Paul Darwin Picklesimer: Utah undermined the jury system to shield Big Ag from scrutiny

If the truth is a threat to animal operations, then the operators don’t deserve protection,

(Photo courtesy Direct Action Everywhere) Animal activists hold two pigs at the Smithfield Food hog farm near Milford in 2017, which they filmed under cover of night with the objective of “exposing” injustices within the facility.

On March 14, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed HB114, an anti-animal rescue bill drafted in direct response to a trial last year where I was acquitted for filming an animal rescue.

I was facing felony burglary and theft charges and years in prison for filming the removal of two sick pigs from Smithfield Foods’ Circle Four Farms, during an investigation by Direct Action Everywhere. We argued that the act was a rescue, not a theft, and the jury in St. George agreed.

Now, HB114 has amended the theft statute to say that “it is not a defense to theft of livestock that the livestock is sick, injured, or a liability to the owner.”

When Cox announced his support for the bill, he told the St. George News, “Agriculture is under constant threat in our state and has been for a long time.”

But what exactly does Cox find so threatening to agriculture? The answer is public scrutiny.

Cox is not talking about Utah’s apple or cherry orchards. How produce is grown and harvested is not concealed from the public. Anyone can go apple picking near the Dixie National Forest, wander the orchards, see how the food is grown, pick apples off a tree and pile them in a bushel basket.

Could I potentially face felony charges for entering an apple orchard and filming while someone collected a decaying apple from the ground? The answer is no.

On one hand, the industry is saying animals are nothing more than property, comparing them to inanimate objects, while at the same time seeking to classify animals differently with excessive protections for animal agriculture. Clearly, there is something very different about animals, and that’s what the jurors in my trial recognized. I, too, would like to see animals classified differently, but in a way that ensures their protection, not the protection of the industry that abuses them.

Right now, the animals raised as food have few protections, and the industry would like to keep it that way. The governor stated, “If there are massive animal rights abuses happening or something, then that should be reported to the authorities and a proper investigation could be done.”

But, according to Utah State Veterinarian Dean Taylor, regulations are “built upon the input gained from the producers.” During my trial, Taylor, a witness for the prosecution, said he was there to promote the growth of animal agriculture.

Our team did report the abuses we witnessed to the authorities, but nothing was done. The conditions in which these pigs were kept were not in compliance with animal welfare laws, but the authorities have not taken any action to improve the situation.

If government agencies were taking these reports seriously and protecting animals from cruelty, there would be no need for bills like this. But certain Utah legislators have decided that the real problem with sick, suffering animals is the potential for negative publicity for the industry and so it is the industry, not the animals, that need protection. This is the backwards logic behind HB114.

The public deserves to know how animals are treated behind closed doors, but HB114 will hide this information, even from juries, which are tasked with being finders of fact.

As one of the jurors from my trial has written, the jurors took their responsibility seriously, but the prosecution failed to produce evidence of the charged crimes, largely because they tried to keep key evidence hidden from the jury.

We need transparency, and if that is a “threat” to the animal agriculture industry, then that tells you something unacceptable is happening. As someone who has witnessed firsthand the suffering of mother pigs confined in gestation crates with dead babies crushed beneath them, I cannot stand by and let this industry continue to operate with impunity.

Paul Darwin Picklesimer

Paul Darwin Picklesimer, Berkeley, California, is an organizer with the international animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere.