Standing in the Gap: Extremists, legislation, and Netflix
Scot Dutcher is standing in the gap between solid investigations of legitimate animal mistreatment and those that are misguided. As a former staffer at the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Protection, Dutcher was involved in cases involving alleged livestock mistreatment.
After 15 years assisting law enforcement in various cases, he has a deep understanding of the state’s animal care statutes as well as the criminal and civil animal neglect statutes.
He has created AgNav Consulting to work with law enforcement agencies investigating livestock neglect, to provide training to law enforcement and key farm and ranch employees. Training topics run the gamut from recognizing and determining an animal’s body condition score to basic animal nutrition, to humane euthanasia. Providing training to law enforcement to identify which allegations are legitimate is key, and training regarding the necessary evidence in a legitimate investigation help both producers facing bogus charges and law enforcement faced with differentiating between the two.
Covert surveillance, the term he prefers when referring to the undercover videos filmed on operations by activists, ought not be confused with investigations. Dutcher said groups filming are doing so to advance their agenda and he has tips and advice for managers and owners facing this threat.
On-farm assessments are a service Dutcher can provide, offering feedback to owners or managers regarding the placement of no trespassing signage, gates, and things, like sick pens, for example, that would be better located out of sight from a public road. Making simple changes to avoid being a target of extremists can be an effective first step for many operations, especially in Colorado, a state he said is second perhaps only to California in the number of active animal rights extremists and activists.
When hiring employees, Dutcher said a simple Google search can provide a look into any connections or interactions an individual could have to animal rights groups, especially on social media. If no data appears at all, that could also be a red flag.
From a legislation standpoint, Colorado Senate bill 20-104 is one that a number of groups have monitored closely. According to the summary, the bill grants additional duties and powers to bureau of animal protection agents, including the authority to conduct investigations; to take possession of and impound any animal that the agent has probable cause to believe is a victim of cruelty to animals. The bill is currently under consideration and is in limbo with the current Senate recess. In Colorado, Bureau of Animal Protection agencies are non-profit, employees of such groups as the Colorado Humane Society, SPCA, and the Larimer Humane Society.
Dutcher is strongly opposed to any bill that grants criminal authority powers to non-profits.
“I understand why they’re in favor of it, but it is not going to do agriculture any favors,” he said. “It gives non-profits criminal authority.”
Morgan County Sheriff Dave Martin said in a previous interview that he supports the bill because his department doesn’t have the trailers and equipment necessary to impound or transport animals to rescues or sale barns, as is often necessary. Dutcher said that is where he can serve law enforcement with transport assistance and ensuring that the claims are legitimate, and the investigation gathers important evidence.
“That’s what I’m here for, to assist the sheriff’s departments doing the investigations, where the criminal authority is and should remain,” he said.
No other non-profits in the state, he said, have that type of authority, especially to impound an animal to potentially gain monetarily from the seizure. It is, he said, a clear conflict of interest.
In the court system, Dutcher can serve as an expert witness either for the prosecution in legitimate animal neglect or mistreatment cases (he avoids the term cruelty as it is not clearly defined in statute) or assist the defense in a case that is not legitimate to avoid wrongful prosecution.
“It’s so important that we, to the extent that we can, stick up for and stand behind good agricultural producers,” he said. “There are so many challenges facing agriculture right now and it seems like all the additional regulations and animal care challenges fall to the producer and he is the least capable of passing those increased production costs on to the consumer because the market determines what he gets for his product.”
Misplaced authority, conflicts of interest, legislation pushed by extremist groups, and animal welfare are all the made-for-the-big-screen subjects of The Stand at Paxton County, currently streaming on Netflix. Trent Loos, a Nebraska rancher and radio host appears in the film. The film is inspired by the story of longtime North Dakota rancher Gary Dassinger.
According to Protect the Harvest, Forrest Films produced The Stand at Paxton County to tell the important story that serves as a warning to ranchers. Dassinger, who raised Quarter Horses for over 40 years, faced the seizure and sale of his animals, criminal charges, and a 20-year prison sentence in 2017 for what essentially amounted to false claims.
Measure 5, an initiated state statute was defeated by North Dakota voters, but an amended version became law in 2013. Law enforcement trained by the Humane Society of the United States on the enforcement of the law, seized livestock based on the behavior and claims of a disgruntled employee.
Loos said he dug into the case several years ago after a call from a neighbor of Dassinger’s in Stark County, North Dakota.
“I did dig into it and I found out the sheriff and the local veterinarian, who had an ax to grind against Gary Dassinger for an old issue, were trying to make an example of him as an animal abuser,” Loos said.
The first time Loos said he heard of a similar situation was in Colorado when a producer from the Western Slope stopped him after he spoke to an ag group. The producer was pulling a calf from a heifer in a pasture near the road. Loos said the producer was using OB chains and hooks, commonplace for assisting in a calving.
“All of a sudden a deputy sheriff pulls up there with siren blaring, lights on, and pulls his weapon and asks this rancher to get away from that animal,” he said. “There had been a report that there was some sort of suspicious activity taking place and the deputy was so ignorant when he arrived and saw a rancher pulling a calf, he drew his weapon and asked him to get away from the animal.”
Loos said it sounds absurd, but it falls into what he said Dassinger fell victim to, which is the Open Fields Doctrine. The Open Fields Doctrine allows search and seizure without a warrant in areas like pastures, wooded areas, open water and vacant lots despite the presence of no trespassing signage, fences or gates. Though some states have rejected the law, many maintain that the Fourth Amendment does not protect such areas. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 768-0024.
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