Last week, RSPCA NSW dropped all animal cruelty charges against Wally’s Piggery, a factory farm located just outside Canberra.
The high profile case was dismissed from Yass Local Court after both the prosecutor, RSPCA NSW, and lawyers acting for Wally’s Piggery agreed to discontinue proceedings.
While some details of the case remain unclear, the decision by RSPCA NSW not to pursue charges in what appears to be a clear cut case of animal cruelty once again highlights that our legal system is failing to adequately protect the welfare of animals intensively raised for food.
Background of the case
In 2012, undercover surveillance footage taken over a three month period by anonymous activists showing acts of unimaginable animal cruelty at Wally’s Piggery was released to the public. The footage depicted pigs being beaten to death with sledgehammers, kicked across the floor and dead piglets piled in buckets, among other things.
The footage was published by both Animal Liberation NSW and on the Aussie Pigs website – sparking immediate public outrage and national and international headlines. RSPCA NSW and the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) were also handed the footage, although the timing of this handover – either before or after its public release – is now a matter of debate.
The exposure prompted a large scale investigation and a raid on Wally’s Piggery by Yass Police, the NSW Food Authority, RSPCA NSW and the DPI. The investigation found the piggery to be in a state of filth and disrepair, with many sows and piglets suffering from injury, disease and malnourishment.
A total of 53 charges were laid against the owners of Wally’s Piggery, Valent (Wally) Perenc and Stephanie Perenc, and their financial backers WSL Investments Pty Ltd. In the wake of the charges and the media attention which they garnered, Wally’s Piggery and a connected business, Tennessee Piggery, shut down operations in early 2013.
A year after the initial investigations, RSPCA NSW, acting as the prosecutor, served Wally’s Piggery with 53 Court Attendance Notices with respect to breaches of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW) and associated Regulations.
The charges included 12 counts of alleged aggravated animal cruelty, 12 charges of allegedly failing to provide veterinary treatment to pigs and piglets and 29 counts of allegedly failing to comply with the Regulations.1
In October 2014, the three parties behind Wally’s Piggery appeared before Yass Local Court and pleaded not guilty to the 53 charges.
On 17 November 2014, Magistrate Mrs G Beattie dismissed the case when RSPCA NSW withdrew all charges. RSPCA NSW has since stated that there will be “no chance of reopening the case” in the future.
The decision to drop the case
In a media statement, RSPCA NSW expressed their disappointment in having to withdraw the charges against Wally’s Piggery.
In this statement RSPCA NSW also expressed its disappointment that the original footage could not be adduced as evidence because it was not immediately provided to authorities prior to being released to the public, and was not lawfully substantiated by the individual or organisation responsible for filming the abuse.
This is clearly an attempt to shift blame to the individuals or organisations who helped uncover the cruelty in the first place by asserting that they compromised the investigation by releasing the footage publically before handing it to authorities.
Both Animal Liberation NSW and Aussie Pigs, as well as the Animal Defenders Office, have been critical of RSPCA NSW’s decision to withdraw its charges against Wally’s Piggery, asserting that the footage was in fact provided to authorities prior to its public release. This remains a point of contention.
What is not contended is that the case against Wally’s Piggery was not based on the footage obtained by activists and circulated in 2012, but rather on evidence gathered through RSPCA NSW’s own independent investigations into the piggery. Since the footage obtained by activists was not being used as evidence, the release of its timing to the public is, more or less, irrelevant.
In essence, RSPCA NSW has failed to provide any valid justification for their decision to drop this case.
The difficulties of prosecuting animal cruelty
Animal cruelty is inherently difficult to detect, especially when it occurs behind closed doors on factory farms.
In NSW, monitoring and enforcement efforts are largely left to RSPCA NSW and the Animal Welfare League, although the DPI and NSW Police Force also have the power to enforce animal cruelty laws. With limited funding and a small number of inspectors, these private charitable organisations are not able to monitor intensive agricultural systems adequately. As a result, incidents of cruelty are often uncovered only as a result of undercover surveillance by animal activists or whistleblowers.2
Not only does undercover footage help expose animal cruelty, it can also be adduced as evidence in civil and criminal proceedings. This is made clear in section 138 of the Evidence Act 1995 (NSW), which states that a court has the discretion to admit ‘improperly or illegally obtained evidence’ based on its probative value.
Recently, advocates of factory farming have thrown their support behind so called ‘ag-gag’ legislation – laws that gag animal advocates, employees, whistleblowers and the media by making it illegal to publish evidence of animal abuse they gather on factory farms. This is an attempt to prevent cases like Wally’s Piggery from generating public pressure by concealing the often confronting realities of factory farming from the public.
Implications for future investigations
RSPCA NSW’s failure to use the anonymous footage – even though it may be legally admissible – sets an alarming precedent.
It indicates that RSPCA NSW may not be willing to use footage gathered covertly to target future animal abuse, even if it depicts blatant violations of animal cruelty laws. It also indicates that such footage will only be used if the individuals responsible for the footage incriminate themselves, which is unlikely to happen. In effect, RSPCA NSW’s decision has rendered anonymous footage of animal cruelty, and the potentially hazardous work of animal activists and whistleblowers in exposing it, legally futile. The decision may not officially gag animal activists, but it effectively renders their compliance with industry or regulatory bodies as futile.
It is important to acknowledge that animal activists are not the only individuals who will be impacted by this decision. Animal cruelty is often reported by employees working within factory farms who might witness or document incidents of animal cruelty. These whistleblowers are best placed to expose animal cruelty as and when it occurs in intensive systems. By refusing to use evidence without first requiring individuals to disclose their identity and potentially compromise their safety and employment, RSPCA NSW has precluded one of the only means of detecting animal abuse.
Where to now for animal protection in Australia?
Over the past week, animal advocates and the public have understandably expressed concern, anger and disillusionment at the outcome of the Wally’s Piggery case. The images gathered at Wally’s depicted some of the worst incidents of animal cruelty ever filmed on Australian factory farms, yet the legal system which is supposed to protect the welfare of these animals has clearly failed them.
Questions are now being asked: if a conviction could not be successful against Wally’s Piggery, what instances of cruelty will ever result in a just outcome for factory farmed animals?
Many questions remain unanswered in the Wally’s Piggery case, but one thing is certain: there is something terribly wrong with how the law treats factory farmed animals in Australia, and only legal and policy reform will set it straight.
- 1. Regulation 20, Schedule 1 of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (General) Regulation 2006 (NSW).
- 2. There are numerous examples of cruelty being uncovered by undercover video surveillance, both in Australia and international. Notable examples from Australia include the following: · In 2013 Animal Liberation NSW obtained footage of employees of Inghams Enterprises kicking and stomping on turkeys. The footage was aired on Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and lead to an employee being charged with three counts of animal torture. Although the charges were later dropped due to a lack of evidence, the footage was critical in showing breaches of animal protection laws. · In June 2013, Pepe’s Ducks, one of Australia’s largest producers of duck meat, was convicted of misleading and deceptive conduct by the Australian Federal Court. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) pursued an action against Pepe’s Ducks under the Australian Consumer Law. This action was pursued shortly after the covert footage aired on the ABC’s 7.30, showing Pepe’s ducks were not in fact raised “open range” or “grown nature’s way” as depicted on marketing material, but were intensively farmed. · In 2012, Animal Liberation NSW footage revealed Wilberforce abattoir just outside Sydney was slaughtering pigs and other animals inhumanely. Wilberforce was fined $5,000 by the NSW Food Authority. The investigation prompted a government review which found animal welfare breaches at every domestic slaughterhouse in NSW, including "incompetency of slaughtering staff" and ineffective stunning. The investigation resulted in the introduction of mandatory animal welfare officers being employed by abattoirs, as well as mandatory welfare training for those who conduct slaughter.