Max Corwin: The government is trying to stifle a growing animal rights movement

(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.

As a Utah resident, I want to ensure the safety and well-being of those who reside here from the encroaching threat of big industry. I’ve seen firsthand the stronghold big industry has on the local economy and politics.

In October of last year I supported animal rights activists with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) as they faced trial for the rescue of two sick and dying piglets, Lily and Lizzie, from a Smithfield factory farm in Beaver, Utah — a trial which resulted in an acquittal. When later interviewed, the jurors relayed that they saw the charges as prosecutorial overreach at the behest of an industry trying to hide the truth about how our food is produced.

This year, a similar trial in Merced, California, yielded another acquittal with similar statements from jurors — demonstrating that when the public sees what occurs on factory farms, they side with the compassionate activists, not the corporations inflicting cruelty on animals.

However, the government continues to ignore public sentiment and to collude with Big Ag to repress animal advocates. In just the past year, state legislative bodies across the country saw an alarming number of retaliatory bills.

Here in Utah, legislators introduced H.B. 114 in direct response to the outcome of the Smithfield trial. The bill “amends the defenses available to those charged with theft” to disallow the main defense used in the trial: that the animals were “sick, injured, or a liability to the owner.” I testified against this bill, as did a juror from the trial, Lynn Carlson, who called the bill “an affront to the jurors who considered all the evidence at the trial and ruled appropriately in the defendants’ favor.” In an op-ed, he called the bill a “reckless and impulsive reaction by politicians who are clearly re-writing the law to appease Smithfield and the powerful agriculture lobby in Utah.”

I also testified against S.B. 113, which preempts local governments from enacting regulation on “animal enterprises” such as farms, laboratories, and rodeos. Despite public outcry, both bills passed.

In Wyoming, a similar bill, ironically named the “Working Animal Protection Act” aimed not at protecting animals but at protecting rodeos from local control, narrowly failed to pass. This legislation was drafted in response to cities across the country successfully enacting rodeo bans.

In South Dakota, H.B. 1090 was signed into law on July 1, 2023, making it more difficult for neighboring residents to file nuisance claims against farms for issues such as noise and odor pollution.

In previous years in Iowa, several bills aimed at preventing whistleblowers from recording footage of animal agriculture were struck down due to infringing on free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. This year, in response to animal welfare organizations documenting the conditions and treatment of animals at Iowa livestock and dog-breeding facilities, the Iowa House passed H.F. 572, which, if enacted, would restrict drone surveillance at these facilities.

The backlash to the success of the animal rights movement echoes the backlash to other growing social movements. In response to the public awakening about racism and police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, the Florida government prohibited the teaching of these topics, chalking them up to “critical race theory,” and passed a law that, in some cases, grants civil immunity to those who hit protestors with their cars. As a response to the growing public acceptance of LGBTQ people, several states, including Utah, have passed laws to prohibit transgender kids from participating in school sports, using the bathroom of their choice, and seeking gender-affirming care.

Successes in the animal rights movement are also driving federal government retaliation. After failed attempts to regulate animal welfare via the state legislature, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 12, a ballot measure that “establishes minimum requirements for confining certain farm animals.” The National Pork Producers Council challenged the law, and the Biden administration sided with the industry. Ultimately, however, the law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

With elected officials unwilling to heed the public’s growing concern over factory farming and animal welfare, ordinary people are left to take action themselves. Fortunately, open rescues are continuing, and DxE animal rescuers have two more trials scheduled for this year in Sonoma County, California, and Dane County, Wisconsin, that could lead to more groundbreaking acquittals and propel the animal rights movement forward.

Just as I took the stand to speak out against bills in Utah, community members can find ways to push for justice and transparency. The acquittals of activists in Utah and California, the rejection of industry-driven bills and the introduction of animal welfare propositions indicate that our message is reaching the public and show that we need to continue to exercise the power of collective action — even though we won’t always succeed.

In Millard County, Utah, local residents championed Proposition 6, which aimed to halt new industrial hog farms, in response to a proposal for seven new large-scale hog farms. The initiative failed by a small margin, but the collective action demonstrated that Utahns are ready and willing to take action to protect their environment and values.

Max Corwin

Max Corwin, 28, is a Utah resident and activist who has been involved with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) and Utah Animal Rights Coalition (UARC) for several years.