In dollars and cents, the theft of two piglets from a sprawling farm in rural Utah was not a huge loss for its owner, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer.
But several weeks after a group of animal welfare activists posted a video online of their nightly foray into Circle Four Farms in Beaver County, local and federal law enforcement officials launched a multi-state survey. FBI agents have raided animal shelters in Utah and Colorado, and in one, government vets sliced off part of a piglet’s ear in their search for DNA evidence of the crime.
Authorities never found the stolen piglets, and the federal government declined to press charges. But Utah prosecutors pursued the burglary and theft charges against the activists, who faced prison terms if convicted.
On Saturday, a jury acquitted two of the activists of the charges, a somewhat unexpected verdict in a part of rural Utah whose economy is largely tied to the fortunes of agricultural giants like Smithfield.
Wayne Hsiung, one of the defendants, said he was stunned by the verdict, given that the judge did not let the jury consider any testimony as to why the militants targeted the farm, filmed their incursion and then took away two piglets sick when they leave. .
“It’s a resounding message about accountability and transparency,” Hsiung, 41, said in an interview after the jury’s decision. “Every company that mistreats its animals and expects the government and local elected officials to come with them just because they have them in their pockets will realize now that the public will hold them accountable, even in places like the south. from Utah.
“Instead of trying to put us in jail,” he added, “the best thing you can do is take care of your animals.”
The case had become a cause celebre among activists focused on the plight of pigs, chickens and cows who spend their lives in so-called concentrated animal feed operations.
Many animal welfare advocates saw the lawsuit as a show of corporate power and a test of whether the meat industry can legally block the public from seeing the sometimes unsavory aspects of modern mass food production. .
Circle Four Farm is one of the nation’s largest hog production facilities, processing over one million hogs a year.
In addition to barring any mention of the defendants’ motives for trespassing, District Court Judge Jeffrey Wilcox suppressed any animal welfare testimony, barred the jury from viewing footage the defendants filmed that day there and had the photos of the stolen piglets altered to avoid showing jurors the condition the animals were in.
“This is a clear case of government abuse,” said Mary Corporon, attorney for second defendant Paul Darwin Picklesimer, who filmed the raid. “Let’s face it, a citizen of Joe Sixpack can’t convince the FBI to try to solve the robbery of his television or his grandmother’s ring, because it’s not a big multinational corporation with… ‘Immense political influence.’
Smithfield did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the verdict, but had previously declined to comment on the matter, citing the lawsuit continuing.
The stolen piglets were worth at most $42.50 each, according to the testimony of a state official.
Prosecutors rejected the suggestion that they were acting on Smithfield’s behalf, noting that a crime is a crime and that investigators only acted after the defendants released footage of their 2017 raid. they had dubbed it “Operation Deathstar.”
But in court papers, prosecutors argued the company’s reputation had been tarnished by the images and other similar videos, including one published by The New York Times, as well as protests by well-being activists. -being animals that were targeting Costco, one of Smithfield’s biggest buyers.
“The smear campaign damaged the reputation and public image of Costco and Smithfield,” prosecutors wrote.
Justin Marceau, a law professor at the University of Denver and author of the book ‘Beyond Cages: Animal Law and Criminal Punishment’, said the prosecution was an unsubtle attempt to cool the growing movement of activists who use subterfuge and hidden cameras to document the conditions. in industrial farms. Agriculture-producing states have been particularly aggressive in their efforts to quash the use of undercover imagery by activists and whistleblowers. In recent years, nearly a dozen states have passed so-called “ag-gag” laws that criminalize the taking of unauthorized videos or photos on animal farms, though courts in recent years have declared five of them unconstitutional. Marceau led the legal effort that struck down the Utah law in 2017.
“Prosecutors would have you believe this case is about a burglary, but really it’s about whether people can save animals from dire conditions that are now commonplace in our food system,” he said. he declares. “I can’t think of a bigger animal rights case in recent history.”
The defendants, members of the group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, sought to document the farm’s use of gestation crates, the metal pens for pregnant sows that critics say are cramped and inherently cruel. Smithfield had vowed to end their use by 2017, but Hsiung said there were thousands at Circle Four Farms.
“The agonizing cries of the pigs confined in these cages were so loud that we couldn’t hear each other speak,” Hsiung said. The two piglets they took on the way out, he said, were sick and malnourished and most likely would have ended up in a dumpster.
Jim Monroe, a Smithfield spokesman, said the company has largely phased out the use of gestation crates and is committed to improving the welfare of the tens of millions of pigs it raises each year. “Any deviation from our high standards of animal care is counterproductive to this mission,” he said in an email.
Richard Piatt, a spokesman for Sean Reyes, the Utah attorney general, said the defendants invited prosecution by publicly posting evidence of a crime. “Prosecutors believe there is an obligation to admit that there was a burglary and a theft,” he said.
Three other activists in the case pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, in exchange for an agreement that they would not trespass on Smithfield properties in Utah or criticize the company online for three years. It’s unclear whether the defendants have much support in Beaver County, a sparsely populated strip of high desert along the Nevada border where Smithfield is one of the largest employers. The emotion there has been particularly strong since last summer, when the company announced that it planned to close most of its operations there. Executives blamed the downsizing on what they described as onerous regulations in California, where many of its hogs are processed.
The jurors did not deliberate on the fate of the two stolen piglets. Now adults, the piglets, known as Lucy and Ethel, live in an animal sanctuary in Utah. According to the activists, they are doing very well.