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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Animal welfare activists are acquitted in Smithfield piglet case

A photo provided by Direct Action Everywhere from its 2017 raid on a Utah factory farm from which Wayne Hsiung, right, and Paul Darwin Picklesimer rescued two piglets.

By Andrew Jacobs

As a matter of 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 nighttime incursion into Circle Four Farms in Beaver County, local and federal law enforcement officials began a multistate investigation. FBI agents raided animal sanctuaries in Utah and Colorado, and at one of them, government veterinarians sliced off a portion of a piglet’s ear in their search for DNA evidence of the crime.

Authorities never recovered the stolen piglets, and the federal government declined to press charges. But prosecutors in Utah pursued felony burglary and theft charges against the activists, who faced prison sentences if convicted.

On Saturday, a jury acquitted two of the activists on 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 had not let the jury consider any testimony explaining why the activists had targeted the farm, filmed their incursion and then taken two sick piglets on their way out.

“This is a resounding message about accountability and transparency,” Hsiung, 41, said in an interview after the jury’s decision. “Every company that is mistreating its animals and expecting that government and local elected officials will just go along with them because they have them in their pockets will now realize that the public will hold them accountable, even in places like Southern Utah.

“Instead of trying to put us in prison,” he added, “The better thing to do is just take care of your animals.”

The case had become a cause célèbre among activists focused on the plight of hogs, chickens and cows who spend their lives in so-called concentrated animal feeding operations.

Many animal welfare advocates viewed the trial as a display of corporate power, and a test of whether the meat industry can legally prevent the public from seeing the sometimes unsavory aspects of modern mass food production.

Circle Four Farm is one of the largest hog-producing facilities in the country, processing more than 1 million pigs a year.

In addition to barring any mention of the defendants’ reasons for trespassing, District Court Judge Jeffrey Wilcox excised any testimony about animal welfare, blocked the jury from viewing the footage that the defendants filmed that day and had evidence photos of the stolen piglets altered to avoid showing jurors the condition in which the animals were living.

“This is a clear case of government overreach,” said Mary Corporon, a lawyer for the second defendant, Paul Darwin Picklesimer, who had filmed the raid. “Let’s face it, Joe Sixpack citizen can’t get the FBI to try and solve the burglary of their TV or their grandmother’s ring because they’re not a major multinational corporation with immense political pull.”

Smithfield did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the verdict but had previously declined to comment on the case, citing the continuing trial.

The stolen piglets were worth at most $42.50 each, according to testimony from a state official.

Prosecutors rejected the suggestion they were acting on behalf of Smithfield, noting that a crime is a crime and that investigators acted only after the defendants publicized footage of their 2017 raid, which they had dubbed “Operation Deathstar.”

But in court documents, prosecutors argued that the company’s reputation was harmed by the footage and other similar videos, including one published by The New York Times, as well as by protests by animal welfare activists that targeted Costco, one of Smithfield’s biggest buyers.

“The defamation campaign has caused reputation and public image damage to 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 chill the growing movement of activists who use subterfuge and hidden cameras to document conditions on factory farms.

The defendants, members of the group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, were seeking to document the farm’s use of gestation crates, the metal enclosures 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 of them at Circle Four Farms.

“The agonizing screams of pigs confined to these cages were so loud, we couldn’t hear each other talk,” Hsiung said. The two piglets they took on their way out, he said, were sick and malnourished and would have most likely ended up in a dumpster.

Jim Monroe, a Smithfield spokesperson, said the company had largely phased out the use of gestation crates and was committed to improving the welfare of the tens of millions of pigs it raised each year. “Any deviation from our high standards for animal care is counterproductive to this mission,” he said in an email.

Richard Piatt, a spokesperson for Sean Reyes, the Utah attorney general, said the defendants had invited prosecution by publicly posting evidence of a crime. “Prosecutors feel there’s an obligation to acknowledge there was a burglary and theft,” he said.

Three other activists in the case entered guilty pleas to misdemeanors, in exchange for an agreement that they would not trespass on Smithfield properties in Utah nor criticize the corporation online for three years.

The jurors did not deliberate the fate of the two stolen piglets. Now full-grown, the piglets, known as Lucy and Ethel, are living at an animal sanctuary in Utah. According to activists, they are doing just fine.

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