Video leaves question: Animal cruelty or industry standard?

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Video clips shot by an animal rights activist who infiltrated a large duck farm west of Petaluma show fuzzy, yellow-feathered ducks. The footage zooms in on some with leg and wing injuries. Others hang upside-down on the way to be plucked.

A worker grabs a handful of ducklings and holds them up to a device that sears off the sharp point of each duck’s bill, a trimming process regularly done to prevent pecking injuries.

The scenes purportedly shot at Reichardt Duck Farm could be viewed as routine or ominous, depending on the point of view. The animal rights group that sent a member to clandestinely take video at the Middle Two Rock Road ranch claims some of the footage shows ducks with insufficient or no access to food or water, in violation of state law.

John Reichardt, the farm’s owner, did not return calls Wednesday or Thursday seeking comment, but investigators for the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said they found no evidence of mistreatment at the farm during a visit Wednesday.

“We went looking for violations of the law with subject-matter experts and they didn’t find anything,” Sgt. Cecile Focha said.

They came to that conclusion after spending several hours Wednesday touring barns that held ducks — from eggs to hatchlings to birds — taking photographs and interviewing staff. Investigators found no violations of California animal cruelty laws, sheriff’s officials said.

They will send their findings, along with reports by a Petaluma veterinarian and a veterinarian provided by the animal rights group, to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office for review.

However, representatives with Los Angeles-based Mercy for Animals, which opposes the raising of animals for food, disagree with the Sheriff’s Office findings and said conditions at the ranch are cruel. They contend ducks that are too ill or injured to access food or water should be rehabilitated. Common industry practice is to euthanize them.

“We’d like to see criminal charges filed; we’d like to see improvements made,” said Matt Rice, the group’s director of investigations.

Rice addressed a small group of reporters at a downtown San Francisco hotel Thursday after showing the scenes filmed by a member of his organization who got a job at the farm west of Petaluma in July. The film was titled “Ducks in Distress” and sinister music played in the background.

The woman, who was not identified, spent five weeks power-washing barns and making regular morning inspections of the facilities for dead or injured birds. At the end of each day she shared the footage with staff at the animal rights charity and about six weeks ago the group brought the footage to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.

Armaiti May, a Los Angeles-based veterinarian who participated in Wednesday’s tour of the Reichardt ranch at the behest of Mercy for Animals, said Thursday what she saw there constitutes animal abuse.

“It’s very disheartening to say there is no problem, when I saw birds who were suffering, who were starving to death because they were unable to get to their food,” she said.

However Petaluma veterinarian Dave Rupiper, who also participated in the tour, said he observed a clean and well-run production ranch for raising duck for food. Rupiper said he went over a detailed checklist of conditions and reviewed birds at all stages. He also interviewed personnel. He said Armaiti and the other animal specialist connected to the nonprofit group appeared to have an agenda.

At some point, the veterinarian and another woman tried to take several injured ducks from the facility, Lt. Steve Brown said. Sheriff’s deputies prevented them because they were brought on a fact-finding mission and the ducks belonged to the Reichardt family.

Rice said he believes some of the images on the video represent standard industry practice but that he feels those practices are wrong. He added that the group also documented what they believe were ducks injured or stuck in mesh flooring and unable to access food and water, potential violations of state animal welfare laws.

The Reichardt ranch has operated for more than a century on Middle Two Rock Road. The family business has about 200,000 ducks and is a main duck purveyor for Chinese markets and restaurants in the Bay Area.

At the news conference Thursday, Rice pointed to beak trimming as evidence that factory farming is inherently cruel and painful. The practice is standard in the industry as a way to prevent the birds from pecking and injuring each other. Rice said farmers should instead give the birds more space. He said he hoped California’s animal cruelty laws will be strengthened at some point to prohibit the practice.

Joy Mench, director of the center for animal welfare at UC Davis, studied several methods of bill trimming in Pekin ducks, the kind raised at the Reichardt farm. Mench’s research measured pain and effects in birds with the aim of recommending practices most humane for the animals.

Mench said the practice of bill trimming is “routine” and current methods may leave a bird’s bill tender for about a week. The best methods trim early in the duck’s life and only remove a sharp part at the end of the bill and not more, leaving the bird with the ability to eat and drink, she said.

More space probably wouldn’t solve the problem of pecking, Mench said. Pecking is a complex behavior and despite years of scientific research, people haven’t figured out how to prevent it. Until then, the recommendation is to prevent injury, she said.

“It’s related to space, diet, lighting, maybe even genetics,” Mench said. “But I can tell you people who have backyard birds with birds running around outside in the yard in a small group sometimes have pecking problems, too.”

Mench said that some illness, injury and death is a factor with commercial poultry production that is inevitable and can be minimized.

“You need to make sure you go through that barn and take those lame birds and euthanize them,” Mench said. “If they can’t get to the food and water they need to be euthanized as soon as possible.”

There are no federal or state regulatory bodies with oversight over farm production practices. The federal government oversees livestock slaughter but not poultry, according to Mench.

The woman who spent five weeks at the farm, who declined to give her name, said by phone that this was the fourth undercover investigation she has done with Mercy for Animals. The 28-year-old woman said she has just once been found out by a company, although that did not happen at Reichardt Duck Farm and she quit once she had gathered enough footage.

On a typical morning inspection, the woman said she found 15 to 20 dead ducks in a barn. Barns each have 36 sections housing about 400 ducks. There were about 30 barns, including some under construction, she said. She would remove dead animals and take note of injured or sick animals for ranch staff.

But the woman said that she felt there was not proper attention to the wounded and sick animals.

A vegan for seven years who devoted months out of the past year on similar investigations, the woman said that she ultimately does not believe there is a humane way to raise animals for food production.

“They’re not living out their healthy life; they’re living in unhealthy, unnatural conditions,” the woman said. “On a large scale, I’m not sure it’s possible to do that in a humane way.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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