Jury Acquits Animal Rights Activists Who Saved Piglets at Utah Factory Farm

In a major victory for animal rights, a jury in Utah has acquitted two animal rights activists who each faced up to five-and-a-half years of prison time for rescuing two sick piglets from Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms, one of the world’s largest pig farms. During the 2017 rescue operation, activists with the group Direct Action Everywhere found piglets feeding on their own mother’s blood, pregnant pigs held in gestation crates too small for them to turn around in, and sick and feverish piglets left to die of starvation or be trampled. The long-awaited decision sets the stage for a “right to rescue’’ legal precedent, which would allow anyone to rescue dying animals from unsafe conditions. For more, we speak with one of the activists, Wayne Hsiung, who represented himself in trial and says the jury decision is “a resounding victory not just for transparency and accountability in factory farms but for the idea that animals are living beings and not just things to be thrown away in a garbage can.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

In Utah, a jury acquitted two animal rights activists this weekend who faced years in prison for rescuing two sick piglets from Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms in Utah, one of the world’s largest pig farms. It’s a major victory for the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, which has been fighting to establish a “right to rescue” animals in distress. During the rescue operation, activists with the group found piglets feeding on their own mother’s blood, pregnant pigs held in gestational crates too small for them to turn around in, and sick and feverish piglets left to die of starvation or be trampled.

This is Wayne Hsiung, Direct Action Everywhere, in a video filmed during a rescue at Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms.

WAYNE HSIUNG: So, we’ve seen piles of dead piglets, piglets who starved to death, who have been crushed to death. One little one is here with bloody eyes. She’s half the size of the other piglets. She’s going to die unless we get her out. Her mother’s nipples have been cut and are so overused that they’re bleeding. And you can’t even get milk out of them. Her children are literally drinking blood to live. And this little piglet in the corner here, whose face is covered in blood, and she’s down on the ground, she’s not going to make it. And so we’re going to take her out. We’re going to give her the medical care she deserves, and then we’re going to take her to sanctuary, and hopefully she survives.

AMY GOODMAN:Wayne Hsiung continued to describe what he saw outside of a dumpster at Smithfield’s Utah pig farm.

WAYNE HSIUNG: So, we’re outside of a dumpster at Circle Four, and they literally just took a mother pig who is sick and not able to stand any longer, threw her in here headfirst with a pile of probably a hundred dead babies. As we got closer, we could still smell the blood from her body. She died probably from blunt force trauma to her head. She’s covered with all sorts of disgusting feces, blood, rotten corpses. And again, this is what happens at every single pig farm in the world, because they treat these animals as if they’re just things. But they’re not things, they’re living creatures. They deserve better.

AMY GOODMAN:Wayne Hsiung from Direct Action Everywhere, DxE at a pig farmer in 2017. A jury just acquitted Paul Picklesimer and another animal rights activist, Wayne Hsiung, Saturday night. Wayne Hsiung, co-founder and CEO of Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), joins us now.

Hi, Wayne. Can you speak about the significance of you being acquitted by the jury? What were your charges? Five-and a-half years in prison

WAYNE HSIUNG:Amy, yes, initially we faced 11 year imprisonment. One of the charges was dropped. But it’s an incredible victory, and I’m still kind of reeling from it, because not only is this an incredibly conservative county that’s highly dependent on agriculture, but the rulings that were made in this court denied us the right to present most of the evidence your viewers just heard. The jury could only hear a portion of the story. They knew we were there as we care about animal welfare. They knew that these animals required medical care. They were able to exonerate us of any criminal responsibility for theft and burglary. And that’s a resounding victory not just for transparency and accountability in factory farms, but for the idea that animals are living beings and not just things to be thrown away into a garbage can.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:Wayne, could you speak about Circle Four Farm? It’s one of the largest hog-producing facilities in the country, processes more than 1 million pigs a year. Smithfield Foods had previously promised to eliminate the use of gestational crates. What are gestational crates? Smithfield Foods kept their promise.

WAYNE HSIUNG:Juan, gestation crates are basically metal tombs that a mother porcine is forced to live in for five to six years of her adult life. Mother pigs can be very large. They’re about 600, 700 pounds, so twice the size of an NFL lineman. And a gestation crate is a two-foot-by-seven-foot metal box, or metal tomb, that almost looks like a claw that grips the animal and holds them in place. A mother pig can live in this crate for her entire life, which is approximately 14 square feet. This is because you can confine many animals in a small area.

You’re right that Smithfield promised back in 2007 they’d be phasing these crates out, because when consumers found out about these devices — which have only been around for the past few decades, only since agriculture became industrialized — consumers have revolted against them. They don’t want these pigs confined in crates. Circle Four is Smithfield’s largest facility. We investigated it. It’s systemically important. Circle Four accounts for a large portion of pork production in the west. When we visited the facility in March 2017, two years after they supposedly discontinued the use of these containers, we found thousands, if not thousands, of mother pigs in these boxes, and not one other mother pig.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Monroe, Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs, said in a statement, “This verdict is very disappointing as it may encourage anyone opposed to raising animals for food to vandalize farms. After learning about the alleged mistreatment of animals at a company-owned hog farming facility in Milford, Utah, we launched an investigation. We also completed a third party audit. The audit results showed no findings of animal mistreatment.” Can you respond to that, Wayne, and also tell us about these baby piglets and how you went into the factory — they were less than a week old each, you named them Lily and Lizzie — and where you brought them?

WAYNE HSIUNG: Yeah. In regard to the first part of that statement, that this will encourage people to engage in vandalism, it won’t. It will encourage people rescue animals in distress and dying. This is a non-violent act. We entered through an open door. We did no damage to any property. We did not intend harm to anyone, not even the company. Our sole intention was to provide information to the public about what was going on in these facilities, and to rescue animals from torture.

With respect to the second part of the statement, that they had an independent audit done, I mean, first it’s worth pointing out that these independent audits are paid for by Smithfield. These are Smithfield contractors who do their bidding. Secondarily, however, we were able to get a copy this audit during our investigation. Smithfield paid for their in-house audit and found three baby pigs in gas chambers three feet deep. And their own auditor said, “This is unacceptable. You cannot pile up living, dying and sick animals three deep, squirming and trampling on top of each other, inside of a gas chamber.” Yeah, this is what they’re considering humane.

Lily and Lizzie, the baby piglets were in horrible condition. The jury acquitted us because we could not present evidence on Smithfield’s general conditions and their promise about gestation crates. However, we were able present evidence about the specific piglets because they were the subject of the so-called theft. My honest opinion is that Lizzie was covered in blood and had scarring on her face from inability to access food from her mother when she was first seen by the jurors. They were clearly horrified and wanted this to stop. And we’re seeing that across the nation. When people actually see especially an individual animal and feel the suffering of that individual animal and empathize with their story, they realize, “I don’t necessarily want to be part of the system. I want to do something else.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ:Wayne, could you speak about how these factory farms mistreat or torture animals and how they treat their workers, many of whom are immigrants?

WAYNE HSIUNG: Yeah. Smithfield has a long history in mistreating its employees. Bob Herbert The New York TimesA number of excellent pieces were written about Smithfield’s union-busting efforts in the mid-2000s. In some of their largest facilities, they were not only preventing workers organising in legal ways but also physically assaulting their own employees. The National Labor Relations Board has confirmed this. A federal court reviewed the evidence and found that there was intentional violence against their workers in order to improve their working conditions or get a living wage. Factory farms and slaughterhouses can be some of the most dangerous places in the world to work. This is because the same blades, gas chambers and devices used to harm animals could also be used to inadvertently cause harm to humans.

But probably the most infamous incident in Smithfield’s history, which actually unfolded at the exact site where we did our investigation and open rescue, was an instance of human trafficking, where they were shipping people in from Asia, not paying them, threatening their families back at home. Smithfield was almost entirely exonerated of any responsibility for this incident. It was a case of human slavery. It’s been widely reported in the media from the early to mid-2000s. Smithfield was not held responsible because, like many corporations, they blamed the contractor. They blamed a subsidiary. They blamed someone else and said, “Oh, this isn’t our fault,” when this is a massive facility of hundreds of employees, supposedly well managed and supervised. They claim they care for the animals and their own workers with a lot of attention, yet they didn’t realize that there were people being trafficked in their own facility.

AMY GOODMAN:We want to thank Wayne Hsiung for being here. Wayne Hsiung, the head of Direct Action Everywhere (also known as DxE), speaks to us from Utah. He was part of a direct action that saved piglets five year ago. On Saturday night, he and his colleague were acquitted. They were sentenced to a total of 11 years in prison, followed by five-and-a half years each in prison.

We talk to Frances Fox Piven (legendary sociologist, political activist). She turned 90 yesterday. Stay with us.