Rancher’s fate rests with judge in cattle starvation case

A complicated family feud over an inheritance has left the courts to decide 
whether cattle were deliberately starved

Arancher accused of deliberately starving cattle to death over an inheritance feud has pleaded to 13 offences under the Animal Care Act.

With tears welling up in his eyes, Thomas Jeffery McLean, 49, told provincial court Judge Mary Kate Harvie last week he was “ashamed” of his actions. Harvie delayed sentencing, seeking time to consider additional submissions.

The 49-year-old former rancher could face fines in excess of $100,000 and a lifetime ban on owning or caring for animals after causing the starvation deaths of 67 cattle. Another 50 cows and two bulls seized from property in the Rural Municipality of Louise in the spring of 2011 were so emaciated, they received a body condition score of a mere 1.6 (on a scale of one to nine) when they were transferred to the Killarney Auction Mart.

Animal welfare officers were first called in after McLean’s brother complained to the Chief Veterinarian’s office. Prosecutor Shaun Sass told Harvie that the Crown believes McLean deliberately stopped caring for the herd after learning his brother would inherit much of the farm he had expected to get following his mother’s death.

“He did everything to try and devalue the herd because of the ongoing estate issues,” said Sass. “This was an attempt, through his negligence, to make sure whomever, however the estate was divided, ends up getting nothing from it.”

He noted that rather than compost the dead animals or call a deadstock removal company, McLean stored many carcasses in a large garage on the property.

“It is not proper to put cattle on a concrete floor in a roofed building, on and around tractors and machinery,” Sass said. “These animals were placed here intentionally, and that furthers the concern that Mr. McLean was doing this on purpose to try to devalue the estate.”

Necropsies and examinations by veterinarians confirmed most of the animals died after months of starvation, although one heifer died slowly during an unassisted labour and was found left as she died with the dead calf still half wedged in the birth canal.

Other calves were born to starving mothers, left too weak to stand and nurse, or in pens so clogged with mud they couldn’t reach their mothers for nourishment, leaving them to die of exposure.

McLean countered his actions weren’t those of a man determined to settle a score, but rather those of a desperate individual whose resources had been depleted by two years of legal wrangling over his mother’s estate.

“Too proud to ask for help — too stupid some might say,” McLean told judge Harvie.

Defence lawyer Gavin Wood said McLean, who had cared for the herd since 1987, stored the carcasses in the garage to avoid being shamed in the eyes of his southwestern Manitoba community.

“He’s got a pride here that has led to this situation,” said Wood.

He also described some of McLean’s behaviour as “puzzling” and said he believes he was suffering from depression at the time. He said another factor was the loss of control of 90 acres of alfalfa to his brother in early August 2010, who then applied Roundup to the fields.

“Over the course of the winter of 2010, 2011, Mr. McLean gradually ran out of foodstuffs for the cattle,” said Wood.

The desiccation of the alfalfa fields followed complicated legal proceedings that saw McLean’s brother become the sole executor of their mother’s estate and McLean lose his right to live in the family home.

A portion of the herd was also determined to belong to the brother. But because McLean still owned a substantial portion of the herd, it wasn’t in his interest to neglect the cattle, Wood said. He said the inheritance dispute also meant McLean could not sell off any adult animals to reduce feed requirements.

Sass said McLean could have called on provincial agriculture officials for assistance in feeding the animals if he could no longer afford hay.

Whether or not McLean intended to use the deaths of the animals to lower the value of the estate will now be central to sentencing.

According to justice officials, this will be the first major case to be sentenced since 2010 amendments to the Animal Care Act that increased potential fines and jail terms. Among the 13 charges are failure to provide adequate care, providing inadequate medical attention, and confining animals where there is risk.

If the case had gone to trial, prosecutors had intended to seek jail time.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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