In Niagara County, New York, sanctuary founder Tracy Murphy found two cows wandering on the road outside Asha’s Farm Sanctuary which she runs. She took them to her sanctuary and notified the local SPCA. For two weeks, Murphy took care of the cows before a farmer claimed them as his property and demanded them back. Concerned for the animals’ safety, she refused to return them and offered to work out an arrangement so the cows could remain at the sanctuary. She has been to auction houses and has seen how the animals there are treated and how frightened they are. She was also concerned that the cows would be killed at a young age like the other animals kept on farms.
After admitting that he hadn’t noticed the cows were missing for more than a week, the farmer garnered sympathy for himself by saying that his children had named the cows and enjoyed seeing them and feeding them. Supporters of the farmer demonstrated outside the sanctuary and made it difficult for visitors and volunteers to enter the sanctuary. They held up signs that said “Release the Beef,” threw dead animals on the property, and made death threats that have circulated on Twitter. The farmer did not endorse any particular actions but said that he welcomes the attention to the “struggles that farmers face.”
A few days later, Murphy was jailed on charges of grand larceny (theft) because the cows are the property of someone else. She was charged with the theft of over $3,000 worth of goods – that’s referring to the cows – which is a felony with a maximum prison sentence of seven years. In response to questioning, she simply said that she saw two cows who needed help and she helped them.
Following Murphy’s arrest, an article about the case stated that the farmer’s “family was reunited with their two cows after over three weeks.” The farmer said, “We’re keeping the cows at a secure location. We’re worried about their safety and my family’s safety.”
Despite his expressed concern for the cows and his delight at being reunited with them, the farmer said that he was willing to sell them if someone wanted to buy their freedom.
It’s worth noting how the farmer and his supporters in the media framed this, as can be seen in the articles linked below. They described Tracy Murphy’s actions as threatening to their way of life, as harming their family, as interfering with their work, and as stealing their property. These are all powerful narratives in the United States that are invoked in response to arguments based on fairness and common sense. The legal argument was sufficient to make the farmer’s case if all they wanted was the return of the cows. The fact that they tied it in to those other narratives is tacit acknowledgment that the moral issues surrounding the case are important ones. What is at stake in a case like this is not only a farmer’s property rights over cows. It’s also his reputation and the reputation of the industry he supports.
Just as the farmer attempted to support his legal case with moral claims, Murphy and her lawyer bolstered their moral case with certain legal claims, saying that the farmer did not prove his ownership of the animals, and that she was not legally required to return the cows to the farmer because he hadn’t paid the sanctuary for their room and board. These arguments strengthen her case legally, but her concern for the animals’ wellbeing is sufficient to make her case morally.
Tracy Murphy was released from jail a few days ago without bail but there is a gag order in place preventing her from speaking about the case. It is unlikely that she will face serious charges, because that would bring a lot of attention to the case and, likely, a lot of sympathy for her side of the story.
To read two startlingly speciesist accounts of the events, see the following articles from the local newspaper in the rural area where they live:
Hallikaar, V. (2022) “Sanctuary seekers or stolen property? Cows cause controversy in Niagara County”, Spectrum News 1, Jul. 28 [accessed on 6 August 2022].
Hallikaar, V. (2022) “Police: Animal sanctuary owner charged for not returning cows to Niagara County farm”, Spectrum News 1, Aug. 02 [accessed on 6 August 2022].