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Report gives Rosebud hog farm bad marks

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WHITE RIVER, S.D. - Since the enormous hog farm on the Rosebud reservation was conceived it has drawn both criticism and praise, lawsuits, an exchange of accusations about contract disputes and raised the ire of locals. Now a national animal rights organization has created a scathing report on the operation.

The Humane Farming Association has asked the South Dakota Attorney General to prosecute the operators of the farm, Bell Farms Inc. of Wahpeton, N.D. and Sun Prairie Farms of Nebraska.

The association stated in a report that employees, videotaped documents and photographs point to a systematic violation of the state's animal cruelty laws.

"This blatant criminal activity by Sun Prairie merits prosecution by your office," the association stated in a letter to the attorney general.

"Evidence obtained during HFA's investigation reveals an abysmal and shocking failure on the part of Sun Prairie to provide even a modicum of care of pigs," the report stated.

The hog farm has created a political pot boiler for two past Rosebud administrations and the new administration will have to deal with the problem differently. The most recent administration headed by President William Kindle was elected, and most council members were elected on an anti-hog farm platform. The previous administration approved the hog farm.

Newly-elected President Charlie Colombe, who took office in November 2003, said he appointed a task force to look into the hog operation and bring the results to the council by the first of the year. The task force consists of Vice President Harold Wilson, tribal president when the contracts for the farm were signed, and two opponents of the hog farm.

Colombe said the tribe had not seen the Humane Farming Association's report, and had no comment.

Controversy has hovered around the development of the massive hog farm operation, since its beginning and allegations of environmental problems were proven wrong, but the disagreement continues.

Bell Farms, Inc. of Wahpeton, N.D. owns the facilities, which are operated by Sun Prairie Farms of Nebraska. CEO of Bell Farms Greg Fontaine, said it was unfortunate that people outside the tribe tried to continue the controversy.

"It's for the Rosebud people to decide. The controversy has not been helpful and the operation could be more successful if it weren't for the controversy," he said.

"They keep the controversy going as a fund-raising tool. I won't continue to fight with them. They have trespassed on the property, stolen files, but to take action against them would advance their fund-raising efforts," he said.

Calls to the Humane Farming Association located in San Francisco were not returned.

Fontaine, although he had only heard allegations in the report from reporters and had not seen the report, said it was a media campaign by the association.

"I asked the outside veterinarian, the site manager and production manager if any of the allegations were true and they all said (the report) was factually inaccurate.

"I asked the manager if anyone with a camera had come into the facility and he said no. I need proof to show the photos came from our farm."

The report also showed explicit photos of animals in various stages of injury, tails eaten off, dying and dead animals.

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Fontaine said there is no reason for severe cannibalism as the report alleges. He said that ill animals are put in separate locations and then sent to market as underweight animals.

Allegations that sick and weak hogs are picked out and thrown in the aisle to die or be killed is not true. Fontaine said the aisles at the facility are narrow and if the animals were in the aisle it would mean employees couldn't do their job.

"Some animals die. They are pulled out, put in a refrigerator and removed a couple times a week," Fontaine said.

The report stated that some animals were killed by striking their heads on the cement floor, and by using hammers to kill some ill and weak animals. Fontaine said the directive from the company is to not use such means against animals.

The report stated that employees told the investigator there was not training for euthanasia. "As a routine we would not be killing animals," Fontaine said.

The association's allegations listed infrequent veterinary visits, overcrowding of the 48 barns that are in use, no down time for cleaning barns after hogs were sent to market and poor ventilation and failure to maintain adequate temperatures in barns.

Many of the allegations he has heard about from the media came from "pre-packaged affidavits from other farms. I have seen them in other incidents," Fontaine said.

Fontaine was Bell Farms' attorney before he was appointed as CEO in April. He litigated the law suits against the Rosebud Tribe.

According to Fontaine some employees reported they were offered money to say certain things. In the report employees were quoted, but no names were given.

"I want someone to ask them (Human Farming Association) what they are doing to improve life on Rosebud, what are they doing?" Fontaine said.

Bell Farms and Sun Prairie employ 35 to 50 employees who work at the 48 barns just west of White River. The capacity for the barns is 96,000 hogs per year.

The first year the operation showed a profit and the tribe was given a check for $12,000, it was never cashed, but torn up. The farm has not shown a profit after that first and partial year of operation. The original contract was signed in 1998.

"I would make a lease payment to the tribe, but I've gotten no response. I am prepared to talk about a flat fee," Fontaine said.

Colombe said he was in a unique position since he inherited the hog farm issue.

He said the new task force will find out where the tribe is in relationship to the farms. "We want to look at both sides of the issue, to weight the pros and cons. We will give anyone an opportunity to tell their side of the story."

Colombe said that two concerns, a former waste dump proposal that didn't materialize, and the hog farm have been a drain on the tribal resources.

Meanwhile, there are lawsuits to be considered. Earlier in the year the tribe asked the BIA to shut the hog operation down. Bell Farms followed with a lawsuit that asked for an injunction to that request, it was denied by the U.S. District Court. Also Sun Prairie filed a motion that would require the tribe to pay restitution if the farms were shut down.