Earlier this month, a vegan animal sanctuary owner in Newfane, New York, was arrested for grand larceny, a felony. The charges against the upstate sanctuary owner are rather unusual: police allege she stole a pair of cows from a neighboring beef farmer.
The controversy began when two cows from a herd owned by farmer Scott Gregson, who owns McKee Farm in Newfane, went missing on July 15.
"I don't understand how they got out because the fence was intact, gates were closed and the [electric fence] charger was working," Gregson told Lancaster Farming.
When Gregson later learned the pair were at the neighbor's animal sanctuary, a half mile down the road, he asked sanctuary owner Tracy Murphy to return them.
"She asked if I had proof I was the owner, then told me to get off her property because I was trespassing," Gregson told USA Today.
"How could anyone expect that we would hand over the animals when we feel we're in our legal right, right now, to hang on to these animals?" asked Asha's Farm Sanctuary owner Murphy, in comments reported by station WIVB last month. "And we're a sanctuary. We don't want to hand over these animals that are going to go into slaughter."
Instead, Murphy offered to buy the cows. Gregson declined. A standoff of sorts ensued.
Police visited Murphy in July, they say, and asked her to return the cows. She did not do so.
As the WIVB report also details, neighbors rallied in support of Gregson—by all reports an exemplary farmer—even protesting outside Asha's Farm Sanctuary. Neighbor Nancy Fawcett told the station that livestock occasionally get loose in farming communities, and to seize that livestock instead of returning the animals to their rightful owner "just didn't make any sense, that's not what you do."
"Nothing against [Murphy], what she does, her business, and what she chooses to do for the good of injured and helping other animals," said another neighbor, Laurie Andrews-Skinner. "But in this case, she's stolen two cows and she needs to give them back to the rightful owner."
"The message was simple," said local farmer Ed Pettitt Sr., who organized a protest outside Asha's in support of Gregson. "It was: Do not steal [or] violate the livestock rights of our farmers. The other side tried to make it about eating meat, veganism, that's not what the issue is."
Police agreed. Earlier this month, they returned to Asha's Farm Sanctuary, arrested Murphy on charges of felony grand larceny, seized the cows, and returned them to Gregson.
Murphy will fight the charges. "From my standpoint, now that she has been charged, the fight is just beginning, but we intend to vindicate her rights in every court imaginable," Murphy's attorney, Matthew Albert, said earlier this month.
Domesticated pets such as dogs and livestock such as cows are considered property under the law.
"These cattle belong to the farmer and everyone involved knows that, so there's no legal right not to return them," explained Brook Duer, an experienced agricultural lawyer in Pennsylvania, in comments she made to Lancaster Farming on the Newfane controversy. "I never heard of anything like this with livestock." Duer also suggested "finders keepers" is not a legal theory that applies in this case.
The mission of Asha's Farm Sanctuary is a typical one for such facilities: "to end animal abuse through direct rescue and rehabilitation." While many animal sanctuaries are undoubtedly run by people who care deeply about those animals, many stories have emerged over the years that show they sometimes can't or don't care for the animals they care about. In 2020, for example, The Washington Post reported on a criminal investigation into the founder of Earth Animal Sanctuary in Illinois, who was charged with aggravated animal cruelty after hundreds of animal carcasses—some still rotting—were found dumped in bags on the property.
More recently, in May, the owner of a New Jersey animal sanctuary, Rooster's Rescue Foundation, was charged with animal cruelty after investigators found dozens of "neglected" animals at the sanctuary. Just last month, officers in Mayfield, New York, a few hours west of Newfane, seized dozens of animals from an animal sanctuary owner who, they allege, kept dogs, rabbits, goats, and other animals in "filthy, uninhabitable conditions."
Property rights exist first and foremost to protect property owners. And animals are property.
If the tables were turned here—if a pair of Murphy's animals had gotten loose from her sanctuary and ended up on Gregson's farm—those animals would still be Murphy's property. Not Gregson's. And I'd have written a column in support of Murphy.