Essex man faces animal cruelty charges in cow deaths

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The main barn at the Matthews Brothers Farm on Chapin Road in Essex, where dairy cows were found dead from malnourishment and neglect. Photo by Elizabeth Gribkoff/VTDigger

ESSEX — Unpainted buildings, machinery and farm implements line the dirt road that runs through the Matthews Brothers Farm. There are broken windows in the main barn, obscured by tall weeds. A red hay wagon nearby is about half full of yellowed bales. The farm looks run down, but the verdant fields and hills that surround it make it hard to believe that 21 cows died of starvation here.

Jonathan Matthews, 34, faces charges of animal cruelty for the death and mistreatment of the cows at the farm, which belongs to his father, Earle Matthews. The younger Matthews has been ordered to appear at the Chittenden Superior Court on June 26 for arraignment, the Essex Police Department said on Thursday.

Jonathan Matthews said his father had asked him to take over the operation of the dairy farm at 278 Chapin Road after he was injured in a farm accident in January. Matthews told police that “a combination of financial issues, long severe winter and problems with farm equipment” led to the neglect of the cows, police said.

The Essex Police Department’s animal control division got a call on April 27 from a man who reported seeing dead cows in a barn he had visited for work. An animal control officer, accompanied by two other officers, went to the farm to investigate, police said.

Jonathan Matthews allowed them to inspect the barn. The officers found not only cow carcasses in the barn, but also cows that were still alive but “in very bad condition.” They called in the Chittenden County Humane Society, a veterinarian and a Chittenden County deputy state’s attorney for assistance, according to the police statement.

The veterinarian and humane society investigator were unable to identify other underlying health issues, and determined that the cows had died from malnourishment. A total of 21 cows were found dead in the barn. Of the 13 cows still alive, two were too far gone to save, and were euthanized by the veterinarian, according to the press release. Later that evening, investigators found 13 more cows in a field by the barn. They appeared underfed but were not at risk of dying.

Some of the dead cows were composted at the farm; the rest were buried off-site, said Scott Waterman, communications director with the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. Agency staff supervised the disposal of the animals but were not involved in the investigation, said Waterman.

The rest of the herd was relocated to a farm in Westford, according to the police statement. Lt. Robert Kissinger said no other information was available.

Following a review by the Chittenden County State’s Attorney, the Essex Police Department cited Jonathan Matthews for animal cruelty.

Knocks on the door of the farmhouse at 278 Chapin Road early Thursday evening went unanswered.

The Essex cows are not the first to die of neglect. In Brownington earlier this year, Donovan Steele was left in charge of his parents’ farm last winter when they retired and left the state. After he was contacted by neighbors who reported seeing dead cows on the property, animal control officer Geoff Falconer visited the farm last February. Falconer found 18 to 20 partially frozen carcasses covered in manure, according to The Caledonian Record. Steele pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to multiple felony charges of animal cruelty.

Under Vermont law, it is illegal to deprive an animal of adequate food, water, shelter and medical attention. Suspected animal cruelty should be reported to local law enforcement or to the Vermont State Police.

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