Two recent court cases change the future of the animal rights movement
A jury in Utah’s Red State acquitted two animal rights activists on trial for burglary and theft for removing two sick piglets from a factory farm in Smithfield, Utah in 2017. It was a surprise victory for the animal rights movement – and a potential way forward for a more strategic form of civil disobedience.
Saving animals that have little value for the industry
The defendants – Wayne Hsiung, representing himself, and Paul Picklesimer’s lawyer – sought to convince to the jury that they were saving two visibly sick and injured piglets, without stealing property of any value from Smithfield.
Removing just a few animals from a farm is a tactic known as “open rescue” favored by Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), the animal rights group Hsiung co-founded. By saving one or two sick and suffering animals – animals that already have little economic value for the livestock industry – activists avoid the criticism often leveled at more public and disruptive forms of protest, that activists are insensitive to workers and people who walk around their business. Responses to recent climate events involving throw soup (and mashed potatoes) in front of a famous painting or block the roads in London indicate how quick the public can be to reject activism that they see as grandstanding.
This strategy also reveals how futile the livestock industry’s welfare claims can be. Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs said in A declaration following the trial’s conclusion that “any deviation from our high standards of animal care…would never be tolerated”. If that were true, their case against two injured and malnourished piglets being taken away for veterinary care seems flimsy indeed.
In that case, the defense successfully persuaded the jury that Smithfield was not concerned about the welfare of the two piglets despite the judge’s decision to ban showing footage of the poor conditions at the farm. Hsiung and Picklesimer testified that when they chose to save the piglets, they were acting out of compassion and not just trying to hurt Smithfield.
This matters because the real problem – that the welfare of pigs was being actively neglected – turned out to be at the heart of this case. The unfolding of this case allowed the defendants to focus not on their methods but on their message. Since Hsiung was sentenced flight last year for leading an outdoor rescue of a sick kid in North Carolina, the outcome of the Smithfield case is all the more significant.
It’s a blow to Smithfield and the meat industry in general both in the risk to its reputation and in its efforts to punish animal advocates. Over the past decade, the industry has struggled to move “ag-gag” laws that make it illegal to document farming conditions on private property, despite public interest in transparency about how food is made.
“I think it will make prosecutors much less willing to criminalize and indict animal rights activists,” says Marina Bolotnikova, who covered the Smithfield trial for the Intercept. “Losing lawsuits is terrible and costly for them, and now they see DxE are not easy targets – they can make very compelling cases in court, even in a very conservative county.”
Activists who disrupt can face dire consequences
The Smithfield decision contrasts sharply with the case of the activists convicted in Canada on October 12. Amy Soranno and Nick Schafer were sentenced to 30 days in prison and 12 months probation for their participation in the “Meat the Victims” action at Excelsior Hog Farm, in which around 60 activists occupied one of the pigsties for several hours. The president of the court said that The “general deterrence” of activists seeking to break the law “for political gain” was the “most important factor” in his sentencing decision.
As Excelsior activists were actively disrupting farm affairs, they may have had difficulty convincing a jury that they were acting in the best interests of suffering animals first and foremost. Alongside the Smithfield trial, the defense was also barred from showing most of its evidence about conditions inside the farm.
This meant the defense was unable to argue that Excelsior Farm engaged in cruelty to animals and that the activists acted out of necessity. The “necessity defense,” as Bolotnikova explains in her reporting for The Intercept, is meant to prove that the activists were trying to “prevent imminent harm.” The trial therefore remained firmly focused on the laws broken by the activists, which may have placed the defendants in a more difficult position.
The punishment of Soranno and Schafer sets a disturbing new precedent in Canada. The judge “breaks with decades of legal precedent by sentencing Amy Soranno and Nick Schafer to prison for a peaceful, non-violent act of civil disobedience – a first in Canada,” said Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice . Their sentences are also harsher than those handed down to Canadian farms found guilty of animal cruelty. In fact, Excelsior Farm has never been charged despite evidence of animal abuse provided to law enforcement officials.
It’s “a desperate attempt to maintain a clean image for the animal agriculture industry,” Soranno told Sentient Media via email. “Surely even a bacon enthusiast could recognize that there is more at stake here; it’s not a dry accusation and condemnation, it’s political.
Activists can choose different strategies for animal protection
Despite the judge’s hopes, most legal penalties meted out to activists do little to deter them, and the animal rights movement is likely no exception. The Excelsior action is part of a bigger “Meat the Victims” movement who sees disobedience to “unjust laws” as a key path to animal liberation. Meanwhile, the Smithfield defendants’ victory is a small but important victory for a very different strategy – progressive actions that use features of the animal agriculture industry against the business of, in this case, diseased animals. and suffering. Having each set new precedents, both cases will have an impact on the future of the movement. Ultimately, activists will have to decide what kinds of actions will best help change public perception of the meat industry to reflect its cruel reality.