Five animal rights activists who removed two piglets from a Smithfield Foods hog farm in Utah last year were charged by the state this week with felony burglary, rioting and a "pattern of unlawful activity."
The charges come about eight months after unusual raids of two animal sanctuaries in Utah and Colorado by FBI agents, who, witnesses said, sought DNA samples from pigs at the facilities as part of a search for the missing piglets.
The defendants, all affiliated with the California-based group Direct Action Everywhere, "engaged in a pattern of unlawful activity and committed the offenses of burglary and theft targeting animal enterprises located in Utah and other states," a warrant filed Monday in Beaver County said. "The defendants also videotaped their criminal acts to solicit monthly donations for the DxE open rescue network."
Prosecutors said they did not know how many years the defendants faced in prison if convicted. Wayne Hsiung, a lawyer who is the group's co-founder and one of those charged, said they could be sentenced to more than 60 years in prison. None of the accused has been arrested.
Direct Action Everywhere, also known as DxE, says it rescues "animals in captivity, exposing violence behind closed doors." A video its members took at the Smithfield farm alleged the animals were poorly treated.
"Piglets were rotting to death in piles of their own mother's feces at Smithfield," Hsiung said in a statement at the time. "Rescuing them was an act of compassion, not a crime." A Smithfield spokeswoman called the video evidence of "trespassing onto company property, breaking into a barn, stealing animals and violating Smithfield's strict biosecurity policy to prevent the spread of disease onto our farms."and said it featured "blatant inaccuracies and assertions."
Court documents this week detailed the efforts of the FBI and the Beaver County Sheriff's Office to track the pigs, which were taken to the sanctuaries in Utah and Colorado, and investigate DxE through the group's online videos and cellphone records.
In an interview, Hsiung called the charges an "end-run" around Utah's "ag-gag" law, which targeted whistleblowing at agricultural facilities. The law was repealed last year.
"It is shocking to see how much power the industry has in states like Utah and how relentless they are in trying to crush nonviolent dissent," he said. "I don't think any American that thinks taking a sick animal to the vet justifies possibly life in prison."
DxE activists also face unrelated state charges after removing a turkey from a Norbest plant in Sanpete County, Utah, in January 2017. A representative for Norbest did not return a request for comment; CEO Matt Cook said at the time that he was "disappointed," and that the company's own animal care team had already documented violations at the farm and removed birds from its owner.
Andrew George Sharo, a biology doctoral student at the University of California at Berkeley who was charged in both cases, said he became involved with DxE when he realized that "being a non-pushy vegan is not enough" to advance animal rights.
"There's billions of animals out there languishing," he said. "There's a need for people who are willing to make a sacrifice and put themselves out there."
Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels, on the other hand, compared DxE's actions to kidnapping a child one suspects is abused. He said he would have investigated the activists' claims about animal abuse at the plant if they had gone through the proper channels.
"What they didn't do is follow the law," he said. "It's black and white - they took property that did not belong to them. In my mind, it has nothing to do with the ag-gag law."
Daniels said those charged could be sentenced up to five years in prison, but "a prison sentence is highly unlikely in a case of this nature unless the defendants have a lengthy criminal record."
Animal rights activists have been imprisoned for releasing animals before. Two activists were sentenced to federal prison last year after pleading guilty to releasing thousands of mink from farms in what prosecutors called a "cross-country crime spree targeting the fur industry" in 2013. They were charged under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which prohibits conduct "for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise."
"Whatever your feelings about the fur industry, these sentences are a pretty strong signal that this isn't the right way to effect change," Acting U.S. attorney Alana W. Robinson said at the time.
Story by Justin Wm. Moyer. Moyer is a breaking news reporter for The Washington Post. After a long stint as a contributing writer at the Washington City Paper, he came to The Post in 2008, becoming an editor in Outlook and for the Morning Mix, The Post's overnight team. He became a reporter in 2015.