In a historic trial over the removal of two sick and dying piglets from a Utah factory farm, two animal rights activists were acquitted by a jury Saturday night, which could have sent them to prison for five and a half years each. The five-year pursuit began after the activists published undercover footage showing gruesome conditions at the largest pork producer in the US.

Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer are members of the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere. They took the pigs to a sanctuary for rescued farm animals in Colorado and named them after them. The FBI chased the piglets across state lines and raided the sanctuary where they were living, bringing with them veterinarians who cut off a piece of Lizzie's ear to confirm that she was the property of Smithfield Foods.

A state veterinarian cuts Lizzie's ear for DNA testing during an FBI raid of an animal sanctuary.

An FBI raid of a Colorado animal sanctuary resulted in a state vesicalist cutting the ear of one of the animals.

Photo: Direct Action Everywhere

Activists who traveled to St. George, Utah, to watch the trial were jubilant over the decision, describing it as a turning point for the animal rights movement. “They just let a guy who walked into a factory farm and took two piglets out without the consent of Smithfield walk out of the courtroom free,” Hsiung told reporters outside the courthouse. “If it can happen in southern Utah, it can happen anywhere.” 

The baby pigs were worth $42.20 each, or $84.40 in total, according to prosecutors. The U.S.-based pork producer is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Hong Kong-based pork company.

The jury acquitted DxE, which Hsiung co- founded. The judge dismissed one of the charges due to lack of evidence.

Hadar Aviram is a professor at UC Hastings Law who testified in favor of the activists. They have an enormous amount of money to lose if this trial is made public and they can't afford it.

The trial was a test case for DxE's theory of change. The group removes animals suffering on factory farms and other places where they are exploited for profit. Hsiung and Picklesimer wanted to convince a jury that it makes no sense to jail people for saving animals.

I will tell you exactly what we did on the night in question because I believe in the people of this country and the people of Utah to make the right decision. As a human being, animal rescue is not the worst part. The best of us.

After the verdict, Picklesimer said that the pigs who are living their best lives in the sunshine are priceless. Today, they have the right to be saved. Billions of animals don't have that right yet, and we're going to work for them.

Hsiung and Picklesimer, along with three other activists who have since pleaded out of the case, entered Circle Four farms to investigate the company's pledge to stop using gestation crates.

When the activists arrived at the huge facility, they found rows of pregnant pigs in the crates that the company had promised wouldn't be used. Female pigs are moved when they are ready to give birth to nursing piglets in a facility filled with farrowing crates. There were dead and rotting piglets in the facility, as well as ill and injured ones likelily andLizzie.

Hsiung said in the video that he and his wife felt desperate when they saw the little baby in such a bad state.

A piglet being carried by an activist for Direct Action Everywhere.

An activist is carrying a piglet

Photo: Direct Action Everywhere

A key part of the defense’s case was that the piglets were on the verge of death when Hsiung and Picklesimer took them, and Smithfield routinely throws sick or dead animals away. Had the animals remained in the company’s possession, the defense argued, they would have been worthless.

When the piglets were found, they weighed less than their littermates. There were scars on her face and a foot injury that prevented her from walking and she couldn't eat because her mother's nipple was shredded and bleeding. At the trial, the doctor who cares for pigs and other farm animals testified that the mother of the girl had a condition that made her not produce enough milk.

There was a very small chance of survival for the two piglets. The veterinary care needed to keep them alive would have cost hundreds of dollars, she said. She said that the piglets were a liability to the company because they could cause disease to other animals.

The pork industry throws away sick and dead animals in order to make money. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 15% of piglets don't survive past their first year of life.

Hsiung wanted to know if Richard Topham's claim that piglets have value to the company applies to those thrown into dumpsters. The line of questioning was not allowed by the judge of Utah's Fifth District Court. He told Hsiung not to mention that again.

Utah Assistant Attorney General Janise Macanas argued that DxE's footage would cause an improper and emotional reaction in the jury. It was a major source of evidence during the trial. The video appeared to be highly edited and even staged when it was published by DxE in July of last year. Hsiung said the video spoke for itself. I don't know how to make a fake pig.

The judge's decision to suppress the video may have helped the defense. The jury feels like they are being treated like babies.

Mary Corporon was prevented from describing the facilities as industrial by Wilcox. Chris Andersen, an FBI agent who investigated the case, was blocked from being questioned by Hsiung about whether corporate public relations concerns were the reason for the prosecution.

Chris Andersen testified that approximately eight FBI agents had been on the case.

The FBI agents had been on the case, according to Andersen. When Hsiung asked if any other theft cases involving less than $100 worth of property had multiple FBI agents working on them, Andersen admitted that he couldn't think of one from his own experience. The FBI documents show that Andersen talked about the incident with executives from both companies. "Smithfield is concerned how this incident and the news coverage of it will affect their reputation and relationships with clients," read one, which was based on an interview with the company's senior vice president.

DxE wanted to know if the Utah attorney general had a conflict of interest in the case. According to a Salt Lake Tribune story, the Republican Attorneys General Association received at least $10,410 in donations from Smithfield in the last two years.

Jim Monroe, the vice president of corporate affairs at Smithfield, said in a statement that the verdict may encourage people against raising animals for food to vandalize farms. We immediately launched an investigation and completed a third-party audit after learning that animals were mistreated on a company-owned hog farm. There were no findings of animal abuse.

Pitman is a turkey farmer from California. The Salt Lake Tribune covered the case of the DxE activists who took his turkey from Utah and exposed cruel conditions there.

Pitman said there was a difference between stealing a turkey and causing damage to the property or economic damage to him. Talking to DxE has helped him improve his living standards.

Protesters demonstrate outside the court during Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer's trial.

Protesters are demonstrating outside of the court.

Photo: Direct Action Everywhere

Leading up to the trial, Wilcox ruled that the case could only focus on the narrow legal issues of burglary and theft. He didn’t allow the defense to discuss general animal welfare conditions at the factory farm, but he did allow them to testify to the health of Lily and Lizzie because of its relevance to the prosecution’s claim of monetary value.

Wilcox allowed the defense to show a screen shot from their footage, but not the mother next to her. Macanas and Christiansen objected to any mention of animal welfare.

The piglets were compared to objects by Christiansen. He said, "Suppose you were in the grocery store and you saw a can with dents in it?" It has the potential of going bad, and you thought to yourself, 'Oh my gosh, that can has a dent, it has the potential of going bad.'” I need to save that can.

“I think it’s bigger and past just the animal rights issues, to the whole question of government overreach and prosecutions in the service of large corporations.”

Corporon thinks that the issue of government overreach and prosecutions in the service of large corporations is bigger than the animal rights issue. I've never seen an FBI agent go to trial in Utah.

Anti-nuclear activists who broke into nuclear facilities in the 70s and 80s used a "necessity defense" to justify their actions. You could win a necessity defense if you went to a small town in Nevada where the test sites were. The avenues of political necessity are no longer open for activists. It is harder to prevail in local courts with these types of arguments.

In December of last year, Hsiung was found guilty of two felonies and given a suspended sentence for removing a sick baby goat from a farm in North Carolina. DxE activist Matt Johnson had all charges against him dismissed before trial in an Iowa case related to his investigation that found a pork company roasting animals to death as a method of slaughter.

Activists were not allowed to argue a necessity defense in the trial that ended on Saturday night. "You call it rescue, but really it's taking, isn't it?" Macanas has her picture taken.

Hsiung didn't say no. It would be like a dog in a hot car. They need to be seen quickly.