The grainy video, obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press and shot by the Los Angeles-based group Mercy for Animals, shows workers at Ontario Livestock Sales in Ontario, Calif., kicking and stomping on pigs to get them to move through a narrow chute, hitting emus with a baton and slinging baby goats by the neck and hind legs. In one shot, two workers drag a sick sheep that can't walk by its ears and heave it into the back of a van.
Prosecutors have filed a total of 21 misdemeanour counts against the owner, Horacio Santorsola, and seven employees after conducting further investigation with the help of the Inland Valley Humane Society, said Reza Daghbandan, a prosecutor with the San Bernardino County district attorney's office.
The defendants, who are not in custody, have a July 20 court date and face a maximum of a year in county jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted, he said.
Santorsola, 73, said the case was exaggerated and he and his employees had done nothing wrong.
He has not been cited once in the 18 years he's owned the business, he said, and grabbing animals by their necks and legs is necessary because they are not tame.
"I think it's a bunch of crap," Santorsola said. "How are you going to pick them up? They don't have a leash. They run, believe me, they do run."
The video was taken earlier this year over a seven-week period by an undercover investigator using a buttonhole camera, said Matt Rice, director of investigations at Mercy for Animals.
Prosecutors relied on the help of veterinarians to determine which actions crossed the line into criminal behaviour, Daghbandan said.
"This isn't the same standard of care as a house pet would get ... but we felt comfortable that these instances went too far," he said.
Animal handling experts who reviewed the footage called the treatment of the animals, which include emus, pigs, goats, sheep and cows, "brutally improper."
"If they were to do this to a companion animal like a dog or a cat, everyone would jump up in outrage," said Holly Cheever, a veterinarian and expert witness in animal cruelty cases who is also vice-president of New York State Humane Association.
Cheever said in one shot, a cow appears to be suffering from a prolapsed uterus and is bleeding.
"Even food animals are supposed to be given proper care and protection from abuse and this is very clear cut abuse," she said. "The dragging of the downed animals, the tossing of the baby animals onto the floor, leaving them gasping and dying: It's hard to choose any one aspect because it's pretty unpleasant from beginning to end."
A website for Ontario Livestock Sales says the family-owned business 40 miles east of Los Angeles holds auctions every Tuesday and handles horses, cattle, goats, hogs and exotic animals. The facility, which was founded in 1936, sells 1,000 to 1,300 animals every week, according to its website.
Mercy for Animals has filmed at livestock facilities around the U.S., including footage at a poultry farm that last year led Target and McDonald's to drop their egg supplier after undercover footage showed hens packed into cramped cages, male chicks being tossed into plastic bags to suffocate and workers cutting off the tips of chicks' beaks.