A jury in southern Utah let me walk free earlier this month after I took two injured piglets from a farm in the middle of the night that I had no permission to be on. The verdict, on felony burglary and misdemeanor theft charges that could have sent me and my co-defendant, Paul Darwin Picklesimer, to jail for more than five years, was a shock. After all, we had admitted to what we had done.
We’re animal rights activists. We believe the decision underscores an increasing unease among the public over the raising and killings of billions of animals on factory farms. Our rescue of the piglets took place during a clandestine three-month undercover operation I led into the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods. We focused on Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah, which raises over a million pigs for slaughter every year.
We sneaked into the farm one night in March 2017. Inside, we found and documented sick and underweight piglets. One of them could not walk properly or reach food because of an infected wound to her foot, according to a veterinarian who testified on our behalf. The other piglet’s face was covered in lesions and blood, and she struggled to nurse from a mother whose teats showed gruesome reproductive injuries, the veterinarian, who reviewed video of the piglets and spoke to caretakers, said in a report. Given their conditions, both piglets were likely to be killed and potentially tossed into a landfill outside of Circle Four Farms, in which millions of pounds of dead pigs and other waste are discarded every year. Nationally, an estimated 14 percent of piglets die before they’re weaned.
But that would not be the fate of these two. After removing the piglets, our team nursed them back to health. We named them Lily and Lizzie. Some four months later, we shared a video of our actions with The Times. (Smithfield claimed that the video appeared staged. It was not.) In August, F.B.I. agents descended on animal sanctuaries in Utah and Colorado with search warrants for the two pigs. At the Colorado shelter, government veterinarians cut off part of Lizzie’s ear for DNA testing. Not long after, my four co-defendants and I were indicted by state enforcement officials.
All this, despite the fact that a representative from the company testified at our trial that no one at the farm even noticed that the piglets were missing until a video appeared online. The piglets were, according to one of the prosecution’s own witnesses, worth at most $42.20 each.
The agricultural industry is a mighty foe with immense political influence. In recent years, it has succeeded in passing laws that prohibit or restrict recording at industrialized farming operations, though Utah is among several states where these “ag-gag” laws have been declared unconstitutional. In a case last week before the Supreme Court, the industry sought to overturn the will of the Californians who voted in favor of Proposition 12, which requires that pork, veal and eggs sold in that state come from farms that provide some limited space for animals to move around.
We knew that prosecution was a likely outcome of our rescue. Three of my co-defendants accepted plea deals with no prison or jail time. But Paul and I wanted a jury — and the public — to wrestle with the moral implications of how living beings end up in grocery stores as packages of meat.
The jury deliberated for about eight hours. Many jurors, according to a juror who spoke to me after the trial, believed at the outset that what we did was unlawful and we needed to be punished. But two issues influenced their decision to acquit, the juror said. First, the jurors concluded that we lacked the intent to steal. We were there to document the conditions, and to rescue an animal only if we found one in need. Second, the jurors felt that the piglets at issue had no value to Smithfield. The jury thus concluded they could not be the objects of a theft.
The juror I spoke to also mentioned a third major factor that went beyond the legal issues: our appeal to conscience. During the closing statements in the trial, in which I represented myself, I told jurors that a not-guilty verdict would encourage corporations to treat animals under their care with more compassion and make governments more open to animal cruelty complaints.
This was a stark contrast to the prosecution’s narrative. The prosecutor compared the injured piglets to dented cans. He argued that if you found a “dented can” in the store, the fact that it was damaged did not mean you could “rescue” it and “take it out of the store.” The reality is, every year, we treat tens of billions of animals no better than dented cans.
In response to the verdict, Smithfield claimed that it had “high standards” for animal care, despite the evidence we gathered. “The individuals who committed this act are part of an anti-meat movement determined to undermine livestock agriculture,” the company stated. “We raise pigs to feed people with wholesome, nutritious and affordable protein.”
Lily and Lizzie are not just protein, though. They are smart, emotionally complex animals who enjoy the company of their friends and exploring the grassy fields of the sanctuary where they now thrive. Lizzie is outgoing and rambunctious; Lily, more shy. They spend nearly all their time together. They are more than dented cans.
Still, they are just two among billions of animals in America that are raised in close quarters, slaughtered on factory farms and then consumed as food. Rates of vegetarianism in the United States have been static at 5 percent for many years, and global meat consumption is rising. But grass roots activism has helped lead to recent victories to protect animals against cruel treatment.
Prop 12 is one. So is a California law passed in 2019 that bans the sale in the state of new clothing and accessories made of fur. The European Union has committed to phasing out the use of the most extreme confinement in animal farming. Plant-based meats are now available at fast food chains across the nation.
Perhaps the jury verdict in our case is a sign that more people are rethinking whether their diets should include meat. Historically, many social movements have experienced sudden upswings in support, often in response to people taking risky actions that force the moral issue to the fore.
Our rescue in March 2017 revealed the tension between slaughtering animals for food and having compassion for them. The jury made the right choice. Our society eventually will, too.
Wayne Hsiung is an attorney, the executive director of The Sanctuary Initiative and the co-founder of the animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.