Animal Rights Activists Are Acquitted in Smithfield Piglet Case

As a matter of dollars and cents, the removal 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 rights activists posted a video online of their nighttime incursion into the Circle Four Farms in Beaver County, local and federal law enforcement officials began a multistate investigation. F.B.I. agents raided animal sanctuaries in Utah and Colorado, and at one of them, government veterinarians sliced off part of a piglet’s ear in their search for DNA evidence of the crime.

The 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,” Mr. 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.”

Jim Monroe, a spokesman for Smithfield, expressed disappointment in the verdict, saying it would encourage other activists to trespass on farms and violate biosecurity policies aimed at preventing the spread of disease.

“The individuals who committed this act are part of an anti-meat movement determined to undermine livestock agriculture,” he said in an email. “We raise pigs to feed people with wholesome, nutritious and affordable protein. Any deviation from our high standards for animal care is counterproductive to this mission and would never be tolerated.”

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 one 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 F.B.I. 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. “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 rights 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,” described the prosecution as an unsubtle attempt to chill the growing movement of activists who use subterfuge and hidden cameras to document conditions on factory farms.

Agricultural-producing states have been particularly aggressive in their efforts to quash the use of undercover footage by activists and whistle-blowers. In recent years, nearly a dozen states have passed so-called “ag-gag” laws that criminalize the taking of unauthorized video or photos on animal farms, though courts in recent years have struck down five of them as unconstitutional. Professor Marceau led the legal effort that overturned Utah’s law in 2017.

“Prosecutors would have you believe this case is about burglary, but in reality, it’s a case about whether people can rescue animals in dire conditions that are now commonplace in our food system,” he said. “I can’t think of a more significant animal law case in recent history.”

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 Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.

Mr. Monroe, the Smithfield spokesman, said the company had largely phased out the use of gestation crates.

Richard Piatt, a spokesman 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.

It’s unclear whether the defendants have much support in Beaver County, a sparsely populated swath of high desert along the Nevada border where Smithfield is one of the largest employers. Emotions there have been especially high since last summer, when the company announced it was planning to shut down most of its operations there. Executives have blamed the downsizing on what they have described as onerous regulations in California, where many of its pigs are processed.

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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