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On Saturday afternoon, Paul Picklesimer and Wayne Hsiung were acquitted on burglary and theft charges for their roles in rescuing two sick and injured piglets from a factory farm in Utah in 2017. The defendants faced up to five and a half years in prison in what was seen as a lopsided trial where powerful corporate entities faced off against grassroots activists.

Source: Direct Action Everywhere – DxE/YouTube

“This is a resounding message about accountability and transparency,” said Hsiung, according to The New York Times. “Every company that is mistreating 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.” 

In January 2017, Smithfield Foods announced that “87 percent of pregnant sows on company-owned farms have been transitioned to group housing systems.” Ten years prior, the company pledged to end the use of gestation crates in company-owned farms by 2017. Hsiung, Picklesimer, and other members of the Animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, were skeptical of this announcement and in March 2017, investigated Smithfield-owned Circle Four Farms in Beaver County, Utah. 

Pig in a gestation crate
Direct Action Everywhere/Press Release

What they documented were thousands of gestation and farrowing crates along with rotting piglets littered around the facility. The two piglets they rescued, Lily and Lizzie, were underweight because they were unable to access food due to a foot injury, and one of their mothers produced very little milk. The piglets would have likely had their heads smashed into the ground by farmers (an industry standard practice called “thumping”) because they would not have been economically viable to take care of and likely had infections that could have spread to the other pigs. 

“Whenever I think about the condition Lily was in and the desperation we felt when we saw her there, struggling and so small and so sick, like a little baby in such a horrible, awful, brutal place, we just wanted to get her out,” said Hsiung in an Instagram video days before the verdict was announced.  

Piglet in terrible shape standing next to their mother
Direct Action Everywhere/Press Release

The virtual reality undercover footage above, which is entitled Operation Deathstar, was released in July 2017 and was accompanied by a New York Times article about the investigation. A couple of days later, a federal judge ruled that Utah’s Ag-Gag law, which made recording undercover footage on factory farms a crime, was unconstitutional. Smithfield Foods clearly felt the public backlash and was in damage control mode.  

“This video, which appears to be highly edited and even staged, is an attempt to leverage a new technology to manufacture an animal care issue where one does not exist,” a Smithfield spokesperson told The New York Times at the time. 

Less than two months after the video was released, FBI agents raided animal sanctuaries in Utah and Colorado in search of the piglets. Their search warrants allowed them to take DNA samples from the animals, which amounted to cutting off a large portion of a piglet’s ear. The piglets, however, were able to remain at the sanctuary. 

During the trial, FBI agent Chris Andersen stated that there were approximately eight FBI agents assigned to the case. When questioned by Hsuing, he admitted to not knowing of another theft case where less than $100 worth of property was stolen (the pigs were worth $42.50 each) that required the services of this Federal Agency.

Hopeless-looking pig laying in filth in a factory farm
Direct Action Everywhere/Press Release 

On top of this, the trial seemed to be stacked heavily in favor of the prosecution. The judge blocked the jury from considering why the activists entered the farm, blocked the undercover footage from being shown, disallowed testimony about animal welfare, and had the photos of the piglets doctored so that the living environment wasn’t visible (all to keep the jurors from being emotionally affected). The court case was also being held in an area that depended heavily on industrial animal agriculture and the Utah Attorney General even had financial ties to Smithfield. 

But the defense had a strong case considering the condition of the piglets and Picklesimer believed that withholding video evidence worked against the prosecution because the jury would feel patronized. They also had a seemingly unlikely ally named Rick Pitman, a Turkey farmer who had his farm previously exposed by DxE in 2018 for mistreating birds but has since improved the living conditions after speaking with the group. 

“There’s a difference between stealing a turkey and causing damage to the property or economic damage to me, or whether he’s trying to rescue a turkey that’s suffering,” stated Pitman.  

Man holding piglet
Direct Action Everywhere/Press Release

Smithfield is obviously unhappy with the verdict and thinks this may set a precedent for other activists “to vandalize farms.” But it’s really about holding companies accountable for mistreating sentient beings and allowing individuals to rescue them. It’s also shown us that a small group of passionate activists can stand up to one of the most powerful players in one of the most powerful industries in the world and win.  

“They just let a guy who walked into a factory farm and took two piglets out without the consent of Smithfield walk out of the courtroom free,” said Hsiung. “If it can happen in southern Utah, it can happen anywhere.” 

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