Idaho dairy worker pleads guilty to animal cruelty

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — A former employee at a south-central Idaho dairy has pleaded guilty to misdemeanor animal abuse after an undercover video shot by an animal rights group showed workers stomping, dragging and beating cows inside a milking barn.

The Times-News reported that Jesus Garza, 25, pleaded guilty Wednesday in 5th District Court. A jury was being selected when Garza entered the plea.

Two other former workers seen in the video shot at Bettencourt Dairies’ Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen, Javier Victor Rojas-Loayza and Jose Acensio, both have warrants out for their arrest on animal cruelty charges.

The video was shot using a hidden camera by a member of Mercy for Animals who got a job at Dry Creek Dairy for a few weeks last summer. Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs said he filed misdemeanor animal cruelty charges in late August after an investigation that was prompted by the video.

“We believe that this guilty plea sends a strong message to the dairy industry that animal abuse will not be tolerated,” said Matt Rice, director of investigations for Mercy for Animals.

The video shows workers at the dairy beating cows with a pink cane as the animals slipped and slid on the wet concrete floor; workers kicking and stomping cows that had fallen between the metal bars in the milking stalls; and a cow being dragged out of the barn by a chain around her neck as she lies on the concrete floor.

Dairy owner Luis Bettencourt, who has 13 facilities and about 60,000 milk cows, said last fall that he fired five workers after seeing the video and installed video cameras throughout his facilities. He also had employees sign a contract stating actions seen in the video weren’t acceptable.

“Unfortunately, it’s too little too late,” Rice said Wednesday. “Bettencourt allowed a culture of cruelty and neglect to flourish for far too long. It was only after Mercy investigated and documented a longstanding pattern of abuse that the dairy farm was forced into taking corrective action.”

Bettencourt didn’t return a call from The Associated Press.

Bob Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said that since the video surfaced, dairy employers have changed their hiring protocol.

“We’ve done some training with the vetting process in the past but we’re seeing stronger background checks since then,” said Naerebout. “Part of that was designing employee contracts that outline what practices were not going to be tolerated.”

He also said the association has partnered with the University of Idaho’s extension office to start an animal care practices certification program for potential employees.

Tony Vanderhulst, another dairy producer, said there has been greater pressure to get that program started since the video came out.

“It was an eye-opener that they’re (animal abusers) out there and it’s real,” he said. “It’s not tolerated, though.”

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