Northland farmer guilty of mistreating animals at rodeo

Derek Robinson illegally used an electric cattle prodder on two collapsed, distressed steers.
Derek Robinson illegally used an electric cattle prodder on two collapsed, distressed steers. Photo credit: Screenshot

A Northland farmer has been found guilty of mistreating rodeo animals after a group of lawyers took a private prosecution against him because the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) would not. 

Derek Robinson illegally used an electric cattle prodder on two collapsed, distressed steers, to force them out a chute and into the arena for a roping competition, at rodeos in Whangārei in 2016 and 2017. 

The New Zealand Animal Law Association said it took Robinson to court as even an MPI inspector had investigated and recommended Robinson be prosecuted. But the MPI just issued him a warning letter. 

NZ Animal Law Association spokesperson Saar Cohen told Checkpoint he did not think Robinson had learned the rodeo rules.  

"When an animal is ... part of that form of entertainment - so they call it - the law requires the organisers to open the gate. In this case, what happened is instead of opening the gate, Mr Robinson just took out his prodder, and used it as a charged prodder - so he pushed the button, and basically shocked these two animals to make them stand up. 

"As son as they stood up, then the gate was open and they were thrown into the arena to be then pursued, chased by riders on horses. It happened on two separate events, one in 2016, and then another one in 2017."

Cohen thought Robinson "simply wasn't aware of the rodeo code".  

"He's a very experienced farmer. He knows a lot about cattle and knows a lot about cows, and he probably behaved to [the animals at the rodeo] in the same way that he behaves on the farm, and what he failed to realise is that there are different rules in rodeo."

He said it was "cruel and from our perspective illegal" to prod an animal when it was in that position.

"[That] is the important point that we made in court."

The case was a private prosecution.

That was because - despite a "very thorough investigation" of Robinson by a Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) inspector who recommended prosecution - "something then went wrong", Cohen said.

"We don't really know what, but when it went to a senior manager to basically approve the prosecution, that manager decided not to prosecute Mr Robinson.

"Now, we saw that, we realised that Mr Robinson offended at least twice, once in 2016, and then once in 2017. And we believe that he was going to do it again. And we thought he should be stopped. So as a matter of public interest, we thought he should be prosecuted.

"We just looked at the investigation report, we looked at the recommendation to prosecute and we simply couldn't understand why that manager and MPI decided to stop and not prosecute and NZALA is a group of about 600 lawyers who love animals and love the law. 

"When something like this happens, and everyone else fails to basically perform their duties, we do see ourselves as the last line of defence here, even though we have no powers to get evidence. But we do act through the court and through the legal system so that the animals' voices be heard."

Cohen said he wanted MPI staff upskilled.

A 'false sense of immunity'

Cohen said MPI had "never prosecuted a rodeo prosecution".

"We think that created a sort of sense a false sense of immunity for the rodeo cowboys because it was well known that MPI are interested in farmers and farms. 

"We asked the question: Why shouldn't the cowboys have the same standard of enforcement as any farmer has? Why do we have one law, one rule for the farmers and one rule for the cowboys?

"There's definitely an issue there with regards to rodeo. I don't know why, in over 50 years, they have never, ever touched rodeos." 

An explanation

In a statement to Checkpoint, MPI explained why it did not prosecute the abuse regarding Robinson, saying it took various factors into account including the degree of harm to the animals involved. 

It was decided it was not in the public interest to pursue a prosecution, and a formal warning was issued.