“Rustling is still a hanging offense.” ––Judge Adam Fenton, Hang ’em High!
NEWFANE, New York––The New York State Bureau of Criminal Investigation on August 2, 2022 arrested Asha’s Farm Sanctuary founder Tracy A. Murphy, 59, for third degree felony grand larceny, specifically the alleged theft of two cattle, a cow and a steer, from the nearby McKee Beef Farm.
Explained New York State Police Major Eugene J. Staniszewski, commander of Lockport Troop A, “On July 25, 2022, troopers out of Lockport responded to Asha’s Farm Sanctuary in the town of Newfane for a property retrieval of cows with the SPCA and the owner of the cows.
“The cows were returned to the owner”
“Murphy refused to return the cows to the owner. The Bureau of Criminal Investigation collaborated with the Niagara County SPCA, Niagara County District Attorney’s Office and the Town of Newfane Offices, resulting in a warrant execution to retrieve the cows.
“The cows were located and returned to the owner,” who is retired New York State Trooper Scott Gregson, proprietor of the McKee Beef Farm.
“Murphy was remanded to the Niagara County Jail,” pending arraignment, Staniszewski finished.
Posted the McKee Beef Farm to Facebook, “Our cattle were returned to our farm this morning, and have since been taken to a secure location. This is only the beginning of this story. Now the next chapter will start. This is about agriculture across the country and the right to farm.
“This is not us against vegans or animal sanctuaries,” the McKee Beef Farm posting qualified. “We believe you have the right to live as you choose, and we have the same rights to live as we choose.”
Bet the sanctuary
Murphy and supporters appear to have bet the farm, or Asha’s Farm Sanctuary anyhow, that they could rally sufficient public support, including donations, to persuade the McKee Beef Farm to surrender the cow and steer to the sanctuary, against local community opinion and the local influence of agribusiness.
Murphy and friends did manage to win nationwide publicity. But when media converged on Asha’s Farm Sanctuary, reporters did what reporters do, asking questions of all parties, and as they did, Murphy’s version of events tended to disintegrate.
A television interview that Murphy conducted while rats ran back and forth, visiting a water bowl and food dish behind her, did not exactly bolster her image as a responsible sanctuarian, even among people who appreciate the intelligence, adaptability, and right to life of rats in appropriate places.
Email by supporter brought national spotlight
The Asha’s Sanctuary vs. McKee Beef Farm went national after Lois Baum, an Asha’s Sanctuary backer since 2014, on July 30, 2022, at 7:31 a.m., widely distributed an email detailing Murphy’s side of the events underway.
“Tracy Murphy quit her lucrative job and founded Asha’s Farm Sanctuary in 2012,” Baum began. “It’s on 25+ acres behind her little house on a country road. She has 50 rescues, only volunteer help, and relies solely on donations.”
Those donations, according to IRS Form 990, totaled $1.4 million from 2015 through 2019. Murphy paid herself $77,193 in 2019. More recent Form 990 filings are not available.
“God made her do it”
According to a July 19, 2015 profile of Murphy by Teresa Sharp of the Buffalo News, “Murphy credits God with guiding her decision to leave the corporate world behind after nearly three decades of success in banking and to ‘take a leap of faith’ to found the sanctuary in January 2013.
“This followed her establishing the Buffalo Vegetarian Society, now the Buffalo Vegan Society, in 2007 after learning about the common abuses of animals in factory farming,” Sharp recounted. “The Buffalo Vegan Society, with about 500 members, is now an outreach program of Asha’s Sanctuary.”
Explained Murphy, “I was with HSBC for 27 years and had just finished my master’s degree in leadership from Duquesne University. I was assistant vice president for operational performance improvement and owned a home in Cheektowaga. I was working full time at HSBC and started Asha’s Sanctuary and, out of the blue, an anonymous foundation came to me and said, ‘What can we do so that you can do this (sanctuary work) full time?’ There was no way I could afford to do it on my own, but they made it possible.”
$50,000 vet bill
Through 10 years, Baum resumed, “Tracy has connected nicely with local businesses. No problems.
“In spring 2022” Baum said, “some animals needed emergency procedures or surgeries at Cornell. The vet bill came to $50,000. She pleaded for donations, and as she is so well-loved, got $40,000 from donors by May. But the locals who don’t understand nonprofits or sanctuaries doubted her and began slamming her around town regarding her fundraising efforts.”
Maybe. But ANIMALS 24-7 has more than five decades of experience reporting about nonprofits and sanctuaries, including sanctuaries for farmed animals in upstate New York.
Normally, if animals of farmed species housed at a sanctuary need help, a veterinarian experienced with those species comes from nearby; a sick or injured animal is not transported 150 miles to Cornell University.
Further, if animals suffer illness or injury so severe as to require $50,000 worth of veterinary care, the appropriate veterinary decision––even for a multi-million-dollar racehorse or stud bull––is euthanasia.
“Two calves suddenly appeared”
On July 16, continued Baum, “for the first time in the 10 years Asha’s has been there, two calves suddenly appeared on her property. Immediately, Tracy safely penned them, and promptly reported them to the authorities. One whole week later, some farmer from nearby McKee Beef Farm called her claiming they were his.
“Meanwhile, Tracy’s pro bono attorney advised her not to turn over the cows to anyone without proof, putting a lien on them.”
Note that the two cattle in question are a full-sized adult black Angus and a full-sized adult red Angus, not calves.
On July 26, Baum said, “same farmer [Gregson] drove into Tracy’s driveway with his cow hauler, his State Trooper buddy, his wife and two little kids––and no warrant. Tracy stood her ground, all alone, and got them to leave.”
A warrant would normally not be needed for an uncontested return of property, as cattle are legally defined, but Murphy, in demanding a warrant and having a lien put on the cattle, asserted a conflicting claim of ownership.
“Only five” volunteers
Claimed Baum, “By dinner time, signs were up all over town,” with “protests directly in front of her house/sanctuary. And it’s getting bigger and meaner. Signs include ‘Return calves to 4H family’ and ‘Tracy stole the calves’ and ‘Tracy removed the ear tags.’
“Most all of Tracy’s volunteers immediately stopped coming out of fear,” Baum alleged. “Only five showed up last evening!!!”
Five volunteers to attend 50 animals who live mostly outdoors, the majority apparently poultry, would be a small army.
“And after they leave,” Baum said, “Tracy remains alone in her house, now tending to all the animals on her own, except one volunteer who came for an hour-plus.”
That would reduce the Asha’s Farm Sanctuary staffing level to about normal for either a farm or a sanctuary with a comparable number of farmed animals.
(Incidentally, the editors of ANIMALS 24-7 both have extensive experience looking after cattle, sheep, and other hoofed animals, including in sanctuary care.)
Said Baum, “The way I see it, this is a planned prank turned publicity stunt by McKee Beef Farm, to bring down that truth-telling educator at Asha’s Sanctuary,” who appears to have presented no direct threat to either the $100 billion U.S. beef industry or the McKee Beef Farm’s tiny shore of it, “and then advertise poor victim McKee Beef Farm,” which is more-or-less what happened after Murphy refused to return the two cows.
“Also, as I see it,” Baum charged, “before slipping his two cute calves [who were not actually calves] onto sanctuary property one dark night, ear tags were conveniently removed so the farmer couldn’t be traced, and then to make it look like Tracy removed them.”
Does it make sense to anyone that a person trying to accuse someone else of possessing stolen property would remove the very evidence of the property having allegedly been stolen?
Murphy, said Baum, “has offered to the farmer [Gregson] to buy them above cost, if farmer would ever show proof they were his. He has yet to comply.”
“Afraid that they were going to run into the woods”
Local news media had already been investigating the situation for several days by then.
Murphy on July 28, 2022 told Victoria Hallikaar of Niagara County Spectrum Local News that, “These cows actually wandered onto the property of Asha’s Farm Sanctuary. I was extremely afraid that they were going to run into the woods and they would be lost forever and get injured.”
But even if the cattle had run into the woods, Google Earth shows that the thickest woods between the McKee Beef Farm and Asha’s Farm Sanctuary are only 500 feet across, most of the territory consists of open pasture, and the deepest woods abutting either property run maybe 1,500 feet lengthwise.
And how would Murphy have responded if some of the Asha’s Farm Sanctuary animals had meandered over to the McKee Beef Farm?
“Can’t find any breaks in the fence line”
Murphy renamed the cattle Ishmael and Little Willow, the latter after Willow, an older cow already at Asha’s Farm Sanctuary.
Six tenths of a mile away by road, just around the corner, “Scott Gregson knows them as Blackie and Hornee, two beef cows named by his two kids,” wrote Hallikaar. “Worth noting, while his children do participate in 4-H, these are not 4-H cows.
“But on July 16, the cows were gone.
“I can’t find any breaks in the fence line,” Gregson told Hallikaar. “The gates were all closed and the electric fence was on. I don’t know how they got out,” Gregson said.
Continued Hallikaar, “Murphy called law enforcement when she found the cows.”
Called the Niagara County SPCA
Confirmed Jacob Fries of the Lockport Journal, “Niagara County SPCA executive director Amy Lewis said Murphy asked her agency for help in determining who owned the animals. The SPCA is no longer involved in the case. Lewis said the agency deals primarily with animal cruelty, not ownership disputes.”
Resumed Hallikaar, “Around two weeks after they went missing, the SPCA got in touch with Gregson and he got in touch with Murphy.”
But Murphy balked at returning the cattle.
“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 them?” Murphy rhetorically asked WIVB reporter Sarah Minkewicz.
“And we’re a sanctuary. We don’t want to hand over these animals that are going to go into slaughter,” Murphy said.
A Biblical response to Murphy’s rhetorical question, uttered by a vehement opponent of selling animals for sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple, would be “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Why would a sanctuary release animals to be slaughtered?
“Why do you think a sanctuary would release the animals back to slaughter when they found their way here?” Murphy repeated to Yoselin Person of WKBW.
“We’re willing to waive any boarding [costs], and we’re willing to give them top dollar for these animals,” Murphy told Person.
In subsequent statements, however, Murphy appeared to be willing to “waive” and “pay” only expenses claimed to be equal to the market value of the cattle, estimated at more than $3,000.
Matthew Albert, attorney and founder of the Against All Oddz Animal Alliance in Darien Center, New York, representing Murphy pro bono, told Fries that “Before we can talk about what can be done with these cattle, we need to see proof of ownership. That’s a threshold issue,” Albert emphasized, “and I reiterated numerous times that before I could even conceive of advising my client to give these cattle to this individual, I need to see proof of ownership to make sure that they are going to their rightful owner. I haven’t been shown that.”
Proof of ownership
Continued Fries, “Murphy and Gregson spoke with one another on July 22. They discussed what needed to be done for the cattle to be handed back to Gregson, with Murphy insisting he’d need to show her proof of ownership. Murphy contends that when the cattle first arrived on the property, they ate hay that belonged to the sanctuary and left manure on her driveway. She believes she deserves compensation for damages and boarding costs.”
The proof of ownership issue should have been easily resolved, even if the cows lacked ear tags. Gregson might have produced photographs, veterinary receipts, receipts for purchase of the cows from whoever bred them, or perhaps brand marks, though cattle with ear tags are usually not branded.
Even in absence of any of that sort of evidence, though, Murphy in calling the Niagara County SPCA had already acknowledged that the cows were not hers, and no one else, in the two weeks they were missing, had claimed them.
Manure on the driveway
That the cattle allegedly left manure on the Asha’s Farm Sanctuary driveway raised a further question. Cattle usually walk cross-country. By far the shortest and most logical way for the cattle to have reached Asha’s Farm Sanctuary was for them to walk through or step over a fence.
Cattle do not normally cross countryside from one property adjoining another by going the long way around, on more than half a mile of paved road, followed by a long driveway.
“On July 25,” Fries wrote, partially confirming Baum’s account, “Gregson visited the animal sanctuary with members of his family and state troopers and asked for the cattle to be returned to him.
“Murphy refused on the grounds that the police would need a warrant,” Fries recounted, echoing Baum, “and that Gregson would need to have documentation proving that he is the rightful owner of the cattle. She then asked them to leave. To date, Gregson has not provided any proof of ownership.”
Wrote Hallikaar, “When Spectrum News 1 asked what would be needed to do that, Murphy directed us to her attorney. We also asked if the cows had any tags. She said they didn’t.
“However, two former employees at the sanctuary, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they saw at least one cow with a tag when it got there. Days later, they said the tag was gone. They couldn’t speak to what happened to it.”
Cop followed transport of lookalike cow
As of August 2, 2022, the most recent Asha’s Farm Sanctuary posting to Facebook about the matter alleged that on Saturday, July 30, 2022, Murphy and volunteers loaded the older cow named Willow, a lookalike for the younger cow named Little Willow, aboard a trailer to be transported the 150 miles to Cornell University for unspecified veterinary treatment.
“A state trooper who was staked out at the neighbor across from Asha’s began pursuing the transport trailer with Willow in it. The trooper followed our sweet Willow all the way to Batavia — 40 miles from Asha’s,” the posting said, before segueing into a fundraising pitch.
Whether Willow the elder ever reached Cornell was not mentioned.
There are many precedents involving activists removing animals from private property on either of two pretexts: that the animal was in extremis and would have died without immediate intervention, and/or that the legal owner of the animal had abandoned a claim to the animal as property by discarding the animal.
There appear to be no precedents, however, involving a claim that a healthy animal removed himself or herself to a sanctuary that subsequently claimed ownership.
In the most recent high-profile case in which an activist asserted a defense of urgent necessity, Direct Action Everywhere founder Wayne Hsiung was convicted by jury on felony charges of breaking and entering and larceny for taking a baby goat from the Sospiro Goat Ranch in Pisgah Forest, Transylvania County, North Carolina in June 2018.
Hsiung alleged that the goat was suffering from pneumonia and lice. Hsiung received a suspended sentence plus 24 months on probation.
Dogs Deserve Better founder Tamara Ci Thayne, then known as Tammy Grimes, was in February 2008 sentenced to do 300 hours of community service, in a capacity helping humans rather than animals, and to spend a year on probation, for taking an old and apparently painfully dying dog named Jake from a yard where he was chained outdoors in East Freedom, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2006.
The Central Pennsylvania SPCA and Blair County district attorney Richard Consiglio refused to press a cruelty case against the couple who chained the dog.
Thayne was convicted of theft and receiving stolen property in December 2007. She was ordered to cease posting photos of the dog and selling merchandise bearing images of the dog via the Dogs Deserve Better web site, and to pay the $1,700 cost of her trial, plus additional fees of $1,500.
Thayne, meanwhile, had rehomed the dog to a foster caregiver whose name was never disclosed. The caregiver reported to Thayne that the dog died on March 1, 2007.
Susan E. Costen, a farm manager for the Ithaca, New York branch of Farm Sanctuary, on November 22, 2002 responded to a call about an injured lamb by visiting the property of sheep farmer Rory Miller, in the nearby village of Tyrone. Finding that Miller was not home, Costen entered the barn, found the lamb, and took him to the Cornell University veterinary teaching hospital, where he was euthanized.
Costen was on December 3, 2002 charged with third degree felony burglary. The charge was reduced to misdemeanor criminal trespass on January 27, 2002, because Costen had no prior criminal record.
After Farm Sanctuary cofounder Gene Baur publicized the case in an e-mail alert, Schuyler County district attorney Joseph Fazzary received more than 1,500 messages urging him to drop all charges. Instead, Fazzary pressed the case.
Costen on March 17 plea-bargained a sentence of 100 hours of community service, and was ordered to write Miller a letter of apology, to accompany restitution of $200 to Miller for the lost value of the lamb.
Baur may have anticipated that public opinion would favor Costen from his own experience in 2000, after he rescued two chickens from a trash can on the property of the New Jersey egg producer ISE America. Baur won a rare cruelty conviction against ISE America, which was fined $250 plus court costs.
The ISE America defense attorney sought immunity from prosecution under the New Jersey Right-to-Farm Act, which pertains to waste disposal.
Asked Central Warren Municipal Court Judge Joseph Steinhardt, “Isn’t there a big distinction between manure and live animals?”
Responded the ISE defense, “No, your honor.”
Even had ISE been acquitted, those three words made for Baur the very point that he had hoped to make: factory farmers treat their animals like refuse.
“Open rescue,” as Australian animal advocate Patty Mark named the tactic of removing sick and injured animals from factory farms and then publicizing the cases, appears to have introduced by Animal Liberation Victoria in 1993, spreading only gradually to Europe and the U.S.
Mark began with battery-caged hens.
“If there is no damage done, only rescue of animals, and if the TV footage shows these very ill and crippled little birds being lovingly held and given aid, then all the sympathy is with the rescuers,” Mark told ANIMALS 24-7 in 2003.
“I was convicted of burglary and theft in connection with a rescue in Tasmania in 2002,” Mark acknowledged. “The magistrate then let myself and co-defendant Pam Clarke walk free from the courtroom after the verdict, even though we said we would not pay the fine he gave us, and each owe thousands of dollars in unpaid previous fines.”
Tracy A. Murphy, unlike previous high-profile defendants in comparable cases, may have a very difficult time persuading anyone in the legal system that the cattle she is charged with stealing were either abandoned or suffering, even if doomed to eventual slaughter.