miller said the hardest part in deciding the outcome of the case was the disagreement of two veterinarians who testified.
Ohio State University vet Donald Sanders, who was at the farm for the November raid and testified for the state, said he “saw situations that medical decisions needed to be made about [downed] hogs” and a lack of follow-through on care on downed sows.
But Sanders also said his overall assessment on the farm was that there were many things done correctly, that “everybody had been fed and had a roof over their head.” He described the Wiles’ method of hanging sows as “abhorrent” but did note blunt force trauma used to kill piglets was acceptable within the industry.
The defense’s expert opinion, Iowa swine veterinarian Paul Armbrecht, said national pork industry standards are simply guidelines, not law, for euthanasia.
“They are only options, but it doesn’t say anywhere they are the only options,” Armbrecht said.
Armbrecht also said that while “hanging may not be fully appropriate,” it was a practical method to euthanize an animal by asphyxia.
“It is my opinion there is no easy, safe or economical way to euthanize an adult hog,” Judge Stuart Miller said, noting he realized it’s also a difficult decision for a farmer to make.
Miller said the methods of euthanasia used on the Wiles farm – blunt force trauma to piglets, accomplished by slamming their heads into cement floors, and hanging adult animals to asphyxiate them – were “offensive,” but it seemed even the expert veterinarians “had no better way.”
Dusty Stroud’s attorney, John Johnson Jr., seemed to sum up Judge Miller’s ruling in one simple comment: “These are accepted methods of euthanasia, but it sure makes for bad video.
“Looking bad and being a crime are two different things.”
The day-and-a-half long testimony was highlighted by video secretly recorded by an animal rights investigator who worked on the farm.
John Knoldt, who appeared as the state’s first witness, changed his name within the past year and wore a pasted-on goatee and mustache to avoid being recognized by courtroom cameras since he is participating in another undercover investigation for the Humane Farming Association.
During his six-week stint working on the Wiles farm in early 2006, Knoldt went by the name Chris Parrett. He carried a button-hole camera and microphone with him nearly every day to selectively take photos, video and audio of situations on the farm that appeared inhumane. He also kept a daily log to describe situations he witnessed.
Knoldt admitted on the stand he lied about his address and his relationship with Ingrid DiMarino, which he used to secure the job; and had no Ohio-issued private investigator’s license during the time he investigated the Wiles farm.
Knoldt also admitted to illegally trespassing onto Wiles’ property and going into barns in October 2006 – when he was no longer employed on the farm – to take photos to further the investigation.
During cross-examination, Knoldt said his only previous work with hogs was at an animal rights sanctuary, and that at least once he had noted in his daily log there was no animal cruelty observed on the farm.
Just a farmer
In a move that surprised at least a few in the gallery, defense attorney Russell Buzzelli put Ken Wiles on the stand Wednesday morning.
Buzzelli painted Wiles as a family man, a lifelong hog farmer there to defend his actions as well as some practices that are common throughout the swine industry.
When asked to describe how he felt about the other testimony, Ken Wiles said it “makes me look like a pretty shabby operator.”
But Wiles also talked about the high points of his farming operation, of farm days that began at 4:30 a.m. while no one else was there to know how he was caring for his animals, of keeping detailed feeding and animal health records, of training employees to completely run his farm.
On the stand, Wiles said his farrow-to-wean operation has 1,300-1,500 sows. The family is also involved in ventures for young nursery pigs as well as a finishing operation to see their hogs from birth to market.
Wiles also spoke of $227,000 in expenses in the last three years for vaccinations on his farm to prevent sickness and death, and the two-day protocol used to give downed animals a chance to recover before they’re pulled from the herd.
Culling and killing animals on the farm was at the heart of the animal rights battle.
Joe Wiles was charged for euthanizing a hog with a shotgun, which is a method used on the farm.
Ken Wiles explained in testimony that hanging is also used on the farm because some of his employees are convicted felons who are not allowed to handle weapons.
Wiles expressed disgust with the way the November raid was handled. During the search, employees were in a “lock-down” situation for 10 hours, Wiles said, which made them unable to tend to the livestock and facilities.
Wiles said while authorities searched the property, he and employees couldn’t move sows to farrowing pens and an unidentified number of sows delivered litters of piglets that were cannibalized.
“Everything died, died, died, just like that, and it didn’t seem to matter to anyone,” Wiles argued.
“When you come in here at 1 [p.m. for the raid] of course you won’t see the work we’ve done all morning,” he said, noting some hogs’ feed pans would be empty at that time and that feces and urine would undoubtedly build up in pens during the 10 hours his employees weren’t able to do their normal cleaning and feeding chores.
Goes without saying
Wiles was pushed by Prosecutor Frank Forchione multiple times to explain why he didn’t include details about animal welfare in hanging situations in a police report taken during the raid.
Forchione said it appeared the only details Wiles listed on the report were about his own bottom line, safety to employees, and how quick the process was. Forchione demanded to know whether the animal’s comfort and pain was ever considered.
A calm Wiles repeated the same answer over and over: “It goes without saying.”
“When something needs put out of its misery, we do it in the quickest, most efficient and safest way we could, period,” Wiles said.
“My only income in the world is in moving that pig on to market. That pig is not going to be abused,” Wiles said.
The courtroom gallery, packed with local farmers and residents supporting both sides, chuckled twice at the expense of Forchione.
Forchione mispronounced the word ‘sow’ as ‘so’ several times when referring to the hogs before one of his own witnesses corrected him, and also referred to the animals as having arms and hands.
Those who watched the case unfold said Forchione’s ignorance on the subject, even after months of studying the situation for the prosecution, was a sure sign of the times.
“This seems to be about people who don’t know about hog farming trying to tell him [Wiles] how to raise hogs,” said Earl Jentes, who raises cattle in Wayne County.
“There are a bunch of uneducated people making ignorant allegations like this. And if they want to eat lettuce, that’s fine, but don’t mess with the rest of us,” he said.
Myron Ramseyer, who, along with his son, runs a hog farm in the county, questioned the validity of the charges against Wiles.
“Where is the line when there isn’t a law?” he asked.
“But do pig farmers want a bunch of laws? Absolutely not,” he said. “We police ourselves.”
The Ramseyers, who said they also use blunt force trauma to euthanize sick piglets and a shotgun to euthanize adult animals, were interested to see how the court would interpret Wiles’ euthanasia methods.
“I can’t say it’s wrong just because I don’t do it that way,” Ramseyer said. “He felt he was doing the right thing.”
“In this business you have no less feelings about a hog just because it’s livestock and business, not a pet.”
Still in the works
Meanwhile, Ken Wiles is facing another lawsuit.
Ingrid DiMarino, the employee who brought the Humane Farming Association onto the Wiles farm, is suing Ken Wiles in a civil matter.